The Questions We Ask - 

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

By michael rohd, cpcp founding artist

Toledo, Ohio / 2017

Toledo, Ohio / 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 for 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.