ASC Partnerships Blog Series Post #6: Power Dynamics and Equitable Partnerships, Part 1

“Fundamentally, partnership is based on mutual respect, mutual input, mutual output. That's really the bottom line on how to make the partnership work.”
In this blog series we’d like to seed 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
> Post #10

ASC Partnerships Blog Series Post #6: Power Dynamics and Equitable Partnerships

Scenario: Esteban is frustrated. For the past few months he has been facilitating visual arts workshops for patients with chronic illnesses to help them explore and share their experiences and challenges navigating the medical system. The project is being funded and evaluated by IMAR, a major institute for health research; however, the brunt of the work has fallen to Esteban and a small volunteer patient advocacy group. Esteban and the advocacy team have devoted countless hours to planning, advertising, and running the weekly workshops—often exceeding what is covered by Esteban’s stipend.

The planned set of workshops is wrapping up, and, based on his own observations and feedback from both the advocacy group and participants, Esteban would like to discuss with IMAR the possibility of extending the project for another three months. The work has been very rich, and they would like to mount a gallery and community event to expand its reach. When he speaks with the researchers at IMAR, they respond that they are not willing to commit more funding until analysis of the current data is complete and they see if this is a viable avenue for further research. Esteban and IMAR end the meeting without coming to an agreement.

The next week, Esteban receives a preliminary report of findings that the researchers intend to present at an upcoming conference. The researchers have previously indicated that they would like Esteban to co-present with them and they are seeking Esteban’s feedback.

Esteban shares the report with the patient advocacy volunteers and with the participants of the workshop, both of whom he sees as partners in the project and whose voices he believes are valuable in shaping the next steps. The participants and advocacy group are very excited to see that their work is being shared with the larger academic and medical community. However, they believe the report is too strongly focused on the effectiveness of the arts-based methods used and doesn’t place enough emphasis on the experiences and policy recommendations that surfaced in their visual inquiry. They reiterate their interest in continuing the project and building on their current momentum to engage the wider community on the ground and push towards policy change. They believe the researchers were perhaps too distanced from the work itself – joining the group only at the start and end of the workshop series, instead of following the full group process and truly understanding their values and mission.

Esteban communicates this feedback with the researchers at IMAR, and they agree to schedule a meeting with him and a few of the participants and members of the patient’s advocacy group to better understand what they can add to their conference presentation to more accurately represent the story, but they still say it’s too early to consider additional funding. Although Esteban and the advocacy group are hopeful that they will be able to continue the evaluation work with IMAR eventually, they are not willing to let the momentum they have built up seep away or to let their priorities get lost amidst the large research organization’s focus on methodology. They decide that they need to begin brainstorming potential new partners who share their focus on community engagement and policy change and who can help fund the project into the future in a more sustainable way.

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*Image Source (L-R clockwise) Vantage Point Recovery, Morningside Recovery, Dance Informa.