Investing in Creative People Power

Erik Takeshita and Laura Zabel

Many of us working in arts philanthropy believe deeply in the power of art and culture to create shared experience and connection, and to contribute to strong, healthy, and resilient communities. We spend a lot of time making the case for the value of the arts to our colleagues in other fields, to our public officials, and those in other sectors. Over the past several years, there has been a noticeable and significant increase in interest among folks outside of the arts in how arts, culture, and creativity can play a role in equitable community development. In part, this is because the traditional approaches to problem-solving in their own sectors are not delivering on the promise to address complex community challenges and improve conditions for people. As a result, new openings have emerged for arts-based interventions around a range of community issues (this work is sometimes called creative placemaking, creative placekeeping, arts-based community development, and many other things.)

However, to date, while many supporters of arts-based community development aspire to realize systemic change, the funding provided is still largely transactional — one-off projects or a handful of artist fellowships here and there. While these interventions do often create tangible projects that can be used as exemplars, this approach is limited in its capacity to catalyze systemic, holistic, or scalable community change. This may be because many of the methods utilized by the philanthropic sector were designed for institution building, not movement building. There is a growing acceptance among researchers, community developers, and funders of something that grassroots community organizers have long known: people power — the agency of people to direct their own future — is critical to effective and long-lasting community change. It is time to refine our approach to arts-integrated community development to better align with the outcomes we seek.

Fortunately, there are people across the country who are already working in ways that combine the principles and practices of community organizing with arts and creativity. In 2018, Springboard for the Arts and Helicon Collaborative, with the support of both the Mardag and Bush Foundations, undertook a research project to understand what we can learn from activists and organizations who are placing people and creativity at the center of their strategies for community change. The resulting report — “Creative People Power” — found that, “Creative people power is a renewable energy source present in all communities, though it isn’t always immediately visible or readily available for community change efforts.” The report explains, “what creative people power is, what it can do, and how communities can nurture and leverage it as a strategy for broad-based community wellbeing.”1

Value of Creative People Power

There is no single answer to the problems communities face today. People and communities are complex. These challenges have been centuries in the making. Change will take time — and will require patience and sustained investment. Interventions that work in one place may not work in another. We need to understand that the best answers are often borne from a specific context, and for change to be sustainable it must come from within — either an individual or a community.

Artists have the skill to imagine that which does not yet exist and make it a reality. This skill is critical to creating healthier, more equitable, and sustainable communities. But while creativity is necessary, it is not sufficient unless it is paired with the people power to make change at scale in an ongoing way.

“Creative People Power” suggests that fostering community well-being and creating opportunity for all people requires people-powered, community-led, asset-based, cross-sector approaches. Importantly, this is not about trying to identify and support special individuals who have a particular expertise, credential, or genius. It is about helping more people see themselves as leaders who can make a positive change in their community. Their uniqueness comes from their connection to culture and place, and their commitment to wanting to make their community better.

The good news is that creative people power is “an energy source available in all communities.”4 And it is a wise investment, because once it is activated it “triggers a positive feedback loop — as more people recognize and claim their creative and civic agency, more people begin to contribute to the community, in small and large ways.”5 Creative people power may be latent, and need to be activated before it can be mobilized toward change: “As with other sources of renewable energy, such as wind or solar, tapping creative people power requires two steps: first, recognizing its value, and then creating systems to channel it towards community impact.”6

For grantmakers, supporting this way of working requires letting go of the belief that the purpose of our expertise and process is to predict success or mitigate risk. The emphasis when building and supporting this kind of community-led work is less about a developed product — a theater piece, music, or mural — and more about changes in how people feel about themselves and their own power, about the connections people have to one another and to their communities, and about building power and relationships to effectuate change.

