In the current historical moment, as institutions of higher education privatize and community organizations are either defunded or restructured in ways that call out to private donors, questions about the role of cross-institutional and cross-sector partnerships in community empowerment and capacity-building are both pressing and complex. Between 2000 and 2005, Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts co-directed by Barbara Schaffer Bacon and Pam Korza, explored these questions by funding, documenting, and assessing 32 different projects developed within a diverse ecology of arts and cultural institutions, social change organizations, and dialogue facilitators and university researchers. The institutions and organizations involved ranged from cultural heritage museums and community theater ensembles to tribal nations and interfaith councils. Each project experimented with approaches to arts- and humanities-based civic dialogue, with the goal of advancing field learning about the philosophical, practical, and social dimensions of such work. Rich source materials from the 32 projects are available in a series of seven books (fig. 1) published by Americans for the Arts.
Art Gave Permission to Agitate, a conversation with Pam Korza and three members of the Cultural Studies Praxis Collective (CSPC), takes the published materials generated by these projects as a starting point for a discussion of questions central to the community engagement and public scholarship movements in higher education today. What is the relation between civic dialogue and social change? How are collaborations and project-based work across institutions and sectors best sustained? How can evaluation and assessment practices contribute to–not distract from–the goals of a given project? What roles do art and culture play in struggles for social change and social justice? What can institutions of higher education contribute to these struggles? Drawing on the transcript of the original conversation held at the University of Washington in 2006, the co-authors of Art Gave Permission to Agitate have revised and reshaped that exchange in order to foreground these specific lines of inquiry.
Readers will discover consistent themes woven through Art Gave Permission to Agitate, but any attempt to reduce the whole to a single set of arguments would run counter to the emphasis on dialogue throughout. Thus we have chosen to present the text as an exchange, a conversation-in-progress. We have replicated, in print, a collaboration practice we used with the original transcript in CSPC workshops where we asked participants to choose a phrase or sentence that resonated with them and to animate it in various ways: enacting it, intoning it, performing it, either individually or collaboratively. We have invited several individuals to respond to the ideas put forward in the conversation with similar elaborations. Their responses to this invitation are included in the margins of the text. Our hope is that this critical practice will model for readers a mode of creative and affiliative engagement with a conversation we see as ongoing.
The Concept of Civic Dialogue
Miriam Bartha (MB): Let's begin by getting a sense of what brought you to your work with Animating Democracy and your engagement with the concept of civic dialogue.
Pam Korza (PK): In the mid-1990s, Americans for the Arts and the Ford Foundation were having a conversation about common interests. They met minds around the concept of civic dialogue, and the role that the arts might play in enhancing and advancing more meaningful public conversations in this country, with special attention to expanding participation in civic dialogue, understood as purposeful and open-ended exchange that does not devolve into simplistic dualisms or polarizing debates. As a result of my previous work at the Arts Extension Service at the University of Massachusetts, I was brought in to help with a study designed to scan the field and see what kinds of community-based activity were going on that either intentionally or incidentally promoted civic dialogue in good ways – and where that activity could be bolstered in other realms of cultural organizations and practice.
As discussions began regarding how a funding program might be constructed to support activity in the field, the Ford Foundation wanted to go, somewhat against our instinctual orientation toward community-based work, to major cultural institutions – symphonies, orchestras, opera companies, major museums. After the initial study, we crafted an initiative together by framing a way that we could support the large field of cultural institutions—smaller, community-based organizations as well as major institutions—with regard to enhancing civic dialogue. We did not fund individual artists directly, although in the end many projects foregrounded the individual artist. At that point, I began to co-direct Animating Democracy, a large-scale grant-making and field-learning initiative, with my colleague Barbara Schaffer Bacon.
Bruce Burgett (BB): I'd like to pick up on the concept of civic dialogue, which is clearly key to Animating Democracy's overall development. This is a phrase that has circulated pretty broadly in public policy discourse, particularly in arts and cultural policy, since the end of the Cold War. In the mid-1990s, everyone seemed to be talking about civil society, civility, and civic life, as well as public debate and the public sphere, often with an emphasis on the supposed decline of those informal democratic institutions and forms of association. Looking back at the projects you funded and facilitated, all of which were organized around the concept of civic dialogue, what possibilities do you think that concept captures and generates?
PK: This is a great question. There was a lot of debate in our cohort of grantees about the term itself. People embraced it initially to become part of the program, but they also challenged it from beginning to end. For many of the 600 organizations that sent in letters of intent, it provided a kind of middle ground where they could imagine arts and cultural initiatives as intersecting with civic life through community building, healing, and development. We framed dialogue in a particular way, as we were learning and drawing from the dialogue field: as distinguished by purposeful, open-ended conversations oriented toward greater understanding rather than problem solving or decision making; as seeking equity in the participation of different stakeholders and multiple perspectives; as unpacking assumptions that might be embedded in the way people think about issues; and as encouraging folks to suspend judgment so that there can be a safer, more respectful conversation where everyone feels like they can put their stuff on the table.
