Not Just Pretty: Aesthetics in Social Impact Design

Posted by Annie Wu On November - 18 - 2014
Annie Wu (2)

Annie Wu

Though the practice of design encompasses both form and function, conversation about it often circles around aesthetics—the graphics of the next iOS operating system, for instance, or the sleek lines of the newest Tesla model. In these instances, we assume that the objects are going to work; no one doubts whether or not the iPhone can accommodate newer iOS versions or whether the vehicle can actually carry people. When we discuss design in the social sector, however, this premise is problematic since whether or not a design solution meets a user’s needs can’t be taken for granted.

What role, then, do aesthetics play in social impact design? Read the rest of this entry »

Looking for the Punch Line

Posted by Joanna Chin On December - 9 - 2013
Joanna Chin

Joanna Chin

Animating Democracy’s December blog salon explored how artists, comedians, and other cultural commentators employ humor in the heavy work of social justice. Starting out the salon, I posed several questions to bloggers including the seemingly simple inquiry, how does humor work?  When is humor a strategic choice and toward what social effects? Similar to other art forms, humor is fundamentally about emotions and human connection, which makes it simultaneously risky and inviting; relatable and inexplicable. While their methods and approach vary greatly – from slapstick to satire; political cartoon to YouTube musical number – the bloggers for this salon all seem to agree on the aspects of humor that make it so effective in social justice work:

  • On an individual level, comedy and laughter can stimulate creativity, open lines of communication, improve people’s moods, and diffuse tense situations
  • Humor comes from a personal place, but connects to universal feelings and experience
  • Laughter builds community and a sense of belonging (e.g., inside jokes)
  • Humor calls on the audience to finish the piece, think, fill in the blanks, come to his/her own conclusion/interpretation

Particularly as tongue-in-cheek skits and articles without clear punch lines gain popularity, the expectations and dynamics between comedian and audience continue to shift. As I said in my intro post, humor has always been something mysterious and untouchable to me. But, even if I’ll never be a stand-up comedian, the growing expectation and responsibility placed on audiences to interpret, understand, and even add their own layer of irony or satire to humorous work, especially as a tool for social change, gives me and all of us an important role to play in crafting our own punch lines.

Hungry for more? Check out Animating Democracy’s trend paper about the role of humor in the work of social change by Dr. Nancy Goldman and this post from Safe Places for the Advancement of Community & Equity, which has additional resources.

Humor Me Some Social Change

Posted by Jamil Khoury On December - 5 - 2013
Jamil Khoury

Jamil Khoury

My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the political utility of art. Too general. My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the diplomatic efficacy of theatre. Too ambiguous. My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the dialectics of storytelling and social change. Too academic. My name is Jamil Khoury and I study the empathic functions of humor. Whatever.

Now that I’ve introduced myself, and established my “scholarly” credentials, how about indulging me a few terrorist attacks?  Specifically, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.That Mother of all Terrorist Attacks. Gut-busting, sidesplitting, rip-roaring funny, right? Not even remotely. But a catalyst. And a damn good one. When me and my husband, Malik Gillani, set out to create Silk Road Rising, we envisioned a theatre company that could articulate a “proactive, artistic response” to 9/11. Our destiny was to become 9/11 second responders, responding both to the hatred and fanaticism that fueled the attacks and to the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-Brown people backlash that quickly ensued. First Al Qaeda hijacked Islam, then public anger hijacked our citizenship.

From the get-go, our activist logic maintained that although our work would be serious and political, humor would be an integral ingredient, the fermenter of provocative ideas. The plays we’d produce would employ humor as a point of clarity and connection. Not to make light of a situation, but to deepen our understanding of it. Which means the humor would be organic to the stories we’d tell, neither gratuitous nor diversionary. A company birthed in trauma cries out for empathy, and empathy manifests viscerally. We knew instinctively that the laughter that transcends barriers is the substance of social change. Unpacking a clash of ignorance masquerading as a “Clash of Civilizations” demands irony and satire and parody and sarcasm.  For when the world gets divided into monolithic, historically fossilized, spatially demarcated “civilizations” forever at war with each other, it’s time to call in the humorists! Read the rest of this entry »

Angry? Ask Your Doctor About Satire…

Posted by Marlene Cancio On December - 3 - 2013
Marlene Ramirez-Cancio

Marlene Ramirez-Cancio

“What’s pissing you off right now?” That question—that liberating license to tap into our anger—serves as a point of departure for the satirical projects created by Fulana, the Latina arts collective I co-founded with Andrea Thome, Lisandra María Ramos, and Cristina Ibarra in 2000. It was our colmo-reaching ire at the incessant talk of “illegal aliens,” combined with our love for our grandmothers’ plastic-covered furniture, which led us to create our first piece: a mock commercial we shared with friends at a barbecue in Queens, hi-tech style, by popping a cassette into a VCR, aka the Y2K version of posting on social media. (Bonus: beer!)

