CPCP reflects on core capacities for arts-based community-led transformation

By Michael Rohd, Executive Director at Center for Performance and Civic Practice (CPCP)

 Toledo, August 2017

Toledo, August 2017

A Swing in Ohio

Natalie is on the Creative Placemaking team at the Toledo Arts Commission that’s working in and around the North End of Toledo. She’s an organizer committed to bringing artists and community residents together for equitable development and the local public good.  In the middle of a half-day conversation CPCP was leading with Toledo Arts Commission and LISC Toledo (LISC stands for Local Initiatives Support Corporation, one of the largest organizations in the US supporting projects to revitalize communities and bring greater economic opportunity to residents), Natalie responded to a question about what success would like for her over the next year.

She said —

I wish when the project was done, there was, at least, like, a swing. Something that was a clear sign that something happened- that we did something here. That something was changed for the better, and that people could see it-touch it-use it. Like, a swing.

In her wish of a swing, Natalie introduced a metaphor that sparked a bunch of questions, starting with — who decides a swing is the right thing to make?

This was swiftly followed by the likes of —

If a swing is needed and/or desired, who will design it?

What priorities should determine the process by which the swing is designed?

What process will determine who designs it?

What color will it be?

Will public engagement occur?

If so, what sorts of engagement will occur that invites resident input into that design process?

Who will design and lead that engagement work?

Will they be local?

Is it ok if they are not local?

Who is the swing for?

How might we identify the neighborhood site/space to explore, activate, or in which we might intervene to begin with?

Who does that identifying?

How do we decide what should happen there?

Who decides?

Who will build it?

Will young people have a voice in the swing’s creation/design?

Where will the material come from?

Will it look like this neighborhood?

Who decides what this neighborhood looks like?

Is it more important that the swing be beautiful to someone who has lived here their whole life, or that it look beautiful to someone who may move here next year?

Should it be built by local hands?

Should it be designed by local eyes?

Who will pay for the process? The materials?

What relationship should the swing have to other local change efforts?

Will the swing be considered a success if it’s loved next year, ten years from now, or 50 years from now?

Is a swing change?

Can a swing be art?

Perhaps the object of the swing could be art. Perhaps the outcome of the swing’s design and construction could be change. And perhaps the process of getting to the swing could involve either. We reflected on the fact that answering these and other questions can take a lot more time than it takes to just build the swing itself. So how, in the work of arts-based community-led transformation, knowing the time relationship building and change efforts demand, knowing the benefits of listening and discovery, do you hold onto purpose and vision amidst thoughtful, intentional process?

CPCP & Creative Placemaking

At CPCP, we are 5 theatre artists who are also part of a nearly twenty year old ensemble-based theatre company, Sojourn Theatre. We founded CPCP six years ago because 1, at Sojourn we were asked so frequently to support other artists and community partners in the development of their projects and ideas, we felt we’d be more useful in the long run if we committed to the actual project of field and movement building; and 2, we believed that work we have come to call ‘civic practice’ was in need of greater visibility, skill-building and advocacy within and beyond traditional arts settings.

Over the last six years, we have spent time working with Arts Councils, Municipal Departments, Theaters and Universities, Social Service agencies, National Service Associations, Schools, and Social Change Movement Organizations. In addition, part of our work has brought us into the national conversation around Creative Placemaking through ongoing relationships with ArtPlace and LISC, both of whom contract us to collaborate with communities and artists around the nation as technical assistance support. Initially skeptical about the term ‘Creative Placemaking’ (see our friend Roberto Bedoya’s much quoted critique) and the field growing around it, we were moved by the diligent efforts that ArtPlace and NEA staff in particular spent making space for artists to contribute meaningfully towards equitable community development in various civic and public spheres.

