In Order Have Social Impact, They Had To Kill The Social Impact Statement

If you haven’t seen it already, it is worth reading Joanna Jones’ piece on Medium about how the Oakland Museum of California developed and then abandoned their social impact statement.

One of the central identity problems non-profits face is generating statements of mission, goals, etc that are meaningful and alive for the organization. Creating these statements is seen as a necessary evil for strategic plans, grant applications, etc and are filed away until it comes time to revise them for the new strategic plan or copy it down on a grant application.

But people join non-profit organizations with the hope that they can make a difference. Even if it is contrary to whatever is written on the reference document gathering dust in the filing cabinet, every organization should have some aspirational statement of purpose they are telling new hires that actually aligns with the organizational practice.  (Making enough money to meet payroll doesn’t count.)

Now, the thing that everyone thinks they are doing that keeps them coming to work every morning still may not be the most practical and realistic. That was the issue that Jones says the Oakland Museum quickly came to recognize. In 2017, they created a social impact statement that, “OMCA makes Oakland a more equitable and caring city.”

Focus groups asked whether a museum could really solve the problems contributing to the lack of equity and caring in the city. The museum’s internal stakeholders also questioned the viability of the statement.

The museum invited six experts on social impact to spend two days participating in convenings and museum activities. While these experts were excited and energized by the reach and inclusion of museum events, they too were skeptical about the social impact statement. They wondered how the museum could ever meet the myriad concepts people would have about what equity and caring looked like.

After a lot of work, conversation and introspection, Jones writes that they realized they didn’t actually need a social impact statement,

Rather, we simply needed to articulate the problem our community is facing that we are uniquely suited to address, the best solution we believe exists for that problem, and the concrete and tangible outcomes we’re going to measure that will demonstrate our positive social impact.

The problem we’re trying to solve is social fragmentation.

The community of Oakland is presently undergoing significant fallout from inequities within institutions, the state, and civil society resulting in a decline in social cohesion and an increase in social exclusion.

Our contribution is facilitating greater social cohesion.

[…]

We will know that we are achieving that impact–creating greater social cohesion–when our Museum visitors say that they:

  • feel welcome at OMCA
  • see their stories reflected at OMCA
  • connect with other people at OMCA, and
  • feel comfortable expressing their own ideas and are open to the ideas of others at OMCA

What I valued about this piece was the discussion of the process they went through to come to this realization. There are statements of purpose non-profit organizations are obligated to have. There are some statements/actions organizations may feel self-obligated to enact in order to adhere to trends or to remain relevant. But these may not be relevant or constructive to the developing organizational identity. I was glad to see they recognized that while it was valuable to enunciate a clear purpose, their statement didn’t necessarily need to conform to a specific definition.

Things To Ponder When Endeavoring To Tell Other People’s Stories

There is a lot of conversation about the need for people to see themselves and their interests reflected in arts and cultural experiences if arts and cultural organizations were going to remain relevant.  I saw an article on Arts Professional UK that gave examples of what organizations across the Pond were doing along these lines. Many of the observations about the challenges involved which are just as true in the US as the UK.

Tamsin Curror opens by citing, Glenn Jenkins, who has collaborated on projects with her organization,

“Imagine a scenario where all of the creative choices in your own home, the colour and style of the decor, the music you play and the films you watch were all up to somebody else to decide. This would be pretty disempowering, yet in our neighbourhoods or collective homes this is exactly how it is…”

This is the perception people can have when entities create a work purporting to reflect the experience of a group of people without the involvement and input of those who are/were part of the experience.

As much as we in the arts and cultural sector believe that what we offer contains a degree of universality with which everyone can identify, that may not be the perception in every community.

Project Director, Nancy Barrett, says: “A lot of touring work didn’t ‘speak’ to diverse urban communities and we needed to create something that would resonate with the intended audience.”

As I was reading that I wondered if this has always been the case and the greater arts and cultural community hasn’t recognized it because the focus of work has been so oriented toward a middle-class, Caucasian experience. Or if perhaps the isolating effect of social media has magnified the feeling that no one else shares your experience.

If you are only seeing the best selves of those around you rather than engaging in conversations about the boring, difficult situations they face, and therefore don’t feel you have much in common with your neighbor, it may be doubly difficult to discern shared universal themes in a creative work.

It isn’t saying anything new to observe that the time and energy required to build an authentic relationship with the communities with whom you wish to be involved in telling their stories is pretty prohibitive for most non-profit arts and cultural organizations. Added to that is something I hadn’t fully considered – the disconnect between relationship building and the funding cycle. (my emphasis)

“You need to build good relationships with people on a permanent basis, not just be pulling people in…. because if they think you’re just someone that comes in and then goes… you’re a one trick pony,” said a resident of Mereside Estate in Blackpool.

We’ve learnt that you can’t underestimate the time needed to really listen, facilitate and build mutual trust and respect. Being transparent and open about the process and budgets is also key. There’s got to be a genuine, long-term approach, and this raises questions about responsibility to the communities we work with and how to sustain this work over long periods within shorter-term funding contexts.

If You Like Classical Music And Are In A Movie, You Just Might Be The Depraved Villain

This past weekend, Artsjournal.com had a number of articles on the benefits of the arts.

