I’ve had the good fortune to live in the same community for the past 27 years and the double good fortune to have participated over time in a wide range of arts-based initiatives in that community:
- site-based work related to immigration
- explorations of the history of a working class neighborhood now gentrified
- rediscovery and recognition of the paved-over African Burying ground in our white New England city
- perspectives on the challenges faced by seniors
- and the most widely known, The Shipyard Project, which was a two-year exploration through dance of the intertwined histories of a large naval military installation and a port city that have co-existed side-by-side for over two hundred plus years.
So, I’ve had an advantage that most project evaluators never experience, that is, a really longitudinal view of unfolding impacts.
Long after initiatives have concluded, I have seen relationships that began in a community arts project rekindle to tackle a new issue or witnessed policies that were the object of arts-informed debate finally take hold after several failed attempts. I have seen young people who were inspired by the arts planning of my generation decide to settle in the community and become the next generation of arts and community leaders.
The real impacts become visible many years after the evaluator has delivered the final report to the funders.
I was reminded this week about how long it can take for “measurable” impacts to be realized when the plans for a memorial to the U.S.S. Thresher were announced on the 49th anniversary of the sinking of that submarine on a sea trial off the coast.
Bringing to light the tragedy of the U.S.S. Thresher and its crew (and that of the U.S.S. Squalus, another local submarine trauma) was part of a healing process that began over fifteen years ago when relatives of men who lost their lives on the Thresher came to tell their stories to the dancers of The Shipyard Project. The dancers translated them into poetry and movement that helped us all better understand and acknowledge this painful episode of our collective history.
Each year since the annual remembrance of the Thresher and her lost crew has grown more prominent—but it’s taken awhile to reach the visibility that might catch attention and be “read” as impact by anyone attempting to track outcomes.
When I’m called upon to help design an evaluation for an initiative in another community, I know I won’t have the luxury of the long-term vantage point I’ve had in Portsmouth. So I may not be able to foresee or even imagine the really important community outcomes. Instead I’ll need to rely on the early signs of potentially important impacts ahead.
My own experiences have taught me where to look:
- In the new relationships that are formed and the existing ones that are strengthened, especially from those boundary-crossing opportunities that the arts nurture so well;
- In the overt recognition of stories untold and painful episodes previously unspoken;
- In public policy openings, even when not successful;
- In new roles assumed by key players, whether formal or informal;
- In subtle shifts in power; and
- In the involvement of the next circle of artists who can spark subsequent engagements over future issues.
Would you add any additional bullet points to my early signs?