Three Case Studies: Innovating at the Intersections of Arts and Social Justice

Featuring Alternate ROOTS, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, and The Theater Offensive, this rich and rigorous publication examines the contours, possibilities and limitations of adaptive change for three arts and social justice organizations in our Labs.

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 2.32.22 PM

EmcArts launched its Innovation Labs for the Arts seven years ago to support organizations in incubating innovation projects – conceiving, designing and testing new strategies to achieve public value. Since then, we have supported 49 organizations in growing their capacity for adaptability, resiliency and innovation.

A few years ago, we were energized (and curious) to discover that some of the groups applying to participate in our Labs sat at the intersection of the arts and social justice sectors. These organizations were museums, performing arts, and arts development agencies that had social justice missions and mandates, and were deeply connected to histories of social movements in their respective communities. In our Labs, they were negotiating the productive messiness of adaptive change in ways that impacted their artistic practices and positioning, community and stakeholder engagement, and their social justice values and vision.

Key Questions

We really wanted to learn from the experiences of these unique groups. We wondered (alongside Caron Atlas of Arts and Democracy, who wrote an introductory essay to the case studies):

  • Could our Labs support and strengthen adaptive change efforts of organizations that hold both artistic practice and social equity at the heart of their work?
  • Are there innovation and adaptive change frameworks, strategies, strengths and limitations that are different for these intersectional groups – as compared to arts-only organizations?
  • Are our Innovation Labs for arts organizations useful in the context of social justice movements, where long-term change occurs through many actors and at many levels, including through networks and community-based coalitions?

These questions are especially resonant for us as we enter the pilot year of our Community Innovation Labs program, which will leverage local cross-sector partnerships in order to anchor adaptive change for social equity within communities. Read more posts about Community Innovation Labs here.

To explore these questions (and several more) about the nature of innovation in these hybrid organizations, we commissioned four writers to gather stories, conduct research and process and impact analysis. We focused on the Innovation Lab experiences of three organizations: Alternate ROOTS, Hull-House Museum, and the Theater Offensive (TTO). All three of these organizations are connected to national social movements for equity and justice. For instance, Hull House Museum in Chicago emerged from the settlement movement for immigrant rights; TTO produces art for and by queer and trans youth in Boston, and Alternate ROOTS’ mission is to dismantle all forms of social and economic oppression in the U.S South.

Download the Case Studies

In their year-long Innovation Labs, these organizations tackled the following complex challenges:

  • Hull House Museum integrated the intentional practice of “slowing down” in order to facilitate a shift in assumptions about what success and inclusion looks like for museums. They launched The Porch Project which animated the public space of their 1300 square foot wrap-around porch. Through the The Porch Project, they re-examined internal priorities around curatorial control and community engagement, and hosted public dialogues about how race, class and gender shape access to leisure and public space.
Hull-House Museum offered public dialogues about immigration on their front porch during the summer.
The Porch Project at Hull-House Museum offered public dialogues about immigration during the summer.
  • The Theater Offensive examined how a hyper local organization could take on the work of national field building without destroying values that are most precious to them, and explored possibilities for integrating priorities for place-based engagement and youth leadership into the national Pride Youth Theatre Alliance (PYTA) network, which was anchored out of their offices in Boston.
The Theater Offensive's Neighborhood Pride Tour at Haley House. Photo courtesy: Ivy Maiorino.
The Theater Offensive’s Neighborhood Pride Tour at Haley House. Photo courtesy: Ivy Maiorino.
  • Alternate ROOTS revamped their organizational membership policies and structures to remove institutional barriers to civic participation and build a stronger, more democratic and equitable pathway to member engagement. They used community organizing frameworks to experiment with new ways to expand their national reach and footprint, while also honoring the contributions of their elders and maintaining a sense of history, legacy and continuity.
Ariston Jacks, an Alternate ROOTS Member, sketching  during ROOTS Innovation Team meetings.
Ariston Jacks, an Alternate ROOTS Member, sketching during ROOTS Innovation Team meetings.

We are proud of this rich and rigorous publication which documents the journeys of these three adaptive change projects, and examines the contours, possibilities and limitations of innovation in arts and social justice organizations.

In these stories, you’ll find many examples of strategies that create increased alignment between organizational policies and practices, and social justice values like equity, self-determination, inclusion and belonging. You’ll also discover ways that these organizations that employ artistic practice and social justice mandates engage and innovate differently with their communities and stakeholders. And in the introductory essay, Slowing Down in Urgent Times, you’ll come across new, emergent questions about institutionalizing innovation beyond the container of our Labs, amplifying community-based adaptive change practices for social equity, and more.

