The election has shone a powerful spotlight on the myriad ways in which the nation is divided. The weakening of our social fabric has been lamented and analyzed through multiple lenses: politics, religion, race, age, and class. For decades, social scientist Robert Putnam, among others, has demonstrated gains and losses in social capital and widening gaps in income and educational attainment. At the same time, technology has imprinted the culture with new ways to communicate, creating an impression that we are all “friends” (or enemies), connected and networked across cyberspace. This post-election hangover leaves us struggling to locate the truth of our connection—and disconnection.
We know more than ever that we are connected to those who think like us, shop like us, pray like us, and vote like us. We communicate compulsively in the echo chamber that is social media, iterating and reiterating the infinitesimal sameness of our opinions, only to realize that we do coexist with an “other,” unrecognizable tribe, and that we are disconnected from those who are different from us.
Here in Chicago, that division can be mapped across the city’s neighborhoods. Economic, health, and education indicators are just a few of the statistics that show extreme differences between communities and reflect our deep history of racism and division. Affordable and public housing developments are isolated within certain neighborhoods in a way that makes poverty invisible to those those who live and work within and near our central business districts.
As a nonprofit that combines the arts and community development, archi-treasures delivers programs in neighborhoods across Chicago with the goal of “reducing social isolation.” We have found that when used strategically, the arts offer very effective tools for bringing people together, especially those with differences. Here are some of the ways we’ve found success partnering artists with communities:
Artists, when “outsiders,” bring new perspective to ongoing, ingrained issues, promoting dialogue. Sometimes this occurs simply because the artist, who is without knowledge of the community, requires information and explanation. Residents become the experts of their own situation and gain experience in presenting the issues, often adding much needed clarification. In addition, the overall tone of the conversation is elevated in order to appear in a positive light before outsiders.
The artist most likely represents another social group altogether. As communication between the artist and the community develops, social capital builds. This is an example of social capital that is bridging. It brings together people who are different while expanding social networks. archi-treasures has facilitated many projects that intentionally bring together people who experience difference: high school students and police officers, public housing and market-rate residents of mixed-income developments, brown and black people who live together in a particular neighborhood, and more.
Making art is generally perceived as a “neutral” activity. Artists will dispute this, but broadly, art, in the eyes of the general public, is thought of as beautiful, non-threatening, and apolitical. Thus, when community residents who are not artists are invited to actively participate in making art, their immediate perception is that they are being invited to engage in a neutral activity. This “gets them in the door” and, once there, more in-depth conversation can occur. Often, differences in opinion and preference arise and can be talked about in an art-making environment because the stakes are perceived to be low.
Communities often come together to fight against people and ideas they do not share. Art projects bring people together positively, and to make something beautiful. When non-artists are encouraged to actively engage in the creative process they can experience the powerful transformation of an idea that only exists in the abstract, to something that is real and exists in the physical space of our world. They experience the iterative process of trial and error, critique and refinement, disagreement and consensus, following through a step-by-step process that brings concrete results. To simplify, organizing and activism bring people together around opposition, while art making brings people together around a creative process.
The process of making art can be shared across generations. By managing art production with openness and intentionality, matching skillsets and interests with specific activities, art making can become an intergenerational activity that bridges generational gaps filled with suspicion and misinformation. Over and over again, archi-treasures has engaged young people in arts-based projects that improve their community, much to the surprise and delight of their elders. Groups of young men previously considered dangerous and destructive are suddenly seen generating positive, visible change within the community. As young people begin to research in order to understand their community, they are likewise surprised by the wealth of knowledge and experience that is held by their elders.
Public art represents the stories of community groups that are unheard within mainstream culture. Art can help to create a sense of place and cultural specificity that may not be available to certain groups otherwise. This is an example of social capital that is bonding, or strengthening the social ties within a specific group. As our American culture becomes more and more homogeneous, and developers strive toward the most efficient, cost effective and predictable growth, the narratives that support particular cultural groups become lost or are made invisible.
This season has undermined the social connections that promote our ability to communicate civilly with those who are different from us, and has caused some Mexicans, Muslims, women, and immigrants to recede in fear, threatening the visibility of groups who come together because of the things they share. As we move forward, it will become even more important for those of us who work in community development to be aware of and supportive of opportunities to strengthen the social capital that bridges and bonds the groups that comprise our social fabric.
Image: By J. Feist, via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0