Three of us had recently moved from to NYC from San Francisco, where we’d collaborated with artists like Latina Theatre Lab, Culture Clash, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Cherríe Moraga, and later, Guillermo Gómez-Peña—so a California humor aesthetic was running through our veins. For the past 13 years, our work as Fulana has focused on popular culture, using parody and satire as critical tools to respond to the ways ideologies and identities are sold to us—and how we sell ourselves—through the mass media. Our projects explore themes relevant to Latina/os in the U.S., experimenting with strategies to make visible what we’re so often made to read between the lines. We’ve tackled issues such as U.S. historical amnesia, post-9/11 politics of fear, President Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, and the so-called “Hispanic Paradox.Read the rest of this entry »

“You Know Your Film is Making a Difference When…”

Posted by Ellen Schneider On September - 25 - 2013
Ellen Schneider

Ellen Schneider

“I cried after my first big film was released,” she admitted, in hushed tones over the phone.  This was no traditional case of post-partum blues. This was an award-winning filmmaker, who had spent years of her life, thousands of her own dollars, and probably a relationship or two to bring her poignant, hybrid, social issue documentary to the light of day (or in her case, a night on PBS following a limited theatrical release). “I wanted to change the world with that film. But even though the critics liked it, and people saw it, I had no proof that anything changed. Silence. I still don’t know if it had any impact at all.”

I had phoned my friend (let’s call her Maya) because I wanted to see how the indie crowd at the Sundance Film Festival would respond to my question: “You know your film is making a difference when…” I first attended Sundance in the late-80s when I was a script reader in Hollywood, and participated during the decade I was at the PBS series POV. But this year in my current role leading the Active Voice Lab for Story & Strategy I did more listening than screening. As a lifelong believer in the power of story — and other creative work – to advance social change, these days I’m spending a lot of time trying to prove it.

I can admit it now: early in my career when I wrote the “Evaluation” part of grant proposals I would wince, concoct a few bullets about the kind of change I wanted to see, and keep my fingers crossed that the funder would be so dazzled by what we were actually able to accomplish programmatically that they wouldn’t feel compelled to go back and reconcile it with our originally-stated objectives. During the first 10 years at Active Voice we commissioned outside firms and social scientists to give us qualitative feedback about our process and our partners’ satisfaction. We weren’t trying to impress funders; we simply couldn’t afford to repeat mistakes. But it wasn’t until Active Voice brought on a full time evaluator that were we able to identify and actually measure the kind of shifts we think films can contribute to. Read the rest of this entry »

Sharing Shifts in Evaluation from the Funder Exchange

Posted by Joanna Chin On September - 6 - 2013
Joanna Chin

Joanna Chin

A May 22 Funder Exchange on Evaluating Arts & Social Impact, presented by Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy program and hosted by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, brought together 32 funders, evaluation professionals, and arts practitioners to learn about concrete approaches and measures funders use to understand the impact of arts and social change investments. We heard case studies are using from Crossroads Fund in Chicago about its Social Movements Development model, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation about its use of Developmental Evaluation, as well as from the Fledgling Fund and Porch Light Initiative, part of the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia.

At least within this group, evaluation is no longer viewed as a necessary evil, or worse, an empty exercise. Funders and practitioners alike shared examples of shifts in thinking about evaluation toward:

  • Frameworks that identify shared goals and clarify how grantees’ work aligns with larger values and social movements
  • Cross-sector indicators and tools that help stakeholders understand what difference is occurring as a result of their work
  • Iterative learning that moves future efforts toward more effective practices and greater potential for impact

There was a general consensus that if funders were more deliberate in communicating with each other about common interests, intentions, and results, their collective impact could be better understood and perhaps expanded. The need to embrace experimentation and even failure was also broadly supported. Participants valued the in-depth exchange with peers this day afforded and recommended that Animating Democracy organize additional convenings to extend the learning around new cases. Read the rest of this entry »

Blog Salon Recap: So, Does Size Matter?

Posted by Joanna Chin On December - 7 - 2012

Joanna Chin

As the newest staff member on the Animating Democracy team, reflecting on how our past has informed present work has been illuminating.

By placing individual artists and organizations such as those that made up our original Animating Democracy Lab cohort into a national or field-wide context, we hope we have helped to magnify their impact over time and on a national scale.

Although the initial Animating Democracy grant cohort was a relatively small group (36 organizations), we continue to see the connections and ripples from relationships formed through many deep learning exchanges. As time progresses, the connections made within a small group of artists and arts organizations continues to “scale out” (a phrase borrowed from Roberto Bedoya’s post) in the form of collaborations and cross sector work such as that of Sojourn Theatre.

