Making a Difference in a Week: Art-making in Short-term Engagement

Written with the help of Sarah Rohrer, former BuildaBridge Intern and Staff, for publication

Leah leaned across my dining room table and asked with skepticism, “Can anyone make a difference in a week?” It was not really a question but a statement and one I hear frequently from discerning people.  I take it seriously.  A professional muralist, Leah had spent a week working with gang members in prison, other weeks creating community murals with scores of kids in informal settlements in Kenya and Guatemala, and even a three-month stint restoring historic and community places in a hurricane ravaged Caribbean Island, all at her own expense.  She was questioning the impact of a short-term artist’s engagement in communities of poverty, crisis and catastrophe.  She has both a right and responsibility to ask.  What can an artist possibly do in a week that is effective, supports the local mission and leads toward the holistic transformation of both individuals and communities?  The answer lies in a number of factors including what skills the artist (any art form) brings, the role the artist plays, the relationship the artist has with the local organization or community, and what the artist leaves behind.

Nearly 8,000 miles away in Kenya, Gideon, a Kenyan organizational leader, was asking a related question, “How do we motivate and assist local artists living in the poverty of our informal settlements become active in the transformation of their own communities?”  A highly educated and motivated leader, he was well aware of the resources needed to empower smaller local community centers working with children in poverty.  An artist himself, he knew the power of the arts to assist in the process of instilling hope and providing healing from trauma.  He was seeking resources that would lead to local artists’ growth and impact, and to assist them to accept ownership of the programs without a dependence on “foreign” resources that are often inconsistent.  That was six years ago.  How did someone like Leah assist Gideon’s organization in a week, what kinds of relationships were needed, was the cost worth it, and did it work—are there results?

The truth is, community transformation—the journey to holistic well-being–is never short-term.  Every short-term event is connected to other events that are bound to personal and organizational relationships.  These events happen in a context of the historic development of communities and the long-term transformation of people.  Working together requires a strong relationship between organizations and people of leadership. In this relationship, people are intentionally engaged to seek the well-being of one another and their communities through life and community transforming experiences.

For the past ten years BuildaBridge International, an organization I co-founded and serve as President, has been struggling with issues of funding, relevance, and the impact of short-term engagement, much like a number of other arts organizations working in areas of poverty.  We have come to a conclusion that  short-term engagement is part of developing long-term organizational relationships that meet the needs of the local organization; an it (i.e. short-term engagement) involves the processes of networking, collaborating and training.  Our goal is to assist local communities to meet their own needs.  In order to accomplish this we have established the following principles.

1.  Weigh the realistic cost of short-term mission.  There are some practical underlying issues.  1. It is expensive and the financial resources may be better used elsewhere. A trip to a Central American country for a ten-day short-term project can cost $2400.  Twenty-four hundred dollars will provide an annual salary for two private school teachers in Haiti!  Certainly local organizations understand the money involved in hosting guests. Increasingly, because of globalization, leaders of these local organizations come to the US and Canada to raise money for their projects and recruit interns and personnel.  It might be better to send the money.  Recently we have begun creating an in-kind budget for short-term projects, including the contributed time of the artists/trainers, administration, and local contributions of food, transportation and assistance.  In one experience in Central America, the real cost for a weekend training with three trainers and a local supervisor was more than $15,000.  2. There are real cultural and class issues.  Communicating in a second language, unfamiliarity with local customs—including art forms, and the inevitable differences in cultural values often lead to conflict at worst and ineffectiveness as best.

2.  Define your mission. When faced with the cost and cultural issues, both the host and the guest artist should thoughtfully consider the goal and expected outcome of the project and communicate openly about them before the mission, giving preference to the need of the host organization.

Buildabridge distinguishes two types of mission for the focus of our work abroad.  Arts-Based Intervention and Relief (or psychosocial support) refers to the engagement of the creative arts as therapeutic healing in the event of a catastrophe, violence, poverty, terrorist attacks, or homelessness to help the survivors of such events through an arts-based process of healing.  Working as second responders to a crisis, these artists assist to create safe (physical and emotional) environments and psycho-social support through training and therapeutic art-making in the community context.

Arts-Based Restorative Development is a long-term collaborative and restorative project assisting both individuals (primarily focusing on children) and communities with the goal of restoring holistic wellness in the physical, psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions of life.  These projects may include long-term training of local artists, strategic planning of community-based arts programs and place-making projects to improve the environment.

Often, the first type of mission leads to the second through building an organizational alliance.  In our example, Leah responded to a call for a muralist to work in an informal settlement that had been racked by political violence and a recent flood.  The children were traumatized and the environment had been devastated. Leah was part of a BuildaBridge Artist on Call team of ten artists and creative art therapists, along with an equal number of local Kenyan artists an Arts for Hope camp served over 100 children.  Training was a significant aspect of the intervention and relief.  Now in our fifth year of collaboration, over 25 local artists are working with children in 4 informal settlements.  They are assisted by an Artist on Call educator and administrator who has raised her own support for the past two years.  Training and job creation have become the priorities.

3. Match Skills to the Needs.  Defining the type of mission helps delineate the type of artistic, educational and therapeutic skills needed for a short-term project.  Intervention and relief missions may require training and expertise in emergency relief, arts-based psychological first aid, and therapeutic art-making.  For longer term projects artists may need skills in arts-based community development, arts-assisted learning and place-making.   It is for this reason that BuildaBridge began an annual Institute preparing creative people for such relief and development.  An educational alliance was later formed with Eastern University that offers an MA in Urban Studies with a concentration in Arts for Transformation.

