In AftA Thoughts (2013): II, I suggested a question that can aid the transition to a community-oriented approach to the work of the arts: “How can we help?” In the aftermath of the June’s Americans for the Arts conference in Pittsburgh and the One State Together conference in Moline, another “way of thinking” phrase that has potential for guiding us toward greater relevance has been crystallizing in my mind.
In my Mainstreaming Engagement workshops I describe the relationship-building process as Meet, Talk, Work. And I clarify that the “talk” part requires “listening to learn.” A critique of typical communication centers around the fact that many of us approach “conversation” with the intent of figuring out how (and exactly when) we can interject what we want to say, a habit that leads us away from actually listening. That is the reason I’ve amended my description to emphasize the fact that we need to be gaining insight into the interests of our conversational partners: listening to learn.
The budding insight for me is that what we need to learn is how the skills we have to offer might serve the interests of those with whom we want a relationship. So my revised description of the “Talk” part of relationship building is morphing into “listening to serve.” Thinking this way helps keep the purpose of the enterprise in focus.
I am constantly emphasizing the fact that in arts-community relationships the end results need to be mutually beneficial and both sides need to understand what the other brings to the table. People in the arts are expert in what the arts–at least the particular artistic expression/genre in which they work–can (and can’t) do. Community members are expert in community interests and in what works (and doesn’t) in getting things done in their communities. (For instance, who must–and sometimes who shouldn’t–be included in planning and implementation.)
The “listening to serve” advice is for the arts side of the equation since 1) that’s the target for this blog and 2) the self-interest in the relationship–relevance, sustainability, survival (pick one or more)–is more immediately obvious there. (It absolutely is true that community self-interest is served through arts partnerships, it’s just that the self-interest can be less obvious and more distant there.)
This is another of my conceptual trial balloons. I think there’s something worthwhile here for structuring our approach to community engagement. I’m just not sure yet how this can best be articulated and how deeply this needs to be rooted.