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Joi Sears lends an artistic eye to social change




Joi Sears believes that art can change the world, and she won't stop until it does.

Just 31 years old, Sears has traveled the world, racking up an impressive resume of cultural experiences, as well as professional and educational fellowships. But these achievements are only the means to an end: Sears is helping other entrepreneurs and creatives around the globe use art to enact social change.
 
Born and raised in North Avondale, Sears is the youngest of three children. Her mother works for the Hamilton County Mental Health Board, and her father is in radio sales and is also a minister.

She likes to tell the story of how she was born with a hole in her heart — how it was “somehow large enough for the entire world to fall in.”

Her parents gathered the prayers of friends and strangers for healing, and the hole miraculously closed just hours before her tiny body was to undergo open-heart surgery.
 
“I guess the rest of my life was kind of magic like that,” she says.

And that magic seems to have followed her since.
 
Learning art as action
For Sears, the urgency to “do something” was always strong. She was empathetic from birth, crying uncontrollably while watching the evening news. A precocious and active child, her parents enrolled her in ballet and gymnastics to direct her energy. In addition to ballet, she took musical theater classes, violin, visual art, horseback riding and more.

Still too young to travel very far, she was already all over the place.
 
Sears graduated from Walnut Hills High School in 2003 and moved to New York City, where she studied acting at Marymount Manhattan College. But acting itself was not what compelled her. She wanted to be more than an artist; she wanted to create art that would change the world.
 
While working toward her Masters degree at New York University, Sears moved toward a more holistic view of art and its potential for social change. She was inspired by Brazilian director and artist Augusto Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed. His technique became the foundation of her Masters thesis and still influences her work.
 
After graduating from NYU, Sears enrolled in a post-graduate course in Amsterdam for summer 2011. The experience began dramatically, complete with a nightmare roommate, a resident rat, and the spontaneous choice to leave the dorm in the middle of the night with nowhere to go.

Sears was two weeks away from returning to New York, and she found herself with a choice between a nightmarish dorm situation and homelessness. After her capstone performance the next day, she met a few artists involved in Amsterdam’s burgeoning Heesterveld Creative Community, and they invited her to come stay with them.
 
Tucked in the diverse Bijlmer borough of Amsterdam, Heesterveld is an intentional community of creatives and social innovators. The day Sears arrived, the residents were discussing how to redevelop the commercial and community spaces of their building for creative use. It was a project that really excited her.
 
A business by artists, for artists
Sears was set to return to New York in a matter of days, but Heesterveld instantly felt like home. She couldn’t bear to leave. She sublet her apartment in New York and recruited two friends from the United States to come stay with her in Amsterdam. With rent to pay but no local source of income, the three friends developed a business plan for Free People International.
 
By that time, Sears had already developed an organization called Theatre for the Free People, which is a socially-conscious creative endeavor that adapted the Theatre for the Oppressed technique to modern arts. Free People then expanded the organization to offer direct services for creatives and social entrepreneurs.

Sears and her friends took on odd jobs for local artists, both inside and outside of the Heesterveld community, doing everything from planning events and designing menus to building websites and providing creative branding services.
 
“We were just making enough to pay the rent,” she says. “At the end of the day, we took our coins out of our pockets and said, ‘Okay, we have three Euro, let’s buy some pasta and feed as many people as we can.’”
 
Jeremy Worker, now of the multimedia art duo Mauna Nada, was one of the friends who came to Amsterdam to work with Sears at Heesterveld. He witnessed her creative tenacity firsthand. He calls her “a force to be reckoned with,” a true humanitarian, and one of the hardest working people he’s ever known.
 
“Joi has a relentless desire to impact change, and no matter how resourceful we have to be to make something happen, she is willing to figure it out," he says. "She has such vast experience of working with people so deeply all over the world, that few have the insight she has to be able to affect people.”
 
Sears’ other partner at Free People, Brandon Jones, is now living in Atlanta and working with the arts organization WonderRoot. He credits Sears with much of his professional and personal development.
 
“Joi has a way of nurturing dreams — both hers and everyone else’s — until they have grown bigger than they thought possible," he says. "Yet, her real magic is providing the tools and support to make those big dreams obtainable. In my own moments of insecurity, I have felt small compared to Joi’s brilliant mind and creativity. Thankfully, she has always been there to lift me up and remind me of not only my personal gifts, but of the role we all must play in changing this world. She has always taught me how to fly by flying.”
 
Leaving Amsterdam
Sears loved her life at Heesterveld and was excited about her future in Amsterdam, but plans changed quickly.

In 2012, she was stopped by Dutch immigration en route to the U.S. for Christmas. She had been living in the Netherlands without a visa, and it finally caught up with her.