Creating Systems of Support

If we want to unleash the potential of creative people power, we must create and sustain “the conditions that allow for long-term, sustainable creative leadership rooted in the culture and identities of the community at large.”7 In their report, Springboard and Helicon identify four “building blocks” necessary to help unleash creative people power in communities:

  • Artists and Creativity at the Table(s) An appetite among civic leaders to use participatory processes and creative approaches to community change, including creating roles for local artists in civic decision-making and non-arts settings.
  • Support for “Lots of Little” Resources and supportive structures that enable people — artists and other community members — to put their creative ideas into action, in large and small ways, creating a “think it, do it” norm for community improvement.
  • Hubs and Homes Welcoming gathering places that enable civic and creative activity to be incubated and thrive.
  • Support for Making a Living and a Life Tools and supports that help artists, cultural workers, and creative entrepreneurs start businesses, find employment, access health care and other services, and otherwise contribute to the community (including, but going beyond, support for discrete projects).8

As funders in the arts, supporting these four building blocks can help create and sustain an ecosystem for creative people power. Below is more detail on each, along with examples of how innovative, community-rooted organizations from around the country are already fostering creative people power in their communities.

Artists at the Table

One of an artist’s superpowers — sometimes more dryly referred to as a “core competency” — is imagining that which does not yet exist and making it real. For us to create healthy, equitable, and sustainable communities, we need artists at the table(s). There are at least three dimensions of this: artists recognizing and owning their role and responsibility as leaders in their communities; other, more traditional leaders better understanding how to work with artists, to more fully integrate their contributions to community well-being efforts; and fostering relationships between artists and non-artists to foster community change. Springboard for the Arts “builds bridges and mechanisms for integrating artists and creative practices into civic processes and the work of other sectors in sustained ways. This includes training artists as organizers; toolkits and support for communities on how to integrate artists and creative strategies; and cross-sector relationship building.”9

The Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI) supports leaders working “within the arts & culture field to adeptly respond to significant changes that impact society, politics, environment and economy.” Using a peer cohort approach, ILI helps “leaders hone personal and professional skills to affect local, national and global communities – and promote a shift toward greater awareness, resourcing and action in the broader field of arts & culture.” ILI is a collaborative program of Alternate Roots, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC), First Peoples Fund and PA’I Foundation.10

Sustainable Little Tokyo “is a community- driven initiative working to ensure a healthy, equitable, and culturally rich Little Tokyo for generations to come.” Sustainable Little Tokyo is building a movement that puts arts and culture at the center, elevating and leveraging the many talents and skills of community members to advance “a neighborhood-generated framework dedicated to environmental, economic, and cultural sustainability.” Sustainable Little Tokyo is a collaborative of the Little Tokyo Service Center, Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, and the Little Tokyo Community Council.11

Make a Living and a Life

For artists to be able to be at the table, they must be able to make a living and a life so they can stay in and commit to their community long-term. Artists and culture makers need to be able to pay rent, have healthcare, and put food on the table. Creative people power is a people-centered approach to creating equitable, sustainable community change. To do this, we need to take care of the people creating the change, particularly in communities that have been historically underinvested in and extracted from. It is wonderful to have fellowships and other awards as a way of providing recognition and allowing pursuit of new opportunities or professional development, but this can’t be the primary mechanism used by artists to feed their family or receive healthcare. Artists need economic opportunity, along with access to capital and markets, to make a living and a life. Springboard for the Arts “provides tools and supports to help artists make a living and a life — offering business and career advice and trainings; support for health care; legal assistance; community organizing training and more. By addressing the ’life’ needs artists have, as well as connecting them to individual projects and work opportunities, Springboard increases the likelihood that artists will stay in a community and contribute to its greater wellbeing.”12

First Peoples Fund (FPF) has a variety of programs to help Native American artists and culture bearers sustain their culture at the community level and pass on Indigenous knowledge. The Native Artist Professional Development Trainings “give artists real-world tools and detailed resources to navigate the arts industry and become successful entrepreneurs.” FPF has partnered with a number of Native Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) to help them make their products (and capital) more accessible to artists in Indian Country. The Rolling Rez Arts bus helps artists and culture bearers in more geographically remote locations access supplies, markets, trainings, and even banking services.13, 14

Higher Purpose Co. focuses on building community wealth through the ownership of businesses, lands, and culture. Their programs, like the Delta Creative Business Challenge, take a community wealth-building approach to supporting creative entrepreneurs. Higher Purpose Co. sees the connection between culture, meaning-making, and economic opportunity.15

Hawona Sullivan Janzen and Clarence White present Poets in the Park, part of Roots of Rondo in 2016. Photo by Bruce Silcox.

