Restorative Practices: Community Arts Integration

As I drive through the streets of Tucson and Phoenix it feels at times as though I’m on another planet. There are long blocks of single story strip malls, clusters of apartment complexes, convenience stores and micro housing developments looking out of place, everything is designed around the automobile. Walking several blocks in 109-degree weather is an adventure unto itself.

As I wander off the main streets the neighborhoods expose themselves. These hidden treasures that make up the tapestry of our desert cities are less than 60 years old and still defining their identity and relationship to place. Economic stress and poverty continue to plague urban areas in this region, and there is a growing disconnect between long time residents and youth. Crime and unemployment are on the rise as families struggle to stay together amidst a backdrop of anti-immigrant fervor.

The concept of restorative design and arts resonates with the neighborhood leaders and activists I work with.  Restorative Community Arts [i] programs are a powerful opportunity for dialogue and foster a sense of stewardship through collaborative beautification.  In areas where people feel as though they don’t have a voice or say in community affairs, these projects become a place to practice democracy, validate ideas, passions and talents.

Restorative arts practices take many forms.  Arts in corrections, land art and ecological art are some examples.  Within the context of a neighborhood we could say that restorative practices foster stewardship and revive hope and the possibility of a healthy functioning social structure.  As a neighborhood or group organizes, they have more political power, and ability to influence policy reform. Community Arts Integration is central to the concept of restorative practices in a neighborhood setting.

Simply stated Community Arts Integration takes the same practices we employ in the classroom and applies them to a neighborhood setting.  For example I work with a lot of groups who have a mix of similar issues; tagging, beautification, economic development, lack of after school activities and stewardship. So I work with teams to provide arts based solutions; after school and weekend workshops, days of community arts service, recruiting young graffiti artists to work on murals, creative budget writing, field trips, visiting artists, presenters, elder shares and more.[ii]

When I am invited to be a lead or teaching artist on a neighborhood project one of the first tasks is to create a core planning team.  By working as part of a team projects are literally woven into the fabric of neighborhood life.  The classroom is expanded to neighborhood meetings, events and planning sessions.  In my practice social justice and local wisdom are implicit.  Neighborhoods become universities, and its residents become both instructors and students.

After years of doing this work I’ve started to notice some trends. When I talk with colleagues, or read materials from the now archived Community Arts Network, these trends seem to be re-affirmed.[iii]  It would be great to have the opportunity to expand upon these ideas with the readers and writers of this blog.  Here’s the list:

1) Cross Sector Collaboration — Curriculum development for Community Arts Integration projects addresses cross sector goals. This includes traditional national, state and local standards in the visual arts and might also include, for example, Workplace Skills Standards, Service Standards, Restorative Landscape Architecture, Environmental Sciences, Human Rights, 21st Century learning skills or UNESCO global education goals[iv] 

2) Place is critical – There are many questions that I ask about place and it’s a rich area for research, collaboration and dialogue. Some example questions include: What is our connection to this spot? What is the history of this place? Who uses the space, and for what? How do people move in this space? Where did the name come from? What and who used to be here? What energy is here, why? What rituals or activities transform this place? How do we come to peace with place?[v] Discussions about place are fun and informative. We often use a form of asset mapping, creating timelines and illustrating oral histories.

3) Transfer of Real Skills – Hands on lessons help participants, of all ages, to understand the history and context of the arts. I think one distinct advantage of being a teaching artist is that we have the time to develop our skills and craft in the studio, and then share those skills with our students. Once I demystify the art making process participants gain confidence in their own work. I love lessons on perspective and color because people can see the results almost immediately. This grabs them, and then I unpack observational drawing and the differences between seeing and naming.

4) Experts – Through this work we identify and network local talent, crafts people, business owners, workers of every profession. Implicit in this practice is the belief that each neighborhood, town or community is filled with people who are experts at all sorts of things  – our goal is to bring together these people for creative endeavors that develop local capacity.

5) Trust in Relationship Building – We become a member of the communities we work in. This process of earning trust is slow. As community arts practitioners we build that trust by being ourselves and give 110 percent, and of course see projects through. This also means that we have to be ethical in our practice, knowing our personal boundaries and limitations, while being clear and honest.[vi]
6) Compassionate Listening – Teaching holistically involves more than just teaching about color, line or balance, it means infusing these teachings with meaning. Listening to the whole person is equally valuable. A variety of complex emotions, and memories emerge during these projects. As community artists our role is to listen, and channel that energy into art making activities related to the larger project.

7) Outreach and Organizing – As a teaching artist, while my focus remains on the arts, I have also become familiar with methods of community organizing and outreach. So many of the projects I have led involve neighborhood based research and organizing leading up to the creation of a final work of art. This includes asset mapping, interviews, and door-to-door surveys[vii]. Feeding this data back to the neighborhood is critical. This information is used not only as part of the art making, but to help he neighborhood achieve long and short-term goals and objectives.

8) Authentic Passion – A mentor once told me that one secret to long-term success in community arts was to “truly love the people and places where I work”. “Practitioners are available teachers, organizers, leaders and role models.” Another advised me to always “hear what I was going to say, before I said it”. “Really what we are doing is building relationships, sharing knowledge and making beautiful things. People can read your tone of voice and body language, so be yourself and have fun.” That said we get to number 9.

9) What is your contingency plan?  Failure is natural in my mind. I remember early in my career walking into a residency with a teacher who was in her first year. Her predecessor had applied for an artist in residence. To make a long story short, despite our contract, and the great kids (who saved the project), the teacher seemed out to lunch – literally; eating in class, talking loudly on the phone to real estate clients while looking at the internet. I finally broke the class up into teams of three or four to work on component projects for this huge science mobile made out of recycled materials. We assigned duties to the various kinesthetic kids, another took attendance, others were assigned to clean up. We established a ritual outside the classroom structure that, much to my embarrassment, verged on mutiny at times.

As Teaching Artists we know there are many places where our talents and skills are required. Overlaying our skills and sensibilities with community needs may reveal more than anyone expected.


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