Lalgarth, near Patel saw mill

Article for Soaring on the Economic Benefit of the Creative Arts

“Lalgarth, near Patel saw mill.”  That was the entry Daniel entered as his physical contact address for an email listserve he joined as part of BuildaBridge, a charitable non-profit arts education and intervention organization I cofounded with Dr. Vivian Nix-Early in 1997.  Since meeting Daniel in Malyasia in 2006, he has consistently requested training in community arts with his local staff. They work with a largely non-literate population of impoverished and marginalized women and children.

Here was a mixture of 21st technology and an early 20th Century context.  I was reminded that while technology and higher education have become a driving force in my life, there are still many people in the world who live in contexts where poverty and under-development do not even merit a post office box. What might that say about the role of the arts in seeing lives and communities transformed?

In the US context, there is a movement in business and urban renewal that takes creativity very seriously. Nationally, the nonprofit arts and culture industry, now called the Creative Economy, generates “$166.2 billion in economic activity every year. ” In Philadelphia a recent report indicated that the non-profit arts produced “$573 million and provided 14,000 jobs, along with another 17,000 volunteer positions.”

However beautiful and intrinsically valuable, and economically viable, the arts have a much deeper function in the lives of people and their communities and their struggles to learn, live, work, play, and worship.  To millions of functionally non-literate people around the world, and global youth who are skipping the literate age through media technology, the creative arts communicate values, bring hope and healing in therapeutic ways, educate and create a true sense of identity and community.  And this is what I, and a growing group of artists, take very seriously in living out our faith through compassionate service and “justice arts” outside of the classroom.

At the core, arts in transformation bring an external expression of an inner reality, providing an opportunity for change. Life-changing arts create a critical awareness in which individuals may understand their place in the world and a way out of their circumstance.  Janelle Junkin, an Eastern and Drexel University graduate now working as a music therapist in Philadelphia, interned in 2001 with BuildaBridge to begin our first community program in Philadelphia. Sometimes there is a dark side to this external expression of inner realities.   From an art class in a homeless shelter a young boy drew alarming pictures of  setting a house on fire while brandishing a very large sword.  Upon investigation Janelle learned of the deep anger and resentment the young boy held for his grandmother who had basically kicked his family out on the streets.  By bringing his inner reality to an external expression, Janelle was able to intervene in what could have been an even greater tragic circumstance when the young boy could have acted on his internal rage.

Transforming arts have the potential to raise one out of, or improve, a situation in which people find themselves to a better way of thinking, believing, feeling, and ultimately living.  Several years ago we began to engage the arts in teaching life skills.  We call this program Create Opportunity.  Working with transitional kids in Philadelphia’s homeless shelters, we observed the need for creative approaches with family caregivers, as well.  Many of these caregivers do not even have a high school diploma. Through research by some Eastern University graduate students, we confirmed that information is most often shared orally.  One of the first people we met in this program was Chantelle (not her real name).  She watched as her two boys, shy and apathetic to school, came alive and even improved their academic standing through our drama class.  Receiving a grant from American Express, and with the help of a local banker and gaggle of local artists, we designed a financial literacy program called the Money News Network.  Utilizing a game show and soap opera format, this “arts plus” curriculum taught basic concepts of budgeting, savings, and banking.   Chantelle eagerly participated.  Just recently I spoke with Chantelle who now serves on our board. She exhuberantly reported that because of her training, and a lot of hard work, she had saved enough money to rent her first apartment. Purchasing a home is now in the picture.

Life-changing arts provides a sense of justice in the world demonstrating our love and concern for those with the least.  This past summer BuildaBridge partnered with the Bridging the Gap program of Drexel University and the Second Baptist Church of Germantown to offer a unique “arts plus” summer camp for transitional kids called Artology, a combination of art and biology.  In this beautiful facility, with graduate medical interns and professional artists as teachers, kids had the experience of studying biology and developing their artistic skills in the context of local parks, culminating in an art show at a local gallery.  Not only did the kids learn with excitement and intense focus, we were able to demonstrate that though their life situation may be one of temporary poverty, they were valued with the very best we have to offer.

So how do we help the people of Lalgarth?  For ten years we have been traveling the world providing training and direct service with volunteers.  Lalgarth is in the plans, but we can’t do it alone. By 2010 We have set the goal to recruit 1000 artists globally who will commit their time and talents to artistic justice at home and around the world.  We call this “Artists on Call” and already have begun to enlist, train, and facilitate artists around the world, as an extension of the many volunteers, including scores of Eastern University students who have volunteered and interned with us already. BuildaBridge is quickly approaching an annual budget of $.5 Million.  Many people are surprised that in ten years I (and my cofounder) have never taken a salary but volunteer our time.  We are fortunate to part of a university that encourages community service, and we have also been fortunate to be able commit parts of our salaries to support the work, especially in the early stages.  As the organization has grown, we have become scholar/practitioners, learning by experience about non-profit management, development, social service, education, and many other disciplines.  It is an experience that informs my  classroom teaching as part of the Eastern University Campolo School for Social Change.

Since 2002, BuildaBridge has conducted an Institute for Arts and Transformation.  Over 150 graduates from the US and abroad have come to Philadelphia to share, learn, dream and plan for artistic justice in action in their home communities.  This past year BuildaBridge signed a partnership agreement with Eastern University to offer the coursework for a new MA Urban Studies, Community Arts Concentration.  Our dream is to see these students, and more like them, serving in the toughest parts of our world, making a difference in the lives and communities of those in greatest need.  Artists have a very special place in community service and BuildaBridge is just one of the places in which many they act out their faith and find their calling in practice.

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