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Egyptian activist uses art for social change


John Gad has many creative tools at his disposal to push for a stronger democracy in Egypt.

Gad, 35, has taken three certificate programs this spring at Coady International Institute. He uses his media skills to promote issues of social justice, especially the plight of street children who have no voice in Egyptian society.

"The Advocacy and Citizen Engagement course was filled with practical ways to promote important causes," said Gad. "And the Communications and Social Media certificate builds on what we have done throughout Egypt during our uprising against (Hosni) Mubarak and with our current president."

A graphic designer by training, Gad wears many hats in Egypt – director, writer, actor, art therapist. He was part of an informal network that helped to organize the massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square, eventually toppling a president. In communities throughout Egypt, he says art tells the true stories in the lives of people, and can help bring about social change.

"For example, we started a project in the town of el Fayoum, in the desert, where just about everyone cannot read or write. There are huge problems with female genital mutilation and early forced marriages, despite what the law says. And we are tackling the issue of violence, by threatening to shame schools with graffiti if they do not take action to address the problem."

A lifelong social activist, Gad came to know about the Coady Institute's campus programs through his earlier involvement with a project created by the Canadian International Development Agency. It's where he met Coady facilitator Debbie Castle. He also attended a Coady workshop in transparency, accountability and good governance that was held earlier this year in Egypt.

"As artists, writers and journalists, we have a dream for Egypt," he says. "We are focused on the future, on positive solutions and non-violent protests. The police will often take me aside and say 'John, be calm. Quiet down. We can help you become a famous artist'. Or they will use Facebook tricks to join our movement to divert our attention elsewhere."

He says from an early age, while growing up in a "comfortable" family, he realized that art can show how people feel and how they are suffering, often quietly.

With his passion, and soon to have three Coady certificates under his belt, Gad can hardly wait to return to keep up the good fight.

"Is it good enough to tell people to pray and things will be alright? That they can simply pray their way to an abundant life, and will be treated as full citizens with rights? No. Social change happens in the streets, and that's where I need to be."