Insights from Arts and Civic Engagement: 13 Profiles 

By Rebecca Lena Richardson


We live in a time rife with cynicism about democracy in the United States.  Many people feel disenfranchised and have doubts about whether everyday citizens are able to effect change.

The Arts & Democracy Project of the Center for Civic Participation was initiated with the belief that arts and culture foster community, creativity and visionary approaches that are vital for effective organizing and action in this pivotal time. Over the last two years, we have been documenting existing arts-and-democracy projects and building connections in the field. Through our work, we have found innovative and groundbreaking projects and organizations that are connecting the arts with civic participation. In 2006-2007, as part of our effort to document and strategically develop the field, we commissioned profiles of 13 of these exemplary arts-and-democracy projects. Additional profiles will be completed in 2008.

These projects exhibit a wide diversity in terms of geography, race and ethnicity, artistic discipline and methodology. The projects also range from well-established arts organizations to newly emerging endeavors. They include: ACCESS and the Arab American National Museum (Dearborn, Michigan), All-ages Movement Project (San Francisco, California), Appalshop (Whitesburg, Kentucky), Future of Music (Washington, DC), Hip Hop Congress (chapter-based), John Malpede and Los Angeles Poverty Department (Los Angeles, California), League of Young Voters (multi-state), Marty Pottenger and her piece “home land security” (N.Y.C.-based, working in Portland, Maine, with this project), Sheryl Oring’s performance art project “I Wish to Say” (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Urban Bush Women (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Sojourn Theatre (Portland, Oregon), Working Films (Wilmington, N.C.), and We Got Issues! (Brooklyn, N.Y.). A number of these groups are national in reach. We believe this variety of perspectives is important in understanding and deepening the work and scope of the field.

In our interviews with project and organization leaders, we asked about their accomplishments and resources, and their visions of how to increase the impact of their own work and of how to develop the larger field of arts and civic engagement. In the following essay, I tease out some of the themes we found through the profiles, drawing threads from the individual articles into insights for the field as a whole. As we lead up to the 2008 election and beyond, it would be beneficial for the progressive movement to consider building on models, frameworks and initiatives that are working to promote effective cultural organizing and participation in civic processes. The accomplishments and visions of these arts-and-civic-participation leaders are an important contribution to this movement.

Philosophies and Methodologies

A key underlying philosophy of many organizations and projects was the role of art and culture in enriching community life as well as in mobilizing and inspiring social and political action. A number of projects feature listening to and documenting the stories of community members as a starting point, including research interviews, story circles (Pottenger, Sojourn), Rantfests! (We Got Issues!), taking dictation of everyday people’s letters to the President (Oring) and documentary interviews (Appalshop). Some projects feature community listening and dialogue events after performances (Sojourn, Pottenger) or community dialogue events that may continue beyond the duration of the performances such as Urban Bush Women’s “Hair Parties,” civic dialogues about class, race, gender and body image inspired by UBW’s production of “HairStories” (2001) that take place in numerous community settings. 

A number of artists highlighted the role of people being authentically heard as foundational to fostering civic participation. Sheryl Oring, dressed as a 1950s secretary, types up real people’s letters to the President for her performance art piece “I Wish To Say.” She notes how seriously people take this act of dictation, even though they don’t necessarily believe that the White House will read their words. Oring explains: “People do believe that they are being listened to. Even though they don’t think the President will see this, because it’s part of a larger project, they do believe there is some value in it.”

Creating multiperspective performances of community stories was a featured methodology among the organizations (Los Angeles Poverty Department, Pottenger, Sojourn, Urban Bush Women, We Got Issues!). Sojourn Theatre has created many research-based productions, including “Witness Our Schools,” a multivoiced production about the Oregon school system.  We Got Issues! transformed the rants they collected from young women across the country into a performance consisting of 30 monologues performed by a mix of professional actors and nonperformers.  

Other organizations focus on the media of documentary film and video (Robert Salyer and Appalshop, Working Films) and visual art, photography and historical exhibits (Arab American National Museum). The Arab-American National Museum, the first museum in the world devoted solely to ArabAmerican art and history, exhibits Arab and Arab-American artists and runs a youth photography program focused on documenting community stories. Some projects focus on creating cultural spaces based around music and spoken word (All-ages Movement Project, Hip Hop Congress, Arab American National Museum’s hip-hop residencies and Concert of Colors, Campaign Against Violence and other projects of the League of Young Voters). Shannon Stewart of the All-ages Movement Project highlights the “democratic practices” that young people develop through their involvement with youth-run music spaces.  Taleb Salhab of ACCESS describes the impact of the organization’s work with a coalition of ethnic groups in Detroit to create a free world-music festival each year: “You know, that event [Concert of Colors] is not just about the music. It’s about building community connections...”  

