Trees, Arts, and Communities

In January Joe Patti (Butts in Seats) wrote an exceptionally valuable post (Trees Come with Unexpected Baggage). It was about a nonprofit organization in Detroit planting trees in neighborhoods. It turns out that, for a wide variety of reasons, many people did not want the trees.

For many of us, a free tree sounds like an unequivocally good thing. Why would anyone not want one? It turns out that there are a number of reasons. But a common theme in people’s concerns was that the neighborhoods had not been part of the process of deciding to do the project in the first place nor how it should be implemented. “People felt someone else was deciding what should be planted and where without having any conversations with the people who would have to live with the trees.” It wasn’t that they didn’t understand the value of trees. They didn’t trust the outsiders who were descending upon their homes.

The obvious point Mr. Patti was making is that arts organizations not infrequently make the same mistakes in attempting to deal with new communities. They assume they know what is needed and then they deliver what “they know is best” without consultation or discussion. And then are surprised when the response is poor.

I almost did not write this follow up because the points were made so well. However, this is such an important issue that repetition is helpful. We’ve got to come to grip with the fact that when it comes to dealing with new communities we are often clueless and can easily trip all over ourselves because we don’t know them. (I’m reminded of Margy Waller’s post from several years ago, We Are from the Arts and We’re Here to Help.)

Plus there are two things I’d like to amplify here. The first is the issue of trust. We can never forget that for many people, “the arts” are associated in lockstep with power and privilege. Whether or not this is fair is irrelevant. Our industry is tied to the 1% in the minds of large segments of the population. And that association gets in the way of building relationships. Before we try to “plant trees” in their midst, much work needs to be done to get to a simple ground zero of trust.

The other issue is totally self-inflicted. We have an unexamined belief in the inherent value of the arts that we present and that arts’ value to anyone we meet. This is totally understandable, we would not be in the business if we did not believe it. However, this is also the foundation of attempts to do “outreach” to new communities–providing arts enlightenment, kinda like 19th Century missionaries to Africa. It is rooted, consciously or unconsciously, in what I think I may begin to call Aesthetic Superiority Syndrome.

This is counter-productive for a variety of reasons. One is it diminishes us. It gets in the way of understanding the merits of artistic expression of “foreign” cultures. I vividly remember years ago hearing that there was a hip hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton in development. My mental response was “Yeah, right.” I now understand how very, very wrong I was. Greg Sandow has for years been pushing the classical music world to recognize the brilliance of other musics. (Classical music is the world from which I come.) I have been a cheerleader for his work but did not recognize my own shortsightedness. How much poorer I was/we are for this.

Not only does this diminish us, it also gets in the way of building bridges. If we don’t recognize that our art is not the only art of significant merit, the new communities with which we try to connect will spot our dismissiveness and turn deaf ears to our suggestions. They have artistic traditions of which to be justifiably proud. Seeking those out is one way to create connections.

The bottom line in engagement is, as always, talk with (not to) them. (Although see that last sentence in this paragraph.) Engage people with humility and respect and seek reciprocity. (If you ask much of them to understand your work, invest that much time in understanding them.) But eventually seek to move from thinking of them as them to thinking of them as one of us.

Engage!

Doug

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Existential Threats

I have written about this basic topic on numerous occasions but I keep getting asked related questions in new ways. Toward the end of last year someone asked what was the most important reason for arts organizations to embrace community engagement: economic viability or cultural justice.

Before I try to address the question, let me summarize the basic points.

  • The first is that due to rapidly increasing costs, demographic shifts in the population, and ever greater competition for leisure time and dollars (to name just three factors), the economic prospects for Eurocentric arts institutions are grim. This is the viability rationale.
  • The second is that historically those same Eurocentric institutions have received the lion’s share (more realistically, the brontosaurus’s share) of society’s cultural resources. It is becoming increasingly difficult to justify that. This is the morality rationale.

Like any good retired college professor, my immediate response to the question is that there is no one correct answer. More to the point, the issues are not separate ones. They are simply different aspects of the same underlying issue, the end of European cultural hegemony (yes, I’ve already reminded you I was a professor) in U.S. society. In truth, they are both viability arguments.

Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter which argument is more meaningful to you. They both represent existential threats. And in each case the only practical solution is deep, meaningful engagement with new communities.

Engage!

Doug

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Response to Listen vs. Tell

In Listen vs. Tell I spoke of the necessary switch from telling people about our work to listening to them as a pre-requisite for effective communication. 

As happens not infrequently, Carter Gilles responded thoughtfully and at length. He has given me permission to share his expansion on my thoughts here.


Carter Gilles

This particular phrasing [Listen vs. Tell] reminded me of the work that the philosopher Carol Gilligan did I think in the 80s. She has been criticized for framing her distinction in gender terms, and this is a bit unfair (she was not giving the final word but hoping to open a conversation). Her main point was that there are two different styles that we have in acting in the world and how we self identify. For me it seems they map directly onto the distinction you are making. She makes the point that “women define who they are by describing relationships. Men define themselves by separation, or the use of “I” statements.” 

In other words, the ‘male perspective’ embodies a sort of atomic conception of how things work, where the individual and his/her actions are isolated and act on others from the outside. The ‘female perspective’ by contrast embodies a conception of our actions that specifically live in the wider context of a community or conversation. The sense things make is from the INSIDE of these frameworks.

