Nourishing Vitality In Co-Creation
Developing the conditions that lead to social change — to new ways of
relating across differences— requires attention, intention, and skills and practices that are often overlooked in a world of consumerism, service systems, and social industries.
Looking back over the past 50 years of activism co-creating possibilities in
collaboration with people with intellectual disabilities and those who love
them, we see that creative practices hold a powerful place in social change.
The experience of co-creation is deepened and magnified through engaging
in social arts. The u-school For Transformation speaks of Social Arts as
“applying the arts and creative practices to create new possibilities and transform individuals, groups and systems.”
Through art forms introduced in social spaces people can see themselves more clearly, individually and collectively engaging more intensely in changing patterns that limit development. Social art practices invite collective participation, deepening relationships, igniting activism, and strengthening courage to move toward fresh possibilities.
We are exploring creativity and vital elements that contribute to social change,
enabling us to become intentional designers of generative spaces that foster
and celebrate vibrant and restorative relationships across our differences. We
will investigate living examples that help illustrate the richness of multi-
dimensional approaches to transformational change.
The Art of Social Change
art: skill acquired by experience, study, or observation; the conscious use of skill and imagination to create social: living with others change: to alter, make different
Creating social change, is the work of forming and deepening bonds in
relationships across difference. We view it as art, engaging creative practices
to bring imagination to life, to make the invisible visible, to innovate and create
new ways of being together.
Throughout human history the arts have played a foundational role in
sustaining our humanity, communicating what is important for our survival,
and shaping how we can, and do, live together.
There is much to learn from the practices of people who have committed to practices of creating and making through traditional understandings of art forms (painters, sculptors, photographers, composers and musicians, dancers and
choreographers, performance, poets, story writers and story tellers,
gardeners, chefs, and hosts, to name a few). Their practices and experience
can inform and guide our efforts to create social change.
Many of us who have worked in partnership with people with disabilities and
their families, have approached this long history through a lens of creativity
and co-creativity, engaging modes of art, imagination, improvisation, and
innovation, hosting and hospitality, in service of building communities of
belonging, weaving the gifts and wisdom of all people, spanning diversity
across literacy, modes of communication, and culture.
We ask ourselves, “what more is possible?”. We imagine desirable futures, Martin Luther King Jr's vision of the “Beloved Community” (a phrase introduced by philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce). We explore what we can do with what is available to us, to create experiences that broaden and deepen our relationships? We seek to engage in the co-creation of something bigger than ourselves, something that moves us beyond the all too common experience of disconnection, isolation, and loneliness.
Loneliness and isolation is an all too common history and experience for people identified as intellectually disabled, but in 2023 The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community, brought attention to the widespread its presence in US society in "Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation", and what this calls for now:
“We are called to build a movement to mend the social fabric of our nation. It will take all of us—individuals and families, schools and workplaces, health care and public health systems, technology companies, governments, faith organizations, and communities—working together to destigmatize loneliness and change our cultural and policy response to it.”
Creation is central to social change. The future we desire won’t just happen, it
must be created.
Social arts inject traditional creative art practices into the realm of social relationships, activating co-creation. Many art forms and practices are engaged to support people to see themselves differently, to make visible patterns that limit our individual and collective development, and make a move to break through. Social art forms invite collective practices, that expand and deepen relationships, ignite activism, and strengthen our courage to move toward fresh possibilities.
Social art combines awareness of our internal state, while imagining desirable
collective futures, and what our healthy future is calling us toward. Arawana Hayashi (originator of Social Presencing Theater) and Ricardo Dutra Goncalves, speak of how we might discover what WE can do next, how we can find our "true move" that links the past with a co-created future,
Exploring the topic of co-creation based on collective wisdom assumes that people are able to collaborate from a place of awareness and collective wisdom. Co-creation arises from awareness and that awareness contains wisdom; a knowing of what is true and how to proceed. This knowing is not based on job title, level of education, or cleverness. It arises from open-mindedness to the unknown (i.e., fresh ideas and experiences) and open-heartedness toward others. Wisdom knows the truth of a situation. Creativity arises from being completely present in the very moment of experience, not trapped in the past or conceptualizing a future. Agency arises as the “true move” (Trungpa, 1996)—an action or word that arises, not from preconceived ideas, but from open awareness.
Co-Creating Inclusive Communities
People with disabilities, with families and friends who love them, inherit a long
and deep history of social exclusion, rejection, isolation, and devaluation,
simply because of who they are. In fact our whole society inherits this history.
The experience is systemic. The impact is deeply personal. It shapes our
sense of who we are, and the fabric of relationships in our families,
neighborhoods, and communities.
This history is built upon structured hiearchy intended to "keep people in their place", as Isabel Wilkerson speaks of in her book, "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent"
“rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.”
It can be overwhelming and immobilizing.
It is clear to anyone who cares about someone with a disability that there is a
need to change our social reality. We are all called to engage in what DeAmon Harges and Mike Mather, two masterful community cultivators and authors, call “100 year work” (a phrase coined by Mike's mentor, Phil Amerson) that crosses generations and lifetimes, the work of changing the ways we see and value all people, reforming structures and systems to include all citizens.
And then there is the work of NOW, doing what we can with what we have to
make more possible in the lives of people and places we care about right
where we live.
