Story by Camille LeFevre | Photos by Brian Schneider and David Turner
“In Liberia, as in so many other countries, young people have policy enacted upon them,” says Jasmine Blanks Jones (MPP ’10) as she begins to explain why she co-founded a theater for youth in that country. “Theater is an art form in which young actors can say things, while in character, that they couldn’t say in other contexts. They can take on the role of a person in power and introduce new options for thinking about living a fuller life or envision different ways their lives could be.”
Blanks Jones is one of a number of Humphrey School alumni working in the arts, a position from which they believe they can best solve problems or even change government policies. In her case, the seed of an idea to do so was planted when she was a student at the Humphrey School and heard Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, then president of Liberia, deliver the Distinguished Carlson Lecture. The talk made a profound impact, inspiring her thesis topic (she researched ways arts education could serve communities) and her ongoing concern for people in Liberia.
Shortly after graduating, Blanks Jones, who has worked as a music educator, theater artist, and dancer, met with Rosana Schaack, a former international Humphrey Fellow and executive director of a Liberian NGO called Touching Humanity in Need of Kindness (THINK). They talked about the lack of arts programs in that country and ways to apply Blanks Jones’ thesis. They discussed who needed services the most: young people, particularly girls. They brainstormed goals and possibilities. They talked about the meaning of arts programs in the country’s post-conflict context.
Those meetings resulted in Blanks Jones and THINK opening Liberia’s first post-war performing arts school, B4 Youth Theatre, named for its mission: Burning Barriers, Building Bridges. Their concept was to use theater to educate and empower young people to promote positive social and policy change.
B4’s first production, Problems to Solve, written and performed by students from an orphanage, focused on the fact that after eighth grade, Liberian students had to pay for school and many couldn’t afford to go. “What does it mean for your dignity and emerging womanhood?” Blanks Jones asks rhetorically, thinking about how lack of education affects girls in particular. “A policy change would create stronger, more educated citizens.”
On makeshift stages, the boys and girls revealed hidden talents. They enacted vignettes, sang songs, and performed dances that dramatized how lack of education limits intellectual growth and social prospects. Heartfelt yet smart and engaging, their performances were infused with emotions that spoke deeply of their passion for reform.
They even performed for President Johnson Sirleaf at Monrovia City Hall. “People working in policy often don’t have time to visit sites that policies touch, but if you bring the issues to them in the form of a performance, they gain deeper insight,” Blanks Jones explains. “They can also see, for policies not yet created, what the potential consequences could be, which is phenomenal.”
Not only did the media extensively cover the production, its young actors, and their message, the president was reportedly moved. The next year, as part of an overhaul of Liberian public education, free and compulsory public school for all Liberian children was extended through grade nine.
Through the arts, B4 Theatre empowers young actors “to become the people holding the knowledge; to become the community members who can teach, lead, and help solve problems,” Blanks Jones says. More than 400 children have been trained since the program started and some of these students are now instructors. The students have performed stage plays and street theater, even participating in voter education initiatives.
Challengers and Rule Breakers
The arts have long been deployed to advance the common good, for through metaphor, imagery and symbolism, emotion, and intellect, art reaches people. “We often forget that people make the rules, that organizations are made up of people, and that people can change those rules,” says Arleta Little (MPP ’10), a poet and writer who is an arts program officer and director of artist fellowships at the McKnight Foundation, Minneapolis. “The rules require constant testing for their relevance and impact as our communities change and our culture shifts,” she adds.
Little believes artists are suited to do that work. “Artists are outstanding at catalyzing social cohesion; they’re great at creating space for inquiry and dialogue among people with different viewpoints,” she says. “Artists are also incredibly good at engaging and mobilizing. All of these skills are important in a well-functioning, 21st-century democracy.”
When artists assume leadership roles, they become “change agents, people who are evolving socially relevant artistic practices that will stimulate and advance a critical consciousness,” Little says, adding that artists in leadership positions are decision makers who are exercising power. To do that, she explains, they need to have “a critical consciousness on what social change work means for the community in which they’re working.”
Little credits her Humphrey education and a previous position as executive director of the Givens Foundation for African American Literature with furthering her own consciousness of the degree to which policies can exclude people. “We need to have policies that actually advance and support the communities we want to see develop and that we want to live in, to improve the quality of life for all so that variables of geography, race, and gender are not predictors of outcomes,” she says.
