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Unit 3: Working with Communities

Due to their participatory nature, SEA projects usually deal with communities. In this learning unit, we will focus on developing and delivering evidence of how the SEA can generate value for individuals, communities, and society. Delivering convincing evidence is important, as SEA projects are often funding-based, and for sustainability reasons, they need to clearly indicate to donors and funding bodies the value that has been delivered for the funding received. In this way, future funding may be secured, as evidence can assist in making informed decisions when developing future projects. In addition, the development of robust evidence can assist SEA practitioners in developing better practices and feeding new knowledge back to communities (McArdle et al., 2020).

Importantly, the ethical dimensions related to community work are important. As community workers, SEA practitioners want to avoid any harm that may be caused within the community because of their interventions. McArdle (2020, p. 33) reminds us that the basic ethical principles to uphold when working with communities are to:

  • Avoid harm
  • Avoid dishonesty and pretence
  • Maintaining confidentiality
  • Uphold anonymity
  • Uphold procedures of obtaining informed consent and dissent

As SEA practitioners, we carefully need to think about and plan impact, as any attempt to generate impact delivers impact itself. Therefore, we need to carefully consider our practices, the methods we select and the ethical dimensions our practices may entail. We need to understand that the impact may be both positive and negative, desired or undesired, temporary or permanent and so on (McArdle et al., 2020).

Understanding the role of transformation
To bring about transformation, we need to understand how change comes about. Change can be understood as a transformation from turning something from one situation to another. Seeking change is a common goal within communities that seek to transition from one situation to another in order to make a difference (McArdle, 2020, p. 17). However, change should be plausible (make sense), doable, and achievable, as well as testable. In other words, can the credibility of the change be evaluated and confirmed (McArdle, 20202, p. 18)? Similar to impact, change can be positive or negative, timely or untimely, and so on. How positive change can be generated requires careful consideration, and communities should have input in defining the change they seek. In addition, they should have input into assessing the quality of the change they seek.

Karen McArdle (2020, p. 15) explains, ‘Change is central to community work, and the commitment of facilitating change is also central to our understanding of community work.’ However, generating change can be complex, and therefore, SEA practitioners have a willingness to embrace complexity by thinking about how to manage complexities that are influenced by histories, geographies, cultural and social dynamics (McArdle, 2020). In this sense, priority setting and having a clear and collective vision of a desired future and what needs to be achieved can be a useful approach.

McArdle (2020, p. 14) provides a useful list of key principles that we need to uphold when working with communities:

  • Commitment to facilitating change
  • A concern to be inclusive of all members of a community, including marginalised groups or individuals
  • Commitment to community empowerment and participation
  • Commitment to equality of opportunity and democracy
  • An awareness of the complexities of overlapping identities and interrelations that exist within any given context

SEA practitioners need to understand how their work affects the communities with whom they generate change. As SEA practitioners, we need to consider our position of power as community-focused artists, researchers and professionals. These roles imply power, and we need to be sensitive, reflective practitioners who are aware of such power dynamics. As community workers, we often seek to empower individuals (McArdle, 2020, p. 35). Empowerment is thought of as an outcome or a process. For the purposes of our learning unit, we will use the definition of McArdle (2020, p. 35) to define empowerment, as both of these views are used in her definition:

Community empowerment involves continual shifts in power relations between different individuals and social groups in society. It is also an outcome and may be, for example, a product of the redistribution of resources and decision-making authority (power over) or the achievement of an increased sense of self-determination (power from within).

It is important for SEA practitioners to realise empowerment cannot come from them as such but needs to be driven from within the community – ‘they need to empower themselves’ (McArdle, p. 36). However, SEA practitioners can facilitate processes of empowerment by influencing and educating others to understand how they can generate positive change and make decisions to act for positive change within their communities. For SEA practitioners, the role of the arts in such processes of learning and discovery is at the centre of our work. We use the power of the arts to express and learn through different creative media and methods. In this way, SEA practitioners provide unique knowledge and ways to work with communities with the purpose of having a voice. McArdle (2020, p. 39-40) explains:

Having a voice is having both a presence and the agency affects one’s own wellbeing. Having a voice is important, as it embraces how people choose to frame their experiences. Voice can very easily be manipulated in gathering evidence … this can be avoided by using anecdote and storytelling.

In addition to voice, another factor that enables empowerment in processes of learning, which is part of transitioning. As communities and individuals ‘move from one state to another’ (McArdle, 2020, p. 21), they imply experiences that come about through unfamiliar events, situations (and situatedness) and circumstances during which people experience new emotions, confusion, a void of knowledge, absence of resources, and so on, that may be brought on by mistakes or misunderstandings. These situations trigger resolutions that come about through new knowledge creation, attitude changes, and values that may be discovered collectively. An important function of learning is the ability to reflect on these experiences, discoveries, processes and outcomes.

The purpose of generating SEA
The key reason for creating an impact is to bring about transformation. However, we need evidence to illustrate how the work we do as SEA practitioners—the impact we generate—can bring about such a transformation. For this purpose, we need to think about and plan how to gather evidence of transformative processes within communities. McArdle et al. (2020, p. 3) explain, ‘…we need to be particularly aware that the process of gathering evidence of impact should itself be an empowering process.’ In other words, if the evidence you collect does not serve the purpose of generating knowledge about the impact the project could or could not generate, then the process of collecting evidence has failed. Therefore, when planning an SEA intervention, we need to include in our planning how, when, and what kind of evidence to collect. In addition, can the collection of evidence serve another purpose? Can such processes, for example, enable communities and individuals to gain additional benefits? We will discuss how to think about the impact of bringing about transformation.

Design leader Anne Stenros (Finland, 2022) explains that impact is an intuitive and interpretative process that can create transition. Source: LinkedIn


Impact can be direct and indirect, and when we attempt to understand impact, we need to consider the ‘scale, quality and significance of the impact’, says Ardle (2020, p. 19). She (McArdle, 2020, p. 19) proposes some questions to assist us in thinking about the impact generated, for example:

  • How many people will our work affect?
  • In what way will our work affect one or more people?
  • Why will our work with a community matter?

As SEA practitioners, we will also ask:

  • What kinds of arts practices, methods, or media will I use when working with communities?
  • How will the selection of these elements affect the people we work with?
  • Are the use of arts-based approaches always good for the community work we try to achieve?

These are important questions to consider when we want to engage with communities. With a focus on empowerment and seeking to provide communities with voice and opportunities for learning, we will now seek to understand how to go about gathering evidence of the impact.

Credits & References


Photo 1: Design leader Anne Stenros (Finland, 2022) explains that impact is an intuitive and interpretative process that can create transition. Source: LinkedIn


McArdle, K., Briggs, S., Forrester, K., Garrett, E., & McKay, C. (2020). The Impact of Community Work: How to Gather Evidence. Policy Press.