Unfortunately, my summer at Arts for All has come to an end. I am so grateful to everyone at the LA County Arts Commission, and the generosity of the Maguire Center and Irby Family Foundation, for making this experience possible. The aims of the internship, as described by the Maguire Center, are that “students gain concrete information about others’ needs, as well as differing perspectives on how to resolve them. In the process, they draw on their university education and personal talent, honing skills as leaders and gaining both humility and self-confidence.”
I can safely say that Arts for All provided me with these opportunities and experiences. Here are some of the topics that have been rattling around my brain the last few weeks and months, as I was able to immerse myself in arts education work in both Dallas and LA.
There is no doubt that serious issues exist in our country surrounding equitable education opportunities. Countless organizations and initiatives designed to address these disparities have been formed, yet we are no closer to solving the problem. Many funders and donors are placing an increased emphasis on measurability of impact, while many organizations are reluctant and even resentful of this new emphasis. While I can certainly appreciate that there are organizations doing meaningful work that cannot (or do not have the resources to be) measured, I think it is paramount for both funders and organizations themselves to quantify the impact they have on educational inequities. I feel lucky to have worked with two organizations — Big Thought and Arts for All — that place a high emphasis on collecting data tracking the impact of their programs, and this has certainly informed my own opinions.
The responsibility of organizations to collaborate
More importantly, I would love to see an increased level of collaboration among education organizations working toward the same goals. This summer, I was introduced to the work of John Kania, specifically his article Collective Impact, which appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review. Kania discusses the need for nonprofits, funders, and community leaders to abandon individual agendas in favor of a collective approach to solving societal issues.
I’d recommend this article to anyone passionate about social change. It articulates many of the issues I’ve been considering in recent months. Mostly, I have been frustrated by arts and education organizations’ hesitancy to collaborate. There are so many cooks in the kitchen, theoretically working toward the same goal, but these organizations too often treat each other as competitors and not collaborators.
Kania turns this assumption on its head — if nonprofits are formed to address a societal need, then forming connections with similar organizations should take priority over any one organization’s individual agenda. He calls this “collective impact.” I like to think of it as making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. If organizations and leaders look more for mission alignment among disparate community stakeholders, the collective impact of these organizations will be greater than if they each work in a vacuum. These ideas have rung particularly true because of my recent experiences: Arts for All was founded on the idea of collective impact, and Big Thought is one of the more successful examples of a collective impact initiative in creative education.
The role of funders in solving education inequities
As my main project focused on the arts education funding universe of LA County, I became very familiar with the scope and role of foundations in supporting arts education. Kania suggests a transition to a scenario in which funders also collaborate in their own collective impact initiative. As Kania describes, “Collective impact requires instead that funders support a long-term process of social change without identifying any particular solution in advance. They must be willing to let grantees steer the work and have the patience to stay with an initiative for years, recognizing that social change can come from the gradual improvement of an entire system over time, not just from a single breakthrough by an individual organization.” This philosophy speaks to me as a solution for societal issues. If funders begin to collaborate and prioritize collective impact initiatives, then organizations and providers will inevitably place a higher emphasis on it as well.
This is my last blog post of the summer. I appreciate your reading this far, and I hope you were able to learn a little about the arts, government agencies, and educational issues.