Collective Impact and Systemic Change for Arts Education

What can cultural citizens do together that they can’t do alone?  I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion on this very topic at The Kennedy Center Arts Summit in Washington, DC on May 6, 2017.  The Summit receives generous support from The Annenberg Foundation and you can learn more here.

Our panel focused primarily on arts education and the power of collaboration.

If one considers the value of engaging an individual student or classroom in the arts, the discussion usually turns to the importance of an inspirational teacher or a particular program offered by a cultural institution.  But if we turn our sights to the needs of an entire school district, or county, or state we need to think about collaboration and collective impact.  Since no one person or organization can achieve such large scale change alone, we need systems or structures that support the involvement and collaboration among many players.

For this panel, Ayanna Hudson from the National Endowment for the Arts shared their thinking on collective impact, their focused grant making in this area, and the importance of a “backbone” organization to support and facilitate the communication and collaboration among the multitude of stakeholders in any given setting.  Paul Sznewajs shared how his organization, Ingenuity Inc, is serving as this backbone organization for the Chicago Public Schools.  The existence of such an organization – one that does not provide direct services of its own – allows a “neutral” forum to bring together all the programs and resources offered by nonprofit arts organizations, funders, city leaders, and the school system itself.  Here in California, CREATE CA and the Los Angeles County Arts Education Collective (formerly “Arts for All”) are other examples of backbone organizations focused on collaboration and connecting the dots across the arts education “ecosystem.”

For these collective impact efforts to be successful, the participating people and organizations need to make space to share some of the credit and recognition for their own efforts as part of a larger whole.  This is often a new posture for many of us, since we are typically focused solely on our own work and “brands.”  Such a “go it alone” posture may play well as part of a fundraising appeal, but neglects to build awareness for the larger possibilities or real system change.  Instead of using scarcity as the frame, I would love to see more cultural institutions explain that “our programs are part of a larger effort to provide quality arts education for all students in our district/city/state.”  In turn, leaders of backbone organizations need to maintain a sense of humility and generosity in always acknowledging the work and contributions of the many specific stakeholders.

It is often contrary to human nature, but if we work hard to coordinate and collaborate, great things are possible in service of the goals we all want for young people.