Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Teenagers, Space-Makers, and Scaling Up to Change the World

This week, my colleague Emily Hope Dobkin has a beautiful guest post on the Incluseum blog about the Subjects to Change teen program that Emily runs at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.

Subjects to Change is an unusual museum program in that it explicitly focuses on empowering teens as community leaders. While art, history, creativity, and culture are the vehicles for that empowerment, the teens involved spend a lot of their time with activists, civic leaders, and social psychologists. They describe themselves as "a group of chronic doodlers who dig music, embrace creativity of all kinds, and are determined to not only make our community better, but want to get other teens involved."

Emily's post shares three things Subjects to Change has taught her about youth and community leadership. I want to return the favor with three things this project brings up for me.

Community-building/engagement is related to but not identical to content engagement. Subjects to Change isn't an art club or a history group. It's about empowerment and community leadership through art and history. One of the reasons Emily took this approach was based on what we saw in the ecology of teen programs. We heard from youth program leaders at museums who struggle to keep teens engaged despite a huge amount of committed resources. We saw a lot of intense hand-holding and not a lot of youth ownership. In contrast, when we looked at the programs we admire most locally, they all are fundamentally focused on youth as leaders and changemakers in their own lives and community. Whether they are using skateboarding to grind out child hunger or changing their own fate through farming, we saw teens taking agency and being leaders in ways we hadn't seen in arts organizations.

This meant really stripping back to our mission in developing this program and being willing to let the teens lead us in some unexpected directions. For example, they are planning a series of teen nights at the museum, complete with art activities, history exploration, youth bands, etc., but themed around community issues like "public safety" and "gender representation."

I'm completely curious as to whether their peers will actually want to come to a museum on a Friday night about public safety. I'm a little amazed that this is happening at the museum at all. It's hard to imagine a staff member pitching a public safety-themed event and everyone feeling like it is a good idea. But every step of the way these teens have shown that the issues they care about are compelling to lots of people (of all ages) in our community, and that they are ready to do meaningful work to engage people around those issues.

Scale is still a challenge for co-creative work. Subjects to Change engages fifteen teenagers. Many are having a life-changing experience, but still, it's fifteen people. How do we scale this impact to reach more people? This is a chronic problem of in-depth co-creative projects. In many museums, these tend to be youth-focused projects. In lean years, it's hard to justify focusing so many resources on a small group.

Watching these teens do their work has expanded my thinking on the issue of scale. If these teens truly become community leaders through their work with us, they will extend their impact beyond themselves. They are forming partnerships in the community, developing events to reach more teens, and developing content for general museum events. We are already seeing a difference in the makeup of our audience on the nights that these teens are involved because of their attendant communities.

This makes me realize that a leadership-focused program is fundamentally different than one that focuses inward. A city council, for example, is necessarily small and consumes a ton of resources. If outreach and community leadership is the meat of the program, maybe the scale problem isn't as big an issue as I had previously thought.

Space-making is magic. I've written before about Beck Tench's beautiful framing of how "every risk-taker needs a space-maker" to clear the path for experimentation. Emily's generous first line of her blog post makes me realize that this concept of "space-making" is bigger than just supporting risk-taking. It's about making space for real change to happen, and to grow, throughout an organization and a community. I am starting to wonder how we could take this lens to more of the work we do, both as managers internally and as facilitators of community experiences externally. Space-making may be the ultimate strategy for scaling up.
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