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Changing The World Through Writing

4 February 2020

When Joseph Pearson (UWC Adriatic, 1992 - 1994) left UWC, he started off following a path that was unexpected for him, but which he felt was ‘the expected path’ in the wake of his UWC experience: 

“Most people who go to UWC end up working to help the world in different ways, at an NGO or by working in policy for example. That career path initially confused things for me; I started out working for the United Nations. But then after many years of following the international organisation path, I found my focus again and returned to writing. The most recent book I published is a portrait of Berlin [Reaktion Press, 2017]. It’s a creative history split into two halves: the first is a history of Berlin since the middle ages and the second looks at the city today through the lens of that history.”
This journey into the world of writing, although not the most obvious answer to the question of ‘how to make the world a better place’, ended up revealing new angles from which to explore this same question: 
“I am interested in exploring the extent to which writing can also be a changemaking tool. How much can writing create empathy, or explain different cultures to people without appropriating them? How does a writer’s origins, when visiting foreign countries, create both a minefield and an opportunity to interpret difference? I do believe that writing changes the world because it engages people in these kinds of questions.”
One concrete way in which Joseph is currently engaging with these questions is through a creative writing course he teaches as part of a peacebuilding initiative founded by conductor Daniel Barenboim from the Barenboim-Said Academy. The course brings together students from Israel and the rest of the Middle East: 
“They’re all concert musician students and we speak a great deal about the role of the artist in society. A student from Israel writing creatively, while inspired by a Lebanese poet, for example, is no simple operation––it is one that requires a great deal of cultural exchange and personal complicity. Creative work gets under your skin. I sometimes think that when people talk politics, there is a businesslike side to it. It’s easy after the discussion to go home and leave difference behind a closed door. Poetry has a habit of following you, of getting through the cracks. When you ask people to engage with difference through the arts, a lot of emotions get involved, and so a lot of the real work gets done.”
Having witnessed the transformative power of writing,
     Joseph while at UWC Adriatic.
Joseph says “I would like to see UWC do more to promote the arts for its students. UWC educates and promotes people who might become foreign ministers and take on other such roles, through events focused on international affairs, but there are many different ways in which UWC alumni can contribute. And I think it’s important to get UWC students to experiment a bit more with their creative sides, to think outside of themselves, to think creatively from different perspectives.”
Finally, we asked Joseph how UWCers can further promote this attitude of embracing differences: 
“As a historian, I think it is difficult to envisage a future without far-right nationalists. There are times when they are more or less vocal, but I think that there has always been a 10-15% of the population which remains intolerant. And I hate to be so resigned about it, but I think that’s not where the battle lies. The battle is with the other 40% of the population who might go along with the 10-15% or might be convinced otherwise. And so I think that UWCers have an opportunity not just in their daily lives, but also in their professional lives, to try and promote a kind of understanding or a plurality of perspectives. And it’s so important to do this outside of our little bubbles. Going to UWC and then to University, so many of us end up living in these echo chambers, like Berlin or other big cities, surrounded by people who are convinced that difference is not a threat. But if we can try to bring those messages outside of these bubbles, then we’re going to advance somewhere.”
Joseph Pearson’s summer writing workshop at Berlin’s University of the Arts (UdK), Europe’s largest art school, is popular with UWC alumni and runs from 10 to 17 July 2020. It’s open to everyone. Click here for more information.