As the funded projects developed, there was a lot of discussion about whether the notion of arts-based civic dialogue was helpful in the specific way we were framing it. Many of our grantees found certain dialogue techniques, such as discouraging cross-talk at the beginning of a dialogue in order to encourage listening, limited, contrived, and too formal. Spontaneous cross talk could be constructive and listening could still be encouraged without making people feel they had to wait their turn or be silent. And then there were questions about what makes civic dialogue civic. Is it civic because it happens in public space? How public do those spaces need to be? Could it include conversations that take place in private spaces but involve participants who typically don't come together to talk about civic issues?
From another angle, people raised concerns about the role of civility in what we were doing. Does civic dialogue always have to be civil and polite? (Response: Sonja Kuftinec) Some people would say it does, because they were aiming for respectful listening and not passing judgment, qualities they associated with being civil. Others would agree, but add that there are times when people are passionate and have emotions they need to express. In specific cultural contexts, a lack of emotion in a public exchange may even be perceived as indicating that participants are not being honest.
In the end, most everybody embraced the idea that civic dialogue can be heated and passionate, and that there is value in emotional exchange as long as it's facilitated in a constructive way and toward a constructive end. At the same time, the lack of resolution concerning these issues was good since it kept broader questions of engagement in play. It pushed us to think not only about how art could enable higher quality public dialogue, but also how it could motivate action. In one instance, a participant was actually inspired to run for public office, at least partially as a result of a thoughtful art project.
Elizabeth Thomas (ET): Say a bit more about the difference between thinking of civic dialogue as a means toward social change and thinking of it as an end in itself. Do you see tensions between those emphases?
PK: The best way for me to address some of these tensions might be to give two quick examples. The first is the Allen County Common Threads Theater Project, which used a community-based theater process implemented by Michael Rohd and Sojourn Theatre to bridge differences over rural development, water resources, race, and political leadership. In that context, the Arts Council of Greater Lima began with an emphasis on dialogue as a value in itself. Project leaders focused on making it a part of the culture of the community, using dialogue to open up closed ways of thinking – ways of not connecting to each other – to develop a real conversation among citizens and civic leaders. But during project planning, it became clear that talk was not enough, particularly with regard to issues of race. There had already been dialogues about race in Lima and not much had changed. As the artists interviewed African-American community members, they heard frustration about the need for jobs and exclusion from leadership roles. The greater recognition was that, at this particular moment in this particular community, moving from talk to action was essential to getting buy-in from the African-American community. They wanted to see policies change and new opportunities. The project planning shifted to figure out ways that dialogue would lead to action.
The second example is the Understanding Neighbors project in Anchorage, Alaska. In this case, the grantees framed the issue around same-sex couples. The cultural organization that initiated the project, Out North Contemporary Art House, was led by two gay men who were a couple and who had organized for local and state-wide legislative change around the right to same-sex marriage. After a failure at the legislative level, they stepped back and thought, well, where are we in our community around this topic – what is the next step? We fought for policy change and didn't succeed, so where do we go next? Their insight was that action, or an activist stance, was not the next move. What was needed was a greater level of understanding across diverse political perspectives. As a result, the major emphasis of the project focused on dialogue itself and artists were employed to create video artworks that would be catalysts for dialogue in small groups meeting throughout the community. The goal was to get the full range of people with different opinions to come together and see each other as human beings, and to try and get at the root of the tensions embedded in those different viewpoints.
MB: It sounds like different groups framed the concept of dialogue differently, but that what really mattered was the purposefulness of that framing, including the question of what open-ended means, and who gets included in and excluded from the conversation.
PK: That's a great way of putting it—framing that comes from understanding the context for the issue. For some of the more activist organizations, the central question was how to create dialogue situations that allowed exploration of differences within a particular political agenda. For other organizations, getting certain people together in one room to have a conversation was an important end in itself. They might not have any greater purpose than to listen and be heard in a respectful way around an issue that had only been a contentious debate.
Between Art and Dialogue
BB: This discussion raises a related question about the theatrical and aesthetic metaphors we are using to talk about dialogue. (Response: Sharon Daniel) Framing, staging, and even situating are all theatrical or aesthetic terms for how a dialogue is shaped. Picking up on another theme in the case studies, I'm wondering about tensions between dialogue facilitation and artistic practice. In the Common Threads project, for example, you can see an explicit tension develop between the dialogue facilitator and the artist over the question of how the dialogue process would take shape at the final theatrical production, a tension that becomes literalized in questions of ownership. This seems like another version of the means-ends question Elizabeth raised, though more focused here on aesthetic form and practice than activist politics and social change.
PK: You're right. The collaborations between the artists and the dialogue practitioners were sometimes tension-wrought. A lot of the artists in our cohort asked the question – is art in service of dialogue or is dialogue in service of art? Or is there an integration that makes sense? Working out those tensions was real.
