Arts & Culture as Invitation, Catalyst, and Space for Civic Engagement
By Pam Korza, Co-Director, Animating Democracy
What role do arts and culture play in preparing young people to be the next generation of active citizens, problems solvers, decision makers, and leaders in their communities? More broadly, how do arts and culture serve as potent contributors to community, civic, and social change?
These two questions are top of mind under the two hats I wear as co-director of Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, and as a National Advisory Board member of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life—a consortium of 90 colleges and universities and their partners that advances the possibilities of humanities, arts, and design to generate knowledge and initiatives that contribute to the public good.
The answers to these questions are wide-ranging.
Some iconic artists and projects come to mind:
V-Day’s College and Community Campaigns use playwright Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and other artistic works to activate college students to raise money for local organizations working to end violence against women and girls, as well as heighten awareness about gender-based violence on campus. Popular musicians as allies in social change are lending their celebrity to movements and issues as they tour campuses and beyond—Farm Aid’s concert-based and online advocacy efforts on behalf of family farmers; Airborne Toxic Event’s song, “Neda,” important to the democracy revolution in Iran; the education of fans about using carpool and public-transit to reduce band-tour carbon emissions footprints; and the use of mobile technologies to engage concertgoers in activism.
While high profile artists and celebrities have influence and reach to gather and activate young people, there is exciting and impactful work happening through the initiative of faculty, academic departments, interdisciplinary programs, centers, and campus-wide initiatives that is fostering civic engagement through the unique capacities of arts, humanities, and design. For instance, faculty associated with the statewide University of California Institute for Research in the Arts and their students have responded creatively to the housing crisis by helping to develop a 52-unit housing complex for seasonal farm workers and repurposing used shipping containers for housing and artist studio space.
Imagining America promotes and supports the advancement of such work, the breadth of which is insightfully characterized with many examples in Jamie Haft’s paper, Publicly Engaged Scholarship in the Humanities, Arts, and Design. Approaches include: bringing students into community settings and community members onto campus; collaborating with communities to work on local problems; creating an institutional home for community-based artists; enhancing civic learning and democratic participation; and changing (and even transforming) higher education in order to create conditions in which publicly engaged scholarship can flourish.
I’m struck by the American Democracy Project’s notion of fostering “stewards of place,” graduates who are committed to being active, involved citizens in their communities. I close with this snapshot of Mark Kidd, a young man from rural Eastern Kentucky who returned there in 2006 to be an organizer and community development practitioner on environmental reclamation and economic development projects, after receiving a Bachelor of English, Concentration in Creative Writing from the University of Kentucky. Through a collaboration between Animating Democracy and the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET), Mark wrote an essay reflecting on his experience of MicroFest: Appalachia, one of NET’s four place-based explorations of the role arts and culture are playing in revitalizing and renewing some of this country’s most distressed communities and regions.
In “MicroFest: Democratic Arts in Rural Appalachia,” Mark’s look at creative placemaking in Central Appalachia illuminates the positive effects of culturally based community engagement, organizing, and activism there, historically and now. He describes, for example, Carpetbag Theatre’s catalytic role (along with other cultural leaders) in downtown Knoxville revitalization efforts and the human economies demonstrated by culturally sensitive food justice programs and projects. He discusses Southeast Community and Technical College’s Higher Ground project whose community-based plays create safe and collective space for telling the human story behind and fostering meaningful dialogue related to issues such as prescription drug abuse and the changing coalmining industry.
Mark Kidd personifies stewardship of place, integrating his work to advance policy issues as a representative to the Central Appalachian Regional Network and his work as artist and cultural worker, drawing upon his sensibilities as a poet, lifelong exposure to storytelling and music as a gathering and organizing force across geographic distances in rural Appalachia, and his professional work for Roadside Theater, a theater company at Appalshop in rural eastern Kentucky that is committed to theater as a popular art form that addresses the pressing issues of our time in the voices of those most affected.
Animating Democracy has worked for over a decade to inspire, inform, promote, and connect arts and culture as potent contributors to community, civic, and social change. We bring national visibility to “arts for change” work, build knowledge about quality practice, and create useful resources. We welcome you to visit our web site for case studies and publications, resources on understanding the social IMPACT of arts, and Profiles of artists and organizations doing and supporting arts and culture as strategies for civic engagement and social change. And we welcome you to be in touch!
Pam Korza co-directs Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts that inspires, informs, promotes, and connects arts and culture as potent contributors to community, civic, and social change. She co-wrote Civic Dialogue, Arts & Culture: Findings from Animating Democracy, and the Arts & Civic Engagement Tool Kit. She co-edited Critical Perspectives: Writings on Art & Civic Dialogue, as well as the five-book Case Studies from Animating Democracy.