Let’s start with two assertions:
- First, every meaningful social change movement for the last 1,000 years, at least, has been driven, in large or small part, by the arts.
- Second, many arts-based civic works contribute little or nothing to individuals, communities, or societies.
It boils down to this: You can’t produce great social change without the arts. But there’s no guarantee that every arts-based program accomplishes something.
As with all interventions, whether arts or education or agriculture, much ends up on life’s cutting-room floor—or, if not tossed, left as a relic. If great art alone would suffice, Woody Guthrie’s Plane Wreck at Los Gatos would have changed the American experience for immigrant farm workers.
Let’s circle back to the first assertion.
- Imagine what would have come of spiritual life in the last 2,000 years without the contribution of literature (pick a version of the Bible and say thanks to Gutenberg).
- Imagine the LGBT movement without the contribution of theater (see Charlotte circa 1996).
- Imagine the Civil Rights movement without Guy Carawan teaching We Shall Overcome to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at its founding in Raleigh in 1960.
“Myles, before he founded Highlander, had been over to visit the Scandinavian folk schools. He had observed in Denmark that when people came together to work on problems, they did a lot of group singing. He kind of brought that idea back to Highlander. He was not a musician himself. But he was really supportive of anything that would help grassroots people feel stronger.”
Myles and his wife Zilphia wanted to teach songs “that might be useful to people,” Candi said. “But he also wanted Zilphia to ask people songs they knew…It’s how Zilphia learned about We Shall Overcome.
“She asked folks from Charleston what they were signing on the picket line. One person sang it for her.”
The real power occurred when everything came together: the values Myles brought from the Scandinavian schools, the Labor Movement’s culture of protest songs, and the music coming from the black churches.
“You could see all these mass meetings,” Candi said, “there was such a unifying quality of all these folks singing together…People physically came together and learned from each other. A lot of that freedom repertoire spread because of that. Way before the internet.”
All of which begs the question: In an evaluation culture focused on efficiencies, what works models, and causal attribution for low-risk outputs, how do you forecast impact when arts are deployed in service of social change?
“All that quantifying,” Candi recalled. “For years I had to help write grants for Highlander, and I hated that. You can’t know what will grow from the seeds you plant. We mostly could not have specified what was going to happen, but tremendous things did happen.”