Where We Love to Live—Tales from the Community Visions Tour

Posted by Ms. Margy Waller, Jan 08, 2016 0 comments

What kind of community is the place where we all want to live, work, and visit? 

That’s one of the questions Americans for the Arts is asking on a national tour, talking with people about their vision for healthy, equitable, vibrant communities of the future. The answers—and the discussion—are compelling.

The New Community Visions Initiative has co-hosted four (of eight planned) regional, one-day conversations about the role of arts in community building and planning for these places.

In these sessions, curated by Clay Lord, 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 consider the definitions for four words: community, equitable, healthy, and vibrant. Later in the day, everyone shares experiences and proposals that are more specific on various contributors to communities: transportation, workforce, environment, tourism, immigration, and more.

But first, attendees spend time in a focused and facilitated discussion about what they mean when using these words: What is a community? What does healthy, equitable, and vibrant look like?

Americans for the Arts offers definitions as a starting point for these conversations. For community, the prompting definition is: A collection of people sharing place, affinity, or interests.

Participants in the sessions talk in groups of four and share their reactions to this definition. Then 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 be asking about using the word community?

This discussion is designed to accomplish a couple of things. Americans for the Arts staffers are interested in listening as they develop definitions for their 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.

Participants have offered these questions (and many more):

  • Who determines membership for a community?
  • What’s the history of the community?
  • Who shows up and who gets to make the invitation?
  • Where do we find the intersection of the spirit of community and the practical parameters of community?
  • How are we also thinking about mitigating unfair advantages and privileges, not just removing barriers and obstacles?
  • What do we believe everyone should have access to?
  • Do we deal with the usual suspects a little too often?
  • What in life is guaranteed?
  • Should the word the word ‘power’ be in the definition?
  • Can equity align with the American narrative of self-definition?
  • Is the end game about breaking down barriers or changing outcomes?
  • Does equitable mean fair?
  • Does advancement for everyone work if we aren't all starting at same place?
  • Is privilege part of the conversation?
  • What are the geographic boundaries? Who decides?
  • Does the community we identify, identify themselves as a community?
  • Are we trying to serve the community or to shape/direct a community?
  • Are we allowing people to self identify as in or out of the community? What are the power dynamics within the community?
  • Would the people in the community define themselves the same way as people outside the community do?

At one session, a conversation ensemble raised this issue during the shout-out of questions: How do we help everyone feel included, especially those who cannot read or are non-English speakers?

Later in the day, everyone at the forum returned to this question, noting that there were assumptions built into the question, assumptions that have implications for creating community together. The group decided that the question should be restated in order to clarify responsibility:  Because all of our communication and messaging is in the English language, how can we make sure everyone feels included, especially people who cannot read or are non-English speakers?

Similarly, we often hear a variation on this question: How can we help people feel heard? What if we flipped the assumption there and put the burden in a new place? What if we asked instead: How do we make sure we are hearing all voices in the community?

There’s more than one way to ask a question and the words matter.

This dialogue about a future vision for our communities—and the role of arts and artists in them— is fascinating and rich. More to come.

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