Let me give another example. Cornerstone Theater, for its Faith-Based Theater Cycle in Los Angeles, worked closely with the National Conference for Community and Justice, an interfaith organization dedicated to anti-racist education and advocacy. There was tremendous respect between the dialogue facilitators and artists, who had worked with each other in the past. Still, they had moments of questioning each other's methodologies. In this case, the dialogue facilitators worried about the ethics of putting people's words on stage. Is it okay to change those words – or to fictionalize and composite them? If they remain unchanged, does that violate confidentiality when they appear in public? How should these issues be negotiated with participants and informants? What kinds of permissions should be required? The artists at times felt that these perhaps legalistic notions of dialogue squelched creativity. If we have to pay so much attention to these questions of confidentiality, then what can we use?
So, yes, tensions between the dialogue facilitators and the artistic practitioners surfaced. But they also led in this case to the production of a powerfully integrated and creative work called Zones. The playwright was a Cornerstone artist who also worked professionally with the National Conference for Community and Justice, so he had training in dialogue and he was an artist, actor, and playwright. The resulting piece focused on the question of what unites and divides people around faith in this country. The performance involved walking into a room set up like a city zoning board meeting, with flipcharts and everything. Audience members signed in and took their seats. As the action began, the dilemma concerned whether a new-age faith-based institution that had burned down should be rebuilt in this particular community. Actors were seated around the room, so audience members became part of the scenario. The plot revolved around a mother and daughter – the mother is Catholic and the daughter is a member of the new-age faith institution. As the scenario evolved, the audience members began to debate, even as the two women were having their own debate. Everyone got pulled in. Staged dialogue moments mimicked zoning board meetings by asking participants to break into small groups and discuss the questions emerging in the play.
To be honest, I get goose bumps every time I talk about this particular production and project. For me, it represents what's possible in a truly successful cross-field or cross-disciplinary collaboration. The result can be pretty potent. In this case, the play was performed several times and then revised based on the insights of the artists and the dialogue facilitators and their assessment of how it worked as theater and as dialogue opportunity. And then it was performed again in different faith-based institutions around Los Angeles.
BB: Goose bumps and dialogue, I like that. Sometimes the term civic can seem so abstract and disembodied, as referencing little more than civics lessons and, well, the rationalities associated with zoning board meetings. I am wondering if there are other messier and more embodied terms that emerged out of specific initiatives and were related to the project objectives, but also went in different directions.
MB: Let me piggyback a comment on that. We're talking about the tensions that emerged when conflict arose between how artists wanted to work and assumptions of the dialogue facilitators. But the project you just described seems to have been designed to generate spaces for ordinary people's creativity to emerge. The artists wanted to tap the creativity of the people they were working with – and to locate that energy in a community oriented toward social change.
PK: Absolutely. That was true of a lot of projects – honoring the creativity and energy of the participants in the community was really key. So, let's see, the question of what other terms might have come about that were more like goose bumps. Well, this one isn't as embodied as goose bumps, but the term multipartiality became a sort of keyword for artists. This is something that Barbara Schaffer Bacon, Andrea Assaf, and I talk about in our essay "Inroads: The Intersections of Art & Civic Dialogue." The term came from Patricia Romney, an organizational psychologist and diversity trainer who happened to be the dialogue facilitator for the Common Threads project and a number of others. In general, the term articulates a principle that guides counselors and dialogue facilitators not to be partial to any party in a conversation, but to be multipartial by trying to see all perspectives and to facilitate their articulation by honoring all of them. (Response: jesikah maria ross) In this sense, the term worked with and against the notion of neutrality – another word that artists really wanted to unpack and figure out in relation to their own art. In a project like the San Diego REPertory Theater's Nuevo California project where the debate was about the border, the artists asked the question of whether the 14-mile metal wall between San Diego and Tijuana should stay up or come down. The artists themselves had a clear and partial response to that political question; they thought it should come down. But they also found it useful to create more dramatic tension in the piece by seeking to be multipartial. This involved drawing in more community perspectives from both sides of the border to create the play. They made it their intention to bring forward those different perspectives and to figure out how to play them out.
ET: Just to clarify, you used the term neutrality. You're not equating it with multipartiality, are you? Honoring or respecting the different perspectives that people bring to the table and then voicing those perspectives seems quite different than saying they're all the same.
BB: Or bracketing partiality to produce neutrality. The term multipartiality seems to require a much fuller involvement in a process. The term neutrality parallels the understanding of the category of the civic as requiring a bracketing of the non-civic – the personal, the private, the interested, the somatic.
ET: Yes, that's helpful. And it picks up on the question of whether the emphasis on dialogue neutrality makes it sound like the art itself needs to be neutral or wishy-washy. Many artists are not going to want to do that. Yet some artists are really invested in what we're calling multipartiality, in developing a vision collaboratively with other people. That is their product. This seems importantly different than saying that the artist doesn't care or the artist doesn't have a point of view.
