Best Practices in Community Arts Education
This guide by arts educator Sun of 'Voice of Purpose' details 4 categories for best practices in Community Arts Education.
Click the icon above to listen to an audio recording of Community Arts Education: Best Practices.
Community Arts Education is a professional sector in which the arts are used as a tool for engagement and empowerment, especially within marginalized communities and vulnerable sectors of society. Community Arts Education at its best provides a safe space for participants to explore their creativity and authentic self-expression. It seeks to address social and cultural issues relevant to participants; and provides an avenue for them to improve their sense of well-being.
When engaging in this work as an artist-educator or community facilitator, it’s important to remember that much of the work around Community Arts Education has been created to provide resources for creativity and artistic expression as an outlet in the context of and in response to systemic violence and inequality.
Here are 4 categories for best practices to keep in mind when engaging in Community Arts Education:
1) Holistic Well-Being (Safe Space)
Participants’ feelings of safety are absolutely paramount for all community-engaged work, arts-based or otherwise. This includes providing an environment in which participants are not only physically safe from danger, but where they feel a sense of social and emotional safety as well.
This is because at the heart, the work of Community Arts Education is about improving the state of well-being for our communities and the individuals within them. It is especially important to be mindful of this when working with marginalized communities or vulnerable sectors of society.
Feeling safe is the first step to improving our sense of well-being and healing from trauma. It’s something many of our communities are struggling with generationally and individually. This is not to say that all artist-educators should be engaging in facilitating “healing”, but what is being pointed to here is the context of the communities we are working in. More on this in the next section.
How we go about creating safe space depends on how our participants define safety for themselves. Each group is different; each person is different. Take the time to understand your participants and what they need to feel safe. Create a culture in your classrooms or workshops that encourages an environment of safety that is created collectively.
One idea is to create a “community agreement”: a set of guidelines created as a collective, and centred around what the members of the group identify as what they need to feel safe. This creates a set of ground rules which can be agreed upon by consensus and reinforced at each gathering.
Remember that “Safe Space” is not something that can just be declared to make it so. It is something that is alive in every moment or not. It is created through the constant and consistent effort of those within the space to show up for one another with respect, attentiveness, non-judgement, acceptance, and generosity (among the other things that the group may identify as things they need to feel safe).
2) Equity & Inclusion (Social Justice)
It is important to understand the social and historical contexts of the communities we work in. Do not ever make assumptions as to what is best for your participants or their needs before you really get to know them.
Some people live with visible barriers (such as physical disabilities), while others experience invisible barriers (such as financial difficulty, emotional trauma, or learning disabilities). As community-oriented artist educators, equity and inclusion must be top of mind alongside our priorities of creating safe space and a sense of well-being for our participants. In fact, the two go hand-in-hand.
Equity is a practice of cultivating the awareness of intersectional power dynamics and implementing active strategies to create balance within them.
Inclusion is when all individuals have access to full and fair participation in any given activity, event, or social situation.
When put into practice, equity and inclusion results in the development and implementation of strategies to support those who may face barriers to full and fair participation because they lack access, power, or resources. This work also requires an understanding of the function of privilege, and the inherent privileges that we may or may not walk with given our identities and positions within society.
This is deep work, and takes many years of learning and unlearning. Having a solid understanding and practice centered around honouring principles of equity is key to creating and holding safe space for your participants. Nuance can be everything in creating true safety and inclusion in your community arts education practice.
When thinking about equity, inclusion, and accessibility we must also take into consideration things such as learning styles (multi-modal learning and multiple literacies), cultural relevance and appropriation, gender-inclusive language and access to gender-neutral bathrooms, wheelchair accessibility, financial accessibility, etc.
Other things to research on your journey are the topics of anti-oppression and decolonization. Again, this work is multi-layered and very complex. Put in your due diligence to do the work of unpacking these ideas as an ongoing practice. There are no short-cuts to equity. It is hard and sometimes messy work, but it is absolutely necessary.
3) Authenticity & Identity (Empowerment)
Empowerment is not something that we can give to someone. One cannot ever ‘empower’ another person, let alone a community. Empowerment is an inside job, a state of acceptance and appreciation of oneself. It’s self-love. It is being in one’s own power. Standing in the fullness of one’s authenticity without apology or shame.
Before one can be empowered in one’s place of authenticity, they must know who they are. Exploration of one’s identity is a crucial step along the journey of embracing and embodying authenticity; a state of empowerment in one’s true self.