Heartbroken, Sears headed back to Cincinnati with a big red stamp on her passport that said she was officially “banned” from travel in the European Union for one year.
 
In spring 2014, she applied for a social innovation fellowship with the DO School in Hamburg. Sears was one of 20 young people from around the world who were accepted into the program.

Once Sears got to Germany, she was again stopped by immigration.
 
Her passport clearly noted the expiration of her travel ban, but the German immigration officers’ computers said otherwise. According to them, the ban was for three years, not one, and Sears was in Germany illegally. She was detained in the airport for three days until they could escort her, like a prisoner, onto a plane back to the U.S.
 
“I came home and I wrote to the Dutch Consulate, and they lifted my ban maybe a month or so later, but it was too late for me to go back and be a part of the program," Sears says.
 
The experience was heartbreaking, but once her ban was officially lifted, she set off for Europe again. She traveled to the World Public Forum in Greece, spent some time in Amsterdam, and then returned to Cincinnati and re-applied for the DO School fellowship.

To her surprise, they accepted her for spring 2015. For the next 10 weeks, she worked on sustainable packaging design for clothing giant H&M. Then back at home in Cincinnati, she spent the last 10 months of the fellowship working on her own creative venture, Free People Club.
 
Connecting change-makers
Sears calls Free People Club “a social network for change-makers around the globe.”
 
“I found that by going to all of these conferences and fellowships and programs, I met all these amazing people doing really great work, but the only way we could keep in contact was on Facebook, which I thought was a little bit limiting," she says. "So I created the platform, which is in prototype phase right now."

There are currently about 50 members from throughout Africa, South America, Europe and the U.S. They are either creatives or people who are working on social entrepreneurship projects.
 
Sears' goal is to empower creatives around the world to transform their ideas to action by connecting them with others who have similar missions and matching skill-sets.
 
On a hiatus from the ex-pat life, Sears has spent the past year or so living at an artist co-op in Hamilton, where she has carved out a little space to work. After spending a few years working for other people, she has embraced opportunities to work for herself.

“And after traveling so much over the years, it feels good to be home and nest for a bit,” she says.

While settled in the area, Sears has appeared at various local storytelling nights like Cincy Storytellers and PechaKucha. Recently, she’s been facilitating a Co-Starters class through ArtWorks and organizing grassroots community events and projects like the recent Good Food community potluck event, which was held in partnership with local activist Floyd Johnson of Ohio Against the World.
 
Among her many side projects, Sears is still actively practicing the performance technique of the Theatre of the Oppressed, using it in an educational capacity at schools, mental health facilities and prisons. She also writes for various online blogs about how the arts intersect with urgent issues that matter to her: hunger and poverty, clean water, sustainability, racism, and police brutality.
 
In addition to trips for pleasure and professional development, Sears takes on experiences to bring her “back to the ground,” such as volunteering in places like Haiti and Ghana. She has also done contract work with national publications like GOOD Magazine, and she's listed as a Cultural Agent for the U.S. Department of Arts & Culture. (And no, it’s not a government agency.)
 
Professionally, Sears is an artist, as well as an actress, director and producer, among other things. But she is so much more than those titles. She also considers herself an activist, educator, creative strategist and social entrepreneur.
 
Personally, Sears is impulsive, imaginative and she loves adventure. She has an unwavering faith in humanity; she is zealous and confident.
 
It’s this combination of professional aptitude and personal audacity that has brought her around the world and back again, often one step (or plane ride) at a time, without a certain plan for what comes next. She is willing to travel beyond the edge of comfort and thrives on chaos. But, in conversation, Sears doesn’t come across as a naïve idealist. She is more of a seasoned traveler who knows her destination, and isn’t afraid to take a wrong turn every once and a while.
 
A new job, a new season
This fall, Sears begins a new season of life and work through a teaching position at Miami University. It will be a significant lifestyle change, but she’s excited about it. Among other things, the job will provide more stability and a consistent income — something she’s not had as an adult.
 
Part of her role at Miami will be to develop a curriculum for the new Entrepreneurship Department at the Farmer School of Business while teaching courses on Creativity and Innovation for college freshman. The job may not be on the other side of the world, but it’s right up her alley.
 
Eventually, this new season will close and Sears has no concrete plans. She’ll keep creating, performing, writing and directing. She may work toward a PhD, and she’ll likely continue building creative communities and facilitate collaboration between artists.

Not surprisingly, she’d really love to get back to Heesterveld.
 
Worker has no doubt about Sears' future.

“In 10 years, I expect Joi will be doing exactly what she's doing now, except with more wisdom, more resources, and at an even greater scale," he says. "I personally intend to stay close to her and continue to absorb as much as I can, and lend a hand or a voice whenever needed.”
 

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
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