MB: And there are artistic forms that depend on multipartiality. Staging drama is one example. It requires multiple, embodied viewpoints in tension with one another. Neutrality doesn't work in that context since all directors need to be multipartial. They need to generate drama and conflict.
PK: Right. There were many artists in the projects that explicitly wanted to provoke. They didn't want to abandon point of view in their work. In the Understanding Neighbors project I mentioned earlier, two of the artists were gay, and they did not want to bracket their gayness. The challenge in those projects was how to use partiality, how to work with point of view expressed in the art when that art was serving to stimulate a respectful dialogue open to all views. One useful insight about this challenge came from Maggie Herzig, a dialogue facilitator from the Public Conversations Project which often deals with highly polarized conversations where individuals' values are so embedded in their being and thinking that it's difficult to find common ground. In these contexts, she talks about the art itself as being a participant in the dialogue and emphasizes that it is incumbent on the facilitator to figure out how to let the art be only one of many participants in the process. It's more challenging.
Principles and Practices of Collaboration
ET: You've talked quite a bit about your experience with different collaborators. Could you say a bit more about what you've learned about what does and doesn't work in the development of collaborative projects?
PK: Some principles seem basic to me now, but they are often harder to realize than they sound. The best collaborations emerge from the recognition of some kind of common grounding between uncommon partners. There has to be a good fit that seems logical, whether it's based in artistic practice or ideology or the kind of social or civic change partners want to make. There has to be a naturalness to the coming together that makes sense. It can't be coerced, or urged from some external source. There also has to be equality in the partnership. One partner can't be getting more out of the relationship than another. There has to be a real recognition that reciprocity is part of the equation. These issues about relative power need to be worked out at the beginning of the process and they have to be open to negotiation throughout.
The Slave Galleries Restoration Project, which partnered the African-American St. Augustine's Church on the lower east side of Manhattan and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, is a good example of how these issues emerged in practice. The historical resource was the slave galleries in the church – the segregated and marginally visible spaces in the upper-back of the church where enslaved individuals were seated. From the church's perspective, the impetus for the project was to restore the galleries and to make them available as a historic site capable of raising questions about the ongoing marginalization of certain groups of people. There was recognition of the potential of that space to open up conversations about these broader issues, but there was also a feeling of ownership on the part of the church about the specificity of its African-American history.
When the church invited the Tenement Museum to help with the interpretation of the slave galleries and, as a nonprofit with more experience and a track record, to secure Animating Democracy grant funding, all kinds of stresses appeared. As a cultural institution, the Tenement Museum was eligible for the grant funds and therefore held the purse strings to the grant money. The result was a feeling of disempowerment on the church's part as to where the resources would go and who would make decisions. These two organizations were neighbors, had worked together on other projects, and knew each other as human beings and as institutions. But this new framework and opportunity still meant that they had to go back to square one by reassessing how they would remain co-equals as the project played out.
BB: Along these lines and focusing here on Animating Democracy's role in these negotiations, the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center's Arte Es Vida project in San Antonio seems particularly interesting. The grantees in that case were resistant even to the word project because they saw themselves as doing long-term activist work, not discrete projects. You just described a similar problem with the ways in which project-based grant funding from Animating Democracy forced, or perhaps encouraged, a reorganization of the relationship between the Tenement Museum and the church. I'm wondering how you now think about the emphasis on grant-funded projects as the form within which collaboration takes place. How does your position as, well, the broker of purse-strings shape those projects, for good or bad?
PK: That's a great question. In general, I think of projects as artifices. They create boundaries around things that don't necessarily function at their best with an artificial or externally defined start and finish. In the case of the Arte Es Vida project, the grantee had been involved in activist work for decades and saw the work we funded as a continuation of their day-to-day activity. They entered into our process agreeing to circumscribe a set of activities, to assess those activities through at least some of our learning objectives, and to think about questions of art, culture, dialogue, and work. If you read the case study that Graciela Sanchez wrote, you'll see that she ultimately found the process and framing useful, though she also challenged it wholeheartedly in the beginning. One way we helped to assuage her resistance was to make it clear that they would retain control over how their work would get documented and who would do the documentation. It became really clear to us early on that it was not always ideal to have an outside writer documenting a project, even when the interests of the writer coincided with those of the project. We took a similar approach in other contexts. It was really key.
BB: That makes sense. What about your role as a funder and framer of projects? I'm thinking about the timing and scale of the grant requirements and the emphasis on the involvement of specific organizational sectors.
PK: The reality is that as a funder you have a finite period and you ideally want the project to arc from start to finish so you can look at what happened, assess it, understand its effects, and so forth. One advantage of our initiative was that we allowed for projects ranging anywhere from six months to five years. This flexible understanding of what a project could be helped to stretch certain organizations, especially those that tended to think in terms of very discrete events. You do a performance and you have a dialogue after the event. That can be productive and meaningful, but the creation of a richer sequence of events that led up to and followed from that moment was an expansive and challenging notion for some organizations.
