What We Bring to the Table: Understanding Community Arts Impact on Youth
I have been a community arts practitioner in Baltimore City for the last 15 years.
After years of being asked by funders how my program evaluates its outcomes and answering with anecdotal stories and satisfaction survey results, I decided to try to find more meaningful ways tell the story of this work so that its potential for impact could be better understood and attract investment and resources. To this end, I began some small research projects.
In 2010, Zoe Reznick Gewanter and I conducted a study of 14 community arts practitioners. Practitioners were interviewed and asked how they define community arts, what their methods are and what outcomes they see as a result of the work. Here's a video of that work:
After transcribing and coding their interviews, several clusters of outcomes emerged:
- An emotional shift: Participants experience engagement, joy and a feeling of being uplifted. (76 percent of practitioners described this outcome)
- Increased sense of self: Participants gain the ability to be self-expressive which in turn affirms participant strengths and identity, builds confidence, self-esteem, and self-awareness. (84 percent of practitioners described this outcome)
- Increased sense of community: Participants experience increased connectedness even across differences. They understand new perspectives and experience an ability to contribute to culture and community. (100 percent of practitioners described this outcome)
- Empowerment: Participants are able to make good choices and determine their own future in a way that allows them to be self sufficient & self-actualized. (92 percent of practitioners described this outcome)
- Creative problem solving: Participants learn to think for themselves, connect divergent ideas, think imaginatively, refine ideas, and focus on multiple constructive ways to solve a problem. (53 percent of practitioners described this outcome)
- Social change: Participants become agents of change who address systemic issues. They become helpers, healers, and advocates who contribute to social cohesion and a shift in thinking about culture and stereotypes. (53 percent of practitioners described this outcome)
- Skills gained: Participants gain job, art, and life skills. (46 percent of practitioners described this outcome)
To build on these findings two years later, Zoe and I began to ask youth participants in community arts programs throughout the city what they get out of the work.
It seems from a preliminary scan of the data that youth statements are in alignment with practitioners. It also seems that young people experience a progression of outcomes.
Fun (emotional shift) is the most immediate outcome that youth experience, while the longer a young person is engaged in programming, the more they experience a more sustained shift in attitude and behavior (Increased Sense of Self, Sense of Community and Empowerment).
The outcomes of Creative Problem Solving and Skills Gained seem to happen throughout youth experiences whether youth are new to community arts processes or have been engaged for a while. We also noticed that while for some adults Social Change is an essential and distinct category, for youth and some practitioners it seems this is a part of gaining a sense of caring for a community and feeling empowered to make good decisions.
Though these findings are helpful in thinking about what indicators could be used to construct an evaluation instrument, there is need for caution when translating a fluid and emotion-rich process into potentially simplified indicators. Isolating one outcome from another might in itself be antithetical to arts outcomes, which seem to occur in an integrated way.
One example of this occurred in 2011, when Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) partnered with Gallup Student Poll to measure changes in “hope, engagement, and well-being” in community arts participants.
Though there were some positive findings, much of the data seemed insignificant when compared to a nationally representative sample. This was puzzling since we had great respect for the instrument and also knew that something valuable was happening through the art-making process.
We were left concluding that arts evaluation must be made with more sensitivity in order to capture the unique web of outcomes, which relate to but are different than youth development and academic outcomes. Though this makes arts evaluation difficult and potentially irrelevant to those who care about youth development and school achievement, I think that community art, in its difference, offers something uniquely valuable that needs uncovering and translating in order to make sense to other spheres.
Moving forward, my hope is that we use evaluation and research to tell the story of what we do as a field, to flesh out how these outcomes occur and to make the case for why they matter.
In today's society where many communities exist isolated and with broken systems, I believe the field can offer healing and a change strategy that allows community to bring the full range of their emotional, spiritual and cognitive selves to the table.