One in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked if Mozart could make you a better runner. The basis of the author’s argument was more about beats per minute helping to set your pace than attributing any special benefit of classical music. You could do worse than downloading the suggested classical music playlist to accompany your exercise routine.

Another piece in the Pacific Standard discussed a recent study in Florida finding the benefits of integrating arts into classwork. I write a lot about the problems associated with valuing the arts for their instrumental value. I won’t reiterate it here. Apparently pairing having students sing, etc lesson content helped students who struggle retain content for a longer period.

“Overall, the researchers found no significant differences in the amount of content the kids retained, regardless of which version of the lessons they received. But the arts-infused approach had a positive effect on “struggling readers.” Ten weeks later, those kids “remembered significantly more science content learned through the arts” than those who were taught using conventional methods.”

The article I wanted to draw attention to today was the observation that movie characters who listen to classical music are often the central villain. This has been pointed out before, but in The American Scholar, Theodore Gioia, has an interesting theory about why that is.

Evil is a byproduct of brainpower. The implication is that aesthetic sophistication and psychopathic violence spring from the same mentality, a decadent hyperintelligence that becomes so cultivated that it savors homicide as a refined pleasure like Baroque cello. Slaughtering civilians and appreciating Vivaldi are depicted as two forms of the same psychosis, a connection hammered into the popular imagination in film after film, scene after scene, for the past quarter century.

[…long snip…]

Why do our films depict sociopaths murdering to Mozart and not Metallica? Why must master criminals always time their nuclear strikes at curtain time? The answer runs deeper than box-office populism and derivative filmmaking. How a society pictures its villains is a revelation of its own anxieties. Opera-house assassinations, while a familiar trope, still strike a chord of Everyman angst deep in the American subconsciousness: a vein of populist paranoia that suspects the shiny trappings of high society—galas, gowns, orchestras—exist to disguise the brutal source of its wealth. Decorum is an accomplice to depravity. That we imagine secret cabals planning world domination at Tosca rather than Davos exposes something about our unspoken apprehensions, tells us that the public does not fear perversity or power so much as deception. These scenes materialize the phantom suspicion that the real threat to the Common Man is not the raving lunatic in the streets but the polite psychopath in the opera box. We mistake malevolence as sophistication because it’s wearing a suit and a tie.

Gioia goes on to relate a “we need younger audiences” conversation he had with a front office employee of the San Francisco Symphony. Gioia says they covered the usual culprits of cost, lack of diversity, strange rituals, no arts in schools, etc,. In retrospect, he wondered if a shift from classical music accompanying Looney Tunes cartoons to decades of accompanying depictions of maniacal criminality might be fueling a subconscious distrust of the music.

A Good Community Is An Asset To An Arts Organization

I frequently urge people not to focus on the value of the arts in terms of economic impact on the community. Not only do the arts bring other forms of value to the community, but what is frequently un(der)mentioned is that the community provides reciprocal value to the arts organization.

We had the tour of a Broadway show come through a couple weeks ago. I was speaking with a local store owner who I know is a big fan of Broadway musicals and had attended the show. He mentioned that a number of cast members had come into his store and he had been thrilled to engage in some pretty lengthy conversations with them.

In fact, on the return visit of one person, the shop owner almost inadvertently revealed the purchase of a Valentine’s Day gift in front of the customer’s wife who was accompanying him at the time. The shop owner reveled in the experience of quickly changing what he was saying mid-sentence and sharing a knowing look with the husband.

The shop owner had mentioned local attractions, including a national monument, which the visitors were excited to learn about.

Based on this anecdote, I figured there must have been numerous other interactions with individuals and businesses throughout town and posted a general thank you on social media to everyone in the community who had shown the cast and crew kindness and hospitality during their visit. I mentioned the shop owner had directed some people to the national monument and tagged both the shop and the monument. At the very least, I thought it was good PR to employ outwardly focused messaging.

I didn’t necessarily think that the cast members had visited the monument.  They apparently did and identified themselves (or were recognized) because the folks at the national monument replied about how nice the cast and crew members were and their interest in information about the monument. The shop owner also posted his delight upon learning they had taken him up on his suggestion.

I have had similar experiences in other places I have worked. Local residents have been thrilled to have conversations in passing on the streets and coffee shops. I have had visiting artists express how friendly and helpful local residents were to them without knowing who they were.

One of my most favorite stories is from when a flamenco group and the guest services manager of a hotel struck up such a strong friendship, the guest services manager went to visit them in Spain a few months later. I never had any problems with getting performers early check in for years after that so it was a big win for everyone.

Bottom line though. As much as great events can bolster the reputation and appeal of your organization in the community, a good community can bolster the reputation and appeal of your organization among performers. A pleasant neighborhood with a wide choice of shops and restaurants isn’t just an asset to promote to attendees who want to grab something to eat before the show, visiting performers value those amenities as much, if not more.

Don’t think word and personnel don’t circulated among artists. I was trying to describe our wardrobe facilities and green room to a company we had never worked with before in an email and one of the guys responded that he had been here before and sent pictures he had on file of our wardrobe facilities and green room.

Every little thing counts.

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