Arcs of Evaluation and Assessment
MB: In relation to the question of the arc of projects and the funder's influence in evaluating that arc, Animating Democracy clearly encouraged project teams to think creatively about evaluation and to integrate that thinking into their work. At the same time, evaluation is often understood (or misunderstood) in higher education and elsewhere as implying top-down, reductive, and standardizing practices of accountability. It seems to me that one of the things Animating Democracy demonstrates is that evaluation can become part of a process of learning that is organic to a project. How, as a funder, do you think about the risks and opportunities evaluation offers? How did you talk to project teams, organizers, and participants about evaluation? Was it a concept that, like civic dialogue and even project itself, generated resistance?
PK: Yes, to a degree. Many groups had a sincere interest in figuring out how to evaluate their work. Some were diligent in creating logic models – which depict graphically the cause-effect relationships between the resources, activities, outputs, and outcomes of a program or change process – and using them as tools to plan and evaluate Other project teams had good intentions, but didn't follow through. Some resisted, wanting to know if evaluation was only serving our needs as funders. The important caveat is that we, like our grantees, were learning about evaluation practices as we funded and facilitated projects. At the same time, we went further than a lot of other grant makers and initiative leaders since we framed evaluation in two ways.
The first focused on how artists and cultural organizations were thinking about strengthening the application of the arts toward civic intent and, specifically, civic dialogue. This required an action-based approach to research and learning. We thought a lot about how to create the environment and the support system for that to happen. For example, we strategically linked to organizations an Animating Democracy liaison who served throughout the life of the project as sounding board, coach, co-learner, and documenter. We proposed to each grantee a particular liaison from the team we put together. When possible, we matched a group with a liaison they already knew. When they didn't have a prior relationship, we allowed a bit of time for them to see if the match was a good one. In a few cases, the group didn't feel comfortable with our choice and so we thought together about who made most sense. We also made it clear to groups that we, the Animating Democracy staff, always welcomed direct exchange about their work as it unfolded and often reached out. This became an opportunity to check in on how the connection with the liaison was working out.
These liaisons were really good thinkers and experienced practitioners in community-based arts practice – people like Caron Atlas, a consultant now but who had worked many years with Appalshop and the American Festival Project, and Kathie deNobriga, who has had a long affiliation with Alternate ROOTS. We referred metaphorically to this cadre of liaisons as cameras and mirrors. As cameras, they would enter into moments of a project, take snapshots, provide feedback, and facilitate conversation about key project elements. As mirrors, they would reflect back what they were seeing and help to interpret it. We used this process as a means of encouraging self-criticism and supporting formative evaluation. Through ongoing connection and feedback over the course of a project's development and implementation, anywhere from eight months to four years, liaisons helped groups deconstruct their work. This was particularly valuable for the purposes of the groups' final reporting and enabling deep inquiry at learning exchanges among grantees. We were really successful at that level of evaluation.
The second evaluation focus was the fundamental question of what difference a project made. Through their final reporting, we required groups to document how the projects were playing out and to assess project outcomes of most importance to them. To this end, we framed four areas of inquiry that project teams could focus their own evaluation process around: artistic impact with an emphasis on the effects on art of working with civic intent (and vice versa); organizational impact with an emphasis on the effects of the project on the organization involved (especially in terms of increased capacity for arts-based civic dialogue work); civic impacts with an emphasis on the effects related to the civic issue or concern being addressed by the project (especially what we could learn about contributions the arts were making to civic or social outcomes); and audience impact with an emphasis on how a project is engaged by the communities and publics it defines. While a project might have impact in some or all of these ways, we encouraged project teams to choose one of these frameworks and to develop an evaluation strategy around it. These choices ensured that project teams maintained a manageable focus on what was most important to their project and a sense of ownership over processes of evaluation.
Some teams chose to work with the evaluation coaches we provided. Others opted to work with an outside evaluator. The Understanding Neighbors project worked with the University of Alaska to do pre- and post-project testing that attempted to understand what shifts in attitudes might have taken place as a result of their arts-based dialogue about same-sex couples in our society. The Andy Warhol Museum worked with one outside evaluator to understand the effectiveness of its local Advisory Committee. In this specific context, the museum believed the committee was critical because it ensured important African-American involvement in the development and implementation of the Without Sanctuary lynching photos and postcard exhibition, and the related dialogue programs. The goal of the exhibition was to raise awareness and deepen dialogue on issues of race. A second person involved in the project mined the content of various creative dialogue forums and formats for qualitative information on how the exhibition was affecting understanding and attitudes of a range of visitors.
These types of approaches demonstrated serious interest in evaluation, but admittedly there were also some teams that did very little in terms of evaluation and assessment.
