We Are From the Arts and We’re Here to Help
When people who work in the arts talk about the value of our contribution in communities, we risk seeming privileged and paternalistic.
Our motivation is just fine, but we don’t realize how we sound sometimes. In the midst of many local and national conversations about the role of the arts in community planning efforts, we should listen carefully to see if we can hear ourselves the way others might.
Imagine how it sounds when we say:
● “We were charged with going into that community and using the arts to help kids.”
● “We want to use the arts to help the people who live in that neighborhood feel better about their place.”
● “The arts can come in to help people figure out their goals.”
Do you hear it?
That’s the sound of power and privilege offering an elitist solution—art—because we know best what others need or want. Implied in these statements is the conclusion that people don’t know for themselves what’s desirable, or what works in their own neighborhood. And also we're suggesting that the people of the community don’t have something equally important to offer to the effort.
American for the Arts’ New Community Visions Initiative has just completed four (of eight total planned) regional, one-day conversations about the role of arts in creating more healthy, equitable, vibrant communities.
In these sessions, designed and implemented by Michael Rohd of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, participants from multiple sectors—only about half from the arts—are invited to develop questions for organizations to use when they employ the words equity and community.
Michael asks: “Imagine you are having a conversation with a local arts agency, funder, representative of the Department of Justice, or anyone who works at an arts support organization. What questions do you want them to ask if they are using the words community and equitable?”
This discussion is designed to accomplish a few things. Americans for the Arts is interested in listening to these answers as the staff is developing definitions for its work to “put forth a forward-looking blueprint for 21st century local arts development that will drive ten years of local-level capacity building, transformation, and change in order to create healthier communities over time.” The conversation about these words also serves to focus participants on a shared understanding of the goal: artists and arts organizations participating in community building and development in order to create healthier, more equitable and vibrant communities.
In one of the sessions, a group of participants had a passionate discussion on using the word “help.” They noted that it really isn’t possible to have a conversation about an equitable community if one party is offering to help the other. The word help itself implies that one group has more than the other—more to offer, more knowledge, more resources, more capacity, and so on. Using the word help shifts the perceived balance of power—in a way likely to shut down true collaboration and partnership efforts.
The solution? If you find yourself using the word help when talking about the role of arts in community, stop. Listen carefully and ask whether this is really the way toward an equitable community.