There are many terms used to describe the kinds of change that arts and cultural efforts strive to make in communities and society. Within different fields these terms may have their own particular meaning, and there is overlap in them to be sure. Here, IMPACT offers descriptions to help differentiate these kinds of change as well as terms describing arts and culture.
Reviewing these concepts may help you distinguish and express how your cultural work is oriented to making change.
Terms of Social Change
- Social change
- Social justice
- Social activism
- Civic engagement
- Civic dialogue
- Community building
- Social capital
- Community development
- Cultural vitality
Terms of Arts, Culture, and Cultural Change
Terms of Social Change
IMPACT uses the term social change as a broad umbrella to encompass a range of typical social and civic outcomes from increased awareness and understanding, to attitudinal change, to increased civic participation, the building of public will, to policy change that corrects injustice. Acknowledging that social change must start with the individual, IMPACT emphasizes impact that happens at a broader institutional, group, or community level.
Social justice is structural change that increases opportunity for those who are least well off politically, economically, and socially. Social justice is grounded in the values and ideals of equity, access, and inclusion for all members of society, particularly for poor communities and communities of color that historically and structurally have experienced social inequities. Those who work for social justice push to uncover the underlying causes of inequity and seek systemic change in institutions and policies as well as socially upheld behavioral norms that foster fair treatment and share of benefits. Social justice encourages change to come from those communities that are most affected by social inequity, involving people most affected in working on the problems and decisions. It employs a combination of tactics such as advocacy related to policy, grassroots organizing, litigation, and communications. This definition is drawn, in part, from Social Justice Grantmaking: A Report on Foundation Trends (2005) based on a working group of funders and practitioners convened by the Independent Sector and Foundation Center.
Many definitions of social justice refer to fair treatment and impartial distribution or allocation of benefits afforded to all individuals and groups in society. IMPACT Arts sees “social change” as the broader umbrella and “social justice” as more particular, reflecting policies, laws, etc. as well as socially upheld, behavioral norms that foster fair treatment and share of benefits.
Social activism refers to action to make change that ensures inclusion, equity, fairness, and justice. It is intentional action to bring about social, political, economic, or environmental change.
Civic engagement refers to the many ways in which people participate in civic, community, and political life and, by doing so, express their engaged citizenship. From proactively becoming better informed to participating in public dialogue on issues, from volunteering to voting, from community organizing to political advocacy, the defining characteristic of active civic engagement is the commitment to participate and contribute to the improvement of one’s community, neighborhood, and nation. Civic engagement may be either a measure or a means of social change, depending on the context and intent of efforts.
Craig McGarvey describes human, social, and community capital as three interconnected and measurable outcomes of civic engagement work. Human capital is the development of individual potential with measures of acquired skills, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. Social capital is the development of networks of human and institutional relationships, with measures of depth, breadth, diversity, and durability. Community capital is the development of positive change in communities, with measures of problems solved or prevented, policies improved, systems and institutions made more accountable. (Civic Participation and the Promise of Democracy, 2004)
IMPACT emphasizes arts and culture projects and programs that are intentional in fostering civic engagement. However, arts participation itself is sometimes considered a form and even an indicator of civic engagement. For two discussions of arts as civic engagement, see: “Civic Engagement and the Arts: Issues of Conceptualization and Measurement” by Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert and “Making the Case for Skid Row Culture” by Maria Rosario Jackson and John Malpede.
Civic Dialogue is dialogue in which people explore matters of civic importance and consider the dimensions of a civic or social issue, policy, or decisions of consequence to their lives, communities, and society. Engaging in civic dialogue is a form of civic engagement. Sometimes civic or public dialogue is considered an important end in itself. In this context, dialogue is defined as two or more parties with differing viewpoints working toward common understanding in an open-ended, most often, face-to-face format. In dialogue: Multiple and possibly conflicting perspectives are included rather than promoting a single point of view. Empathy and understanding are promoted. Assumptions are brought out into the open. Suspension of judgment is encouraged in order to foster understanding and break down obstacles. Equality among participants is established to honor all voices and help build trust and safety for deep dialogue. From Everyday Democracy and The Magic of Dialogue by Daniel Yankelovich.