In terms of more general risks and benefits of forms of evaluation, we tried to seize the opportunity to do deep documentation as a way to understand what happens in a project. The documentation was based largely on participant-observation and conversations or interviews with people involved in the projects as organizers, artists, and partners. The risk of this strategy is that it's very qualitatively oriented and reliant on anecdotal evidence. Some would say it's not objective since the project participants are also doing the assessment. But the benefit lies in the production of documentation materials that are really rich and useful. From the project teams' perspectives, the most commonly expressed criticism was that the process of evaluation was distracting. Either they didn't see the value given the finite frame of the project and the impossibility of tracking impacts that might occur long after the project ended or they were too busy trying to do the work of the project itself. In some cases, surveys, focus groups, and interviews seemed beside the point.
MB: What I hear you describing is a process in which you gave project teams control over shaping their own evaluation. As you convened them in learning communities, what emerged were models and vocabularies that people could choose from and adapt, like the term multipartiality. That makes a lot of sense – asking project teams to take on evaluation as something they are invested in, but also recognizing that those investments involve time and resources.
BB: I'm also hearing you talk about two different types of evaluation. One is a type of evaluation that is fully integrated and formative, that a project cannot do without. The other focuses on impact, tends to be more summative, and opens up questions about who evaluates and who is evaluated, in contrast to the first model where the two are the same. The first model would get resistance because it is labor-intensive; the second would get resistance because there's no deep or organic link between the audience for the evaluation and the project itself. Fine, we'll do it if Animating Democracy says we have to.
ET: That makes some sense. But I also worry about that distinction since it suggests that trying to assess impact is necessarily distancing or alienating. It can be, but those outcomes or impacts often matter. So figuring out what difference a project made can be an integral part of the learning process. It's not necessarily something that you do only for an external audience.
PK: I'm glad you said that. Many of our project teams were genuinely concerned about project impact. And the vast majority of the groups we worked with were sensitive to negative and positive potential impacts of their actions. The challenge was in knowing how to know. There was a tendency to default to the nice little survey our evaluation coaches put together because it was something that was relatively easy to administer. But there was also a lot of very close and situated contact among the project teams, the artists, the community partners, and various participants. In these situational contexts, observation is powerful. We tried to encourage teams to hear what people say and to watch what they do, to gather information, to capture comments, and to note any evidence that seemed to indicate positive or negative impact. All of the teams did that. I still don't know how much credibility a sociologist would put in the information the teams gathered. But it worked as a qualitative and action-based research practice.
ET: Social scientists wouldn't agree on that either. There is a real range in how people think about evaluation.
BB: And I wouldn't want to give the disciplinary figure of the sociologist or social scientist sole authority here. The models of evaluation that you are describing are very rich. But I still wonder about the idea of measuring impact. I'm thinking about the difference between evaluation practices that do and do not involve collaboration. Distributing and collecting a survey is a really thin form of collaboration with the people surveyed. But the other evaluation practices that you are talking about require very thick forms of collaboration. We may not be talking about two different forms of evaluation, but about two emphases.
PK: When project teams were being attentive to evaluation, they did all of those things. Flint Youth Theatre's …My Soul to Take project in Flint, Michigan, for instance, adopted a logic model for evaluation that helped them to isolate the primary intentions of the project within an otherwise wide-ranging set of expectations. It focused them on the question of how organizations in that community were addressing the issue of youth violence and how they could coalesce their efforts toward greater impact for the long haul. They used surveys in relation to community-wide dialogue because they were dealing with a hundred participants and it was the most efficient way to collect information. But they also did one-on-one interviewing and focus groups with the dialogue facilitators, collaborating artists, and steering committee members who represented different agencies that hoped to work together in the future. They observed how kids responded to the play and they asked teachers to listen for comment before and after performances and in relation to classroom activities related to the play. In the end, these diverse methods all facilitated their movement toward their articulated goals and to a greater understanding of what difference the project made in relation to them.
Moving through Arts and Culture
BB: I'm hoping we can return this discussion of collaboration and evaluation to where we started: arts and culture. Is there anything you would like to add about the specifics of working with arts and cultural organizations and through aesthetic and cultural practices and processes? How did these factors shape collaboration and evaluation differently than if you had been working with, say, social service or environmental organizations that did not traffic in arts and culture?
PK: One initiative that is interesting to look at in this regard is Urban Bush Women's Hair Parties project. Urban Bush Women is a company of African-American women dancers who take up different issues through their performance work. Hair Parties was multifaceted. It linked two major elements. One was a stage performance that explored the racial, class, and gender politics of hair in African-American communities. The other was a series of informal and very small hair parties that used fragments of that performance to foster dialogue. They happened everywhere: private living rooms in Brooklyn, barbershops and hair salons, corporate offices and church basements. In each of these spaces, Urban Bush Women did pieces of the performance. The Hot Comb Blues is one example. There is a lot of humor in it and there are moments when you get a sense of the issues in an impressionistic way. At certain points in a hair party, the motion would stop and the dancers would facilitate a conversation about what the audience just saw. Through some skill development with the dialogue facilitator assigned to the project, the dancers figured out how to use a performative moment as a catalyst for a particular conversation about race, class, or gender. It's a good example of how artistic devices, conventions, and metaphors can provoke thought. Art evoked emotion in a framework of public dialogue. It counter-balanced the tendency we discussed earlier to align civic discourse with purely rational forms of engagement. Art gave permission to agitate, in a positive sense that it complicated conventional understandings of civic dialogue, and it gave permission to feel.
