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 > Post #9
In our last post, we presented a short vignette about Anna, a community centre drama instructor who used funding from her local arts council to form a new partnership with a high school, addressing issues of discrimination through theatre. We hope that post got you thinking about your own experiences in establishing new relationships in ASC work. In this post, we’re going to focus more specifically on some of the key messages about forming new relationships that we heard from our interviewees and Chataqua participants.
Partnerships in ASC: New Relationships – Discussion
Time for Relationship Building
“There's just no substitute for time for relationship building…. we spent the whole first year knocking on doors.” - ASC! Project interviewee
Taking the time to focus on building the relationship itself – establishing trust across individuals and organizations, seeking to understand one another’s perspectives, and building a shared understanding of why the partnership exists – is essential.
Anna realized she couldn’t just barge ahead. She chose instead to seek an extension to her funding to create more time for the students to engage in creative investigation of the issues and to build trust in both Anna and the process itself. Similarly, many of our participants emphasized that, no matter how eager everyone is to get started on the project, it’s critical to allow time to actively build the relationship itself before diving in to “getting things done.” Relationship-building with partners can take many forms, including:
- “Breaking bread” over coffee or lunch
- Having “long, very open-ended dialogues”
- Attending partners’ training programs, social events, or fundraisers
- Volunteering, interning, or serving on partners’ committees or boards
- Conducting ‘participant observation’ of partners’ work
- Initiating focus groups or community consultations
- Offering preliminary arts-based workshops with potential partners and/or participants
One interviewee spoke about an artist interested in developing a writing residency at a hospital. Although she already had the support of one staff member who was a friend and her writing student, she began volunteering at the hospital herself. “Just getting a sense of the space, of how the facility worked, going through the training and the orientation … while also building trust with the staff [and] the supervisor of the volunteer services” helped her to develop an understanding of how she might collaboratively shape a relevant and useful writing residency.
Other participants described relationship-building as a “long and emerging process” leading up to the work and noted that it requires “time, dialogue, and personal investment.”
The partners’ pre-existing familiarity with each other’s work and the congruence of their missions, values, and ways of doing and being should certainly influence the form and duration of initial relationship-building activities. However, many participants spoke about pressures of organizational timelines and funding deadlines (as we saw in Anna’s story) that can tempt – or force – partners to truncate these activities. “Often with funding timelines there’s this idea that you have to hit the ground running and produce deliverables throughout,” yet many of our participants told us that it’s normal to take a year or more to focus on building relationships and planning.
“Fundamentally…a successful partnership starts with a trusting relationship.”
Relationships Are Between People
“Just relax, slow everything down and actually really sense what are the great things we can learn from this process? What are we seeing in each other?…This curiosity, and strong desire to learn, …that's what I think is important for every partnership…that ‘I see something in you that I know is going to make me a better person if I receive it.’ I work [so that] every relationship is approached with that kind of curiosity and welcome and invitation to co-create.” - ASC! Project interviewee
Although formal partnership agreements, contracts, memoranda of understanding, etc. typically describe partnerships as being between organizations, when it comes to doing the work, most partnerships are really about trusting relationships and regular communication between individuals. Individual relationships are often catalysts for the creation of partnership opportunities in the first place. Many cross-sector ASC partnerships are facilitated by pre-existing relationships and connections such as personal contacts, previous partners, people doing related work in the same geographic area, or introductions made through professional networks. Because of the centrality of the relationships between the people, ensuring a good fit between the personalities, values, and organizational culture of partners can be just as important to project viability as logistical and budgetary considerations.
The downside of having relationships between individuals as the core of a partnership is that the departure of a key staff member can easily derail the work and the partnership itself. Almost half of the people we interviewed indicated that changes in staffing have lead to the disintegration of partnerships, even when there were written partnership agreements in place. Further, they have found that trying to rebuild the partnership with the new staff member is akin to starting from scratch - something that’s challenging enough at the outset of a project, and easily catastrophic if it happens mid-project. Partly for this reason, many of our participants have found that when a key staff person leaves a partner organization, they may be more likely to continue working with the former staff member (who may be independent or working with a new organization) than with the original partner organization. To mitigate this challenge, some organizations, such as Cirque du Monde, insist on there being two representatives of their partnering organizations in all of their partnership arrangements (source: ASC! Project Interview with Emmanuel Bochud, Team Leader – Programs & Partnerships – Community Relations)
Building Relationship in a Community
“We will sit with the community…and we'll ask them what they want. Sometimes they'll say that …‘Some of the kids come to us and say they're scared about going to the mall because youth are smoking marijuana by the door’-- I mean that's a true story. And so we developed a whole project with them at the table to figure out how we're going to manage that issue.” - ASC! Project interviewee
ASC work is never one size fits all: The specific art forms, timelines, and goals of a project vary depending on the needs of the community the project engages. It is crucial to work with people who are already well connected in that community. In some cases, this will mean working primarily with leaders in the community. In other cases, it will mean working closely with those who will eventually be participants in the project. In many cases, practitioners will find value in building relationships with a range of people, representing different community roles and perspectives. As one artist stated, “We have expertise [in the arts], but it’s their community, and they know their community.” And when addressing controversial community issues, building networks of relationships with those who have differing perspectives can be crucial for success.
For the practitioner seeking to work with a community, it is important to enter conversations with an open mind. Often the practitioner’s plan turns out to be just a starting point, as un-anticipated needs challenge the practitioner’s expectations and understandings. For example, one large organization interested in working with remote northern communities spent the first year of their activities visiting each community to learn about the communities’ needs and priorities for music education and to assess interest in a particular model for a music program. This open-ended, flexible approach helped build trust within the communities and allowed the organization to discover that their proposed model was not a good fit because didn’t fulfill the communities’ priorities, including development of their own, existing musical cultures. This period of relationship-building helped them to re-orient the project and develop what has become a sustained and very successful initiative.
In contexts where leaders and administrators may not be able to speak comprehensively on behalf of community needs and interests, it can be important to create opportunities to build relationships directly with participants. Some ASC organizations view their participants as their “first partners,” and as co-creators of their programming. For example, one organization that works with a youth shelter, invites staff and youth to a “learning circle” to discuss their needs, priorities, and possibilities together, and then reconvenes the circle to receive feedback on proposed programs.
Similarly, one of our artist interviewees explained that when she wanted to start a dance program with seniors, the recreation coordinator of the care centre she was partnering with suggested that their first step would be to engage residents in focus group luncheons to ask them directly what their ideal dance program would be like in terms of scheduling, dance style, and goals of the program. In some cases, these open-ended dialogues can continue throughout project planning and evaluation and can include collaborative work on the logistics and even ongoing funding strategies.
Now it’s your turn: What tips can you share for making the best use of time spent on relationship-building? How do you approach relationships with individuals, organizations, and communities?*
In our next post: We’ll present another partnerships vignette, this time focusing on the importance of developing a shared language.