Lots of Little

The work of creating a better, more equitable future will require new relationships, new ideas, and new ways of working. This will require practice; it’s critical to provide support for trials so that people can learn how to work together and build relationships organically. Make it easy for people to work together with simple and clear entry points, and as few rules and restrictions as possible. Linking organizing training with project resources to allow people to try out the skills they’re learning can be an effective combination. Oftentimes, when we want to leap to comprehensive and singular solutions, “Creative People Power” suggests that we instead start by investing in “lots of little.” Supporting many small or pilot activities helps people and communities build agency and power by recognizing multiple leaders, providing a mechanism for people to begin working together, and building more complex and complete narratives of change. Springboard for the Arts “supports and creates a wide variety of mechanisms for artists to connect with their communities. Through its Irrigate project, Springboard enabled hundreds of artists to activate and animate a transportation corridor during a massive, multiyear construction. Ready Go is an online library of artist-created tools that organizations or communities can rent for various purposes.”16

The Center for Great Neighborhoods is a community development corporation in Covington, KY. They understand “everyone has something creative to contribute to their community” and “strongly believe there is a lot of untapped creativity…just waiting to be discovered.” To unleash creative people power in Covington, they provide $250 “nano grants” for people to implement creative projects to improve their community and unite neighbors, as well as larger Creative Community Grants of $3,500–5,000 to artists to implement creative solutions in Covington.17

Artists on Main Street. Like Main Street programs across the country, Minnesota Main Streets, a program of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota (PAM), focuses on the revitalization of downtown areas in smaller towns and rural communities. Artists on Main Street provides training, technical support, and funding “to artists who live, work and have a personal investment in the community to make positive physical, economic and social impacts.” While new art and creative experiences have added value and vitality to downtowns, they have also — and perhaps more importantly — helped identify new leaders, foster new relationships, and explore new ways to address old problems.18

Bringing Creative People Power to Your Community23

If you’re interested in enhancing the creative people power in your community, one place to start is by asking yourself these questions:


Where are the natural hubs and homes for creative civic activity in our community (both formal and informal)?

Can we better encourage cross-pollination between creative and civic interests in these places?


How can we help artists and other creative people make a living and a life so they can stay in, and contribute to, our community?

Are there supportive resources that currently exist for other community residents that could be adapted for artists?

How can we expand opportunities for people to express themselves creatively, no matter what they do for a living?


How might artists and/or creative processes help us engage more people in civic life, helping us imagine and implement better possibilities for our community?

Are our planning and decision-making processes open to different ways of seeing and imagining solutions to our challenges?


How can we provide incentives or remove barriers to enable people to quickly and easily put their creative ideas into action?

Are there existing sources of support for arts or civic activity that might be made more flexible or inclusive?


What assets — including creative ones — do we already have that we can build on or elevate?


Do all people in the community have an opportunity to participate in decision-making, especially those whose lives will be most impacted by the decisions and those who have been historically excluded?


How can we create contexts for fostering trust, connection, and reciprocity between different communities and sectors?

Hubs and Homes

Hubs and homes are critical to unleashing creative people power. These are people-first places, where everyone is welcome and feels respected, seen, and heard. They are places where relationships are built and nurtured. People are invited to “come as they are.” To bring their full selves and ideas forward to be cultivated and grown. The people that run these spaces understand that their expertise is about being accessible, responsive to their community, and building relationships. Rather than saying, “We don’t do that,” they say, “wow, that’s really interesting. We don’t really do that, but let’s figure out who we can talk with to help you make that happen.” Springboard for the Arts’ “offices in St. Paul and Fergus Falls are welcoming drop-in centers (‘with real half and half at the coffee station’) where artists and other people can come and get career advice or share and incubate ideas for a creative project. Civic and business leaders curious about working with artists or how creative approaches might contribute to an issue also drop in and get support. New relationships are built here and a new sense of possibility about the future.”19

