The Power of Scribble

Artists responding to crisis and serving for development

Never underestimate the power of a scribble and a good story.  In the wake of a tsunami, the after-shock of an earthquake, or the muddy mess of a flood, children who are traumatized by these events can be empowered with the opportunity to draw, tell their stories, dance their anxiety, and act out their thoughts. The results are a strengthened resilience, hope and healing.  But how does this work?

When crisis and catastrophe occur, children are often unable to process their fear, grief, and trauma with words. The creative arts provide a vehicle through which children can express pain, trauma, and abuse by tapping into their psyche without the use of verbal language. The creative arts affect human physiology as well as emotional status and can heal and restore the human spirit.

Music, dance, drama, and visual arts:

  • Help create physical and psychological safe spaces for children
  • Help people seek beauty even in the worst of situations (aesthetic nourishment)
  • Provide opportunities to re-imagine circumstances
  • Are non-verbal and bypass cognitive defenses
  • Help resolve conflicts and problems
  • Help manage and structure behavior through providing experiences of success
  • Reduce stress
  • Increases self-esteem and self-awareness
  • Provides non-verbal outlets for emotions associated with traumatic experiences
  • Promote positive changes in moods and emotional states
  • Promote active and positive participant involvement in treatment
  • Enhance feelings of control, confidence, and empowerment
  • Promote positive physiological changes such as lower blood pressure, reduced heart rate, and relaxed muscle tension
  • Provide a space for emotional intimacy with peers, families, caregivers, and meaningful time spent together

In 1997, Dr. Vivian Nix-Early and I co-founded BuildaBridge International.  BuildaBridge’s mission is to bring hope and healing through the transformative power of the creative arts to the most vulnerable of children in the toughest places of the world; and, to engage creative artists in service to others.  Our goal is to provide needed holistic development through direct service and training in arts-based intervention. We want to meet the needs of the most vulnerable populations and to assist local organizations in sustainable development through local arts resource development.

Since our beginning, we have worked to prepare and engage artists in what we now call Arts Relief and Development.  By relief we mean a trauma-informed response to crisis through art-making experiences with kids.  This may mean engaging creative art therapists, but it can also include artists who empathically engage art-making as a healing process.  Ours is not a first response, as the needs are too basic for art-making, but arts relief is a powerful second response, especially in meeting the needs of children for safe spaces–physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  By development we seek to build capacity of local organizations and artists to meet the needs of the children in their own communities over a long-term basis.

Since our beginning we have slowly developed relationships with local organizations in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.  We have conducted trainings, short-term projects, and internship placements in twenty countries.  These service or ministry alliances require basic development of trust, good communication, sharing of resources, and organization.  As a primarily volunteer organization working with local volunteer organizations and congregations where resources are limited, planning and managing expectations are very important.

Based on our ten previous years of learning—sometimes by trial and error—we have developed a curriculum and training program to help artists serve the needs of children while catalyzing and enhancing the long-term work of local groups.  It has not been an easy.  While simultaneously developing local alliances, we have been enlisting and training artists into a group we call Artists in Call who would be ready to respond to requests for arts relief, and long term arts-based community development.  Is it working?  The results have been promising.

In 2007 we began a project called Diaspora of Hope where trained artists from anywhere in the world join forces with local artists to conduct a one-week catalytic childrens’ arts camps on the theme of hope.  We began with one camp in Guatemala. This year we will assist Arts for Hope camps in five US locations and five international locations.   We have witnessed, and are documenting, remarkable changes in the children, increased ministry strength in local organizations, and a deepened commitment by artists to be involved alleviating poverty through arts-based development.  More local artists are involved, even taking leadership.  Long-term development is working—we are on a ten-year plan.  Short-term relief is more problematic.

Immediately following the earthquake in Haiti, we put out a call for artists to help.  Almost immediately over eighty creative art therapists, art educators, and students responded to help.  We then asked these artists for a simple registration and thirty-eight followed through.  At the same time we contacted ten organizations working in Haiti.  The response was the same from all.  “We are dealing with the basic human needs in a chaotic and catastrophic situation, let’s begin to plan for the next wave of needs”.  These needs are creating child safe places, training teachers and local workers in arts and trauma, assisting work teams, and providing programming for children.

Two-months following the earthquake we are still in a planning and training mode with local organizations dealing with a horrendous and devastating crisis. What are we learning about artists and response to a crisis? What challenges do we face?

First, in communicating with international and local organizations, we have a responsibility to educate regarding the value and transformative power of the arts.  There is often not an understanding of this value and process.  Many see the arts as entertainment (which does have value)—or something kids do for fun.  Artists in local countries are often not understood or valued—their status is often very low in the culture and they can be viewed as people on the fringes of society, even unreliable and unpredictable.

Second, people who first respond to a crisis are highly motivated to do something “now”.   Motivation may wane even within a few short weeks.  Maintaining contact, providing information, encouraging further training and preparation, and in general motivating for long-term help is important.

Third, networking and planning between individual and group schedules, and organizational needs and resources takes capacity and resources.  In our situation, we are focusing on alliances with only a few organizations who understand the real power of the arts in their context, and who have the capacity to collaborate.

Lastly, it takes a special kind of artist mentor to volunteer in any “tough place.”  He or she has to have training and experience for living and working in difficult, even dangerous,environments, creativity in working with a scarcity of artistic resources, second language skills, ability to raise their own support, and especially the desire and commitment to cooperate with local leadership—knowing that whatever plans are set into place will surely change.

The scribble and story have power for children when a capable artist mentor has the desire and ear to listen.  Artists are an untapped resource in meeting the psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs of children living in poverty and suffering from crisis.  We are most encouraged by the responsiveness, preparations, and commitment to a call for this work.  Will you join us, and others, seeking goodness and peace in the toughest places of our world?

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