ASC Partnerships Blog Series Post #8: Navigating Partner Policy

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

ASC Partnerships Blog Series Post #8 | Navigating Partner Policy: example story from the field

Luke stands attentively, pockets empty and shoes removed, waiting to pass through the metal detectors of the youth correctional facility. He has been working for years leading poetry and songwriting workshops at shelters and schools, but understanding and navigating the protocols of a correctional facility has been one of his biggest challenges.

For instance, in shelters, Luke would bring recording devices to the workshops, but he found out during initial planning meetings that these aren’t permitted in the correctional facility. However, musical instruments would be permitted – so long as he allowed enough time for them to be thoroughly inspected before he entered.

To work with youth in schools, Luke had to agree to a criminal record check and be oriented to each school’s policies for visitors. To do any work in the youth correctional facility, Luke had to also undergo a whole series of orientation and training sessions to become familiar with the various security protocols, such as headcounts and emergency codes.

Luke and the facility also have a signed Memorandum of Understanding outlining Luke’s and the facility’s commitments and responsibilities regarding the workshops. This is something Luke likes to have regardless of what organization he’s working with, but in this case, it may turn out to be particularly important.

The security and safety of staff, inmates, and visitors is top priority here, so there is little margin for error, and clear communication is paramount. In planning this project, Luke met not only with the warden, who was strongly supportive, but also with the heads of the security team, psychology team, educational team, and recreational programming team. With each, he outlined the process of his workshops and worked collaboratively to address key policy and logistical concerns.

Today Luke is nervous that the project he has worked for months to develop is in jeopardy. He had originally negotiated with the facility to allow for longer sessions with the participants, even though it overlapped with the last hour of school time, as the workshops were seen as a way to promote literacy. Over the fall, the workshops went well. However, when Luke returned after the winter holiday break, he found his classroom empty. He later learned that several staff had been transferred to a new facility, including the warden who had been so instrumental in helping him through the initial logistical challenges. Luke contacted the head of the recreational programming team who explained that the new warden had changed various aspects of the daily schedule, including shifting all recreational programming to the early morning. On following up with the warden by email, Luke was told that, according to facility policy, only activities that are directly overseen by a certified K-12 teacher can be scheduled during school time and that because Luke is not a certified teacher, it was a mistake to allow the poetry and songwriting workshops to overlap with school hours in the first place.

Luke is here today to meet with the warden and the heads of the education and recreational programming teams. Even if there has been a misunderstanding regarding facility policy, Luke hopes that the MOU will encourage the new warden to acknowledge that the facility has made a formal commitment to making the workshops a success. Luke has spent a lot of time thinking about and preparing for this meeting, and he has an idea that he believes may allow the workshops to return to an afternoon time slot so more youth can participate. Although the workshops fall under recreational programming, he hopes that both team heads will vouch for the value of the work and that, with the help of the educational team head, it may be possible to find a teacher who is willing to partner with Luke in program delivery. This seems like it would meet the facility’s requirements, and who knows, it might even open up new possibilities to help the youth make connections between the poetry and songs they create and what they are learning in their school classes!

Please join us on Facebook or Twitter to tell us about your experiences with trying to understand and work within the policy constraints of different organizations. Were there times you just had to say “No” and end the project? Were there times that these constraints led you to opportunities you might not have discovered otherwise?

In our next post: We’ll highlight some of the key messages from our research participants about factors to consider when navigating the policies of partner organizations.