Learning the skills for arts-based community-led transformation

“I think we’ve got a lot of challenges these days, in pretty much every private and public sector in this country, and I think artists are a massive untapped resource that could help in surprising and meaningful ways.”

— Michael Rohd, The New Work of Building Civic Practice

In the fall of 2018, 19 ASU undergraduate and graduate students spent time building the necessary skills for civic practice (arts-based community-led transformation) in a course led by Herberger Institute Professor Michael Rohd. Rohd, who in 2012 co-founded the Center for Performance and Civic Practice as a platform for collaborative work, is a national leader in civic practice work.

We asked Rohd and two of the students in the class — Sequoia Lynn Dance, a graduate student studying social and cultural pedagogy in the School of Social Transformation, and Alyssa Edmondson, a graduate student studying theatre directing in the Herberger Institute’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre — to share their thoughts on civic practice and the outcomes of the class.

Michael Rohd: We define civic practice as a type of partnership practice through which artists/designers/culture makers/heritage holders put their assets in service to community collaborators (residents or organizations). Through listening and relationship building, the artist in the partnership imagines, shares and then co-designs a creative response/intervention meant to aid a partner’s work around a self-defined aspiration, vision or challenge.

Sequoia Lynn Dance: Before the class, I think I lacked a definition for civic practice. I felt like I knew what it meant, but I wasn’t sure how to articulate it. So this class has shaped a really solid base understanding of what civic practice is and how the goals will shift depending on the partner you work with.

Alyssa Edmondson: After learning more about civic practice through class discussion and readings I began to understand that it does not have to be someone who self defines as an artist. The partner can self define as a culture-maker, someone who is not per se an artist but has a creative approach to a community-defined goal or aspiration.

Michael: Civic practice is important for a few reasons. One, it offers a shared vocabulary and process for artists and community partners to engage in clear communication around how and why they might work together. Two, as a practice, it operates from a core community development and planning principle, which is: If you are seeking to make impact, co-design the desired outcomes and working strategies with those you seek to impact. Share leadership and decision making. And three, it invites the arts, culture and design worlds to enter into conversations about intention and accountability within a clear, shared framework for dialogue.

Sequoia: Civic practice is important because it begins to blur the boundaries of status and power. As I learn more about civic practice and see the processes unfold, I have begun to see the ways in which it aligns with my values and beliefs as an Indigenous community builder (I am an enrolled member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and a direct descendant of the Assiniboine (Red Bottom Band)). To me, civic practice is important in realigning communities with a collective of voice and values of separate knowledge, but it is also sparking growth and healing within those communities and those who are working with them. It’s a process that will continue past the end of a project as long as there is water for it to grow.

Alyssa: It is important to note that civic practice is not a new phenomenon. People partnering together to address a community-defined goal or aspiration is innate in our humanity. However, this is the very reason why civic practice is so important in these times of division and distancing language. I have always enjoyed sharing space with humans who disagree. This is not something that many find as exhilarating and comfortable. My form of civic practice encourages people to share stories before opinions and uses that framework to create an empathetic understanding that counteracts the stereotypes and soundbites that people use to draw conclusions about people.

Michael: Students in the course had to work hard to build partnerships with student or staff leaders of campus organizations; they had to stay on top of communication, be persistent without being demanding, clearly articulate what they were doing and most importantly, be great listeners.

Sequoia: We chose ASU Turning Points Magazine, housed in the Center for Indian Education. ASU Turning Points is a student led magazine made by and for students. I have been a part of the team since the summer of 2017. We basically said we just wanted to meet and talk about the organization and its goals and vision. From there the conversations were super organic. We were able to describe our assets that seemed to align with some of the goals that the editor, Taylor Notah, was looking for.

Alyssa: After that first meeting, Sequoia and I came up with a few follow up questions to help us understand Taylor’s goal, which was to have a tool in the office that communicated the overall process of getting the magazine to print. The student workers are not often in the office at the same time, so there was a disconnect in understanding the broader process of the magazine. We wanted to create some form of a productivity calendar, but Sequoia used her knowledge as an Indigenous person herself and came up with the idea to base our productivity calendar on a 12-month tribal calendar.

Sequoia Dance works with graphic designers and industrial design junior Brian Skeet and industrial design senior Ravenna Curley at a Turning Points editorial meeting in 2017. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now.

Michael: I think the largest change in this work comes in the middle of the semester, when students realize that success is not having the perfect singular, artist-generated idea and presenting it as a finished product to be approved by a partner — success in civic practice is developing a relationship with a partner that allows for an artist-presented idea to then be iterated and co-designed with the partner.

Sequoia: The highlight for me was listening to Taylor from Turning Points talk about how our meetings were helping her to think about things that would make the magazine stronger that she hadn’t previously thought about before. The project itself was extremely awesome to design, but the conversations leading up to it were something that stood out to me. It was really empowering to have three women in a room who were producing productive and moving ideas.

Michael: I hope the course helped concretize two ideas I believe are crucial for artist/citizens in today’s world. One, that artists can make creative, collaborative work that contributes to meaningful public good outcomes. And two, that any time you aspire to impact someone other than yourself, your best and most ethical opportunity for success is to learn from and collaborate with those you seek to impact.

Sequoia: This experience has helped me to see the importance of listening in all of my career moves. I work with youth, and this class and project has given me so much drive to listen to Indigenous youth and allow them a space to lead in a way that makes sense to them. It also has validated the value that I hold in carrying my Indigenous knowledges. It has also allowed me to be very mindful and gentle with my intentions.

Alyssa: I learned so much about how process and product are equally important. I am such a perfectionist and I strive to be efficient and have often times rushed too quickly to the product and not savored the beauty of process with a partner. Going forward I now have an example of a project that succeeded because I did not rush too fast to the product. This has built a sense of trust within myself that the product will reveal itself when I have really investigated and cultivated the possibilities with a partner. I am so grateful and honored to have been invited into that space of creation with Turning Points and Sequoia. The biggest takeaway I learned from this project is how essential an invitation is when coming into a space or culture that is not your own.

Rohd will be teaching the course again Fall 2019. Registration will soon open, and for the first time, the course will be offered as a hybrid class that includes a mix of in-person and online content and experiences.

Learning the skills for arts-based community-led transformation was originally published in ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts