We are none of us unaware of the social and developmental issues that surround us. This inequality hits even harder when the disparity is extreme and local in a community. Some of the most affluent live alongside the most disadvantaged, and you don’t have to go far to see it. This article from ArtsFwd is the first part of an exploration into a project which hopes to tackle this in a new way. EmcArts is trying a different approach, where policy, history, and targets have failed.
What role can artists and arts agencies play in addressing the persistent challenges facing communities today—challenges relating to race, class, poverty, and power that are so deeply rooted in our history and society? For the past three years, EmcArts, a nonprofit service organization with a history of working at the intersection of the arts and organizational change, has been working in partnership with a few communities around the country to explore the Community Innovation Lab model as a new way of undertaking truly complex challenges by bridging the power of art with the muscles of “adaptive change.”
In the past five years, Dallas has been cited as the third fastest growing city and number one home to new millionaires.Yet Dallas is a tale of two cities: in the previous 10 years, the city’s fastest growing segment was the poor; and the city’s child poverty rate in 2016 was the highest among cities larger than 1 million people. Nearly two-thirds of the city fell at least 20% below the poverty level in 2015, with up to two-thirds of families falling below poverty in very large swathes of the southern part of the city. In this area, residents face over half an hour’s drive—and a considerably longer by bus—to find a full-scale supermarket with fresh produce and discount pricing.
Consequently, health disparities and diet-related health problems abound in this region. As local organizers worked with EmcArts to identify a specific complex challenge to focus on in the Community Innovation Lab, they honed in on this issue of “food deserts” and the unacceptable persistence of issues around access to healthy, affordable food.
confronting…complexity…by ensuring the inclusion of those actually impacted by the problem
City Halls are awash in plans: technical, professional responses suitable for common problems solvable by known best practices. Such approaches are less effective, however, in addressing long-standing, historic and intractable challenges, complex and interdependent, like food security, with its roots in not only health and nutrition but commoditisation, poverty, culture, mass marketing, education, criminal justice, housing, transportation, etc.
Built on the foundation of adaptive change, EmcArts’ Community Innovation Lab model emphasizes the importance of confronting such complexity not by relying on prior best practice and expert advice, but by ensuring the inclusion of those actually impacted by the problem, considering the full web of systems involved and our own positionality vis-a-vis the issue, and probing an array of multiple new ways forward, with the hope that some will gain traction and find leverage towards broader system change.