In this blog series we’d like to start conversations about what meaningful community-engaged participatory arts for social change (ASC) partnerships can look like, how they can be effective and enriching, while also discussing some of the challenges and difficulties.
The content of this series draws primarily on research conducted by Judith Marcuse (Principle Investigator on the ASC! Project) and Nicole Armos (ASC! Research Assistant) during the 2013-2019 Art for Social Change (ASC!) Research Project, but the content of these posts is meant only as a starting point.
We want to hear your thoughts too!
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It’s nearing the end of June when Anna, a young drama instructor working in a community centre, hears from the local arts council about a grant opportunity for arts-based projects that will engage high school youth with issues of discrimination. The application is due in a few days. Anna doesn’t have time to find a high school to partner with before the deadline, but she submits a proposal for a theatre project and crosses her fingers. Anna learns in late August that her proposal will be funded. Exciting! However, the funds must be spent by the end of March. That means she has only seven months to partner with a school and develop a play with the students.
Anna begins by setting up meetings with several school principals. On her fifth attempt, she finds one who is very receptive. He is already beginning to address some of these issues at his school, and he recognizes that the project might help the school meet some of its own goals. He explains that Anna will need to undergo a criminal record check and find a teacher to co-supervise the project. The first task is easily accomplished, but Anna is surprised to discover how difficult it is to find a collaborating teacher! All the teachers in the school are already overwhelmed with work and, although several are enthusiastic, no one steps up.
In late October, after presenting the project at two staff meetings, Anna is about to give up when Sara, the teacher who supervises the Queer Straight Alliance, steps up. Sara thinks that the project could be an excellent way to promote Pink Shirt Day and agrees to co-supervise. Unfortunately, the first meeting with students does not draw much enthusiasm. The students are uncomfortable with the idea of acting and are not convinced that a play could be an attractive vehicle to promote Pink Shirt Day. Although Anna is already feeling pressured to start the production process, she realizes that if the play is to become a true reflection of students’ thoughts and feelings about the complicated issues they would explore, they will need more time for creative investigation and to develop trusting relationships. She speaks with an Arts Council administrator, and after submitting the rationale for her request, receives an extension until the end of the school year. She is told that she is lucky to get this extension.
Anna then leads several exploratory workshops to draw out students’ experiences and perspectives around sex/gender discrimination in the school. These are very successful. The students begin to feel more comfortable both engaging with these issues and with the expression of the issues through theatre. Using forms of image-making, the students are able to explore the issues they see and/or experience at school through theatre games, storytelling and graphic art. The students soon realize that while many students generally feel safe and accepted by their peers, their school culture is rife with lingering habits that reinforce traditional gender roles and sexualities. For example, the library has no books featuring non-traditional couples or families; there is no gender-neutral bathroom; and prom dances still feature a “king and queen” while also enforcing traditional dress codes. They also realize how taboo the subject tends to be, despite school-wide lectures on issues of discrimination. Anna and Sara are happy to see the students’ increasing comfort and engagement with the subject matter. Over the next several weeks, the group works together to develop and rehearse an original script.
During this time, a few major bumps occur that catch Anna off guard. When the principal sees a rehearsal, he objects to some of the language in the play. There is a timing conflict with the physical education teacher about use of the gym where they plan to perform the show. (There is no functional theatre space in the school.) Several parents object to the subject matter of the play itself. Fortunately, Sara and Anna have developed effective lines of communication and respectful relationships with each other, with other staff at the school, and with the Parent Advisory Council. With a lot of patience and time – and many meetings with the different groups – Anna is able to find compromises and build mutual understanding.
Finally, the show is on! They present a powerful piece of theatre that leads the audience to different sites in the school where short skits illustrate the key issues students face. Using adapted Forum Theatre approaches, they engage their audience of students, parents, staff, district school administrators, and a senior representative from the local arts council in dialogue to brainstorm solutions for the problems they enact. Much to everyone’s delight, the play eventually catalyzes the development of more inclusive school policies. Meanwhile, Anna has built strong connections with many people in the school, and, together, they begin discussions with the local arts council about possible follow-on funding to develop another theater project, this time on sexual health.
Now it’s your turn! On social media, or email, please tell us about actions and activities that you have found to be useful in building new relationships with diverse groups. How do you get those who are hesitant on board? How do you ensure that those who are enthusiastic are all channeling that enthusiasm towards the same goal?
In our next post:
We encourage you to tell us a bit about your ASC work and why partnerships matter to you. This is a highly rewarding and rich public dialogue, join in on social media (share/comment via facebook and twitter badges below)!*
In our next post: We’ll highlight some of the key messages from our research participants about how to establish and build successful relationships.