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Building Pathways Toward Community Engagement

Mina Kim and Timothea Pham; Mass Cultural Council Program Officers

Children paint rocks at a maker space
Public program offered by Arts Collaborative Medford.

Community engagement is essential in creating a framework for arts, culture and community development that is relevant to and inclusive of the broader populations in a particular locale. While sometimes seen as a way to elicit thoughts and opinions, deep community engagement can act as a pathway to building connections and relationships among residents, artists, local businesses, cultural nonprofits, municipalities, and other civic entities, creating multiple channels of access that help support local programming and decision-making.

As the largest grassroots arts and culture network in the nation, Mass Cultural Council’s Local Cultural Councils (LCCs) are conduits of community-based knowledge and cultural expressions, both of which are critical to ensuring that programs supported at the local and state levels are representative and meaningful to our community members. With this in mind, the Agency’s Community Initiative hosted a webinar on community engagement to share why intentional engagement is foundational to the LCC Program, as well as others in the arts and culture sector. The webinar also featured the different ways Worcester Arts Council, Springfield Cultural Council, and Medford Arts Council approach community engagement, including neighborhood-mapping, bringing artists into the conversation, and sharing different methods of connecting with the public. LCCs also spoke of how their engagement practices have shifted in response to the pandemic.

Community Engagement: Why and How?

Builds relationships at local, regional, and state levels
Engagement isn’t just about gathering information. It’s about building bridges between various community groups, as well as with regional and state partners in order to deepen understanding and leverage each other’s experiences and resources for the betterment of communities. Community entities to consider building relationships with include Department of Planning, Parks and Recreation, Mayor’s Office/City Council/Select Board, Community Development Corporations, Chambers of Commerce, Regional Planning Agencies, Local Housing Authorities, Regional Tourism Councils, and others (see figure below). Think of engagement as relational, rather than transactional.

Supports accountability and works toward a broader representation of community voices
One important goal of the LCC Program is to support programs that provide public benefit, which cannot be done without engaging with the broad networks that exist in a community that include artists collectives, neighborhood coalitions, cultural organizations, schools, faith-based organizations, youth and family nonprofits, local businesses, residents, etc. Because LCC members are responsible for distributing public dollars, they need to solicit and collect local public opinion about how to best distribute funds. As a starting point to evaluate whether or not you’re meeting the needs of various constituencies that exist within your community, take a moment and reflect on your community as a whole.

Builds knowledge and awareness
Places are in flux, whether at the local, regional, or state levels. It’s important to be aware of who comprises your communities, what needs exist among different populations, and what opportunities or challenges exist in supporting your constituents. Create multiple access points to allow for more voices to be a part of the conversation.

Strengthens advocacy
Engagement builds civic interest and will to support arts, culture and community initiatives, especially if people feel like their time, ideas, and input matter. Center your community members in conversations, be present, and make sure there is a process for their voices to be heard and acknowledged.

Examples of some partners to consider when building an arts and culture network

LCC Community Engagement Best Practices During COVID-19

LCCs practice engagement in ways that are responsive to their specific communities. Here are some tips and examples of engagement from Medford Arts Council, Springfield Local Cultural Council, and Worcester Arts Council that include strategies utilized during this period of social distancing:

Collecting Community Input
This year, both Worcester Arts Council and Medford Arts Council utilized online surveys to gather their community input in order to inform their local council priorities. Surveys are only one way of collecting community input and are especially useful when evaluating the council’s priorities before the grant cycle. Usually, both LCCs would be able to be hand out surveys at town meetings, cultural events, town celebrations, but with COVID-19, these councils have had to consider other ways to get out the word. In a non-pandemic context, it is good practice to distribute both online and paper surveys to make the survey more accessible to folks.

Lisa Malo of Worcester Arts Council shared with us that to reach the widest swath of Worcester residents with the survey, they were tasked with the following: crafting engaging questions, identifying and connecting with local micro-influencers and community organizations to help spread word, reaching out to local radio stations, and working in collaboration with municipal departments. Danielle Moriarty and Stephanie McKay, Co-Chairs of Medford Arts Council, described a similar strategy and process. Additionally, in order to incentivize participation in the survey, the Worcester Arts Council was able to secure a pair of Bose headphones as a raffle prize for those who filled out the survey.

