(Note to Createquity readers: I’m blogging the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference from Brooklyn, NY this week. This post was originally published at the GIA 2009 Conference Blog.)

A strikingly diverse group of arts funders gathered at the Pratt Institute Sunday morning for the Arts and Social Justice Preconference. GIA’s Arts and Social Justice Committee is a relatively new phenomenon; this all-day session represented only its third official meeting. Nevertheless, two well-designed session groups provided much food for thought on the subject of effectively employing creative disciplines in service of broad social goals.

The morning session was devoted to measuring the impact of social justice arts philanthropy. Organized by Barbara Schaffer Bacon and Pam Korza of Americans for the Arts’s Animating Democracy project, as well as the Barr Foundation’s Klare Shaw, the session presented several perspectives on the difficult but essential task of translating a notoriously difficult-to-define spectrum of activities into measurable indicators.

After some get-to-know-you games facilitated by performance artist Rha Goddess, the first presentation belonged to Klare Shaw of the Boston-based Barr Foundation. The Barr Foundation launched Culture for Change, an initiative brokering collaborations between youth development organizations and community arts organizations, as a pilot program in 2008. The idea grew out of a combination of community arts organizations’ frequent reports of youth populations with problems bigger than they were equipped to address, and Shaw’s observation that youth development organizations’ arts programming often were somewhat underdeveloped from a quality standpoint. The Barr Foundation funded a team consisting of an arts trainer and a youth worker on each site. The pilot program lasted for 10 weeks in 2008 at 10 sites in Boston, and consisted of training, grant support, a resource library, artist residencies, and a concluding celebratory event and convening. The pilot served 145 youth aged 11-21 in total.

Given the subject matter of the session, Shaw went into some detail about the evaluation of the pilot conducted by Barr Foundation staffer Christine Lamas Weinberg. Using a survey, observation, focus groups, site visits, written reports, interviews, and the convening, Weinberg determined that the key successes of the project were the design of the pilot (particularly with regard to its clear timetable and the successful integration of the different components); the engagement of the young people in the arts activities, the role that artists took on as mentors, and the fact that some of the organizations elected to continue with the programming on their own and raise separate funds for it. The program met with challenges, however, in seeking to engage youth beyond their own immediate problems to grapple with issues in social justice more generally; logistical issues (mostly related to a lack of sufficient time); and in conducting the evaluation itself. The project was documented throughout with video and blogs, and at the end, Shaw polled the participating organizations to find out whether they would rather continue the program or receive general operating support instead; 60% indicated they wanted the program to continue. Barr hopes to reach 1000 youth through the project by 2011.

After a 10-minute break, we next were treated to a performance by Rha Goddess of an excerpt from her solo play LOW, chronicling the travails of a woman struggling with mental illness. Afterwards, Rha Goddess was joined on stage by Suzanne Callahan of Callahan Consulting for the Arts. Callahan has been working with Rha Goddess on an evaluation framework for the piece, a particularly challenging project from a scientific standpoint. Callahan started by asking Rha open-ended questions about her goals for audience experiences, reactions, and follow-up. Rha indicated that an important goal was to break the “culture of silence” around mental illness; to encourage people who saw the show to talk about it openly and perhaps take action on their own to get help if applicable. From there, the team collaborated on the creation of a survey instrument that would be administered to audiences after a show. I found Callahan’s description of this process particularly notable: to maximize the response rate, the survey was branded as a “reflections sheet,” printed on colored paper, and presented to patrons personally at the door. A designer pen light was offered as an incentive for completing the survey. Audience members were reminded to complete it both before the opening curtain and just following the emotionally climactic conclusion of the show. Amazingly, the response rate was over 90%. Survey participants were given a number of unusual prompts such as an “emotion canvas,” which involved selecting emotion words spread out across the page and identifying moments in the performance that provoked those feelings, and a question about what the audience member would have done had he/she been a character in the play (this was to get at action orientation).

The final presenter of the morning session was the Urban Institute’s Maria Rosario Jackson, who shared reflections from her work as an urban planner on evaluation techniques in social justice-oriented arts. A major theme of Jackson’s talk was a warning that community-based arts initiatives often seek to affect broad social conditions that are beyond their immediate control. This can lead to a trap of trying to take responsibility or credit for impacting those conditions when such direct causal relationships are exceedingly unrealistic. In fact, Jackson warned against trying to “prove” causal impacts in general, noting that in other fields in which she works, such as housing, correlations between indicators are often seen as sufficient to make a case. Jackson also urged the identification and inclusion of stakeholders in the evaluation process and clarity about the context and constraints in which funders operate. She explained that evaluation at its best is an ongoing process, integrated naturally into the way an organization does business. It’s also reflective of a desire to learn the truth, rather than a defensive posture or something to check off a list. Ultimately, the goal of evaluation should be to enable arts organizations to do their work more effectively.

