Workshop aims to be catalyst for social engagement, change

Workshop aims to be catalyst for social engagement, change

When animosity and lack of trust were tearing apart an Ohio community, the Americans for the Arts paid for a theater troupe to go in and bring about change.

Soujourn Theater worked with the local arts agency to identify different sectors of the city and county that needed to be engaged in the process of building trust. Represented mong the 20 groups involved were farmers, the city council, the county board, African-Americans and schools.

Theater members met separately with the groups, interviewing them about their perceptions of each other and the issues. Based on those talks and feedback, the troupe developed monologues.

"Ultimately a performance was created from all those monologues," said Pam Korza, co-director of Animating Democracy: The Power of Arts and Civic Engagement, a program of Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit arts advocacy organization.

"It was performed as the centerpiece at a community conference attended by 250 people," Korza said. "It became a catalyst as to actions that needed to be taken around these issues."

Now Korza and Sandy Agustin, artistic director of the Neighborhood House in Minneapolis, will bring an Animating Democracy workshop and clinic to Champaign on Oct. 27-28. They are designed for anyone interested in using the arts for civic engagement and social change. (Please see sidebar for details.)

"What we're hoping is that where there's already fertile ground for sort of extending the role of the arts as an agent for civic engagement and social change, we can bolster that by lending some national context to work already being done locally," Korza said in a telephone interview. "Where there's interest and not yet a lot of activity, we hope we can open up folks' eyes to this potential."

Animating Democracy goes beyond voting and volunteering to get people to connect to others in their communities to work on issues in common, through the arts.

Examples of how the arts can be used, offered by 40 North 88 West Champaign County Arts, Culture and Entertainment Council, the main sponsor of Animating Democracy here, include:

– A youth theater group presents a play in response to escalating school violence.

– An art museum partners with the African-American community to refocus public attention on issues of race with an exhibit documenting the history of lynching in the United States.

– A development project threatens displacement of low-income residents, leading a neighborhood arts center to create projects that create public dialogue and affect the everyday lives of the residents.

"It's not so much a matter of getting people to a single event but engaging them in the conceiving and planning of a project," Korza said. "Often we talk about thinking broader than a single event – more a trajectory of activities."

Korza said Americans for the Arts hears from the National Civic League and similar organizations that civic leaders are increasingly realizing the importance of working from the ground up, or of engaging citizens more frequently. The typical town forum is not necessarily drawing people out, especially minorities, she said. The arts appeal to people in a different way.

"They can make things more fun but also provide more of a safe space for, let's say, a Latino population whose cultural norms are different than the typical town meeting we do," Korza said. "Creating an arts-based setting may be more inviting and welcoming."

Champaign-Urbana is the fourth community to which Animating Democracy has come. The others were Los Angeles, Miami and Columbus, Ohio.

"We gravitated to communities where local community agencies had expressed interest in our work," Korza said.

That interest here was expressed by Jennifer Armstrong, former director of 40 North 88 West, who had seen a presentation on Animating Democracy and asked that it be brought here.

The first phase of Animating Democracy was funded by the Ford Foundation, and the pilot program for the four communities including Champaign-Urbana is being funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.