You can view the Worcester Arts Council funding report and Medford Arts Council’s council priorities.

Creating Dynamic Spaces for Sharing Information and Networking
After the opening of the LCC grant cycle, LCCs might host information sessions and networking opportunities for the community to inform the public about the LCC Program. The Springfield Local Cultural Council (SLCC) hosts a Pitch Night each year for their applicants. This three-hour session gives local artists opportunities to network, collaborate, and “pitch” their ideas, one-on-one, to the Commissioners. Benjamin Smith of SLCC describes that the Commissioners learn a great deal about the applicants and their projects by using the time to ask specific questions about their proposals and ideas. It also helps the Commissioners learn what ideas and needs are on the minds of the creatives in their city beyond just applicants, since the event is open to the public.

While the SLCC’s Pitch Night will be possibly converted to a virtual medium during this period, there are LCCs who are currently hosting virtual grant cycle information sessions for the public. They typically involve a brief presentation by the LCC, followed by a discussion or networking portion that can be facilitated through Zoom “break out rooms”. A few LCCs who have been hosting these include Waltham Cultural Council, Harvard Cultural Council, and Chelsea Cultural Council.

Bringing Additional Layers of Visibility and Storytelling through Social Media
Social media has been the friend for many this year, particularly because it gives us the tools to reach broader audiences through new and creative ways while practicing social distancing. According to Danielle of Medford Arts Council, they have been regularly highlighting featured artists and interviewing artists through Instagram. For artist interviews, they have been able to do virtual interviews that have produced great video content. See one of their latest interviews with artist Amanda Beard Garcia and an artist feature, spotlighting Cory Koehler.

Lisa of Worcester Arts Council also explains that for them, social media creates a unique opportunity. They can meet new and potential council members, develop a collective understanding of various creative expressions in the city, and help publicize grant opportunities, and ultimately enhance accessibility.

Proactive Engagement in Creating Partnerships and Cross-Collaborations
Partnerships and collaborations with other municipal departments, local organizations, artists, and small businesses can develop out of sustained outreach and engagement efforts from LCCs. Danielle of the Medford Arts Council described conversations that have resulted from the LCC’s interest and presence in various municipal meetings. For example, the LCC and City Council are in process of discussing a potential Percent-for-Art program, while the LCC is working with the Office of Energy and Environment to conceptualize and design a labyrinth to be placed on contaminated land, rather than just capping the land with concrete.

The Medford Arts Council also works with the local Chamber of Commerce to identify shared goals around supporting lively business districts. Stephanie of the LCC shared her experience in “neighborhood mapping” around Haines Square where she took photos, observed traffic flows, identified physical deterrents to accessing the sidewalks, and had a chance to talk to a business owner who pointed out the lack of signage and wayfinding in their neighborhood. “Walking around the neighborhood gave me information that I didn’t receive from just attending monthly meetings,” she explained, as she further discussed the possibilities of supporting local artists while activating vacant storefronts and sparse areas with public art in partnership with individual business owners, neighborhood squares, and the Medford Chamber of Commerce.

While it may be challenging to connect with others a little more closely at this time, reaching out to someone through the phone or email lays the foundation for a great potential contact and collaborator.

Screen shot of Stephanie Mckay, Co-Chair of the Medford Arts Council, discussing their process of “neighborhood mapping.”

Through community engagement, LCCs and other arts and culture entities have the potential to widen and deepen their relationship to the public and the myriad of communities that are a part of Massachusetts. Thoughtful engagement can take a variety of shapes, especially when being responsive to local conditions and diverse needs, in addition to being accountable to different stakeholders within each community. As Lisa Malo mentioned, don’t be afraid to experiment and take risks, since there is no single, correct way to conduct community engagement. It’s a reiterative process that requires curiosity and care for your communities and patience.

For more examples of how LCCs are engaging their communities, follow the Community Initiative Facebook page and subscribe to our Community Initiative enewsletter.

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