Ashé Cultural Arts Center (Ashé) “creates and supports programs, activities, and creative works emphasizing the contributions of people of African descent.” Located in the heart of the historic Central City neighborhood of New Orleans, Ashé produces art exhibitions, theater productions, and events as well as serving as a gathering place for community members to celebrate births, marriages, and final goodbyes. The “front room” has community nursing lounges for breastfeeding mothers and a children’s area, which contains books and games. Post-Katrina, Ashé served as a critical gathering place for community members to plan and begin the recovery process.20

Village of Arts and Humanities (the Village). For people living in the Fairhill-Hartranft neighborhood of Philadelphia, one of the most disinvested areas of the city, The Village is not only the place they come to escape the daily challenges of surviving; it is where they come to take bold, courageous leaps towards uniquely thriving. The Village’s creative campus of fifteen arts parks and twelve buildings is home to a suite of innovative programs that work at the intersection of art, education, social justice, and community development in order to amplify and leverage the creative power of community residents; build bridges across race, class, age, and expertise; question and replace unjust and ineffective systems; and stabilize their disinvested neighborhood.21, 22, 23

Call to Action

If grantmakers are serious about advancing issues of equity and building stronger, more resilient, and sustainable communities, we must create new systems of philanthropic support. We need to support and tend the ecosystems that center the power and expertise of communities, neighborhoods, and people. We need to be willing to take risks, try new things, and rethink our metrics for success.

To build healthier, more equitable, and stronger communities we need to find ways to support and activate creative people power as suggested by the Helicon report. We need to recognize that sustainable, long-term change must be people-driven. It must be asset-based, focused on equity, and relationship-centered. We need to invest in the necessary infrastructure to do so — help artists make a living and a life, help artists be at the table, invest in lots of little, and help create hubs and homes.24

The examples above demonstrate that this is possible — indeed, it is already happening. It has taken centuries to create the current inequities in our society. We must be committed and patient. This is long-term change. We will need to change our metrics for success to focus not only on the products produced, but also the changes in how people feel about themselves and their communities, the strength and the depth of the relationships people have to one another and to their community, and their power to effectuate community change.

Creative people power is a renewable resource that can help build stronger, more equitable, and sustainable communities. We have the opportunity to tap into creative people power by recognizing the power and potency of people-centered and creativity-centered change, and investing in the systems that support it.


  1. Springboard for the Arts and Helicon Collaborative. Creative People Power. Springboard for the Arts, 2018. Web. https://springboardforth
  2. Ibid, p. 8.
  3. Ibid, p. 13.
  4. Ibid, p. 14.
  5. Ibid, p. 12.
  6. Ibid, p. 14.
  7. Ibid, p. 1.
  8. Ibid, p. 14–15.
  9. Ibid, p. 17.
  10. “The ILI Vision.” Intercultural Leadership Institute, Web. 4 Nov. 2019.
  11. “Sustainable Little Tokyo,” Sustainable Little Tokyo, Web. 10 Nov. 2019.
  12. Springboard and Helicon, Creative People Power, p. 16.
  13. “What We Do — First Peoples Fund.” First Peoples Fund, Web. 4 Nov. 2019.
  14. Pourier, Lori. email message to the author. 15 Nov. 2019.
  15. Schwartzman, Gabe. “Miss. Project Builds on Cultural Strengths to Develop Economy,” The Daily Yonder, 5 Nov. 2018. Web.
  16. Springboard and Helicon, Creative People Power, p. 17.
  17. “Creative Placemaking,” Center for Great Neighborhoods, Web. 10 Nov. 2019.
  18. “Artists on Main Street,” Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, Web. 4 Nov. 2019.
  19. Springboard and Helicon, Creative People Power, p. 16.
  20. “About the Center,” Ashé Cultural Center, Web. 4 Nov. 2019.
  21. “About us,” Village of Arts and Humanities, Web. 4 Nov. 2019.
  22. Kapust, Aviva. email message to the author, 17 Nov. 2019.
  23. Springboard and Helicon, Creative People Power, p. 18-19
  24. See “Bringing Creative People Power to Your Community.”