Practices of cultural expression that both foster individual creativity and strengthen the social fabric of communities are an important aspect of building participatory, democratic communities, a goal at the heart of civic engagement. The philosophies and artistic methodologies described above serve as a foundation for the efforts to combine arts and civic engagement in more targeted ways described in the rest of this essay.

Integration of Arts and Dialogue into Government Institutions and Processes 

An innovative development in the work of some artists is the implementation of long-term artist residencies and relationships with public institutions for periods of years. Marty Pottenger was invited by city officials in Portland, Maine, to conduct the Art and Equity Initiative, a three-year artist residency focused on addressing discrimination and promoting equity in the city government and the school system. AEI builds on the previous work Pottenger has done in Portland through her creation of the performance “home land security.”  

The Art and Equity Initiative includes a storytelling-based planning process to develop clear objectives, the development of an arts-based methodology for creating and implementing policies focused on promoting equity and challenging discrimination, and training a team of local artists to do multi-year artist residencies with government departments and city institutions focused on equity objectives. Pottenger will also focus on working with local partners to build a long-term organization to sustain the work.  

On the opposite coast, the city of Portland, Oregon, is also leading the way in the process of integrating art into civic engagement processes. Due to a history of community-engaged theater work in Oregon, Sojourn Theatre was approached by city officials in Portland to create a play based on a survey of city residents about the future of their city. The resulting play, “One Day,” premiered in 2006 followed by post-performance dialogues. The transcripts from the dialogues were sent to the city to review and city officials also asked Michael Rohd of Sojourn to facilitate a meeting of Portland’s Executive Committee exploring and interpreting the results of the survey. In addition, city officials invited Rohd to serve on a subcommittee to draft the Portland city plan for the next 25 years.

Both of these examples show the integration of established community arts practitioners and arts-based methodologies into the inner chambers of government institutions, a significant entry point in effecting change.

Appalshop has actively promoted involvement of community members in civic processes and government institutions through citizens’ role as documenters through the Community Correspondents’ Corps. The CCC supplies recording equipment and trains local people in documenting the news, offering basic guidance in interviewing and recording.  Also, when a popular county official lost a re-election campaign and a new administration was going to take his place, Appalshop staff member and filmmaker Robert Salyer convened a gathering that led to commitment from community members to come to every county meeting to keep watch on what was transpiring.   This position as watchdog and documenter differs from the open invitation by public officials to conduct artist residencies, yet it marks another version of a long-term investment of a community arts presence in civic processes.

Long-term Relationship Building between Artists and Organizers

In its work connecting documentary filmmakers with organizing campaigns, Working Films asks activist organizations to develop a three-to-five-year organizing plan around integrating a relevant film into their work and convenes summits for organizations to share their plans and strategize. The objective is to determine “how can this film support the work you’re already doing,” says Working Films co-founder Robert West. One example is the film “Blue Vinyl,” which focuses on the dangers of incineration of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In a strategic campaign, Working Films focused on integrating “Blue Vinyl” into organizing efforts to stop both the production and the incineration of PVC. The efforts have achieved a great deal of success so far and organizing around the issue continues.  “Documentaries can create collective epiphanies, shaking people’s perceptions and assumptions like nothing else,” says Robert West.  But he also points out that, “We were successful because we were in a deep strategic partnership. ‘Blue Vinyl’ premiered in 2002, but activists and organizers are still using it. A film doesn’t age in the activist world like it does in the film world…”  

The Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) has also worked to develop performance and dialogue projects that have been integrated into larger organizing campaigns. One example is “Agents & Assets,” a performance that focuses on the social and political implications of current U.S. drug policy. The year-long creation process of the performance took place in concert with an organizing campaign to pass a ballot initiative supporting treatment over incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders in California. The ballot initiative in California was successful and LAPD took the performance on the road to other states that were considering similar ballot initiatives, building awareness and alliances between ballot supporters.  

John Malpede of LAPD makes the point that LAPD’s success in developing and integrating performances into issue-based campaigns is rooted in the organization’s long-term relationships with grassroots organizers and policy advocates in Los Angeles. Developing these relationships takes time and energy, Malpede notes. 

