Eric Booth & Paul Gambill: The opportunity of crisis

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Eric Booth and Paul Gambill, who are co-directors of the Community Engagement Lab.

Look at a particular artwork with others and personal opinions and positions arise; join in making an artwork with others and connections bloom. The state of our union is jumbled, tense with differing opinions and opposed positions — our strengths disoriented, our consciousness of unacceptable systemic oppressions rising. But the power of our democracy remembers itself, regains its strength, when together we start making things we care about and imagining what can be.

The power of our collective creativity to imagine a better future is vividly rising across Vermont these days, from grand expressions of unity, to small acts of kindness and empathy. Nowhere was that more present than when 5,000 Black Lives Matters supporters convened on the Statehouse lawn in Montpelier recently and kneeled together in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds. That choreographed moment was a fine example of how we can, and should, activate our collective creativity to build a better, fairer world and strengthen our bonds to each other.

Teaching artists are often the essential workers at the heart of that collective creativity. Teaching artists live a hybrid identity as practicing artists and highly-engaging educators — their number one goal and skill set is to activate the creativity of others. Teaching artists embed themselves and their creative practices into communities, schools, afterschool youth programs, senior centers, libraries and hospitals, using the transformational power of the arts to activate positive change.

Teaching artists can play a vital role supporting Vermont’s ongoing social awakening and response to systemic racism and climate change; during and after the pandemic they can build opportunities for processing, healing and affirming who we are and what we stand for.

Vermont has significant teaching artist resources. There are 240 Vermont artists registered and identifying as teaching artists on Creative Ground, New England’s online directory of artists and arts organizations, and many more who aren’t officially registered. Vermont’s teaching artist workforce has had some of the most advanced training in the nation. Now is the time to invest in our teaching artists, empowering them to help us make the specific and lasting changes we need.

What if every Vermont town or city was supported by a teaching-artist-in-residence whose role was to help people creatively respond to challenges their community is facing? A community-embedded teaching-artist-in-residence would bring people together to learn about and from each other by making things together, building empathy and shared agendas for change. A creatively engaged community can launch innovative experiments to address long-standing challenges, can envision new community action plans and inspire the civic agency needed to make real change during this unprecedented moment in our lifetime. This is not wishful thinking; this is the work of teaching artists.

Funding a statewide community teaching-artist-in-residence program could see extraordinary results with a relatively small investment. Millions of dollars are being invested in recovery efforts from the pandemic. And leaders in the arts, government and philanthropic sectors are already committed to supporting community arts programming. But moving from the Vermont we have, into a creative reimagining of the Vermont we want and need will require those sectors to plan and work together in new ways. Vermont’s teaching artists are poised to support the bold change that our communities are demanding, but the ways our communities, cultural institutions and artists have worked together in the past will not work going forward.

Innovation and creativity have long been at the center of Vermont’s cultural ethos and identity. Now is the time to re-invest in that local resource and experiment from there — boldly and with curiosity. Vermont’s teaching artists are one of our most powerful assets in that process of creative discovery.

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Teaching artists are essential workers in helping people come to know each other, to build trust and respect, to foster creative problem solving, and to change our collective story. There is no more urgent public priority at this historic moment.

Let’s put Vermont’s 240+ teaching artists to work through a Community Teaching-Artist-in-Residence program, helping to build the future Vermont wants and needs with creativity at the center of that process.


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