We have always been a national initiative; but, we accomplish our goals by creating opportunities to capture and translate the practitioner’s voice to a broader field and across sectors. This is still essentially true in our current work exploring the social impact of the arts as well as mapping art and social change trends.

We are national in scope, but scale has been achieved primarily through promoting human connections and ripples over time. In this vein, I’d like to take a crack at summarizing and connecting our bloggers under some major themes/approaches that emerged during the Salon: Read the rest of this entry »

Shared Outcomes and Collective Impact for Scaling Up

Posted by Victor Kuo On December - 5 - 2012

Victor Kuo

What are funders interested in scale and results talking about these days? A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of presenting at the Grantmakers in Arts 2012 Conference in Miami.

This year’s conference theme was “Forging Connections,” and I found the notion of connections incredibly relevant for scaling impact. Creating vibrant, livable communities is the responsibility of not just one project or organization, but rather partners across a sector and the entire community working together for change.

We explored an example of a community aspiring to build connections involving entire sectors, such as the arts, education, and workforce development.

The Greater Cincinnati area has a strong history of collaboration. Leading funders, such as the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, are considering ways to take a collective approach to achieving social impact.

Specifically, they are talking about a collective impact approach described in “Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work” that identifies five key factors to facilitate change:

1) a common agenda,  2) shared measurement, 3) mutually reinforcing activity, 4) continuous communication, and 5) backbone support. Read the rest of this entry »

Talking Points: Public Art and the Challenge of Evaluation

Posted by Katherine Gressel On May - 17 - 2012

Katherine Gressel

The Challenge of Evaluation

In the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of Public Art Review, Jack Becker writes, “There is a dearth of research efforts focusing on public art and its impact. The evidence is mostly anecdotal. Some attempts have focused specifically on economic impact, but this doesn’t tell the whole story, or even the most important stories.”

Becker’s statement gets at some of the main challenges in measuring the impact of a work of public art—a task which more often than not provokes grumbling from public art administrators. Unlike museums or performance spaces, public art traditionally doesn’t sell tickets, or attract “audiences” who can easily be counted, surveyed, or educated.

A public artwork’s role in economic revitalization is difficult to separate from that of its overall surroundings. And as Becker suggests, economic indicators of success may leave out important factors like the intrinsic benefits of experiencing art in one’s everyday life.

However, public art administrators generally agree that some type of evaluation is key in not only making a case for support from funders, but in building a successful program.

Is there a reliable framework that can be the basis of all good public art evaluation? And what are some simple yet effective evaluation methods that most organizations can implement? Read the rest of this entry »

Reevaluating My Thinking Around Evaluation

Posted by Joanna Chin On May - 4 - 2012

Joanna Chin

When I asked the bloggers for Animating Democracy’s Evaluation & Social Impact Blog Salon to write about this topic, I thought I knew what I was going to get. Animating Democracy’s Impact Initiative has been going strong for several years now with a fantastic set of evolving framings, vocabulary, metrics, methodologies, etc. and so forth.

In addition, a good handful of these folks have worked with us before and the rest I know through their incredible creative work. None of them are strangers to questions of social impact or evaluation.

I expected discussions about how to show funders and community leaders what impact was made; talk of how to establish outcomes and indicators; examples of surveys and interviewing. While many of these were touched on throughout the salon, what did emerge made me start to adjust my thinking around evaluation.

Perhaps even more important was what surprised me: that the trends in evaluative thinking and practice came from the work itself rather than an external driver.

Is storytelling just a fad?: Qualitative v. quantitative

At Americans for the Arts, we make the case for the arts daily and within that there is a delicate balance between the concreteness of numbers and the power of stories. However, as noted by Katherine Gressel, “surveys and statistics are out; stories and experiences are in.” Read the rest of this entry »

Thinking About the Impact of Public Art

Posted by Chris Dwyer On May - 4 - 2012

Chris Dwyer

I was impressed that so many posts during the Blog Salon have tackled the challenge of assessing the impact of public art—a particularly challenging area for building indicators of impact.

Several years ago I heard Richard Florida describe public art in terms of community image when making a point about vital cities, i.e. those that attract entrepreneurs and visitors and earn the loyalty of their residents.

The idea of assessing impact through the eyes of strangers intrigues me:

What does a collection of public art convey to those who don’t know the city? Does it say those who live here…

  • …are willing to take a risk?
  • …like to try new things?
  • …are open to new ideas?
  • …have a sense of whimsy?

We can perhaps all imagine cities we’ve visited where public art conveyed exactly those impressions of a new locale.

A worthy impact for the investment and not so difficult to measure.

Seeing the messages of public art through the eyes of a younger generation may offer a similar window into the impact of public art. Read the rest of this entry »

The Public Kitchen & the Dilemma of Evaluating a Gesture

Posted by Kenneth Bailey On May - 4 - 2012

Public Kitchen participants.

