The Journey of John Milad: Advocating Change through Art Workshops

By Hania Moheeb

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When you search for the development advocate John Milad on Facebook, you will find him under the name John Milad Insan, the last name a synonym for “human being”. The artist who started out working in media campaigns transformed his life mission into a unique development model over many years, whereby he lends a helping hand to thousands of traumatized people.

Milad, who studied graphic design at the Faculty of Applied Arts, went a long way in the world of advertising and became a creative director in just a few years, before using his passion for the arts to induce change in society.

Change through Performing Arts

During university, he picked up theater, which drew him to the world of performing arts, and after graduation, he founded his theater troupe “W Lessa” (There is yet to come) in 2002. The troupe found success and won a number of prizes, but for a group with ambition and a drive for change, the impact their performances had on the limited viewers was not fulfilling enough, as Milad dreamt of extending his impact to larger and more diverse audiences.

“I studied the importance of color and its impact on people as far as moral messages are concerned. Then I left the world of advertising after working on important campaigns to work on the model where theater and art can rehabilitate people and turn into a profound educational tool for youth and children, while impacting their conduct and morals to encourage personal growth,” says Milad.

In 2008, “W Lessa” started experimenting with dance, music and plastic arts in addition to theater to become more of an “art initiative”. However, the model that Milad’s advocacy adopts did not develop overnight, but rather he, together with his troupe, experimented through workshops and performances for years to come up with such a working model.

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Therapies and Workshops

“We started to work on psychodrama and art therapy, developing my own customized model. I focused on resolving the problems that result from the attachment of the trainees to the facilitator, which in most cases, the workshop trainees, after facing their trauma, go back to the vicious cycle of violation and stay there. This is very difficult for them to handle on their own, so they keep resorting to the trainer, which is why my model relies on discovering the personal inner strength: you will drive, you are the leader and you will carry on on your own,” explains Milad.

Over the years, “W Lessa” presented many plays and conducted tens of workshops to very diverse audiences. The troupe’s focus was to work in the most deprived communities where the participants ranged from street children, youth, victims of rape and violence, refugees, to drivers and home workers. However, Milad and the troupe are most famous for advocating women’s rights.

Within a program titled “Safe Cities” that’s aim is to create harassment free cities for women, he conducted workshops for Toktok drivers. “Of course, I did not start out with this message, but on the contrary, I gave them space to express themselves and to speak of the violations and injustice that they face. After acknowledging that, I began bringing up the issues of violence against women,” expresses Milad. After weeks of work with them, Milad was surprised to receive a gift from the wife of one of the drivers, who later called him to thank him personally and told him that her husband finally allowed their daughter to enroll in university and that he started showing signs of admiration.

Other gestures showing gratitude came from very radical women, for example, a Syrain Salafi refugee told him after a workshop, “someone like you should be in the arms of the prophet.” Another niqabi woman, wife of a sheikh, invited him to attend the sobou’ (seventh day celebration) of her newly born, whom she surprisingly called “Sandra” after a young member of “W Lessa”. This particular woman at the beginning of the workshop refused to look at Milad or speak to him because he is a Christian male.

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“They feel comfortable with me because I have transcended the religious conflict,” he explains. However, a surprising fact he found out was that triggering change and conduct with the lower socioeconomic classes is much easier than with the higher ones. “Money and social status adds boundaries for people and the cost of change for them is quite high,” he mentions.

Milad further explains his model, saying, “My approach involves three stages, which include providing a safe space so people can tell their stories, face their fears and then express themselves through art, and this is where change begins.”

He resorts to different forms of expression depending on the participants and the time frame of the workshop, including clay, sketching, dancing, singing, acting and graffiti. Although Milad’s main aim is to help people use art as a form of expression, he occasionally meets participants who produce creative pieces. “During one of my clay workshops, I asked them to make sculptures that represented themselves, and most of them surprised me with very real and beautiful figures,” he mentions.

When asked about who funds his workshops and plays, Milad explained that some of the projects that take place in Cairo receive funding from international organizations like Oxfam and UNICEF, while other activities that are carried out outside of Cairo are mainly by the troupe or by the local community and NGOs. “When we work with local NGOs, we do not charge them anything, but we ask them to provide accommodation and material,” adds Milad.

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Acknowledgements

This unique development model not only provided amazing results with thousands of people over the years, but it also grabbed the attention of numerous international organizations, universities and research centers who acknowledged Milad’s model as something worth studying.

“John is the future,” is what former US president Barack Obama said to describe Milad in a ceremony on the sidelines of the UN summit in 2014, held shortly after the swearing in of president Abdel Fatah El Sisi. “I was attending a meeting of 35 leaders from all over the world, when I was approached by the Clinton Global Initiative to be part of their yearly celebration to honor artists and leaders of change. The greater surprise was being selected to meet president Obama and to be introduced by him in the celebration,” Milad expressed.

This performer and life-changer tours all governorates in Egypt conducting workshops and inducing change. He receives gifts and prayers from modest people to whom he gave a helping hand, and was acknowledged by worldwide figures, yet occasionally during his performances, the curtains are drawn abruptly because some think that his work is too bold and can distort peace in society.

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