Building Collective Power

This post is part of the series, Future of the Field: Cross-Sector Creative Placemaking Series.

One of the many, many offerings of ArtPlace America is that they were able to map out an incredible variety of contributions from artists and culture-bearers to equitable development. Jamie Hand, who served as ArtPlace America's Director of Research Strategies from 2014 until its sunset in 2020, worked tirelessly with colleagues, practitioners and researchers to demonstrate all kinds of impacts and limitations of cultural practices across many themes, disciplines, and geographies.

For those who doubted that artists are critical to building community, the lessons are available – clear and explicit – thanks to ArtPlace America. Now it’s a question of whether we embrace and build on those lessons or return to fundamentally broken and unjust – but dominant – patterns of community development.

Looking across the research themes, this question seems directly linked to building collective power. Today, amid prolonged global isolation, anxiety, and grief, it’s easy to feel powerless and disconnected from the collective – particularly for people who suffered the consequences of active oppression and neglect far beyond a single pandemic, economic downturn, or climate disaster. We are by and large missing the sense of agency that comes from collective action.

Still, those who already work at the intersection of arts, culture, and equitable development have been pushing ahead in this moment in profound ways. They’ve been able to address all kinds of emerging community needs – food relief, laptop distribution, direct cash assistance, housing support – because these community leaders had already cultivated deep relationships and built internal operational flexibility. They leaned into cultural approaches to bringing community together even at a time when we needed to be six feet apart. Neighborhood podcasts translated into four languages. Long-term engagement of youth in housing justice organizing. Handwashing stations serving the unhoused. Elevating youth voices in national campaigns to end youth incarceration. While some grappled with how to pause programming or pivot to the Zoom room, those harnessing culture to build collective power leaned even harder into the work. There didn’t seem to be a choice otherwise.

There’s an avalanche of research that outlines why engaged citizenry and decentralized decision-making can lead to better outcomes in community. Transportation for America’s Arts, Culture, and Transportation field scan makes that case pretty explicitly:

“Communities that are self-organized and politically connected are more likely to receive transportation improvements. Winning transportation improvements requires accessing limited funding, rising to the top of the list of needed transportation improvements, and navigating an often complex planning and political process. As a result, communities that organize around specific transportation projects are more likely to succeed.”

For many BIPOC communities, queer communities, communities of low income, and others that have faced active marginalization, that scarcity of resources has meant power-building is not just about more effective outcomes – it’s about survival. The legacy of intentional community neglect (and sometimes outright destruction) means that banding together and finding ways to expand self-determination is critical.

More equity intent in how we do community development is a start, but it’s just that – a start. Real equitable approaches require building long-term mechanisms for resident leadership and decision-making, particularly for those who have been actively marginalized in the past. As Danya Sherman lays out in Building Community Wealth: The Role of Arts and Culture in Equitable Economic Development, “without explicitly centering those who are most harmed, even community wealth building strategies risk deepening that harm.”

Over the past decade, the funding, convening, and technical support of ArtPlace America and others has helped build up a national body of creative processes and projects that have directly challenged traditional methods of decision-making. Artists and organizers have leaned into relationship- and community-building that is remarkably different because it acknowledges the culture that binds people together in a place – that as Sherman describes it, makes the process of community-building “enjoyable, joyous, and enriching.” In turn, that different approach leads to a different outcome outlined by the US Water Alliance: “Arts and cultural traditions and practices strengthen community bonds, often connecting people to each other and the place in which they live. The more connected people feel to each other and their home, the more likely they are to participate in protecting their community.”

That’s not to say that cultural practices are a cure-all. Building true community power is messy and complicated, and the addition of artists and creative approaches into that process doesn’t necessarily make it less so. Moreover, one-year grants and one-year projects aren’t going to erase the legacy of redlining, urban renewal, mass incarceration, or gentrification in isolation. Still, it’s undeniable that the deep cultural organizing work of the past decade across the United States has made a difference. If you’ve experienced it up close and personal, like I did in Cleveland’s experiment in the Ballot Box Project, you know just how profoundly different it feels. It’s just that we have a long way to go and a lot of questions that need to be answered before we get there:

  • Will funders, policymakers, and others with positional privilege defend status quo community development approaches, or embrace the incredible experiments in power-building that artists and culture-bearers have helped build?
  • Will these same decisionmakers grapple with their own equity journeys and hold themselves publicly accountable for those journeys (like ArtPlace America staff did)?
  • Will we begin to compensate resident leaders and others contributing to power-building in the same way that consultants would in a traditional “community engagement” process?
  • Where power-building efforts fail or falter, what will be the ramifications in communities that have already suffered long-term false promises and built up long-term false hope?
  • Where power-building efforts succeed, will we invest in keeping them alive and flourishing? Will they be exploited from the outside for financial and positional gain?

The movement of this work has been remarkable over the past 10 years, and that’s due in no small part to the time, energy and passion of ArtPlace staff. Now it’s up to all of us to keep the work of power-building moving for the next 10 years and beyond.