We also observed that critiques levelled at Creative Placemaking were not truly limited to work falling under that new-ish umbrella term, but were in fact deeply entrenched habits in the intersecting fields of art, design, planning, business and governance.   The most significant obstacle we witness in most attempts to catalyze meaningful community investment and change is building diverse, inclusive local leadership circles. Who is in the room, making decisions at key moments of leadership and authorship on community engaged projects? Around the country, as leaders and influencers work to build coalitions for arts-based community development projects, often absent are people most impacted by the issues being addressed; and very often these absent participants are people of color. The refrain heard again and again is, “We will involve them when we reach the stage of community activity. But this part, the planning- it’s too high level for community members”. This is deeply problematic, and often rooted in structural racism and economic oppression. Without diverse community participation at the outset, arts-engaged partnership work meant to engage and improve community life is simply not possible. We prioritize, through specific tactics, efforts to make certain that diverse and impacted stakeholders are engaged and co-leading when communities imagine outcomes, create projects and make plans.

Core Capacities

CPCP has spent the last six years in grassroots urban and rural contexts around the US providing support for arts-based community-led transformation (the term we use for our work); as a team of practitioners Sojourn Theatre has supported others and made art in this area of practice for eighteen years; and I myself have been creating, leading and teaching at these intersections for twenty-seven years. We are practitioners sharing what we have learned, often in the form of frameworks, process strategies and specific skills related to partnership, inquiry and listening.

Contributors to the field of creative, social justice framed change practice ranging from Americans to the Arts to ArtPlace to Intermedia Arts to Springboard for the Arts and Arizona State University (where I am on faculty) are all in the process of naming, defining and sharing tools in separate and collective efforts to build knowledge platforms and best practice training opportunities. At CPCP, we are working on a book and series of online tools for similar reasons; at this moment, we felt it timely to articulate what we work on with collaborating communities and artists. Through workshops, presentations, learning cohorts, convening design and coaching, we focus on 4 core capacities (sometimes we call them pillars) that support arts-based community-led transformation work being productive, inventive, joyful and ethical. There are other capacities, other competencies necessary for this work and this growing field to thrive responsibly and meaningfully. These are the ones where we aim our energy. Beneath each capacity listed below are some thoughts and questions that we explore, answer and skill-build around in our collaborations.


The Practice of Partnership

We find that one of the key barriers to successful collaboration between artists and community residents and partners is frequently a lack of clarity and communication about the why and the how- why is each partner working on the project? How do they want to work on the project? How will decisions be made? Who is being served? A contribution we have offered to the arts field and arts-based cross-sectoral movement is our framing of what we call a spectrum of arts-engaged public practice in relation to process and intention:

Studio Practice:

Artists make their own work and engage with neighbors and residents as audience.

Social Practice:

Artists work with neighbors and residents on an artist-led vision in ways that may include research, process, and/or content creation with an intention of social impact outside traditional audience experience.

Civic Practice:

CPCP introduced the term “civic practice” in 2012.  As distinguished from Social Practice, civic practice projects are co-designed with residents and/or community/municipal agencies and involve artists aiming their creative practice/assets at resident self-defined needs.

This spectrum is without judgement in regards to what is ‘good work’ — we believe a healthy arts ecosystem and a healthy, equitable community supports and values work from one end to the other. Historically, studio practice has received the lion’s share of attention and resources, so some of our work aims to make others practices more visible and legible. We also believe many artists work along different points of this spectrum throughout their careers, and even across projects. Some of the questions this framework leads us to ask when we work with artists and communities are:

Who do you need to listen to for your work to be successful?

What does listening look like in your practice and/or at your organization?

Where does listening take place?

What obstacles or conditions make you listening difficult?

What values do all partners bring to this project?

Where do they differ, and where do they overlap?

What values can you agree with be foundational for this work together?

What expectations do you have of each other?

What goals do you have for the project?

How will you define success?

Who is leading in rooms where process occurs?

Who is leading in rooms where you need to make project choices?

Who makes decisions about resources for the project?

How will you resolve conflict if/when it arises?


Expanding Ideas of Artist Assets

Artists are experts of their own aesthetic. But we find that many artists who have a history of studio, or even social practice, have not had the opportunity (or at times invitation) to map their own assets. Artists make. They may make objects, or events, or encounters. Artists deploy tools in their making. Those tools may be discipline-specific, idiosyncratic, craft-based, and/or conceptual. Process tools can be deployed in service to community-defined needs in ways that may or may not result in creative work that takes the form of the artist’s regular output. It may be something different entirely. In work with artists and arts organizations, we sometimes ask-

How do you make what you make?

Who do you make for?

What does listening look like in your creative practice?

Where does collaboration take place?

