About Me

Zach Arfa

Throughout my time at Oberlin, I studied Psychology and Dance while working as the Artistic Director for the Hilltown Youth Performing Arts Programs. This organization specializes in working with teens overcoming trauma, addiction, and other mental and behavioral health challenges. I’ve also worked doing disaster relief in Houston and Southeast Louisiana, as the Housing Coordinator for cooperatives at Oberlin, taught many dance classes in Contact Improvisation, practiced a collaborative, story-based songwriting method called Documentary Songwriting, started and led a movement program for elementary school-aged boys in the town of Oberlin, and worked as a choir assistant in a men’s prison. Community building and connecting with people has been the core of each of these experiences. That has been my focus, my priority, and my passion. I originally came to Oberlin to study music after my first summer as the Music Director for the Hilltown Youth Programs. I quickly realized that the people who were studying music spent all day in the practice rooms, hard at work on their scales and articulations. This was incompatible with my time teaching music to seventy kids and turning an entire school campus into an instrument (we hit the trees for percussion, created a jazz group on a flying trapeze, and had over 100 people singing together outdoors). I realized that what I loved about music wasn’t the technique or the performance; it was what it could create between people. So I decided to study that instead and focus on psychology and dance.

The kind of dance I practice is called Contact Improvisation. This form, created at Oberlin College in 1972, is an improvisational partnering form focused on weight sharing and momentum. There are many reasons I love this dance practice (I mean, it’s just a blast!), but in my studies, it’s deeply connected to psychology and community building for me. Unlike most dance that focuses on the aesthetic of the movements, Contact is about the relationship you create with your dancing partner(s). The fundamentals aren’t specific movements, but the ability to tune into your bodily sensations, to share and receive full body weight with other people, and to follow and manipulate a point of contact with another person. Learning and teaching this dance form has informed my community practices; regulating myself in a high stress disaster zone, in my work with Hilltown Youth, living and dining cooperatives, as well as in my personal communities. And I’ve had no trouble finding intersections with my psychology studies. My focus has been on trauma, specifically research that people like Bessel Van Der Kolk, Stephen Porges, Resmaa Menakem, Jack Saul, Peter Levine, and Pat Ogden are doing on trauma’s connection with the body. In the spring of my junior year, I designed and ran an experiment at Oberlin connecting some of the principles of Contact Improvisation to the principles needed for effective trauma treatment programs. I planned to graduate, go to graduate school for trauma therapy, and to use it to keep building community with groups.

During my first-semester senior year, I was in Mystic, CT, at the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program. This semester changed my life. Williams Mystic is an interdisciplinary, experiential program that studies the oceans and looks at coastal resilience in response to climate change. We went to Alaska, sailed offshore for two weeks, and traveled to coastal Louisiana, which loses a football field of land every 100 minutes to sea level rise and erosion. The combination of traveling and meeting people on the front lines of climate devastation, learning so much about the state of the ocean through research and interdisciplinary coursework, and doing my own reading, opened my eyes to the environmental crisis in a way I had never imagined. I say this as the son of an environmental educator and a sustainable architect, who grew up in a passive solar, net-zero energy house – I had no idea the extent to which the crisis will permeate and how much it already affects people around the world. It has been a realization that is simultaneously tragic, terrifying, and motivating. David Wallace Wells writes in his book, The Uninhabitable Earth, that “the environmental crisis is not merely an issue facing our world, it is the overarching context within which all the problems and all the solutions must be negotiated.” It strikes me as fundamental that in order to tackle such a big crisis, we need people who are able to face the full extent of the fear, sadness and grief that it evokes. The climate crisis is already traumatizing people around the world with floods, storms, heat waves and fires, and this will only worsen. We need a population of people in all sectors engaged and doing what they can to mitigate and prevent this damage, and I believe that it will be partially the job of therapists to prepare people for that task. I want to pair my experiences with community building to a strong clinical background and join the field of psychology as well as the fight against climate change.

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