The League of Young Voters’ Campaign Against Violence in Milwaukee combines local poetry nights that feature club-style poetry and informal discussions about pressing political and electoral issues with precinct-based organizing that trains youth leaders to do voter outreach and de-escalate neighborhood conflicts with nonviolent mediation. Launched by a group of political poets, this arts-based organizing approach has been building a strong cultural community that, among other things, successfully mobilized enough support to defeat a proposed antiloitering initiative that would have prevented youth from gathering together in groups.  For the League of Young Voters, many of whose leaders are political artists rooted in the hiphop community, “there has never been any question about whether or not art should be connected to politics. It’s in the DNA of the work,” says Billy Wimsatt, the League’s Executive Director.

ACCESS and the affiliated the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, provide another model of an integrated relationship between artbased community programs and fostering civic participation. Throughout its history, ACCESS has drawn on art as both a means of nourishing the spirit of Arab Americans and building alliances among Arab Americans and other ethnic groups.  National Outreach Director Taleb Salhab describes how connections built through years of cultural arts programming — specifically organizing a free world-music festival called Concert of Colors with a coalition of Detroit ethnic groups -- led to the formation of the New Detroit Immigration Task Force. ACCESS’ youth cultural arts programs, which include hip-hop residencies and a youth photography program, have also helped to build a foundation for ACCESS’ successful electoral organizing among young Arab Americans. Though Salhab believes that the linking of art and civic engagement on a national scale among Arab-American organizations could go much further, ACCESS’ work so far provides a significant example of how this kind of integration can be fostered.

These examples (and others from the profiles) suggest the potential for a deeper and more strategic integration of artistic methodologies and media into political organizing efforts. 

Technology and Strategic Coordination in Arts and Civic Engagement Projects

Technology has offered new venues for interaction and organizing. A number of arts and civic engagement organizations — particularly youth-oriented ones -- have increasingly focused on the Web as a locus of organizing. The All-ages Movement Project seeks to create a network of youth cultural spaces primarily through the use of online tools  while the Hip Hop Congress’ Web site is an epicenter of its decentralized, chapter-based organizing.  Even projects that aren’t Web-based are increasingly drawing on Web sites, blogs and online social networking tools to communicate about their work. In addition, electronic distribution methods such as podcasts and video blogs offer new possibilities for a more democratized media and public access to art that was previously inaccessible. “All this takes film beyond the elite ground of the PBS broadcast, the art house, the film festivals,” says Robert West. 

At the same time, some artist-organizers stress that though new technologies offer access points and new venues of communication, they have to be mobilized effectively to be tools of social change. In the early 2000s when digital downloading emerged and new licensing agreements were on the table, Future of Music co-founders-to-be Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thomson realized that without strategic research, education and advocacy, these new democratizing developments in music distribution would just be swallowed up by corporate consolidation and laws that did not allow artists to retain the rights to their work.   Toomey and Thomson founded FMC to offer information and translation of legal and technical knowledge for artists, providing clear and critical resources through their Manifesto (2000) and Web site to empower artists. FMC also began focusing on raising awareness about the importance of public access to the airwaves and fighting increasing media consolidation through research publications (discussed in part later in this essay) and concert tours such as Left Off the Dial (2000) and Tell us the Truth (2003).  The founding question that has driven the evolution of FMC is still relevant: “Will the artists understand the new technology, or will technology control them?” 

The League of Young Voters’ Billy Wimsatt believes that for arts-and-civic engagement projects to truly build a successful movement, there needs to be a level of technical infrastructure and strategic coordination far beyond what currently exists in most organizations doing this work. This includes the capacity to manage data, build lists and coordinate volunteers in order to work with both technological resources and people to their full capacity.  Wimsatt points to the example of the League’s partner Video the Vote in Columbus, Ohio, which provides Web-based tools for ordinary people to document voting irregularities. “[The people involved with Video the Vote] are artists who had a great idea and a network, but they are visionaries rather than organizers. [The League] organizer coordinated the volunteers and built the infrastructure, making this a more long-term project.” Wimsatt says. 

Both Toomey and Wimsatt point to the importance of organizing and strategy for technology to operate in the service of artists and civic engagement organizations.

Developing the Field and Shifting Paradigms

A number of other artists brought up the need for sustainable networks of arts-and-civic-dialogue practitioners (Marty Pottenger), including convenings (Jawole Zollar of Urban Bush Women) as well as peer-learning opportunities for artists to visit each other in their own contexts for significant periods of time (Michael Rohd of Sojourn). (Since the writing of these profiles, four groups have started peer exchanges: Sojourn, Urban Bush Women, Cornerstone Theatre and Dance Exchange).  

