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PCDN Interview with Sara Potler, CEO and Founder of Dance 4 Peace

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    Craig Zelizer

    PCDN Interview with Sara Potler, CEO and Founder of Dance 4 Peace

    Dear Colleagues,

    On Thursday, July 5th as part of the PCDN ongoing interview series, I interviewed Sara Potler, CEO and Founder of Dance 4 Peace. It was an absolute pleasure interviewing Sara and learning about how she fused her passions to create the Dance 4 Peace Movement. Below is the transcript of my verbal interview with Sara.







                                                              Photo: Sara Potler and D4P participants


    Can you give us a brief bio about yourself and how got into the field?

    I have been a dancer my whole life. When I was fifteen, I almost dropped out of high school to do “The Music Man” on Broadway. I ended up not getting the part in “The Music Man,” but it was that first catalytic moment when I realized that I might have to make a choice between the two things I love – the arts and social change.

    In Santiago, Chile, I was working with the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean. I loved the project I was working on, but I felt an artistic void because I wasn’t dancing. When I came back to the United States, I was working for the Organization of American States in the Department of Education and Culture. There, I was first introduced to the concepts of peace and civic education. Soon after, I decided to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship to study conflict transformation in Colombia.

    In Bogota, I had an amazing, world-renown scholar in the area of empathy and peace education as my Fulbright supervisor. When I began observing aspects of peace education in Colombia, I saw many students sitting behind desks, reading about empathy. They were looking at chalkboards, at diagrams of conflict mitigation and emotional identification, and their eyes were completely glazed over. I knew we needed to find a more effective approach to inspire the same academic-based social, emotional and civic competencies. At the same time, I saw how dancing to reggaeton music created an inclusive dynamic in the community in Bogota. I talked with teachers about using the medium of dance as a way to inspire those same academic-based competencies. That’s when I authored the Dance 4 Peace (D4P) curriculum, working with third graders in the outskirts of Bogota and using what I knew as a dancer to promote social and emotional learning.

    When I came back to the United States, using the same curriculum I authored in Bogota, it was a disaster. I went back to the drawing board and brought together educators, administrators, and students to begin curriculum revisions. We launched officially as a 501(c)(3) non-profit in September 2010. That September, we held our first PeaceMover Regional Teacher Training. For the first time I wasn’t the one facilitating the curriculum; I was training others to facilitate the curriculum. We did this in Washington, DC, piloting with three classes in DC and one classroom in New York.


    Can you give me some history of Dance 4 Peace and where the organization is now?

    A year and a half from our first launch, we have now worked with over 5,500 youth in fifteen cities in four continents. In the United States we work in Washington, DC and its surrounding counties in Virginia and Maryland; Baltimore City; Baltimore County; Newark, NJ; and New York City’s five boroughs. Internationally, we have worked in El Salvador; Colombia (where our Latin American program is based); Germany (where our European Director is based); and the Philippines (where our Philippines Director is based in Mindanao). We are not just working to build cultures of peace locally; we connect each hub in the intercultural exchange of peace-building and conflict transformation through movement. We manifest this through an activity that we call HubDanceXchange, whereby students in Washington dance dances that students in the Philippines created, and students in the Philippines dance dances that students in Colombia created. The students are the ones coming up with their own choreography; they teach us. Even for students in the Bronx who might not ever travel to Manhattan, they are able to feel like global leaders and global citizens. They are able to connect to students also working to transform conflict and prevent violence in Southeast Asia or Europe.

    We pride ourselves on the progressive, pipeline nature of our evidence-based curriculum. Students can begin engaging in Pre-K semester one, move through Pre-K semester two, Kindergarten semester one and all the way through twelfth grade. In high school, participants have the opportunity for mentorship and leadership by teaching back experiential lessons to lower grades. In college, they have the opportunity to become PeaceMovers (program facilitators) themselves. All of our staff have been PeaceMovers in the past. Once you are a part of Dance 4 Peace, you are forever a part of the global Dance 4 Peace network.


    What ethics guide your work with Dance 4 Peace?

    First, from a logistical standpoint we have a child protection policy that we have adopted from the framework of the UN Rights of the Child. We ensure that all of our staff and all of our facilitators are familiar with that child protection policy and that the children who participate in Dance 4 Peace are the center of the program.