BB: That strikes me as one of the really rich things about both Animating Democracy and the resulting case studies. They transform the concept of multipartiality into something we might call multisensory multipartiality. Moving through aesthetic practices draws on more than just verbal or textual competencies. Movement, touch, and other sensory capacities evoke something that complicates and enlivens the way in which we think about collaboration.
MB: Right, and you can really see that shift not only in the case studies, but also in the Critical Perspectives volume where performers and writers describe how the process changed the way they see art. I'm thinking specifically of Renato Rosaldo's commentary on the Ties That Bind project housed at the Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA) in San Jose. It wasn't the visual art included in the project's culminating installation at MACLA that moved him, but what happened in the space created by the art and the new interactions among the individuals and families the installation brought together. The opportunity is to develop documentation and evaluation practices that are responsive to these types of processes, practices that ask, "Were the people moved?" and then "in what way?" and "toward what?" The risk is that documentation and evaluation practices will fail to recognize the complex, multisensory impacts of these projects.
BB: It also opens up questions of how we should think about the connections among evaluation, documentation, and research. For me, Renato Rosaldo's commentary or Jack Tchen's commentary on the Slave Galleries Restoration project or, really, the whole Critical Perspectives volume generates an understanding of writing that is simultaneously collaborative, documentary, and evaluative. It's also research, even in the narrow academic sense of the term. It provides a very unique and powerful model for how researchers in university settings can open up their thinking about what research can be and do.
PK: I appreciate this commentary.
ET: Me too, in part because it picks up on Pam's earlier reference to Animating Democracy as action-based research. Say a bit more about how you're thinking about research and how that thinking shaped your choices about the writing of the case studies.
PK: Our sense of action-based research focused on how we could encourage action and reflection within the project teams, even as the initiatives moved forward. We wanted them to be conscious of what was going on in their work as it happened and to continue to come back to the practice and the theory behind it. We set up the structure to ensure that, so by the time the teams wrote their final reports, it would be a natural progression for them to put their thinking down on paper. We anticipated using those reports as primary source material for outside writers to produce the case studies. This is why we developed the construct of the project liaisons. The liaisons were the cameras or mirrors, to use the metaphors I mentioned earlier, who relieved the project teams of the burden of having to write something publishable. We also wanted to encourage a level of probing and analysis to guard against documentation that was too superficial or self-congratulatory.
As it turned out, we were challenged on this notion of an outside writer in one of our earliest learning exchanges. Some project teams, especially those that had struggled to retain their own voice and to create a self-determined portrait of who they are, reminded us that funders put their stories, out in the world and take credit for them all the time. We heard that loud and clear, and we began to shift to first voice case studies, where organizations wanted that. It encouraged project teams to write their own stories, even as we continued to work with the project liaisons. We also offered to help the teams to transform their final report into a piece of writing with which they were comfortable. In the end, the overall process didn't shift much, but questions of voice and ownership came to the surface in the process of generating those final documents.
BB: As a reader of those documents, I don't get a sense that the project liaisons were operating as external evaluators in the way that you talked about initially. But I do get a sense of a tension between a collective and a collaborative writing process, at least in the Critical Perspectives volume. Several of the contributors talk retroactively about having worked collectively by engaging with the same project, writing about that project, and developing some level of dialogue about it. But they also talk about a longing for a more collaborative process.
PK: We're talking about two different kinds of writing here: the case studies which were more discrete in-depth portraits and analyses of the projects; and Critical Perspectives which, as a project and a resulting book, enabled a group of writers, each with a different vantage point, to look in on a project. The latter was not a collaboration among the writers but a collective experiment where the writers had the opportunity to connect with the ongoing projects and with each other. In the case we're discussing, Renato Rosaldo's assessment of the Ties That Bind emerged only after our San Francisco Critical Perspectives writers meeting where the conversation began to unpack all sorts of things the writers were thinking about and trying to make sense of. The interactive nature of that in-process writing experience benefited the writers by prompting them to go in a different direction than they had originally intended. Roger Taylor's work with the Slave Galleries Restoration project is another good example. He began with a kind of mandate from the project director to chronicle the restoration of the slave gallery and to act as an insider who would portray the church congregation's perspective authentically and accurately. But as he interacted with the other writers, he began to exercise his own creative muscle. He got a bit more impressionistic and brought a lot of history into the story as well. Collective writing that draws on different perspectives is energizing. It brings forward things that an individual writer might not think about.
