The Transformative Power of Cross-sector Collaboration: A Story of the Lackawanna County ARTS Engage! Task Force
700 ceramic butterflies peacefully rested in boxes in my office, waiting to be distributed to senior centers, veterans’ groups, mental health agencies, a prison re-entry program, recovery centers, and youth programs. They would then be painted and hung from trees as part of the Lackawanna County Arts Festival in August of 2018. The butterfly was selected by the ARTS Engage! Task Force—our group that meets monthly to design programs that use arts for effective social change—because the butterfly is the ultimate symbol of transformation. Each butterfly was tied with a message that encouraged the public to take one, and then share a photo as well as a personal story of transformation. I remember staring at them and reflecting on the collaborative journey it took to get them here, and how the overwhelming positive response from the community inspired us to expand the project. Our goal now is to create 5,000 butterflies to hang in the spring of 2019.
Lackawanna County is in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania. I am the Deputy Director of Arts and Culture for Lackawanna County and oversee a $1.3 million tax for arts and culture. Our county still struggles with economic and social challenges remaining from its coal mining legacy. While this art project certainly didn't solve all our issues, it exemplified how cross-sector collaboration inspires positive community connection and establishes the environment for creative solutions to thrive. We witnessed this in the participation of art studios that partnered to make the butterflies, social service and county agencies that reached out to groups to paint them, volunteers who hung them, and the public that shared their photos and stories on social media.
The ARTS Engage! Task Force was created in 2016, inspired by a successful youth arts program co-designed between my department and the Lackawanna County Office of Youth and Family Service (OYFS). Our task force consists of staff from several Lackawanna County departments including Arts and Culture, OYFS, Drug and Alcohol, Area Agency on Aging, Planning and Economic Development, Information Technology, and Behavioral Health/Intellectual Disabilities/Early Intervention Program, as well as the Veteran’s Resource Coalition of Northeastern Pennsylvania, the social service agencies, Outreach Center for Community Resources, and the Deutsche Institute, including their art studio Verve Vertu that specializes in working with vulnerable populations. Beyond the core group, we work with a range of organizations and artists to develop arts-centered community programming. Our mission is to “improve the quality of life for Lackawanna County residents through access to and participation in artistic, creative, and cultural experiences.”
Along the way we have learned from different perspectives, innovated ways of reaching new audiences, and cultivated new relationships. We also discovered that some departments had funding for and wanted programming, but lacked the creative resources to design and implement them. On the other side of things, many artists and organizations had creative ideas but no funding. It took time to lay the groundwork, but this year we launched a writing program and a garden program for formerly homeless veterans in transition, an intergenerational cooking program, and a mural painting project at three senior centers. We also created an Arts on the Loose passport listing community art events, and the Butterfly Transformation Project.
For every success we had there were things that did not go as we envisioned. We rushed some project ideas that did not have the impact we hoped for. We learned that sometimes we need to give others time for buy-in because they may not always initially see how the arts fit in to their world. Some partners were not ready for this type of collaboration, which meant we had to let go of some of our ideals. We also had to learn to be patient. There is a lot of listening and deep conversation that must first take place when embarking on cross-sector partnerships. Often the grand vision must first be rooted in smaller projects that allow the team to learn to work together and build trust with one another. It was important for us to take time to allow for dialogue and the brainstorming phase, create platforms for working together, get to know each other’s systems within their organizations, and ensure everyone was getting what they needed out of the collaboration.
The power of passionate, committed, and diverse people working together has the ability to transform communities, but meaningful cross-sector collaborations take time. The kind of knowledge trust, enthusiasm, and planning needed for sustainability cannot be achieved in a short time frame. But rather than think of this as daunting, we can see it as a chance to expand our world, meet new people, challenge our cognitive biases, and create innovative and integrative systems of change. There will be stressful days, things won’t always work, and there may even be conflict. But I have found the joy in this work, and the impact far outweighs the difficulties.