Walter Fisher, Pamela Cook and Raul  Amezquita model the dialogue and diversity that is the focus of Evanston-based company Mosaic Experience. Using role playing and other theater techniques, they facilitate diversity and cultural competency programs for District 65 schools and other organizations.   Photo by Mosaic Experience

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Pamela Cook of Evanston is a trained actor who sings with a band by night. By day, she listens.

At workshops and seminars offered by Mosaic Experience, the company she helped found and now heads, she listens to the stories participants tell. “Unpacking the baggage,” as Ms. Cook calls it, is often the initial activity on the program, a first step toward resolving the kinds of issues organizations bring to Mosaic Experience. Once participants give voice to their past encounters with stereotypes and preconceptions, facilitators can help them move beyond the hurt.

Mosaic Experience programs are designed to foster dialogue about diversity, build community and unleash creativity in the workplace.

Even as a theater arts and film major at the University of Kansas, Ms. Cook says she was “passionate about ‘theme’” – especially the theme of “equal rights and inclusion.” With Mosaic Experience she discovered a way to use theater in the service of activism.

Ms. Cook started Mosaic Experience in 2007 with two co-workers in the field of cross-cultural training at the Anti-Defamation League. She is now company president, delivering diversity and cultural competency services with a dramatic twist. Using role play and other theater techniques, Mosaic involves participants in an experiential learning process that is frequently very emotional.

Workshops and seminars are interactive rather than passive – no “power-point presentations,” Ms. Cook says. “We get people up and active,” she says, creating a safe environment for them to “open up and have fun.” The focus is on communication and community-building – on promoting genuine dialogue and making sure every voice is heard.

The venture reflects Ms. Cook’s belief that if people “truly listen and hear, we can start building bridges and healing.” The company sees each organization as a mosaic, “a unique combination of individuals working together to create a larger picture.”   

Though not exclusively aimed at educational institutions, Mosaic Experience “has a niche in schools,” says Ms. Cook. Their first Evanston client was the Childcare Network of Evanston. They have subsequently worked with Chiaravalle Montessori School and, under a contract with District 65, have collaborated to date with eight of the Evanston/Skokie elementary and middle schools.

Diversity is the pride of Evanston – and arguably its biggest challenge. “Most educators realize they need more tools to deal with the diversity in Evanston,” says Ms. Cook. She says teachers are aware they do not reach every student in the same way. “Culturally competent teachers reach deeper,” she says. To that end, Mosaic teacher workshops are apt to pose questions like “How does your cultural background affect the way you deal with students?”

Walter Fisher, another Mosaic co-founder and facilitator, and Raul Amezquita, a facilitator and the firm’s graphic designer, agree with Ms. Cook that the Mosaic approach is unique.

It begins with a thorough assessment of the client’s needs so Mosaic can custom-tailor a program to address those particular issues. “It’s not a cookie-cutter approach,” says Ms. Cook, and it often draws on her arts background. At Niles West High School, for example, Mosaic Experience has students literally looking at their diversity through a different lens – the lens of the camera they are using to film a documentary.

Mosaic methodology is collaborative rather than dictatorial. “We never tell anyone how to do his job,” Ms. Cook says. “We help [people] understand how to work better together.” While mindful of budget constraints, Mosaic Experience prefers to cultivate extended relationships with clients – usually “a year or longer,” she says – rather than “parachuting in” for the short term. “We want to sit down and reach to the bottom” of the issues, she says.

Each session begins with participants seated in chairs. There are no tables – “no hiding,” says Ms. Cook. At the outset participants establish ground rules using their own vocabulary. “Confidentiality is all-important. You can’t have dialogue without it,” Ms. Cook says.

Much of the work is conducted in small groups, using “activities [designed to] make people share,” she says. Facilitators “check the vital signs of every group,” she says, listening and looking in frequently to make sure every voice is being heard.

Mosaic Experience was the brainchild of Ms. Cook and two other colleagues who say their “energy just clicked.” The company emerged from their conversations over innumerable cups of coffee consumed at cafes all around Evanston. They say they listened well to one another, inspired by their varied backgrounds. Walter Fisher, Chicago-born and -raised, brought extensive experience in the field of public health and community outreach to the table; Andy White came as an accomplished actor and left to become the artistic director of Lookingglass Theatre. Ms. Cook, who had started a company to help Caucasian parents adopting children of color, offered her experience as an entrepreneur.

Mr. Amezquita came later, bringing other sensibilities. Born in Mexico City, he was educated as an architect and graphic designer there and in Milan, Italy. While doing marketing and web design for Mosaic, he realized he could contribute in other ways. Having found himself “a minority by choice,” he says, he can attest to the “‘added value’ of being a minority.” He
is also an award-winning teacher of multicultural students at the International Academy of Design in Chicago.

Ms. Fisher and Ms. Cook contract with ADL less frequently as Mosaic Experience grows. She says finding a way to do what she loves “and earn a living doing it” has been very rewarding. She considers it “an honor to help people look at a situation in a different way.”

Orrington School Principal Renaud J. Beaudoin says, “Pamela Cook helped our staff lower its defenses and take a serious inward look at our own beliefs about diversity, inclusion and personal privilege. Mosaic facilitates honest and true discussion of those hot-button issues of race, class and gender. This is an all-important workshop for those interested in fostering true equity in education.