BB: Your description of writing as part of a collaborative process is really helpful since it counters the tendency for writers, in universities and elsewhere, to see the act of publication as an end in itself, not as part of a practice that could be collective and generative of different forms of future collaboration. Critical Perspectives models an alternative type of writing project.
PK: At the same time, one challenge of Critical Perspectives resulted from a lack of clarity among the writers – and among us as organizers – about whom they were writing for. In the Slave Galleries Restoration project, the project director and the church had very clear ideas about how they would use those writings to further the interpretive process of the galleries. But in the other cases, the writers were continuously raising questions about audience. Are the writings for the arts organization? For the community the project is focused around? Are they oriented toward the authors' own fields or are they intended to engage the field of arts-based civic dialogue? We could have done a better job of addressing these questions at the start.
MB: I imagine, though, that this ambiguity also had generative effects. Foregrounding the central question of who comprises the audience or audiences for writing means that their compilation makes interventions into multiple different fields more likely. Rosaldo's commentary, for instance, speaks simultaneously to art reviewers, ethnographers, and individuals who are interested in collaborative arts-based projects at different levels of scale.
PK: That assumes that we can get the books out to those audiences and places.
What Universities Can Contribute
BB: The question of audience may also be a question of collaboration. You talk about capacity building for cultural institutions as one of the outcomes of the Animating Democracy projects. What happens if we think about universities, or arts and cultural fields within universities, as one of the audiences for this work and one of the places where capacity building can occur? In this sense, Critical Perspectives also models a collaborative activity that cuts across different organizational sectors, including the university and its sub-units. What is the potential for universities to participate more fully in these sorts of projects?
PK: The question of university partnerships was not a major focus on Animating Democracy, but a number of the projects we supported did intersect with universities or, at least, university-based scholars. Clearly, there's a lot of potential to connect scholarly projects more deeply with community-based arts and cultural practices. One initiative we've supported is the New WORLD Theater's Project 2050 at the University of Massachusetts. Every summer, Project 2050 runs a program designed to engage youth in art making, theatre and other performance arts. As indicated by its title, Project 2050 focuses on opening conversations and developing leadership among youth about the changing demographics of a society where, by the time they're adults in the year 2050, common sense about racial and ethnic diversity will have shifted. University-based scholars have been integrated into this project in a way that deepens the knowledge base of the youth participants, including an introduction to research on changing demographics, civic space, and critical media literacy. At the same time, one challenge for those scholars has been to make their specialized knowledge accessible. They have needed to translate their research into a language that is both understandable and generative, digestible and lively. Project 2050 has worked to create ways of talking that allow the university-based scholars to interact productively with both the youth and the artists working with the youth.
BB: Let me press a bit harder on that point about translation. A lot of people in universities use that metaphor when they talk about collaboration: I'm going to take what I know and go public by translating it into a language that a non-specialist can understand. That's fine and important, and it does build capacity in a sense. One has to learn to speak to a more diverse set of audiences about one's work. But the metaphor also tends to privilege thin and unidirectional models of collaboration. It shouldn't always be a question of translating expert knowledge to some other language, but of developing a learning process that's reciprocal and situated, one that involves a back-and-forth among individuals and across sectors. (Response: Chandan Reddy)
PK: Right, and that involves learning to honor community knowledge.(Response: Diane Douglas) (Response: Randy Martin) In its early years, Project 2050 scholars worked with a pretty unidirectional model of imparting knowledge. As the project has developed, it has evolved a much more horizontal understanding of how knowledge should be made and shared, one that draws on both what youth participants experience in life and what university researchers have to offer.
BB: Project 2050's orientation toward the future can move us to a conclusion – or new beginning. We're not going to ask you to predict that future, but we would like to get a sense of what you see as the most compelling opportunities today for those of us who are interested in thinking about how to develop collaborative, cross-methodological projects in arts and cultural arenas.
PK: This isn't terribly profound, but there is a huge and often neglected resource out there in terms of artists who are working in community-based practice. These practitioners can be brought into universities as animators, collaborators, or resident artists in many ways. Having artists-in-residence working on curricula – in cultural studies or elsewhere – can be really transformative; it can build the capacity of universities and partnering organizations, if it is done right. And it isn't difficult to make happen. Community arts training programs exist in colleges and universities across the country; the faculty and students of those programs could be a tremendous resource. My experiences tell me to start with somewhat time-bound initiatives that allow for experimentation and noodling around without a lot of pressure to prove things or to know in advance exactly where you are going. A lot can happen in that sort of open generative structure. But it's also hard to generalize and I recognize that universities, like all institutions, have barriers and obstacles to negotiate. You three know that way better than I do, so figuring out how to work around those impediments is something you can address more readily than I can.
BB: No doubt that's true in any local context. Still, these conversations about your experiences are very helpful in providing new ideas and a more general map.
PK: They're also helpful for me since it makes me think hard about what we've done and I appreciate that you find it useful. It's really rewarding to see that happen. So thank you for the kind of deep thinking that you've done about what we've done.
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