As community artist educators, one of the greatest gifts we can provide in our work is an opportunity for our participants to be in the fullness of their authenticity in their creative exploration and expression. When we can open and hold a space in which people feel safe enough to deepen into their vulnerability and open up, own their power, and express their authenticity through the artistic tools we have provided them, we are engaging in work that can be deeply empowering for our participants.
Connected to the first two sections, well-being, equity, inclusion, and empowerment are intrinsically tied to our sense of identity, and how safe we feel to be the fullness of who we are.
This requires you as the leader to be engaging your own work, embodying your own authenticity. Understanding your own personal identity in the context of the work around equity. This may mean discovering that you need to engage in some of your own work around healing. This is part of the process. Remember, healing is one of the most revolutionary things we can do. We too have internalized the toxic and destructive patterns passed down to us through the generations. We are not immune to the damage that has ravaged our communities and the world. To heal the world and our communities, we must first do the work to heal ourselves.
Best practices as a community arts educator or any sort of leader is to be in integrity, to be authentic, and rooted in your own identity. We must learn to embody the things we wish to inspire in our participants.
4) Creativity & Technique (Excellence)
Show up with your A game. Embody excellence in your artistic form, and in the way you plan and present your materials in your class or workshop. Be creative and encourage the same in your participants. Ground your lessons in technique. Remember that even though you are in a community space that you are an artist. Honour that. Remember to show up as the artist in your fullness, and don’t hold back when presenting your work.
Tailor your lessons to be accessible to your participants, but don’t compromise good form. When you teach your participants or students good technique, you provide them with a greater capacity for empowered creative self-expression. You are a teacher of your form. Hold yourself up to a standard of excellence as an educator. And teach using principle-based learning. This means grounding your lessons in core principles, as opposed to arbitrary lists of do’s and don’ts.
To use a metaphor, prioritize teaching someone the principles of painting as opposed to giving them a paint-by-number assignment. Provide your participants with an opportunity to learn tangible and valuable skills.
Honour the form, and where it came from. Pay tribute to the roots of your art-form, teach the foundations, not just the stylings and frills. Maintain your integrity as a professional artist.
In conclusion, remember to always be grounded in your primary objective as a community artist educator. Connect to your inner compass and come into alignment with your purpose. Ask yourself, what is the impact you wish you create in the world through your work as an artist and educator? Stay true to your calling, know who you are, and who you are here to serve, and never ever stop learning. The best teachers are forever students. Remember that you have as much, if not more, to learn from your students and participants as they do from you.
Remain humble and strive always to be your most authentic self. Be kind to yourself along the way. We are all humans trying to do the best we can. We may not always have the answers, we may fall flat on our faces from time to time, but that’s ok. Always strive to learn from your mistakes as opposed to resolving in blame or defeat. Grow to the best of your ability.
If you are unsure about something, ask questions. Engage life and your practice with curiosity. Know that to show up in integrity, to be the embodiment of all of the things covered above takes work. Nothing happens overnight. Stay diligent, dedicated, and committed to yourself and the communities you are here to serve. You are powerful, and the world needs you and your work as a community artist educator.
This concludes the brief overview of some of the best practices in Community Arts Education. We recommend that you take time to delve into each topic on your own, and explore outside of these ideas as well, as there are many other things to consider when exploring the topic of “best practices”. This particular overview was provided using the lens of the Purpose Rooted Arts Education pedagogy.
For more information or if you have additional questions about the perspective provided in this Critical Narrative, feel free to contact Sun at VoiceOfPurpose.org.
Neighbourhood Arts Network Suggested Reading
Canada Council for the Arts Equity Policy (April, 2007).
Safe Spaces for Learning (Dept of Geography, Diversity/Inclusivity Workshop Autumn 2013)
Cromwell, N. Equity & Inclusion: Arts Leading The Way (n.d.).
Neighbourhood Arts Network, Arts and Equity Toolkit (n.d.)
Ontario Arts Council, Framing Community: A Community Engaged Art Workshop (February 2017).
Park, S. Purpose Rooted Arts Education (n.d.).
Peel. N. Equity as My Lens (Neighbourhood Arts Network (online).
Stanford Social Innovation Review. Increasing Equity and Inclusion in the Arts. (2018).
WorkInCulture, Teaching Tips for an Inclusive Workshop (2019).
Teaching Tolerance, Five Standards of Effective Pedagogy (n.d.)