Beginning in 1997, when we conducted our first Institute amongst 15 fighting congregations in a dysfunctional and earthquake ravaged community in Costa Rica, we have consistently seen what can happen when artists with the training and passion for service engage their art as a vehicle for transformation. Though often difficult to document in quantitative terms, there is evidence of our impact at home here in Philadelphia and around the world in some very challenging places. First a few of my favorite quotes.
“This week I learned not to kill people”, is probably one of my favorite quotes from a young boy following our arts for peace camp in Guatemala. This young man lives in a bullet ridden barrio infested with violent gangs. At 10 years of age, he is already being recruited to “join-up”.
“This is the first time my son has ever succeeded in any academic class”, stated a mother after her son with autism attended our summer art and biology class.
“I decided not to go to the streets tonight and stay home and practice my jewelry making instead”, was a declaration made to two of our interns conducting a pilot jewelry making project with sex workers in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. This project is part of our growing Central American initiative in partnership with Strategies for Transformation where the arts are particularly powerful with street youth, gangs in prison, and sex workers.
“I decided to not put myself down and start putting myself up”, was the declaration of a young homeless girl in Philadelphia who was near tears during an art class when she faced a challenge at completing an art project. “I can’t!” she cried. Our teachers and volunteers told her, “stop putting yourself down, you can finish this project. We don’t want to ever hear you again say you can’t.” The young girl then redesigned her art project as a tombstone with the inscription, R.I.P. I CAN’T. With a smile of victory she declared, I CAN.
“When we went to the supermarket to shop and my daughter asked for more fruits and vegetables, instead of the usual stuff, I was shocked. She is teaching us how to eat better” reported the mother of a student in a homeless shelter culinary arts class. For this culinary arts student, it meant a sense of pride and excellence as well as a chance for a healthier life for her and her mother.
We value these kinds of reports. We also know that long-term impact is the goal with both children and youth and the communities in which they live. Will the young boy NOT kill–ever–or be killed in a gang shoot-out? Will the autistic boy find long-term success in school–graduate and find a job? Will the sex-worker find alternative income to support her three children (I didn’t tell you that part)? Can the young homeless girl find long-term self-esteem that leads to healthy relationships, success in life–the skills needed for a good job? Life is more complicated than an art class and involves more people than an art teacher. We recognize that. We can’t answer these questions quite yet, but we continue to assess and evaluate for long-term impact.
Recently I read a book called Up and Out of Poverty that outlines the nature of poverty and the concrete solutions that have come about in recent years through what the authors call “social marketing”. I came to realize again the power of what we are doing in alleviating poverty, creatively. Most of the people we work with would be considered the poorest of the poor by UN standards–living on less than $1 per day. Poverty alleviation comes down to some very concrete and measurable objectives for communities: peace, clean and healthy environments, supportive families, education, and employment opportunities. Personal transformation also has some very concrete objectives: an education that prepares one for employment–hard employable skills, a strong sense of self that includes spirituality and a moral center, self-discipline and leadership, strong family and community connections, a vision for one’s life and a plan to get there, and a developed creativity that allows one to make connections and think “outside the box.”
The kids we work with make art–art-making that makes a difference in their lives. Art-making is fun, creative, liberating, beautiful, graceful, and spiritual. The kids we work with enjoy singing, dancing, painting, sculpting, acting, cooking, taking pictures, weaving, painting murals and drumming. Sometimes they make art in a homeless shelter room, sometimes in a prison cell block, sometimes on a beach, sometimes in a church building, and sometimes on the muddy walkways of a slum. Every time they make art, there is a trained artist mentor who engages and guides them in art–and in life. How?
Our engagement of artists to work in tough places builds social capital in children and the adults who work with them to cross race, class and social barriers. The artists who work with us are from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We had nearly 250 people volunteer with us this year. Children and teachers learned new vocabulary in Mandarin, Arabic, English, Spanish, Swahili, and even Salish (the language of the Salish Tribe in Montana). Our teachers studied cultural practices from Canada, China, Central America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Kenya. Local and international faculty regularly communicate throughout the year over the internet and maintain their social and professional connections. There has even been an international exchange with people from Central America, Europe and Asia participating in service and training in Philadelphia.
Children and youth who participate in our programs learn concrete skills for future employment: communicating with new people, learning poise and self-confidence, gaining cultural understanding and competence (even second language skills), planning and completing a project, presenting to the public, working in teams, creative problem solving, and resolving conflict non-violently. Research shows that these general skills provide more options for the future than a learning specific job skill.
Both teachers and students increase their understanding of and attain a healthy regard for the environment. Specifically through our Artology summer program, children in the inner city visit the beautiful park system for the first time. They learn to recycle, care for living things, understand the concept of ecology and interconnectedness of all life, and learn the importance of natural beauty in our lives. They also learn some hard science skills: observation, use of microscopes, hypothesis formation, ecosystem processes. Students in our program have a 100% improvement in science vocabulary and knowledge.
Many of our programs ask the children to become actively involved in community. Teachers are encouraged to do short service projects in helping others. Some of these include a senior oral history project where homeless youth interviewed seniors in a local extended care facility about their life and memories. In another, youth visited historic sections of a community and imagined the renovations of public buildings in disrepair, later exhibiting their photographs and drawings in a public venue, to make the community aware of the needs.
On a very basic level we ask all of our students to develop and practice important social and life skills in learning to eat healthy, washing hands as part of healthy hygiene, being polite and courteous, respecting one’s body, and choosing friends who want the best for them. Our BuildaBridge motto, which encapsulates these principles, has been adopted by our partners in their ongoing programs.
We ask all of our teachers and volunteers to mentor children and youth, and through their art-making to explore basic life questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Who is my neighbor? Where am I going? How do I make a positive difference in my life, my family, and my world?
Our partners attend training and integrate new and effective techniques for working with children and youth in classroom management, discipline, curriculum writing, assessment and arts teaching methods. This year we conducted trainings in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Malaysia, Kenya, Egypt, and the United States.
So how have we faired in our efforts at alleviating poverty, creatively? We have a few hard facts, but most of our work is accomplished when local organizations are strengthened in their work.
Arts in Restorative Transformation
We focus on arts for life’s sake (as opposed to arts for art’s sake). Our first concern is with children and youth and their needs. The creative arts are the tools in the capable hands of artist mentors who build relationships. They engage the arts as metaphor for teaching valuable life lessons and skills. The arts are powerful for children in some very concrete terms. BuildaBridge fights poverty through arts-based community development and personal transformation. We call this arts in restorative transformation and we integrate this in all of our programs.
BuildaBridge is motivated to do the work we do out of our commitment to see the most vulnerable of our world’s children transformed through the power of relational art-making. In other words, we want kids to grow up to be healthy, creative, positive, mature, contributing members of society, in spite of the often horrid conditions of poverty. Many of these values and life lessons can be learned through art-making with a caring mentor.