“Listen vs. tell” seems to capture some of that emphasis in that when we base a relationship merely on our own ability to tell things to others we treat ourselves and others as separate and isolated. When we listen there is an admission that we are merely a part of some larger whole, a conversation or a community, and that the role we necessarily share with others is active and engaged. 

I know you are searching for ways to phrase these ideas and help others make better sense of what you have in mind. There are happenings in so many fields that parallel what you are attempting to do. Your allusion to the internet styles was spot on, of course. 

One other distinction I find interesting that has some relevance to your ideas is the political analysis of George Lakoff who describes two basic styles of expectation for the role of government. He suggests that conservative minded folk have a more hierarchical expectation where there are defined roles and that the duty of a government is something like a strict parent, to keep folks in line and defend the borders/ideals. Liberals by contrast are folks who expect government to function by caring for the needs of the folks represented. Rather than handing down the law, the idea is seeing what things are necessary or important from the point of view of constituents as self-described, and then building out from there. “What matters to you?” rather than “This is important despite what you think.”

How I believe this relates to your distinction is that the strict parent version defines the role of those who tell us what is important and the rest are on the receiving end, much like in your “We Tell” version. The nurturant parent model is much more concerned with getting to know the people affected and to represent their unique circumstances and beliefs.


It’s wonderful to be able to take advantage of the insights offered by people smarter than I! Many thanks, Carter

Engage!

Doug

Carter Gilles is a working artist, a longtime arts instructor, and practicing Philosopher living in Athens, Georgia.

Mission Commitment

One of the most basic elements of effective community engagement is commitment to community well-being at the mission level. Without this, virtually all other efforts will be marginal at best or counter-productive at worst. The nature of this commitment can be expressed in whatever way is most authentic to the organization and its communities. The generic template I sometimes suggest can be found here. It’s so general, it’s more of a sentiment than an actual statement to emulate.

In December I had the opportunity to attend a production of the Strawberry Theatre Workshop in Seattle. In the program I found a mission statement that was remarkable for its awareness of and commitment to the communities in which it operates. (The complete statement can be found here.) It noted the connection between what happened on stage and subsequent conversations “at coffee shops, bus stops, classrooms, and play fields.” It held that the company’s ensemble included not only the administrative and artistic staff but also the audience and the neighborhood, seeing itself as one part of something much larger. Finally, it identified itself as wanting to be a “good neighbor” saying that meant it needed to be “a relevant neighbor, a responsible neighbor, and a vocal neighbor.

No mission statement should be the template for another organization (that’s very nearly a truism for us in the nonprofit world), but being able to see commitment to engagement in the mission is a pre-requisite for effectiveness. Is it obvious in yours?

Engage!

Doug

Listen vs. Tell

Over a year ago I began presented a somewhat tongue-in-cheek means of differentiating among two vastly different styles of approaching sales, audience development, audience engagement, and community engagement–the means by which we connect with the public. It was rooted in the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, the “tell” and “interact” versions of the internet.

In sharing the concept with people I realized that basing it on Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 was confusing since Web 1.0/2.0 are not universally recognized and, to be honest, are more than a bit geeky. I revised the presentation around the true essence of the matter: telling and listening.

So here, as we all break for the Holidays, is the new version. (My coding skills are far less than excellent, so a prettier version of this can be found on pp. 2-3 of this document.)


In the past, it has been common for arts organizations to adopt an “If we present it, they will come” attitude in which they simply told people about what was happening and assumed someone would respond. But in a world where the consumer is far less predisposed to “buy” the arts than they once were, we need to build relationships with those we hope to be our supporters. We do this by listening.

The charts that follow present a comparison of how this might work in the “We Tell” and “We Listen” scenarios.

We Tell
Spoiler: Not the way we should be doing business!

Sales

Audience Development

Audience Engagement

Community Engagement

   This is what’s happening.

   Buy a ticket.

   This is what’s happening.

   This seems to us like a reason you might be interested.

   Buy a ticket.

   This is what’s happening.

   This seems to us like a reason you might be interested.

   Here’s something we think is worthwhile/relevant to you about it.

   Buy a ticket.

   Get a grant

   Find some poor people

   Tell them why what’s happening is good for them

   Be surprised when they don’t show up

It does not take much imagination to understand why one-way communication has very limited success. Two-way conversations–dialogue–should be the default mode for our interactions with the public. Something like this:

We Listen

Sales

Audience Development

Audience Engagement

Community Engagement

    This is what’s happening.

    This is why it’s going to be worth your time and money.*

    Buy a ticket.

   This is what’s happening.

   This is why it’s going to be worth your time and money.*

   This seems like a reason you might be especially interested.*

   Buy a ticket.

   This is what’s happening.

   This is why it’s going to be worth your time and money.*

   This seems like a reason you might be especially interested.*

   Here’s something that might make this even more worthwhile/relevant to you.*

   Buy a ticket.

Step 1

   Pleased to meet you.

   Tell me about yourself.

   This is what we do.

Step 2

   If we do [this thing*], will you help us make it better/be successful?

Step 3 (Post event)

   Let’s keep in touch.

*Suggestions made based on what we learn from listening.


Happy Holidays . . . and

Engage!

Doug

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