Viewing philanthropy as social change work, Little works on multiple fronts. She participates in the foundation’s diversity, equity, and inclusion advisory group. As a board member for Grantmakers in the Arts, she’s McKnight’s liaison with a national organization that emphasizes racial equity in arts philanthropy. She’s a member of the Twin Cities Racial Equity Funders Collaborative, “where we’re actively engaged in trying to crack the nut of funding more equitably,” she says, “which means changing the decision-making structures and inclusivity of our philanthropic institutions.”
One initiative McKnight funded was Creative CityMaking, a partnership between Intermedia Arts and the City of Minneapolis. The unprecedented, multi-year project embedded 16 highly skilled community artists in five Community Planning and Economic Development divisions. Theresa Sweetland (MURP ’08) and Gulgun Kayim, director of arts, culture, and creative economy for the city, came up with the idea for the effort.
“It was a grand experiment,” says Sweetland, executive director of Intermedia Arts when the project’s pilot was starting in 2013. The collaborators worked to align their efforts with the city’s racial equity goals. A key to the work was bringing new voices into the planning process.
Sweetland recalls one project designed to solicit input from young people about the Dinkytown neighborhood. Artists built a mini mobile history museum and pulled it behind a bicycle around the neighborhood, which includes the University of Minnesota campus. “The idea was to take the planning meeting to them,” Sweetland says. In another project in North Minneapolis, artists hung out at bus stops, playing games and interacting with people in order to learn what they wanted for their community.
“The planners took major risks to try something new,” Sweetland says, “and the projects resulted in 80 percent more resident participation in the communities in which they occurred.”
The pilot wrapped in December 2016, but the work is ongoing, now operated by the city. “The planners say they can’t imagine working without an artist, so measurable change happened,” Sweetland says. “The city now recognizes that artists and their creative strategies are the way to reach racial equity and community engagement goals, and cities across the country are studying Creative CityMaking for use in their own departments.”
Now executive director of Forecast Public Art in St. Paul, Sweetland leads a team that works with more than 30 public and private partners every year on public art commissions, master plans, artist residencies, and capacity building for artists and others including city planners. For example, Forecast helped the City of Fargo develop a public art master plan that reflects the increasing cultural diversity of the region and draws on local talent.
Forecast is also spreading the word about the value of the arts. In partnership with the American Planning Association, it is developing online courses for city planners on the relationship between public art and healthy communities. Two initial online courses will launch in late 2018.
The impact of creative endeavors can’t always be quantified in ways city officials expect, observes Jonathan Oppenheimer, who before earning his Master of Public Policy in 2017, initiated the Midway Murals project. A collaboration among four experienced public artists, the Hamline Midway neighborhood, and immigrant business owners along a half-mile stretch of heavily trafficked Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, the project resulted in four murals that capture and celebrate the community’s culture.
“I can’t look anyone in the eye and say the project brought in X number of dollars in economic development,” Oppenheimer says. “I can’t say it reduced graffiti by a certain percentage, or that it brought in new small businesses. What the project did do was build community pride and engagement. In a very real way, it changed perceptions about the neighborhood. It says that people value the arts. It highlights immigrant business owners in a welcoming and supportive way. To this day, people tell me how meaningful it is and how inspired they are to continue doing this work.”
And Midway Murals became the cornerstone for an ongoing public art workgroup that brings together community members with diverse backgrounds to brainstorm new ideas and sites for public art, maintain existing murals, support emerging artists, and plan the expansion of the Snelling Avenue art corridor in future years.
Whether by making grants, founding arts organizations, influencing grantmakers’ decisions, or working with city planners and community groups, Humphrey alumni are working through the arts to change policies and improve communities. They’ve found that art can, as Oppenheimer says, “bring people into a discussion about building community, promoting economic development, and bridging cultural divides.”
Moreover, they’re seeing that art can have profound effects. As Blanks Jones has discovered about theater, art can empower people to be change agents who, in turn, can teach, lead, and solve problems in their communities—even, she adds, “if just through imagining, while performing on a stage for a small community in Liberia.”
Camille LeFevre is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and architecture.