Jawole Zollar of Urban Bush Women also imagines a deeper level of community-based and civic engagement by artists. “What if every dance company had a local initiative, and became a deep, integral part of the community’s fabric?” she asks.  In addition to deeper integration into communities, Zollar also believes the field needs to address the disconnect between the majority of artists and social-change movement organizations. “This is one of the big gaps — they’re not connecting to us, we’re not connecting with them. Sometimes as artists we’re in a cocoon,” she says. She dreams of a convening that would foster relationships between young artists who are former participants in UBW’s leadership development program and social-change movement organizations.

Michael Rohd of Sojourn imagines the creation of a think-tank that could work to disseminate the role of arts-and-civic-dialogue work. He imagines a time when every politician has a sticker on his or her computer with the question, “Has an artist approached you about civic-dialogue work?” The sticker would also include the address of a Web site that defines the field and provides examples of exemplary projects.

Billy Wimsatt envisions the development of a whole new field that encompasses artistic skills, technical savvy and organizing capacity. This emerging field would bring together organizations related to political art, civic engagement and community organizing to share resources and coordinate efforts, such as systems of collecting and managing data as well as creating a common brand to represent the movement.   Leaders would create a national strategy to “knit together the great pieces of existing work into a powerful quilt.”  

Wimsatt believes that a national strategy would require the development of a new kind of leadership. It would also involve “getting people to buy into working together and thinking about each other as a team, as opposed to competing” for limited resources, Wimsatt says. 

This vision of moving beyond individualistic competition between organizations is an important thread in envisioning possibilities for the field. Shannon Stewart of AMP also mentions the struggle to challenge an individualist ethos of many youth music spaces that take the position of “tough, scrappy pioneers,” which impedes the development of an interconnected network.   Rha Goddess of We Got Issues! highlights the importance of moving from a scarcity model that stresses competition between nonprofits to a more visionary and collaborative approach around resource sharing and knowledge sharing. Goddess believes that the progressive movement is too often focused on crisis and survival as opposed to long-term sustainability and relationship building. She urges: “We need to talk to together, come together and share learning, the challenges and successes, in order to build our collective wisdom.”  With respect to the intention of resource sharing and collective movement building, WGI! has consciously taken steps to work with partners in a way that supports collaboration and not competition. 

In addition, Goddess believes that funders need to be partners in this endeavor, moving toward holistic funding structures that fund operations. Goddess suggests the importance of educating funders through transparent conversations. 

While some artist-organizers support the idea of a national strategizing and branding, others are more hesitant. Marty Pottenger cautions against aspiring for national visibility at this stage in the field, which she sees as a “big laboratory.” She is concerned about a formulaic approach to the work and believes that basing the field in locally rooted work is critical.  The question of national visibility in relation to local rootedness and its relationship with resource sharing remains one that deserves further exploration.


Many artists and organizers rely on research within their disciplines, but some suggest the importance of a broader scope of research and information gathering is important for the field.

Research is a vital part of the Future of Music’s multipronged approach. Publications such as “False Premises, False Promises”(2006) offer detailed research on and analysis of the negative impacts of media deregulation on radio listeners and communities as well as artists.   Robert West of Working Films emphasizes the necessity of ongoing research in assessing and monitoring the impact of political documentaries. “We’ve had 50 years of documentary filmmaking, but no clear ability to point back, and see how the issues have been impacted,” West says.  Working Films monitors the impact of the campaigns in which their films are used, but West would like to see more of a field-wide commitment to this kind of assessment. 

Shannon Stewart of the All-ages Movement Project spent months researching youth cultural spaces around the country before founding AMP. As a co-founder of a successful youth music space herself, Stewart realized that there was no systemic documentation of youth-run cultural venues, in part because of the DIY (do-it-yourself) nature of the field and the transitory nature of youth leaders, who grow up. Her initial research documented 180 youth-run cultural spaces around the country and showed the spaces fostered high levels of civic and political engagement. Stewart’s research demonstrated the potential impact of creating a network to strengthen the potency of this emerging cultural movement. In a broader way, her results also suggest the power of research in bringing to light under-recognized movements towards civic engagement that are already occurring under the mainstream radar. 

