In this blog series, we’d like to start conversations about what meaningful community-engaged participatory arts for social change (ASC) partnerships can look like, how they can be effective and enriching, while also discussing some of the challenges and difficulties.
The content of this series draws primarily on research conducted by Judith Marcuse (Principle Investigator on the ASC! Project) and Nicole Armos (ASC! Research Assistant) during the 2013-2019 Art for Social Change (ASC!) Research Project, but the content of these posts is meant only as a starting point. We want to hear your thoughts too!
Read the other episodes in the series here: Post #1 > Post #2 > Post #3 > Post #4 > Post #5 > Post #6 > Post #7 > Post #8
Deconstructing Power Dynamics
“Working towards equity requires openness to new ideas and interpretations of social, aesthetic, political, and environmental conditions; and it calls for a willingness to perceive ourselves, our ideas, and our actions differently in relation to those we are working with.”
Many of the ASC practitioners we’ve spoken with identify equity as a central ethic guiding partnership relations. Explicitly ensuring that all partners have equal voice and receive equal respect is associated with positive outcomes and meaningful relationships. Yet unaddressed inequalities were often key factors leading to the dissolution of partnerships.
Working towards equity begins by acknowledging the inherent power dynamics that exist in all partnerships. Partners have different roles, responsibilities, resources, capacity, levels of authority, remuneration, and recognition within a project.
These power differences become particularly pronounced in partnerships between freelance artists or small, grassroots organizations and larger organizations or institutions that may operate within more hierarchical structures. This hierarchical culture of the larger partner can easily carry over to the partnership itself, and partners with smaller capacity may feel pressured to accept the terms and conditions, values, and frameworks of a partner that is providing more funding and more resources.2 This can result in frustration and mistrust among those working on a project, and can also privilege the goals of the more powerful partner over the goals of the people the project was intended to support.
Explicitly reflecting on one’s own assumptions and having open conversations about equity and reciprocity among partners can help build trusting relationships in which every member of the partnership knows that their voice is valued. In discussing the idea of self-reflection – or reflexivity - The Arts and Equity Toolkit developed by Toronto Art Foundation’s Neighbourhood Arts Network provides this guidance:
Reflexivity requires that practitioners be aware of and critically reflect on their own position within society and how that may shape their relationships with a community or with others…Recognizing how one may embody or represent different kinds of power or agency and how that may impact the building of relationships with colleagues, community members, and other organizations is vital…Getting to know ourselves and our organizations better, including how we are situated and perceived in our communities, can help to build our awareness and strengthen our interactions.3
Participants as Partners
Many ASC practitioners we spoke with noted that their efforts to build equitable partnership relationships include not just formal partners but also the community they hope to engage with. For many ASC practitioners, establishing non-hierarchical, co-creative relationships with community members is central to both the project planning process and the facilitation of art-making within a project. For instance, one Artistic Director we interviewed described approaching their work with youth “in terms of a partnership rather than a service-related relationship, or even an engagement-related relationship,” while another described how their forum theatre projects aren’t meant to “serve the participants” but rather to enable “the participants [to] serve their community.” This way of framing projects, particularly when working with marginalized populations, establishes the community as active agents in their experience and helps to shape a project that will be meaningful to participants. In addition it can raise awareness of unexpected barriers to participation, such as transportation or childcare challenges, to support greater accessibility.
“Reciprocity is an integral component of equitable community-engagement. Reciprocity means that there is a back-and-forth sharing of resources and an ethic of mutual respect. Everyone involved both gives and receives something; it could be knowledge, materials, ideas, time, energy, space, or other contributions.”4
Strong and sustainable partnerships are also marked by “mutual input, mutual responsibility, and mutual gain.” Partners that make meaningful contributions and share “joint responsibility for achieving goals”5 are more likely to be engaged with the work and to care about the outcomes. Some of our interviewees described how relationships with funders improved when the focus shifted from solely monetary transactions to funder involvement in evaluation, capacity building, or site visits.
One practitioner spoke of looking for “multi-tiered reciprocity” within a project, with “expected and unexpected success […] on many levels, for everyone involved.” However, reciprocal gain can be particularly threatened in partnerships between organizations of different capacities, where one partner may feel pressured to agree to a less equitable arrangement to secure funding6 or in hopes of building a “good relationship” with an organization whose help they may need in future. One must remember that sacrificing reciprocity at the outset of a relationship usually makes it harder develop reciprocity later.
In our next blog
Now it’s your turn: Have you been impacted by unequal power in an ASC partnership? What approaches have you found that are effective in surfacing implicit assumptions and helping to increase equity in ASC partnerships? Use the comments space to share your experiences! Comment on Twitter and Facebook to share your experiences and ideas!
In our next post: We’ll provide our take on "How to Plan Projects for Equity".
1, 3, 4 Louis, S. & Burns, L. (2012). Arts and Equity Toolkit (pages. 13 & 15). Neighbourhood Arts Network. Toronto, ON. (http://www.neighbourhoodartsnetwork.org/tac/media/BMO-Learning-Room-Links/ArtsEquityToolkit.pdf?ext=.pdf)
2, 5, 6 Sterne, R., Heaney, D., & Britton, B. (2001). The Partnership Toolbox. World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Surrey, UK. (http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/wwf_parthershiptoolboxartweb.pdf )