Robin Pease’s favorite story to perform for youth is The Great Law of Peace, the basis of the Iroquois Confederacy, adopted and incorporated into The United States Constitution. She also leads a speaking engagement, People Not Mascots, which garners much attention in Cleveland, Ohio, where her nonprofit Kulture Kids is based.
Pease, a Mohawk descendant, grew up in a very diverse neighborhood of Queens, New York. Kulture Kids celebrates and shares stories of all cultures’ art, history and traditions through storytelling, dance, theatre, music, literary and visual art. The nonprofit’s ultimate goal is to inspire community, cultural awareness and lifelong learning.
“We deal with the idea of e pluribus unum — out of many we are one,” Pease said.
Every Native story she shares through Kulture Kids was passed down to her by oral tradition, she said. Among students’ favorite Native-focused programs is another Iroquois story, First Strawberries. “We talk about the power of words,” Pease said.
Kulture Kids’ most popular Latino program is a Costa Rican tale, an anti-bullying story: La Tortuga Sin Amigos. For Black History Month, Pease takes an African tale and put it to music and dance. In Ohio, Pease often performs The Last Fugitive Slave, the true story of Sarah Lucy Bagby. A new Kulture Kids performance, A Classical Dilemma, journeys back to ancient Greece and visits the Greek gods.
Kulture Kids adapts programs for all age groups, from age 3 through senior citizen. “The bulk of our performances are targeted at kids preschool through middle school aged,” Pease said.
Pease formed Kulture Kids in 1999. “My son’s teacher asked me to do a program for Thanksgiving. I told her, ‘I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but I could tell a story about the benefits of working together. It was for kindergarteners and they needed to learn that. So, I put together this story of Pushing Up the Sky with some singing in it, and she really liked it,” Pease said.
Word of Pease’s performances spread by word of mouth and she started getting more and more requests for programs. For Pease, who studied acting at the Boston Conservatory, and previously worked as a drama and theater teacher at Hawkins School, opportunities to create interactive arts programs and performances evolved into founding her nonprofit, hosting shows year-round, and touring in the spring and fall.
The organization is also mindful of tying in core school curriculum standards into its programs.
At the heart of every Kulture Kids story is a moral. “We deal with basic human values that we all share, because the idea is: We may all be different, but we can learn from each other and appreciate our differences,” Pease said.
The biggest question that Pease hears from young children is: “Are these stories true?”
“In Pushing Up the Sky, we’ll talk about how the birds tried to push up the sky. They ask, ‘Is this a true story?’ I always tell them, ‘ I don’t know, what do you think?’ I always tell them the point of the story. I ask, ‘Is it better to work alone or together?’ And the kids always say: ‘Together!’ I talk about basic human values that we all share, and about how moms and dads all over the world, regardless of their culture, tell stories to teach them how to live their lives.”
Pease also frequently gets asked if she’s a “real Indian.” She explains modern day Indians to them. “Most people don’t live like their ancestors did 200 years ago, because this is 2017,” she says.
Kulture Kids also collaborates with Playhouse Square, “the second largest performing arts organization after Lincoln Center. I was a consultant for them,” Pease said.
Through its PNC Bank and Playhouse Square partners, Kulture Kids leads professional development projects. “We work with teachers to create lessons in their classrooms that are integrated in the arts,” Pease said.
Through Cleveland’s Department of Sustainability, Kulture Kids is leading a project on vibrant green spaces. “We’re building a garden. The garden of course will have art in it, and we’re hoping it’s going to have Native plants. I’m so excited, because I want to grow sunflowers. We talk about the Columbian Exchange: what plants and animals came back and forth, and which ones were here before,” Pease said.
Kulture Kids has additionally teamed up with with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra .“Last year they were doing concerts about video game music, so we went into the schools and got the kids to design ideas for a video game and then design music for it. When they go to a concert, they have a handle on what it’s like to create video game music,” Pease said.
Through partners Cayuga Arts and Culture and the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, Kulture Kids speaks about how to activate change using the arts.
Over its past 18 years of operation, Kulture Kids staff has grown to include several performers and business leaders, as well as a board of directors. Pease takes pride in the fact that Kulture Kids is run mostly run by women. “We have some male artists and men on our Board of Trustees, but we’re a girl power organization,” Pease said. “The women who work with us are just amazing. I feel honored to be able to work with them.”
This story was originally published January 27, 2017.