To a good Midwestern protestant, this question prompts the kneejerk response, “Aw, I don’t have any special gifts.” But a couple of years ago, I had the fortune to be in a group which was given this assignment: “Starting from age 5, and going in five-year increments from then till now, write down moments in each period where your joy was so great that time stood still. (In some periods, there might not be any such moments; in other periods, there might be many.)” Then, we had to tell a partner our autobiography based only on these moments, and our partner had to identify the themes she heard.
My partner noticed how many edges and intersections there were in my story. “When I was 11, our apartment building was at the place where the woods met the open field.” “I’m a Wisconsin girl even though I live in Colorado.” “I’m neither completely of the state arts agency field nor of the local arts agency field.” “I have been the token arts conservative on a radical board, and the token arts radical on a conservative board.” She suggested that perhaps this was a theme that I needed to consider as I reflected on my life: the theme of standing in two worlds at once, at places where worlds meet. Funny, I hadn’t noticed that.
When I mentioned this to my husband, who taught in an environmental studies department, he said, “Well, in ecology it seems that the richest crucibles for life and evolving life are in the places where two ecosystems overlap.”
I got to thinking that this might be the role, the gift, of the community arts developer.
I was part of a study team recently that looked back at 50 years of community arts in Wisconsin, assessing what makes an effective community arts developer. One woman, who had interviewed thirty people, said something like this: “I am noticing that the really effective community arts activists are simultaneously insiders and outsiders. They accept this even if it makes them uncomfortable. Some outsiders have lived in their community for years and years. Some insiders may not have lived there very long. The question is not one of longevity so much as of perspective. The effective arts developers I heard about cultivated – sometimes unconsciously - both roles. And they understood the importance of putting aside a little loneliness, a longing to play just one role, because they were at their most effective when they played both.”
Makes sense to me! Insiders know how things work and who makes things work, and they are reputable and broadly trusted and have good networks of people from many divergent walks of life in the community. Outsiders can compare their community to others more objectively, less parochially. Maybe they are more alert to what is happening culturally in the state or the nation and think about how to bring new ideas home, find resources no one had thought about, see unrealized possibilities. Outsiders can sometimes pose questions that insiders cannot. They can bring in new language. They may be more likely to notice the stories that a community tells about itself. Are they stories of successfully overcoming odds? Or are they about being worn down by outside forces? These stories may give the leader clues about developing a plan for the role the arts can play.
It resonates for me, living in the overlaps. What about you?