We hope you’ll browse them, and download the full stories in the report here.  Some short excerpts from the introductory essay and case studies are included below:

Introductory essay, Slowing Down in Urgent Times, by Caron Atlas:

“The Lab’s framework parallels the process of cultural organizing and arts-based social change, recognizing that change is not linear but rather an ongoing cycle of creation, reflection, and action. It is aligned with the long-term logics of social movement building, because it understands that institutional change (just like structural, societal change for justice) can take a long time, and requires adaptive change. The Lab supports the risk-taking, imagination, momentum-building, and the cultural shifts that are at the heart of sustained change. It provides a context where participants can ask themselves critical questions about the consistency of their work with social justice goals. Are their organizations reproducing the conditions that they are trying to change? The Lab offers an opportunity to make critical re-alignments that enable organizations to walk their talk.”

“In these three stories, innovation was about engaging communities, embodying creativity, and deepening existing values. Here, innovation shifted power, flattened hierarchies, and furthered equity and inclusion. It moved relationships from transactions into transformations,, built up the leadership of those most impacted by change, and connected self-determination with inter-dependence. Importantly, this approach to innovation within social justice arts organizations values the origins, heritages and legacies of the social movements that they were born from. This innovation looks back in order to look ahead.”

Alternate ROOTS case study by Nayantara Sen:

“A major shift in assumptions for the team centered on the idea of innovation itself. As they workshopped ideas for alternative membership structures, the team realized that the project had less to do with fashioning something new and more to do with creating institutional alignment with their original values of participatory democracy, connectedness and anti-oppression, values that their strategic plan highlighted as well. “We weren’t really there to do something new, but to solidify and advance a strategic direction that was already put in place,” Turner said. “It was about not feeling pressure to create something new just to be innovative. Instead, we looked back to the Civil Rights Movement, to the history of the South, [and] to the history of ROOTS’s own formation. This allowed us to select strategies that reflected our organizational values.”

“The reframing of innovation as remembrance and return, or as going back to ROOTS’ history also served a re-energizing purpose for the team. It allowed (ROOTS) to pitch their proposals through the lens of strategic institutional alignment and integrity so that their new membership structure would reflect their original intentions and values instead of simply being a trendy experiment. In a society that places high value on the role of free markets and innovation as indicators of progress, looking back was in fact a radical move.”

Hull House Museum case study by Maribel Alvarez:

“The idea of ‘slowness’ as a path to explore the larger question of impact intrigued Hull-House museum staff, and they chose to explore the tensions and contradictions through the Innovation Lab. Can impact be measured by quick fixes and ‘attention-grabbing’ hyper activity or does a long-term idea of impact demand a certain lingering, meandering, and reflecting? “Does being hyper-busy all the time stand in the way of forming more meaningful relationships?” said Associate Director Lisa Junkin Lopez. As the staff pondered that question, three distinct dimensions surfaced: the relationship among visitors, partners, and staff.”

“As the goal of becoming a more effective institution took center stage in their inquiry, it became clear to museum staff that producing more meaningful visitor experiences, creating more substantive and egalitarian community partnerships, and hiring and utilizing more critically reflective staff were all connected in terms of the time it took for each of these outcomes to form. In each instance, Junkin Lopez said, time pressures had erected an invisible but very seductive ‘instrumentality;’ in other words, things didn’t grow organically, but in almost all cases, situations were intentionally crafted and staged. Performance outcomes steered the interactions to pre-determined parameters: visitors came and saw; partners signed up; staff produced. But, what else was not happening? And most importantly, was something being lost in that process that had intrinsic value to the goal of creating more meaningful and socially relevant experiences that the museum aimed to fulfill?”

The Theater Offensive case study by Kathie deNobriga:

TTO accepted the challenge of stepping up its leadership, integrating the Pride Youth Theater Alliance (PYTA) into the fabric of its daily existence, and finding ways for the two efforts—hyper-local in four neighborhoods on one hand, and a loose network of diverse sites in North America on the other—to strengthen each other. TTO admits to “past bad experiences with ill conceived attempts,” Rybeck says. “We often misunderstand the size of our own ambitions.” This process forced them to be more realistic and strategic.

Rybeck was concerned how this new program would affect TTO’s work locally as it took on this new initiative on a much larger scale. TTO realized that it was “not so much scaling up, as it was scaling different.” For example, because the PYTA coordinator was housed in TTO’s offices, it absorbed TTO’s culture.”

Download the Case Studies

Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.