    Another important ethic that is an integral fiber of our organization is assessment. We don’t just say we build peace or promote a culture of empathy; we measure it. We want to know that it’s true. We want to quantify it, and use data to drive the interest of funders. We assess the impact in a quantifiable way, which we create in each of the classrooms, with each of our students.


    How do you maintain a balance between work and personal life?

    I don’t practice a balance between my professional life and personal life. I don’t think it is needed, because when you really love what you do, you don’t have to choose. You don’t have to segment work and passion. Dance 4 Peace is the manifestation of the things that I care about most. It’s creativity, the arts and social change on a global scale. I don’t mind waking up at 6am to have a call with our European Director in Germany because I get to hear about the advances that she is making building the Dance 4 Peace movement in Europe.


    Where do you see Dance 4 Peace growing in the next 10 years?

    In terms of our work in the next ten years, the first would be systemic teacher training. We will do this by training teachers in the Dance 4 Peace methodology and affecting classroom management strategies across more subject areas. For example, we might train a chemistry teacher on the Dance 4 Peace toolkit and ensure that our methodology is accessible for anyone who wants to instill empathy in his or her classroom, in any subject. That means doing more online course work, webinars and iTunes videos that educators around the world can access.


    What challenges do you face in your work and at your organization?

    Because dance is in the name of our organization, people think that we are a dance organization. People think we are going into schools and teaching hip hop or ballet and that we are assessing dance technique, which is not at all what we do. We use creative movement as the vehicle to build cultures of peace; we use it as a means by which to inspire social and emotional development. That is the kind of branding challenge we are facing.


    In your opinion, what traits and skills make someone in your field successful?

    Being in the peace education space, it is really important that we practice and emphasize those same values. If we inspire empathy in the classroom, we need to live that as an organization. It is important to me to foster empathetic leadership and build a sense of community among our team.


    Do you have any advice for people or students who want to pursue a career in creative social change?

    I thought that I was going to have to make a choice between a career in social change or a career in the arts and theater. You don’t necessarily have to make that choice. If you innovate, then you can come up with a way to fuse your passions and build something that you love.


    What do you find the most rewarding and most challenging part of the Dance 4 peace program?

    The most rewarding part is that Dance 4 Peace is my ch’i. I love it. I live it. I think about it when I go to bed at night. I think about it when I’m at the gym. I think about it when I go for a run. It permeates all that I do because it is a manifestation of the things that I care about most. What has been most rewarding is seeing the way other people around the world are taking a hold of this organization like it is their own. I was in Bogota, Colombia in May and our Latin American Director was talking about Dance 4 Peace like it is her organization. Our new Program Coordinator moved to DC to run the DC office and can speak about the experience she had in her classroom as a New York PeaceMover.  Our Philippines Director is on our global programs call during his Friday nights because of the time difference. The most rewarding part for me is seeing the fire and passion that each person on our team brings to Dance 4 Peace and the way they make it their organization too.

    The most challenging aspect of Dance 4 Peace is ensuring that every partnership and every school or community where we work is a holistic partnership. We need all stakeholders—parents, students, teachers and administrators, to complete a readiness assessment and be prepared to embrace the program across subject areas and disciplines to truly affect school/community climate.


    What is unique about the power of the arts and also how does your program vary across the different cultures/countries where the org is involved?

    There is something so powerful about the arts and the arts’ ability to transport you from where you are in that moment. Being a young entrepreneur, my mind is never still, and it’s really challenging to be in the moment. I can be in a meeting but still thinking about my to-do list, or I’m doing this interview with you and I’m still multi-tasking and watching my intern on the side, which makes it really difficult to be present. But there is something about the arts that can take you out of where you are in that moment and address social issues in an implicit way.


    What financing mechanisms does the organization use to sustain its activities?

    Dance 4 Peace functions on a cost-share model. Schools contribute this cost-share to have access to the curriculum, the curriculum revisions, innovative monitoring and evaluation, and our global network and best practice sharing among educators. We provide trainings and workshops for parents, caregivers, family members, administrators, teachers and students. That contribution covers about 65 percent of our budget, and then we fundraise the remainder to bring the program to the community. This is what drives our growth and ensures that we are responding to the market need.


    How can others get involved?

    Educators, social rights activists, and social workers who have backgrounds in creativity can apply to be PeaceMover Facilitators with us. We are actually in the process of hiring PeaceMovers right now. Check out and see how you can become a PeaceMover or bring the program to your school or community.

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