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Following a brief lunch, the preconference attendees returned for a session on new media as a tool for engagement in the arts, co-organized by the Ford Foundation’s Roberta Uno and the Nathan Cummings Foundation’s Claudine Brown. I will tell you one thing: media people know how to put together a snazzy presentation. This observation was driven home to me in particular by Barry Joseph’s dizzying “prezi” for Global Kids, which can be downloaded here. Global Kids invests in several strategies for engaging youth in new media. First, it brings video games (and in particular, video game design) into the classroom using tools such as Scratch. Did you know that 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video games at this point? Second, Global Kids leverages virtual worlds such as Second Life to engage kids in activities like making short movies. Finally, the organization treats social media like a Boy Scouts activity, allowing youth to earn “badges” in areas such as “judgment,” “negotiation,” and “distributed cognition.” All in all, a fascinating presentation.

Next, filmmaker Leba Haber Rubinoff introduced two very different media-oriented projects. The first, Where My Ladies At?, is a sort of web-based multimedia scripted drama featuring three African-American characters – a rising hip-hop star, a former porn actress turned legit, and a DJ. The project sought to tackle difficult questions about body image, money, and heritage in collaboration with its fans, who would interact with the “stars” via videos and blogs (the actresses even responded to user comments in character). The show apparently was authentic enough to fool the students of one of the actresses, who teaches in public school as her day job, into thinking that their teacher and her character were one and the same. Rubinoff’s other project, entitled Mobile Movement, provides cell phones to youth entrepreneur groups in Kenya. It is hoped that the cell phones will serve as a platform for commerce and communication for microbusinesses in that country.

William Crow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art gave a brief presentation focusing on collaborative advances in the training of educators. The Met invested several years ago in an online learning experience for its teachers working with students of all ages. These new platforms allowed new means of collaboration: for example, a wiki area allowed teachers to share lesson plans, and a blog encouraged teachers to compare their interpretations of specific works. Furthermore, the sharing of these resources with museum patrons created a new kind of audience, one that had taken the time to educate itself online before visiting the museum. Crow saw a number of new possibilities opened up by the system, including the involvement of audience members in the collaborative creation of educational materials paired with the works in the museum.

Ed Buckner and Andrew Larimer followed with a powerful presentation focused on the Porch, a cultural organization serving the 7th Ward of New Orleans. A relatively recent organization, the Porch uses arts education as a tool for empowering children and residents of the 7th Ward. One of the organization’s early successes involved a play created by children about the Pink House, a notorious crack den in their neighborhood that somehow continually escaped police notice. Buckner invited members of the police to witness the play put on by the students, and sure enough, two days later the Pink House was no more. Another Porch project, Down in the Seventh, is a student-produced movie focusing on the problem of youth violence in the area. This portion of the presentation was just heartbreaking – Buckner told stories of how kids were carrying out hits on each other based on what was going on on each other’s Myspace pages. In a tragic irony, Buckner recounted that his own son, still in college, was murdered during the creation of Down in the Seventh. The emotional drama would have been presentation enough, but Larimer went the extra mile to offer specific practical lessons learned from the project about helping young people produce video.

Ken Ikeda of the Bay Area Video Coalition presented on the Producers Institute, a unique ten-day intensive residency program that results in cross-disciplinary subject-focused multimedia platforms. For example, The Way We Get By, a project focusing on soldiers and veterans, combines a documentary film highlighting “Troop Greeters” who shower affection on returning soldiers that they’ve never met with a “virtual care package” application that allows visitors to send pictures, videos, messages, and other online goodies to soldiers overseas. The film will be shown on PBS on Veterans Day. Other Producers Institute projects include Not in Our Town, an initiative to respond to hate crimes globally, and IJCentral, a push to establish an international criminal justice system.

Ian Inaba, looking far younger than his 38 years, spoke next. Inaba is co-director of the Citizen Engagement Laboratory, which creates digital content (videos, art, emails, etc.) and looks for ways to distribute it to a wide audience while encouraging them to act. The Lab’s signature project so far is Video the Vote, a way of crowdsourcing reporting on voter disenfranchisement issues in connection with the 2006 and 2008 elections. The project featured a viral video with prompts to the user to share the content or volunteer to report on voter registration issues, which built an army of citizen reporters to videotape activity at the polls on election day. Video the Vote attracted 3500 volunteers who produced 1000 videos for the most recent election cycle. Inaba talked at length about the collaboration efforts his organization undertakes with likeminded advocacy groups – as long as the messaging can be coordinated, costs can be reduced substantially and reach enhanced by centralizing content creation in the hands of Citizen Engagement Lab.

The final presentation was given by Marlène Ramírez-Cancio of Fulana, a four-member Latina artist collective that produces humorous bilingual video content (fake ads, parodies of Telemundo shows, etc.), often with a sharp political edge. Fulana makes extensive use of social networking platforms (Facebook, vimeo, Myspace, etc.) to reach out to new fans.

And thus ended the Arts and Social Justice Preconference – more exploratory than prescriptive, but containing a number of intriguing models worth further exploration. For me, the most compelling aspects were the efforts to corral Rha Goddess’s highly emotional performance art into a quantitative framework for evaluation; Ian Inaba’s fountain of ideas for increasing impact through viral marketing and strategic collaboration; Barry Joseph’s swanky online presentation platform; and the Porch’s wrenching personal story. I encourage you to check out the work of these individuals and all of the others on yesterday’s program.