The next intervention the Design Studio is working on is called the Public Kitchen. It’s part of larger project we are developing called “The Public: A Work in Progress.”

As public infrastructures—hospitals, water, schools, transportation, etc.—are privatized, the Public Kitchen takes a stab at going in the reverse direction. It is a “productive fiction”; it’s our experimentation with a new, more vibrant social infrastructure that can:

  • Challenge the public’s own feelings that “public” means poor, broken down, poorly run, and “less than” private
  • Engage communities in claiming public space, the social and food justice
  • Make a new case for public infrastructures through creating ones that don’t exist

The first step of the Public Kitchen occured last fall when we worked with artist and graphic designer Jill Peterson to create what we called a “mobile ideation kit.” This enabled us to have interesting conversations with passers-by in a variety of communities, with an easy, attractive way to ask about what would be important to them in this made-up new form.

Next, we created an indoor Public Kitchen exhibit for Roxbury Open Studios. Over 100 residents, activists and artists came for a bite, took home fresh veggies, imagined new food policies, checked out architectural sketches, and added their ideas for what’s possible for a Public Kitchen.


Read the rest of this entry »

How Art Can Strengthen Evaluation

Posted by Renan Snowden On May - 4 - 2012

Renan Snowden

Let’s be honest: sometimes evaluation can feel like taking medicine. What’s more, the results of evaluation often take the form of dry reports that are unwelcoming and, at worst, hard to penetrate. But evaluation doesn’t have to be this way.

Evaluation can be a useful and engaging process that incorporates creativity and participation to help an organization learn how it can more effectively reach its goals. Evaluation presents an opportunity for arts organizations to demonstrate the impact they are making in their communities. Incorporating artistic practice and a combination of narrative documentation and compelling graphics can make evaluation interesting and build off of an arts organization’s existing skill set.

Artists and arts organizations have an advantage with evaluation: you want it to be a creative process. Right now, some arts organizations are taking the lead in including drawing, storytelling, and graphic design as part of their evaluation process and reporting.

By making evaluation a creative and dynamic process, these organizations are helping make assessment more attractive to practitioners by showing that evaluation can build off the work your organization already has expertise in.

As a graduate student in urban planning, I’m interested in ways that the arts can help create shared spaces for community development. Writing short summaries of the in-depth resources available on the Animating Democracy website as the spring IMPACT intern, I began to notice that some of the best case studies of measuring the impact of social change incorporated the arts as part of the evaluation process. These innovative approaches to evaluation are facilitating new ways of evaluation that emphasize experience and engagement as key components of evaluation. Read the rest of this entry »

Visionaries in Evaluation: Beyond Samples & Quantitative Data

Posted by Marc Maxson On May - 4 - 2012

Jim Henson and his fellow Muppeteers perform as Bert & Ernie.

In my first post, I explained why we mustn’t let our fears prevent us from experimenting with evaluations that are neither purely quantitative nor based on random samples when trying to understand whether our social interventions are working.

Now, I want to share examples from visionaries who practice what I preach. The people you should know are Jim Henson, VI Hart, David McCandless, and Jonathon Harris.

Evaluations are a search for the truth about whether our work has changed lives. And I believe good evaluations are conceptually simple.

When Jim Henson was developing the design for Sesame Street, child psychologists and early education experts insisted that they knew the right way to do the show. Jim only cared about measuring whether each segment of video was good, and that kids were watching. You can’t teach kids anything if they aren’t paying attention, he argued.

His greatest innovation was a simple method to quantify whether kids were paying attention at each point during a test episode. They brought some five-year-olds into a play room and showed them visuals on two televisions simultaneously. One played an episode of Sesame Street, while the other played a random series of interesting images for seven seconds each (“the distractor“). Read the rest of this entry »

Making a Difference Online and Off

Posted by Marc Vogl On May - 4 - 2012

Marc Vogl

There are several particularly interesting things about The Awesome Foundation.

First, it’s not a Foundation. It’s 30+ self-organized chapters around the world of individuals kicking in $100/month to get behind ideas they think are cool.

Second, the grants that Awesome Foundation recipients get are $1000.

And for all the variety to be found in the funded  projects a common denominator is that $1000 made a difference.  In other words, a principle of the Awesome Foundation’s philanthropy (as decentralized and informal as it is) is that proposals are ‘right-sized’ if they can make the case that $1000 will tip the project into being successful.

As a former arts program officer at a major foundation I think that’s beautiful and also a simple concept to hang on to as one contemplates increasingly complex (and confusing) methodologies for understanding the impact the arts make.

The topic is definitely hot, and there has been really interesting work from those seeking to measure arts’ intrinsic impact  This includes the work from Theatre Bay Area  and others adding to the catalog of studies on arts’ instrumental impact. Read the rest of this entry »