Can you name the tools you use to make your work in terms that are not specific to your particular artistic discipline?


Supporting the Internal Capacity for Collaboration at Community Partner Organizations

Community and municipal partners collaborating with artists often find that successful collaborative projects demand processes not always aligned with the mechanisms and systems that seemingly help their institution or organization run efficiently. Departments or programs may discover that they have different ideas of organizational priorities; they may discover different core values in their daily practices; they may discover that effective listening, internally and externally, is not supported by habits of getting through the day and massive to-do lists. Not-for-profits, municipal agencies, resident-led movement groups and neighborhood associations frequently struggle to get overwhelming amounts of work accomplished without sufficient resources in climates of uncertain local and national socio-political turmoil. Clear goals and dependable results are seen as necessary aspects of stability and survival. We work with them on internal alignment of values and goals, on structures for listening internally and externally, and on practices of collaboration that allow space for discovery and flexibility without degrading the importance of reliability and project management. We support the internal capacity of these community partners to imagine opportunities for artists to behave as tactical collaborators in co-created projects that serve what the organization and its constituents self-define as needs.


Advocacy for Artists' Contributions Beyond Arts Fields

Given our national crises of a hyperpolarized citizenry, growing racial and economic inequity, and declining public health, the need has never been greater for creative and impactful community-led change. We believe that with the right approach, the same tools and capacities that artists use to make meaningful art can be utilized to transform systems and improve the impacts of government and community-driven efforts and programs. We ask ourselves every day- where are decisions made? Who is determining what our civic bodies value? Where is planning happening, and who is designing the process by which all voices can be heard and can be impactful? Around transportation and housing and mass incarceration and immigrant rights and poverty… the list goes on. How and where can we make certain that our communities can access the imaginative, collaborative potential to build visions and practices of healthy democracy and equitable development? At CPCP, we work to be seed conditions and attitudes that will welcome local artists in civic spaces and prepare local institutions for productive partnership. This may look like multiple meetings with municipal department heads in Kansas City’s City Hall, or a lunch time presentation in Nashville. It may be at a gathering of state leaders in Alaska or it may be talking about a swing in Toledo.

There is a growing interest in creative approaches to community development and planning, and yet these growing movements need increased clarity around goals, a shared vocabulary around intended outcomes, and a well-defined process for healthier, more productive partnerships. Working at local, regional, and national scales, CPCP applies its decades of experience in arts-based community-led transformation, facilitating, and designing impactful arts partnerships to help practitioners sharpen their tactics, support organizations in the creation of ambitious, achievable goals, and contribute to field-wide dialogues about ethical and effective practices.

The Arts, Youth and Police: Civic Dialogue in Richmond, Virginia

August 27, 2016

by Michael Rohd, Founding Partner / Artist, Center for Performance and Civic Practice

First, some context —

CPCP’s Catalyst Initiative is a program that supports an artist and a community partner working together on a local civic practice project.  We have supported and learned from 13 projects around the nation so far, and we are wrapping up Round Two of the program.   As part of our work with Catalyst, someone from CPCP does a site visit, to be on the ground and witness/stand with each project at some point along their process. On August 26th, I visited Round Two’s Richmond project, a partnership between Art 180 and the Legal Aid Justice Center organized by and around the collaborative community work of artist Mark Strandquist.

The project is called Performing Statistics. It conducts art-making workshops with incarcerated youth and then uses the resulting art as the foundation for a training workshop for and with law enforcement.  The Richmond Police Department, through the direct leadership and participation of Chief Alfred Durham, is a collaborator, arranging and fully partnering on the training for its officers.  The August 26th event was a culmination of this summer’s youth work and this week’s set of police training events, and ended with a well-attended public forum on youth/police relationships in Richmond.  The focus for all this work is to attack the school-to-prison pipeline by reducing the amount of youth arrests, building trust between police, youth and families, and, by encouraging officers and the court to use, recommend and fund diversion programs more robustly, keeping young people out of the culture of incarceration whenever possible.


