Framing It: An Arts Response to ‘Leading on Opportunity’

By Hannah Grannemann

Josh and I started this blog series in April 2017 with a few goals:

  1. Bring attention to the work on social mobility already being done by artists and arts organizations in Charlotte. (one example here)
  2. Raise awareness of the arts as a way to have a positive impact on social mobility with the community leaders outside the arts who would be leading efforts in response to the Opportunity Task Force’s report.
  3. Give the arts community confidence to take a “seat at the table” and contribute meaningfully in this time when attention is being paid and resources allocated on the issue of social mobility.

So far, we did this in the blog series by going through the specific recommendations in the report and sharing ideas and stories. We promoted the blog through social media and our networks. Posts in the series have been read by nearly 1,000 people (at least) and we’ve received incredibly positive feedback.  Thank you for reading and sharing and commenting over the past few months.

As we wrap up this phase of the blog series, here are a few closing thoughts. Then, I’ll outline our next steps.

Systems

A first read through this series might seem like it did the opposite of one of the foundational ideas of the Leading on Opportunity report: focused on programs rather than systems. Yes, the posts were mostly sharing practical ideas and approaches connected to specific recommendations. We did this in service of our goals of raising awareness of how the arts can be used in service of supporting improvements of social mobility and to bring attention to existing programs.

Underneath it all, we were making our own recommendation about systems: make the arts a system. In other words, for better results, incorporate arts into the systems that are working on social mobility issues, and incorporate social mobility into the arts. The benefits for individuals, groups, teams and organizations will manifest directly, or perhaps as the “x-factor” or “secret sauce” that will make an approach effective long term.

More than social capital

Social capital is surely the area of the report where people will naturally want to put the arts. (The report defines social capital as “the relationships and networks people have that can connect them to opportunities.”) Yes, Yes, Yes! We should absolutely align ourselves with building social capital in Charlotte. Making art, experiencing art, and learning through the arts are excellent ways to create relationships and build social cohesion across differences that pay off not only intrinsically but in connecting to opportunities. It’s also the only area where the arts were mentioned explicitly (Recommendation U4), referring to the 2014 Cultural Vision Plan. The Task Force named it a “cross-cutting factor,” so the arts would have broad impact if able to describe accomplishments there.

Maybe I’m too pragmatic, but I’m concerned about our ability as a sector to describe accomplishments in building social capital.  I fear putting all our eggs in this basket would undermine the arts sector’s credibility in the social mobility movement. The arts are not currently set up to measure social capital or our impact on it. If social capital is the only area where the arts sector focuses its efforts, the arts will not receive the recognition for impact that will be crucial for the arts to move from an afterthought to “top of mind” when working on social problems. It’s hard enough for the arts to get respect in our society. It’s hard enough to describe the concrete impacts of the arts where we know them (such as on improving high school graduation rates of at-risk students or positive impacts on economic development).

An essential way for getting people to recognize that the arts are an underutilized means for improving the lives of the people on whom this report is focused is to make direct connections on impact on recognized basic needs through rigorous assessment, an area I identified in my first post. We outlined areas throughout this blog series connected to concrete recommendations from early childhood (here and here) and parenting (here and here) to workforce development (here and here). Put these ideas – and others – to the test, and I mean TEST them! Build assessment into the process so that we can have answers to funders and people we need to bring over to our cause when they say “we’d like to fund the arts, but there are higher needs.”

Segregation

An area we didn’t discuss in the series is the other overarching issue that the Task Force thought was so important it is literally at the center of their model: segregation.

I strongly believe that the arts can be a major, major force in moving our society forward by overcoming the impact of segregation – a problem that needs to be tackled head-on. Connecting ideas from above, this can happen in two ways: the arts can be an integral factor in creating effective social programs that dismantle structural racism, and the arts can build community (social capital) across difference through the arts – creating art, experiencing art, learning through the arts.

Ethics philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah speaks in this interview on the radio show On Being about how relationships with people who are different than us are first built through in small gestures, “sidling up to it.” He says, don’t start with big conversations about the big differences like race and religion – start with the weather, sports, your kids, whatever joins you, binds you. Create relationship first, then get to the tough stuff. It’s widely accepted that the reason that the relatively rapid increase in acceptance of marriage equality in the U.S. came from straight people realizing that they already had personal relationships with LGBTQ people: they were family, friends, neighbors, community leaders, members of their faith community.

The arts can nudge this process along and accelerate it. The shared experience of the arts can be a way that people are willing to build those relationships, engage with people that are different from them with an open mind and heart. Maybe that’s through content that is about race, religion or politics, or maybe not – maybe its just about interesting, entertaining and engaging art.

What’s next?

We’re going to seek out some community leaders to get responses to our writings and share them here, so come back to read them.

We are each going to continue our own work on social mobility through the arts and champion others who do so. The principals that guided us in the beginning will still guide us, such as “staying in our lane” and advocating for the arts to be part of the conversation and resource allocation. We’ll continue to post periodically here on this subject.

Our deepest thanks and gratitude to all of you who have read and shared and commented on this series and are working in this intersection of arts and social mobility in Charlotte!


HannahHannah Grannemann is an arts administrator based in Charlotte, NC. She has worked in theatre and the arts for 17 years, including with Yale Repertory Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and as a fundraising and strategic planning consultant. She is a Board member of Arts NC, the statewide advocacy group and Theatre for Young Audiences/USA and serves on an advisory council for the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Hannah holds an MFA in Theater Management from Yale School of Drama and an MBA from Yale School of Management.

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