Leadership Development

A number of the organizations profiled focus on the importance of leadership development with young people as part of building the field. Starting in 1997, Urban Bush Women’s Summer Dance Institute has combined a focus on building artistic and civic engagement skills among emerging dance artists, creating one of the few professional-development opportunities in the country that has both prioritized dance training and community engagement.

The 2004 Institute entitled “Are We Democracy?” was run in partnership with Demos, a nonpartisan organization focused on electoral participation and civic engagement. The ten-day institute combined voter-education workshops with dance workshops in the afternoon where the dancers translated the voter-education information into movement and creative explorations. Artistic Director Jawole Zollar describes how the many of the participating dancers became much more active in the elections when they returned home. In 2007, the Institute focused on what it meant to be activists and artists. “I’m curious about the catalyzing moments for people. How can those moments take us beyond victimization to become activists?” UBW has embedded an anti-oppression component in all its trainings, based in Zollar’s belief that issues of race, particularly internalized racial inferiority and superiority, can impede the capacity of any social movement to truly succeed.

Appalshop has promoted the intergenerational transfer of knowledgethrough the Appalachian Media Institute, which trains high-school students in media literacy and production. The AMI offers an intensive summer institute and a year-round media-production training focused on developing young people’s “technical and leadership skills and deepening their knowledge of the places where they live.”   Youth learn hands-on skills through making shorter videos and then move onto longer documentaries, which are screened in their home communities, in film festivals and in exchanges with other young filmmakers nationwide.

We Got Issues! also initiated the Leadership Institute of Arts and Activism in August 2005, which brought together eight young women — some primarily artists, some primarily activists — in three weekend retreats over 18 months. The retreats provided a reflection space for the young women about their hopes for themselves and their communities, developing tools for social and political analysis, and building artistic skills. The Leadership Institute participants ultimately put their skills into action by taking responsibility for organizing the ten-city national tour of “We Got Issues!: The Performance,” working with local partners to develop community-based residencies for young women tailored to the needs of each community.

ACCESS and the Arab American National Museum supports youth leadership development and interracial alliance building among youth through a number of programs, including SURA, the youth photography program that promotes dialogue and photography skills among Arab-American, African-American and Latino youth, who jointly create an exhibit together at the end of the program.  In addition, the Museum has organized an interview project with young women interviewing older women about their war experiences, resulting in an exhibit entitled “Women in the Time of War.” Museum Director Anan Ameri envisions building on this work to develop a leadership institute focused on art and activism, saying, “We need to keep getting young people to learn that when the community gets together, they can make change.”  


Like the United States as a whole, the field of arts and civic engagement is at an important juncture. The work and ideas of leading practitioners around the integration of arts into community organizations and civic processes illuminate the power of and visions for the field.

With their work linking arts processes and methodologies with government institutions, organizing campaigns and community groups, the work of the practitioners we interviewed highlights the power of artistic processes and products to create and strengthen relationships and visions that can support the building of participatory culture. Though not uniform in their goals for the field, there are significant intersections. Many focus on the importance of expanding the level of community-organizing know-how, rigorous research and the strategic use of technological innovations. A significant number advocate for a different paradigm of resource sharing and collaboration among practitioners in the field, and some, for a renegotiated and expanded vision of the field itself. Many return to the issue of leadership — both of enhancing the capacity of current practitioners and nurturing the next generation.

As a whole, these organizations and projects suggest practices and pathways for building a cultural and political movement and a society, guided by both imagination and strategy and grounded in democratic values. Their practices, words, and visions can help nourish the democracy-building movement in the year ahead and beyond.

To explore the work and visions of these practitioners in greater depth and to find contact information of the groups and links to their websites, go to


This essay is part of the Community Arts Convening & Research Project, 2008, funded by a Nathan Cummings Foundation grant to the Maryland Institute College of Art.  The essay was reviewed and selected by the project's Editorial Board: Ron Bechet, Xavier University of Louisiana; Lori Hager, University of Oregon; Marina Gutierrez, Cooper Union; Ken Krafchek, Maryland Institute College of Art; Sonia Mañjon, California College of the Arts; Amalia MesaBains, California State University Monterey Bay; Paul Teruel, Columbia College Chicago; and Stephani Woodson, Arizona State University. 

Rebecca Lena Richardson was a project writer and coordinator with the Center for Civic Participation’s Arts and Democracy Project. She currently lives in Berkeley, Calif., where she is facilitating an oral history project with radical elders and is studying embodied approaches to working with personal and collective trauma.

Original CAN/API publication: November 2008