I believe there is a benefit of arts and cultures that has not been written about nor studied enough in more intentional ways, although it has gained value in arts and philanthropic circles in the past few years. This is the value of arts and culture as a social change tool. The head of a social change organization and one of the national proponents of social change and the arts had this to say: “The single most powerful social change tool in the world is arts and creative expression. There is nothing that transcends barriers across language, economics, cultures, and place in a way that engages people and community like arts and cultures can. Nothing (emphasis) is that powerful.”
At NACF, we believe there is truth to the power of arts and cultures to promote social change and we are doing our part through our Fellowships and Community Inspiration Projects. This work is artist led and involves community on issues of social, cultural, and environmental impact. Many of our Fellowships and all of the Community Inspiration Projects are involving multiple segments of the community in participation, artmaking and symposiums. Rigorous discussion on a variety of topics is occurring among peoples with valuable perspectives, and conversations are happening between Native and ethnically diverse constituents.
For example, Kealoha and “The Story of Everything” is involving youth from schools and teachers from the education field, in addition to a diverse group of artists, scientists, and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners. Postcommodity is creating a unique model of community building and social practice with “Repellent Fence” that involves organizations and peoples in the border towns of Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, México. “SHORE” and its lead dance choreographer, Emily Johnson, are bringing community members together in the spirit of exploring the sometimes limiting boundaries between audience and performer, land and shore, and community and place. We invite you to read more about each of these projects and participate if you are able. We don’t have all the answers and we’re learning together with artists and communities, including implementing an extensive evaluation strategy that we hope to share with others interested in this work.
Historically, in Native communities, “arts” have always been part of the society and imbedded into cultural life. Whether through song, dance, storytelling, or visual art, its purposes were many including celebration of a special occasion or event, honoring an ancestor or particular person, or expressing appreciation for the bounty of the earth, sky, and ocean. This was community building at its finest, bringing people together to experience “shared belonging”, while at the same time learning from one another and co-creating. Probably most importantly, this kind of community synergism imbedded in arts and cultures created a collective “energy” that was inspired and focused toward a common goal or cause. Imagine thirty, one hundred or even a thousand people singing and dancing together in celebration and unison; the transcendent joy experienced helps contribute to healthier, whole people. In indigenous communities and many ethnic groups in the United States and across the globe, the benefits of “arts”, as part of culture, were tangible and elevated to the highest importance for community perpetuation and wellbeing.
Some will say “but that was the past when times were simpler and the main concern was basic survival, and what about today.” Well today, it’s just as important, if not more. The celebration, honoring, and appreciation have not disappeared; it’s still happening as it should in all aspects of Native life.
In addition, the expression of our arts and cultures has risen to address social and environmental issues, inequality, and economic strife in new and compelling arts formats and practices. This is a good thing. Times are complex and we have fragmented communities, and I believe the main concern for everybody is still survival. There is room for beautiful, joyful experiences of arts and cultures as well as complicated thought-provoking manifestations of arts that may leave us feeling uncomfortable or even confused. Both are a critical necessity to community wellbeing and social change. They both require public and private responsibility, financial and otherwise, to really survive and have the impact that arts and cultures is capable of making toward a more humane and advanced society.
There has been a number of studies focused on the value of arts and cultures to communities in general; how it contributes to placemaking and urban/rural revitalization, improves cognitive skills in children, and promotes wellbeing for the elderly. Organizations report how arts programs help increase economic livelihood for artists and help them develop new business skills and marketing tools. In Native life and other societies, artists and cultural practitioners strive to carry on traditions and valuable knowledge from generation to generation. Values are perpetuated and indigenous communities are invigorated through the practice of arts and culture.
Recent national research, “Building Public will for Arts and Culture,” authored by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group and released in April 2015, found that the key motivation and primary value of arts and culture identified by study participants was connection. The ability to connect with others, with new ideas and other cultures, even with oneself and the creative process is of the highest importance.
Now, more than ever:
We need to increase understanding and discussion between diverse peoples;
We need to share valuable cultural knowledge and practices;
We need to heal our communities;
We need to take care of our earth and this planet;
We need to disrupt social constructs and ingrained practices that are not working;
We need to provoke better thinking and ways of solving problems;
We need to deconstruct outdated systems and reimagine the world we want;
We need to find creative ways to address the ills of our communities and towns;
We need to cooperate, collaborate, and create together.
We need a more just and peaceful world.
—T. Lulani Arquette