Community building has been defined in various ways. It may refer to the process of building relationships that helps to cohere community members around common purpose, identity, and a sense of belonging which may lead to social or community capital. A variety of practices can promote community building such as: potlucks, block parties, book clubs, commemorative events, festivals, artmaking projects, and community construction projects. The Aspen Institute describes community building similarly to the concept of civic engagement—a process of improving the quality of life in a neighborhood or community by strengthening the capacity of residents, associations, and organizations to identify priorities and opportunities and to work, individually and collectively, to foster and sustain positive neighborhood or community change.
The building of social capital is a common outcome named in arts and social change work. Social capital is the collective value of all “social networks” (who people know) and the inclinations to do things for each other that arise from these networks (“norms of reciprocity”). Specific benefits that flow from social networks include trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation. Bonding networks that connect people who are similar sustain particularized (in-group) reciprocity. Bridging networks that connect individuals who are diverse sustain generalized reciprocity. (From Robert Putnam's Better Together, an initiative of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.)
In community development, the economic, social, and physical dimensions of community are considered. Community development agencies often focus on ensuring low and mixed-income housing, job training or workforce development, commercial real estate development, and small business start-up. In broader definitions, such as one offered by useful-community-development.org, they may also aim to advance youth development, health, recreation, human service, cultural, and other community goals. Community development seeks to empower individuals and groups of people by providing these groups with the skills and resources they need to effect change in their own communities.
Cultural vitality is the evidence of creating, disseminating, validating, and supporting arts and culture as a dimension of everyday life in communities. From Maria Rosario Jackson, “Cultural Vitality in Communities: Interpretation and Indicators”: Culture is an important dimension of civic life, but culture is not often considered for its civic value. Negotiation of cultural priorities, especially for disenfranchised cultural groups wanting to stake claim in the public sphere, has civic import not only for these groups, but also for the community at large. Issues of cultural preservation, equity, and representation are important in and of themselves, but are also of concern as they link to growth and development, economics, tourism, public funding, and other civic concerns.
Terms of Art, Culture, and Cultural Change
The artistic process as well as product can provide a key focus, catalyst, forum or form for public dialogue, civic engagement, or activism on an issue. Opportunities for engagement may be embedded in the arts or humanities experience. In addition, the arts may provide direct forums to engage in community planning, organizing, and activism. IMPACT Arts defines art, culture, and cultural change as follows.
Art encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression. Animating Democracy frames a broad definition of the arts to embrace all artistic disciplines—visual arts, music, dance, theater, literature, poetry, spoken word, media arts, as well as the humanities and interdisciplinary forms. Art practice can occur along continua ranging from amateur to professional and informal to formal. Art encompasses community-based and culturally specific expressions as well as fine art and popular culture. Art may be experimental in nature or more mainstream. Art activity that aims for social change may originate from or be developed from a range of creative sources. (Civic Dialogue, Arts & Culture: Findings from Animating Democracy, 2005)
Animating Democracy describes culture as a set of practices and expressions (including language, behavior, ritual, values, and art) shared by a group of people. Culture is distinguished from the social constructs of race and the national basis of ethnicity. Hip hop culture, for example, crosses race and ethnicity but reflects a cohesive creative practice and expression. (Civic Dialogue, Arts & Culture: Findings from Animating Democracy, 2005)
Community Cultural Development
Community cultural development describes the work of artist-organizers and other community members collaborating to express identity, concerns, and aspirations through the arts and communications media. It is a process that simultaneously builds individual mastery and collective cultural capacity while contributing to positive social change. This definition from Arlene Goldbard, (New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, 2006) reflects a field of practice as well as an aspired outcome.
The Institute for Cultural Democracy describes the concept of cultural democracy as a set of related commitments: protecting and promoting cultural diversity, and the right to culture for everyone in our society and around the world; encouraging active participation in community cultural life; enabling people to participate in cultural policy decisions that affect the quality of our cultural lives; and assuring fair and equitable access to cultural resources and support.
The arts community has tended to use community engagement to mean the deliberate and active ways arts organizations engage constituents and publics in order to align organizational goals, programs, and services with community interests and needs. Community engagement might take the form of assessment processes, working with advisory groups, and ways of gathering community input to develop more relevant and meaningful programs. Another meaning of community engagement relates to locating programs in community settings and collaborating with community partners to foster participation of targeted community members in arts and cultural programs and activities. This emphasis on engaging community in the activities and planning of the arts organization—certainly for the benefit of community members as well as increasing the arts organization’s relevance—is distinguished from civic engagement or social change which aims for community change through the arts.