Roadside’s community cultural development (CCD) practice, like its playwriting, grew out of experiences in its home community. After a performance of Mountain Tales and Music at a local high school, the school’s drama teacher asked the ensemble to help teach her class. That same year, Roadside was working with the town’s Senior Citizens Center, so the company suggested to the students they begin by collecting stories from the older folks at the Center.
The students weren’t at all interested in this idea; nevertheless, we invited the class to a performance at the Senior Center of South of the Mountain, a play about where they lived set in the first half of the 20th century. During the performance, the older people regularly interrupted the actors to tell their own version of a story. This was somewhat interesting to the drama students, but they visibly became engaged when an older lady piped up, “I used to go courting around South of the Mountain, and I always hoped the car would break down on a lonely mountain road so I could smooch in the back seat.”
In the ensuing months, the company held story circles with the students and elders, and from these the students created plays combining their own and the elders’ stories, performing them with seniors, and touring them around the county to full houses and standing ovations.
When television started telling a community’s stories for it, when older and younger community members no longer shared their lives and the box replaced the front porch, the living room, and the local county store, what happened to a community’s sense of itself and its possibilities? This question provided the motivation for the development of Roadside’s community cultural development practice.
Roadside’s community cultural development theory, partnership approach, and methodology are shaped by the goal of helping the host community become more inclusively and deeply aware of itself, and the story circle became a main tool of the CCD process.
CCD projects can take many forms -- the celebration of a community’s diverse traditions and histories through a cultural festival, or the self-identification of a particular community issue to address. How a community uses Roadside’s CCD process is up to the community, with the caveat that whatever the project’s purpose and goals, a cross section of the entire community will be continuously encouraged to participate as equals.
Roadside does not solicit work in communities outside its region, believing to do so would be presumptuous. If invited into a community, Roadside begins the process of working itself out of a job, with the goal of leaving behind an inclusive group of citizens carrying on cultural projects in their own ways with their own means toward collectively identified ends.
Community cultural development work is exciting as each community and its members realize they have something important to say to each other and to offer to anyone who will listen. As one western dry land farmer put it, we’re tired of everything coming in on us. We want to send something out.
CCD work is also as complex as individuals and their communities, and typically has many moving parts occurring simultaneously. To guide its practice, Roadside has developed a theory of change, a statement of its partnership approach, and a methodology. While dry in comparison to the work itself, they have proven useful for keeping a project on track toward its goals.
Theory of Change
Effective community cultural development seeks a dynamic relationship between the group and the individual, both discovering through experience and reflection their own relationship to the cultural traditions and features of their community. As those with direct knowledge of the culture interact, communities (however defined) become more aware of themselves and more self-confident. They gain voice and agency.
Such development can only be sustained when this bottom up process of individual and collective exploration and learning continues to inspire and shape awareness and action. Conversely, when people and their organizations lose touch with such broad-based knowledge as the shaping force of change, development will begin to collapse.
This bottom-up theory of change provides a critique of some progressive art. For example, an artist with a formidable liberal – progressive reputation has an exciting idea for a performance that addresses some aspect of social justice. Funders are attracted to the artist and his or her “cutting-edge” conception. A grant is made, and the artist begins working with the community to realize his or her performance.
The problem, from the perspective of our theory of change, is that the artist’s conception is not tested and reconceived by people in the community based on their individual and group knowledge of the issue. The project is launched some distance off the ground and eventually floats away without affecting the problem it seeks to address. It fails because those most affected, those with the most knowledge, are not the generative base for devising and enacting solutions.
Approach to Partnerships
Roadside begins its community cultural development programs and projects with as many of the stakeholders as known present for partnership. If the project is receiving resource support from private foundations and public agencies, they, too, must be active partners in the process, rather than play a more typical role of stepping back until the project’s conclusion when they pass judgment on its successes and failures. Everyone is equally responsible for the process, the products, and the outcomes.
As the partners are getting to know each other, Roadside emphasizes a willingness to reexamine basic assumptions and test hypotheses through repeating cycles of posing questions and trying to answer them. A humble curiosity, openness to simple questions and unexpected answers, willingness not to know the answers – these are the qualities of the learner the Roadside approach cultivates.
Collective governance and consensual practice in the articulate pursuit of three questions demonstrate cultivation of this culture of intentional learning:
What aspect of our community life are we trying to celebrate or transform, and why is that important?
- How are we trying to achieve this, and why is that the best strategy?
- How will we know we are succeeding; what data will provide us evidence, so we can improve the work and we can demonstrate its accomplishment to others?
The answers to these questions create common objectives and goals, and, in addition, each partner names their individual goals for the project. For example, by knowing that the public funding partner wants the project to build its reputation among local legislators, others in the project can better understand certain aspects of the partner’s behavior and look for ways to help that partner meet her goals. It’s a partnership approach that asks everyone to lay their cards on the table.