I attend the last of the officer trainings of the week.  The workshop includes a mix of School Resource Officers, beat cops, mounted police, Detectives and OIC’s from various precincts/units (Officer in Charge).  Four hours long, the training is conducted by a small team of presenters led by Art 180’s Deputy Director Trey Hartt. The morning covers, among other things, new science on adolescent brain development and neuropsychology intended to help officers understand the influencing factors of biology, trauma and context on the decision-making ability of a young person, especially in a moment of ‘heated cognition’.  The heart of the morning, though, is a gallery walk officers take amidst visual, video, audio and spatial art created by incarcerated youth about their experiences before and amidst life behind bars.  The officers split into small groups and visit different stations at the exhibit; they have a facilitator who guides them through conversations about their responses.  The art is powerful.  Biographical panels with gorgeous images and autobiographical text, call-in phone lines with hushed messages, a built-to-scale jail cell with wooden planks that have poems young people wrote and burned into the wood themselves.

After each group has rotated through every station, the whole group circles up and shares observations.  Officers speak of empathy; they speak of the need for relationship-building.  They speak of the tension between understanding someone’s story while upholding the law with its, at times, seemingly limited latitude for officer discretion and behavior. Officers speak guardedly, but also candidly, growing more animated with each other and the facilitators. They use the art to make points; they use the art to reference their own histories; they use the art as a way to evoke something they can’t quite speak but can allude to through a feeling summoned briefly by an image or sound or voice. They use the art to reflect, to discuss values and behavior…the art makes a space for difficult, complex expression and connection.


With me in Richmond is Pam Korza of Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts.  CPCP contracted with Pam and Barbara Schaeffer Bacon to lead impact and evaluation efforts on all our Catalyst projects — they do this, not surprisingly, through participatory methods, working to learn what project teams want to accomplish and then helping them design local, flexible approaches.  Pam has been working a bunch with the Performing Statistics team and the Richmond Police department on evaluation strategies that will help them communicate outcomes and create sustainable support and buy-in with funders and community stakeholders.  This afternoon, we spend an hour interviewing the police chief, Alfred Durham. He was a DC Police Officer for nearly 30 years, leaving his post there as Assistant Chief to run Richmond’s Department. He speaks of his commitment to transforming both public perception of law enforcement and the school-to-prison pipeline.  He has been at almost every training this week, asked his command team to be there, and has stated his desire to get as many of his 700 officers as possible through the process. He will be at the public forum tonight.

For a little more context, part of each CPCP visit to a Catalyst project team includes the offer to not just observe, but to act as a resource if the host team thinks we can be useful.  Sometimes we have given community presentations, led workshops, facilitated meetings with local government and funding community leaders…we have even led debrief sessions for large teams at the end of cross sector projects.  As we spoke with the Performing Statistics team about the visit and the Public Forum, Mark asked if I would be willing to help them design it, which led to the idea of me leading it.  That's what led us to the evening of August 26th. 



Teenagers, young adult activists and police officers arrive for a pre-meeting before the Public Forum.  I describe for them the process we will go through together — the structure of the event is a set of five table groups comprised of youth, one officer, and one youth advocate who will sit together and work through a sequence I will lead while they are observed by ten people surrounding them.  There’s to be an inner circle and an outer circle at each table — 5 fishbowl dialogues.  But throughout the process, the outer circle will at specific moments be invited into the dialogue with the group they are observing to give them reflections, ask questions and challenge them.  At the end of the process, the result of the table’s work will be read to the room. It's advertised as a public forum to work with young people (including formerly incarcerated young people) on designing training for law enforcement.  Altogether, 5 groups of around 15 folks.   We have tables and chairs set up for 75… but no idea how many people will come.


People start arriving.  Mingling.  Food and beverages.  Looking at the art.  We are in the same space as the police training earlier in the day, and the art surrounds us as we begin the evening together in the basement of this lovely Downtown Public Library.


More people. Lots of people.


Time to start.  Trey and Chief Durham welcome everyone, and describe goals for the evening — to collectively break down stereotypes, build relationships and strategize how there can be less youth arrests in Richmond.  Mark then talks about the art, and the process of working with local incarcerated youth to create it.  He shows two short videos made in the summer workshop, and closes with an audio track made by a whole group of his young collaborators. He then turns it over to me.