4. Commit to Long-term organizational alliances. A true alliance occurs when there are contributions and respect from both sides; each has something the other doesn’t. One must look and listen to identify local leaders, rather than rush in with a program that doesn’t account for local gifts. You are going to a specific place and context, one that will remain after you leave. Ask questions to identify those who are already at work, what has already been working, and what strengths the community already possesses. Balanced partnerships make for sustainable development, as someone remains after you leave to continue the work. Indeed, a true partnership will be building the social capital of the local organization you work with, providing training and leadership experience to set up the local leaders for success.  As we have learned, written letters of agreement are essential in setting expectations and sustaining good communication.

5. Focus on a motivation of Service to Others. The creative artist must be motivated out of a sincere desire to meet the needs of a local community as they define them without the expectation of personal reward or benefit, and this is often realized through personal sacrifice.  Local organizations also have motivations.  Mission statements and goals are the first indicator of the organization’s motivation.  Just as an artist can be thinking of support, so can a local organization.  Creative artists make a sacrifice when they engage in short-term service.  Service is not an opportunity for employment or a research project-though much will be gained personally in the process.

6. Establish the role the artist will play or serve. The Catalyst has the largest role in short-term engagement. They lead by example among those with whom they work. They do what those around them had not yet imagined, and in the process give the community a new vision of what is possible. BuildaBridge International’s Diaspora of Hope art camps strive to be this catalyst through example.   Established 5 years ago, Diaspora of Hope was a November initiative to engage artists in serving simultaneously in different parts of the world during the American Thanksgiving.  The arts camps, based on the theme of hope, provide both training and experience for local artists to work with children through arts-assisted learning that uses the BuildaBridge Classroom Modelsm , which is trauma-informed, hope-infused and child centered.  Since then, local organizations have taken the theme and continue the tradition in Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Kenya.  BuildaBridge has continued its support through training of local artists.   Each organization has adapted the model to fit its own needs along with determining the nature of the ongoing alliance.

The Consultant comes on a contractual basis. He or she comes with expert knowledge to do what no one else can do on a very specific project; for example, a one-day arts-based psychological first aid training for NGO employees working with traumatized communities. While consultants’ relationships remains limited, their influence is large.

Finally, the Connector increases social capital by identifying organizations and individuals that could have beneficial partnerships, and by introducing them to one another. Often, those will occur between a small, local organization doing good work but going unnoticed, and larger organizations with the ability to support and strengthen the programming it is already doing or planning. The Connector expands the influence of organizations outside of their original contexts.

7. Serve for the sustainability and capacity development of the local organization. When it is determined what skills are needed, one must ask a final question: “What happens the day after we leave?” This question should guide all of the planning and carrying out of the engagement, as it is key to the sustainability of the change the guest wishes to make. This is not to discourage the artist from going, but to encourage the artist to go for the right reasons, and with the right mindset to have a partnership that is contextual, sustainable, and that builds capacity. This will make the engagement more than just one short-term event, but rather one part in a series of relationships that transforms a community.

8. Stay Connected and Evaluate for Impact.  Creative artists are generally good at exploring, connecting and building relationships across boundaries of difference.  For nearly 20 years I have observed those engaged in short-term mission commit to long-term missions.  In some cases, the artists engaged in a short-term project return to help and sometimes become a part of the local organization.   They return because they have experienced and see the impact of their efforts.  From an organizational perspective, capturing this impact can be difficult, but it is essential in times when funders and supporters want to know if you are making a difference.   While social media have made it convenient to vote and chat about success or failure, organizations that partner for a mission are well served to stay connected through formal and informal channels and to plan for the formal evaluation of their joint efforts.

It was five years ago that Leah leaned over my table and asked me if anyone could make a difference in a week. Earlier this month we met again over breakfast, in Chicago. “I’ve thought a lot about it since then,” she told me. Over the years, as she has continued her work, she has come to believe that it is possible to make a change in a week. That is not all. She declared this: “If you can make a change in a week, then you can make a change in a day. And if you can make a change in a day, then you can make a change in a moment.”

Every encounter has the potential to be a moment of transformation when you are engaged for good and are intentional about the process.  A short-term arts-based engagement is just one part of an historical series of related events of transformation.

References for Further Reading

Ausland, A. (2011, June 5). fa⋅ci⋅pu⋅la⋅tion | Staying for Tea. Staying for Tea | Good Principles and Practice of Community-Based International Development, by Aaron Ausland. Retrieved October 22, 2011, from

Borrup, T. (2006). The creative community builder’s handbook: how to transform communities using local assets, art, and culture. St. Paul: Fieldstone Alliance.

Chambers, R. (2005). Ideas for Development. Washington, D.C., Earthscan.

Corbett, S., & Fikkert, B. (2009). Doing Short-Term Missions Without Doing Long-Term Harm. When helping hurts: how to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor– and yourself (pp. 161-180). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

Corbitt, J. N. (n.d.). Engaging the transformative power of the arts to bring hope and healing to children, families, and communities in the tough places of the world.. BuildaBridge. Retrieved October 22, 2011, from

Corbitt, J. N., & Nix-Early, V. (2003). Taking it to the streets: using the arts to transform your community. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.

Escobar, S. (2003). Mission as Transforming Service. The new global mission: the Gospel from everywhere to everyone (pp. 142-154). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Spradley, J. P., McCurdy, D. W., & Gmelch, S. B. (2009). Why Tourism Matters. Conformity and conflict: readings in cultural anthropology (pp. 354-364). Columbus: Pearson

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