A locus for program design is determined by defining the project’s focus, separating what is known from what is unknown, and discerning the difference between causes and effects, root and branch. Having agreed on an authentic point of departure, the partners can proceed in an orderly fashion, relying on manageable cycles of action and assessment in order to learn together.
At this point, roles and responsibilities are defined and written down along with the various common and individual goals and any outstanding concerns and issues. Such documentation is updated as the project unfolds and is made accessible to all partners. Because each project is unique with a lot of activity, it is surprising how often one turns to these documents for guidance.
If the cycles of action and assessment are producing learning (generating knowledge, developing skills, altering attitudes, changing behaviors), the partners can expect that the plan of work will evolve as the work proceeds. Flexibility is an important value. This flexibility does not absolve the partners of accountability to outside audiences or of the important need to develop and follow strategic roadmaps. But there should be willingness, indeed desire, to improve the road maps as new evidence is uncovered and new ideas are generated.
Roadside has evolved a methodology that rests on five broad principles it calls pillars:
- Partnerships and collaborations with an inclusive range of community organizations;
- Local leadership;
- Knowing when to lead and when to follow;
- Engagement over the course of at least several years.
This process can be represented as a circle that rests on these pillars, but the four points of activity on the circle don’t necessarily occur as discreet events. Here, in short form, is how it works.
The first point on the circle
Roadside performs one of its plays appropriate to the residency’s goals so people can see and evaluate what we do. In interactive workshops following the performance, Roadside explains its history and artistic process.
The second point on the circle
Roadside conducts and trains others to facilitate community story circles so the participants can begin to hear and appreciate their own stories speaking to the purpose and theme of the residency. This becomes compelling, like fresh news, because participants often hear new information about a common experience. From the circles, a complex sense of a particular place begins to emerge. These stories (and songs), which are often recorded, become the basic ingredients for community celebrations that end the second phase. Usually these celebrations include potluck suppers. People get up and play music, sing, and tell the stories that they’ve by now somewhat crafted. Through such open and structured celebrations, the community voice begins to proclaim itself. All such celebrations are composed of many voices, because throughout the multi-year residency we insist on keeping the door open for new people to participate.
The third point on the circle
The community stories and songs become the natural resource for creating drama relevant to the particular residency’s goals. Drama, by its nature, gives permission for conflict, so, for example, the play’s theme might be as contentious as the effect of racism and economic inequality on the identified goal of developing a better public school system in the community. Nascent and experienced community playwrights, producers, directors, actors, and designers use an expanding body of community stories and songs to make plays with the community. Roadside helps as necessary, filling the gaps of inexperience.
The fourth point on the circle
After the drama is up and running, Roadside suggests ways for the community to recognize and honor itself and its local artists and leaders, and helps broker an infrastructure to establish their theater or organization in the community. Roadside introduces its new colleagues to the national network of artists and communities engaged in similar explorations. Now, the community has the vehicle to continue exploring its story in public, and the community cultural development field has a new peer organization.
As previously noted, each community development project is guided by a partnership agreement drawn up in an early stage of the project. Roadside collaborated with members of the ranching and farming community of Choteau, Montana from 1992-1995. The project was sparked by the community’s concern for the loss of its young people to the cities, and state economic development money provided the initial funding. Here is the “Mountaineers – Cowfolks” partnership agreement that served as a foundation for the three years of collaboration.Economic development and cultural development go hand in hand.
- Economic development and cultural development go hand in hand.
- The project’s process and products will witness a commitment to place. They will be grounded in the local and specific, which, when rendered faithfully and creatively, can affect people anywhere.
- The new plays will be given their voice by the community from which they arise. The artists will be part of the culture from which the work is drawn. The people who are the subjects of the work will be part of its development from inception through presentation. Their stories and histories will inform the work; their feedback during the creation process will shape it. The audience will not be consumers of, but participants in the performance.
- The traditional and indigenous are integral to rural life and valued for their ability to help us maintain continuity with the past, respond to the present, and prepare for the future. Thus, the relationship to the traditional and indigenous will be dynamic, not fixed.
- The project will strive to be inclusive in its producing practices. The work will be made in partnership with community organizations. Activities will be held in meeting places where the entire community feels welcome. Any tickets will be affordable.
- The collaboration and exchange will recognize that management structures and business practices are value-laden, affecting the mission, goals, and creative process. Through its structures and practices, the project will endeavor to support broad participation, self-reliance, and collective responsibility.
- The project will be consciously linked to the struggles for cultural, social, economic, and political equity for all people in the community. Although the project offers hope and joy, it also recognizes that advocating for equity often meets resistance, and that such resistance, when articulated, is an opportunity for positive community change.