A Question and an Opportunity

March 23, 2021 by Judith Marcuse, ED of ICASC Featured /

The impact of community-engaged art for social change is varied – it nurtures individual and community wellness, including both mental and physical health; it can further citizen engagement, address conflict and build social cohesion; it enhances environmental and social justice awareness and action; and helps to create relevant public policy.

Why has the environmental community not taken more advantage of the huge potential that this sector offers – new tools for dialogue, problem-solving, coalition-building, creative communications, and advocacy?

When arts-based processes connect the head, heart and hands, perspectives and exchange deepen; action for change is amplified. Different, often non-verbal, out-of-the-box ways of seeing help participants to expand their own perspectives and understand those of others. Taking an environmental organization as an example, information can flow not just from the organization out to the public, but also from citizens whose insights flow out to their own communities and back to the organization itself. Art then serves not only to create messaging from the environmental sector but becomes an effective tool for information-sharing and action that is based in the perspectives of “ordinary” citizens – people who vote.

Worldwide studies and our own experience confirm the many positive impacts of participation in arts and cultural activities. Despite this awareness, there is an entire arts sector, full of possibilities, about which most people know very little.

This work has many names, each with its own nuanced approach. In Canada, “community-engaged arts” (CEA) and “community-engaged art for social change” (ASC) are practiced by some 400 organizations and independent artists. The sector’s goals and methods differ from outreach programs focused on educational and audience-building goals offered by large arts institutions. This is work of a radically different character.

ASC operates on the premise that cultural expression is a basic human right. In this   practice, groups of people who may not self-identify as artists, co-create art using performance, visual, literary and other art forms about what matters to them in a dialogic process facilitated by specially trained, professional artists. Participants are collectively engaged in the work of weaving social fabric, supporting visions, and problem-solving for an equitable future, bringing people into connection across all kinds of barriers. This is artmaking that is both enjoyable and purposeful.

The impact of community-engaged art for social change is varied – it nurtures individual and community wellness, including both mental and physical health; it can further citizen engagement, address conflict and build social cohesion; it enhances environmental and social justice awareness and action; and helps to create relevant public policy.

Why has the environmental community not taken more advantage of the huge potential that this sector offers – new tools for dialogue, problem-solving, coalition-building, creative communications, and advocacy?

When arts-based processes connect the head, heart and hands, perspectives and exchange deepen; action for change is amplified. Different, often non-verbal, out-of-the-box ways of seeing help participants to expand their own perspectives and understand those of others. Taking an environmental organization as an example, information can flow not just from the organization out to the public, but also from citizens whose insights flow out to their own communities and back to the organization itself. Art then serves not only to create messaging from the environmental sector but becomes an effective tool for information-sharing and action that is based in the perspectives of “ordinary” citizens – people who vote.  

New initiatives are encouraging arts organizations to become more environmentally-responsible, but even the SDG’s do not include arts and cultural participation as essential to wellbeing and social and environmental justice. With few exceptions, Canada’s 400+ specialized community-engaged arts organizations are absent from current climate/sustainability conversations, coalition-building, and mobilization even though they are already addressing the climate crisis – but often in isolation.  

In a data-driven, increasingly algorithmic world, it is easy to lose sight of the poetry (and agency) within each of us.

I encourage environmental organizations, individuals, policy makers and all who are addressing the climate crisis to consider the gifts that engaged arts practices might bring to their agendas.


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