I look out and see over 100 people crowded into the room — one of the most visibly diverse gatherings I have ever seen at a forum like this one.  Art 180 has worked diligently with community organizers and partner organizations to bring a complex audience of participants to this event.  Diverse generationally, racially, in outward appearance on so many levels… they seem both expectant and slightly anxious.  Both light and heavy in spirit.  They are seated in the five working groups — inner circles around a table, outer circle surrounding the inner.  I describe the process we are going to use and I ask for their permission to be in charge — to use time as a boundary, and to interrupt when necessary- I ask for permission to lead for the next 90 minutes. They give it.  (The request is more an invitation than a question, as I stand up front with microphone, but that’s for another writing on facilitation…)  I then give them 90 seconds to introduce themselves to everyone else in their group — inner and outer. When I call them back to attention from the front of the room, we get started.


Each table gets a one-paragraph scenario describing an incident where a young person ends up getting arrested.  The scenarios are not Richmond-specific, and they are not real events — though they have been researched and feel true in this local and national moment.  The goal of the activity will be for the table to interrogate what happened and rewrite the script so that what results is not an arrest, but an opportunity for all parties involved to move forward with their day and their life rather than enter the judicial system.  Step by step, I walk them through a series of 5 and 7 minute increments during which they have collective assignments including dialogue, reflection, writing lines for their new version of the encounter, and feedback from their own circle, and the other one as well.  They work as 5 teams.

The room is focused, playful, serious — at times a table and its outer circle disagree, even vigorously — but nothing less than civil and collaborative exchange occurs throughout the session.  At one point, Chief Durham, at his table, proposes a solution based on a respectful, casual approach that an officer might take when dealing with the young person in the scenario — adults around his table nod, but a young man smiles and says to him — "Chief, how do you think that’s gonna work?  You think you smile and I’m just gonna trust you, and its all gonna be ok?"  The chief says — "Well, it's just my solution, it will work for me, I can’t say it would work for every officer."  And the young man, still smiling, says — "that wouldn’t work for you, not with me it wouldn’t."  And the conversation continues — no one drops out.  They talk about history and perception and trust… and after just under an hour, each table has a brief script they’ve created.  I call everyone together, and each table has two folks stand and read the script — in most cases, the youth reads the adult role, and the police officer reads the youth role.  These scripted encounters portray a range of hopefulness, seeming fantasy, considered strategies and communication styles.  The room responds after each one.  Lots of different people are offering perspectives. Lots of different people are sharing their experiences, but sticking with the scenarios as a touchstone for their point of view in any given moment.  The art they have made together, the possibilities they have imagined together, these are energizing a dialogue that, as we move towards closing, people speak to with emotion.


We finish with passing two microphones around and inviting people to finish the sentence:

Something I’ll remember from tonight is —

We hear a lot.

Mostly, we hear gratitude for the diversity in the room, respect for the vulnerability youth and police showed in the process, and a charge to commit to change and action.

People seem tired and hopeful.

Many people express their feeling that it was a good night.

For me, it was definitely a good night.

I got to learn and listen… it was a good night.


The evening wraps up, and, as we watch people linger and talk with new friends, the Art 180 team invites Pam and I back to their amazing space.  Over Cuban food, we debrief the day and talk about their plans for scaling the program up around Virginia, and hopefully beyond.  Like every deeply complex, iterative arts-based community partnership project, it can grow in effectiveness, in tactics.  But in its current form, it is inspiring and important and quite beautiful, from process through artistic output. And in today’s dialogues — the morning with police, the evening with the public— I would argue that process has become artistic output.  Theatre as community discourse, with other artistic mediums as key elements of the performance score.


I am so glad CPCP gets to work with this project team, learn with them and help spread the word. As I finish writing this on the plane home, CPCP’s Rebecca Martinez prepares to start a day in Nashville with our Learning Lab Cohort there, a partnership with Metro Arts and the Arts and Business Council.  I am thinking about that cohort of twenty five artists from around Nashville, and our opportunity to help them initiate and imagine projects in their region, alongside my last 24 hours, watching a multi-year project based in deep, collaborative partnership come to fruition. The hundreds of miles between these projects reminds me of the vast geography we share in our lower 48 as well as the networks we are building among like minded arts and community practitioners. It reminds me of the privilege we have at CPCP to meet and aid folks doing such meaningful work in so many places.