Recently, I was talking to two different people about working with the arts to engage children in social change. I was struck by how they were telling me more or less the same story with their different scenarios. My starting perspective is that social change is a collective creative process. I’m passionate about rooting that process in nurturing, restorative and regenerative relationships. The artists with whom I was talking were both clear: when they work with children and the arts, the quality of the object of art or the performance is not what really matters. What matters to them, as artists wanting to play an active role in social change, is what the children take away from the journey they travel together in terms of building healthy relationships with their selves, each other and the creative process.
In one instance, I was talking to an artist who does workshops with children on writing poetry. He explained that the point isn’t for children to write what others might deem quality poetry or even to take up poetry reading and writing as something that interests them. In the workshop, he and the children go on a journey together of exploring their attitudes towards themselves (he likes to work with the theme of “I am”, for example) and also towards each other – as they share what they have written. The children go through the inevitable experience of being vulnerable – exposing their views, perspective experiences and ideas – that is inherent in the creative process. They have an opportunity to see their classmates in new/different light. Many times, this different way of connecting results in students feeling more kinship with one another, in part because they become inclined to give more attention to what they have in common, rather than focus on their differences.
The other artist explained to me how she and her colleagues had done some work with young people to create a show involving life-size papier-mache puppets. When the program was completed and the show performed, the artists found that the Artistic Director seemed a bit disappointed about the quality of the puppets. To my artist friend, the children did a wonderful job on the puppets and the performance went really well. That the Art Director wanted puppets and performance of a different caliber in and of itself didn’t bother her. What she found frustrating was that the focus on the end result seemed to miss the point of the workshop.
In the journey of making the puppets and creating a performance together, the children developed not simply artistic skills and experience, but relationship skills. In working together to a rise to the occasion of working with unfamiliar tools and creations, individually and collectively their confidence in their abilities to work with the unknown grew; they navigated the territory of teamwork, and they played enthusiastically with their imaginations. They also had a lot of fun.
These two perspectives reinforce the story I wrote about in Courage on Stilts the other week. All three steer me to think about how we would do well to expose our children as often as possible to what it means to be a conscious creator. The arts offer us many different and playful ways to do this. The goal is not to find the child or create children who are super talented in the fine arts or in the performing arts. The goal is to grow children who will become adults interested, able and willing to put the effort into nurturing, restorative and regenerative relationship-building.
I am increasingly starting to focus my attention on this aspect of social change because I believe that healthy relationships are the heart of creating better ways of living together. I find myself repeatedly asking: How can we breath life into better ways of living together, if we have no heart?”
Reflection questions: How might we incorporate collaborative artistic endeavors into strengthening our workplaces? If you/your organization sought to integrate healthy relationship building into your projects, how might you design the projects differently?