Studios, Gardens, and Kitchens: Making Spaces for Social Change
Over decades we have witnessed the value in generative spaces for making,
growing, cooking up, social change. Metaphors of studios, gardens, kitchens,
as places to practice creating, and co-creating, serve as guides to discover
ways of being together that hold the capacity to heal and restore our social
body. These spaces provide for studying the art of social change, what it
takes to imagine, re-vision, re-align, cultivate, expand and deepen our
relationships with one another.
Studios are “working places of artists”, places for practicing art, creating, and
making. Studios are also “places for the study of an art”. In this way social
change studios are places of practice, and exploring ideas, learning from the
stories and experiences of others.
In "Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us", by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, Maria Rosario Jackson (Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts) speaks of "cultural kitchens", co-creation spaces, as,
“…places where people come to be generative, to interrogate individual and collective intention and public good,”…the work that happens there is about repair, nourishment, and evolution, about making and sharing. Art, culture, creativity, and heritage are essential parts of the mix.” As is the case at home, how others are invited in is up to the host. The key is that people get to decide their own path. Cultural kitchens can take many forms, but they all ask well, who am I, who are we in this evolving context, what do I/we bring? What does it mean to be bringing my/our voice or contributions forward?
Magsamen and Ross reference MacArthur Genius Fellow, Emmanuel Pratt’s work in Sweet Water Foundation inspiring the sense that there is nothing quite as tangible as the down in the dirt experience of gardening…together.
“Gardening is one of those glorious hybrid forms of aesthetic expression that is beneficial to both the creator and the beholder.”
Social arts created in the generative spaces of social change “studios”, “kitchens”, and “gardens”, provide the opportunity for us to find our way of participating at
any given moment, as maker, or audience, both beneficial, both restorative.
Social change making and growing spaces, serve to restore vitality to the
social body, in experiences of belonging through co-creation. These life giving
spaces combine imagination, action, and reflection, to make the invisible (what
is inside or hidden) visible, and embody the experience of co-creating
belonging, the human desire to feel like we are part of something bigger than
Social change spaces pay attention to qualities of place and human
interaction that influence the dynamics of people relating with one another;
the organization of space; aesthetics, color, sound; a human experience of
invitation and welcome; support for participation. Social artist, Kelvy Byrd, speaks of our intention, and the importance of attending to the spaces we create,
“The weakness or strength of a container determines the likelihood for detrimental or successful conversation, for harmful or loving relations, for destructive or productive environments, for ill or well-being.”
Identifying What Matters in Making Space for Social Change
Over the last 50 years we have been paying attention to what moves us
toward social change, making experiences of belonging real and possible.
How and why we bring people together matters; to forming and deepening
relationships; to learning; to imagining; and to creating communities that can
Space matters - Creation and design of the space we gather in matters.
Being clear about the intention we hold in places where we come together, its
purpose, is essential. Attention to the details of how space is designed, what
is available, where it is available, and how it looks and feels, influence and
shape what is possible for creators.
Hosting the “social” in social change - Social change is about
relationships. Welcoming and attending to the people who enter a space
intended to foster co-creation is critical. How people feel about being in the
space will impact how they choose to participate in the co-creation process.
It involves guiding people in how we can speak and listen, so that connection
and understanding result, and co-creation is inspired.
Our inner condition- What is going on inside of us, affects how we relate
with others. Deepening our understanding of what is within us (thoughts,
feelings, images…) uncovers the substance of what we can bring to a
process of co-creating social change. Creating time and space for people to
focus awareness and attention, through mindfulness and contemplation
practices is vital to a process of co-creation.
Social arts - practice in creating and making, together - Social artists,
bring the skills of their art practice into the social realm. They engage, and/or
introduce people to a creative “making” process, that impacts on the sense of
self, and the self in relationship to others.
Social artists provide tangible, embodied experiences of creating, that can
provide insights to “a way of being in the world” that can inform our practice
in social change. Social artists activate imagination and embodiment.
Study - Exploring new ideas, perspectives, ways of seeing, frameworks for
reflecting on reality, and stories can shift what we do, and how we choose to
engage in relationships.
Practices and rituals - Over time collectively we learn about habits,
practices, and rituals that bring us into a place of deeper openness and rskill
in creation, co-creation, and forming binds in relationships. We learn what
assists our co-creative process.
Curation…the story that we were once here - Along the way
there are experiences and things we make that become artifacts of where
were at a point in time in our process of co-creating change. Visual images,
photographs, videos, stories, poetry, music, reflect a moment in time that can
serve as a reference point for reflection in a future moment.
Looking Back/Looking Forward
“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Steve Jobs
Fifty years ago the dehumanizing treatment of people deemed to have an
intellectual disability who were placed in institutions, was exposed in the
United States. Similar expositions appeared around the world. They all
contributed to raising the consciousness of who we are as a society, and
questioned who we want to be. They activated a journey of people
committed to reclaiming the humanity and citizenship of people, and
discovery of their place as members who belong in families, neighborhoods,
Our intention is to reveal stories of people and places that have made space
for a vital quest of social change that fosters the growth of communities that
can celebrate diversity and belonging.
In looking back we hope to test and clarify our hypothesis of elements of
vitality that can be carried forward into the next 50 years of “100 year work”,
and identify other sources and practices that can keep the effort to co-create