Yesterday I attended a Q and A session with Tara Sonenshine, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, at the USC Annenberg School of Communications. I’m not a student in the Master of Public Diplomacy program there, but I often wish I were. I was impressed as much by the astuteness of the students in the program as I was by Under Secretary Sonenshine’s answers to their penetrating questions.
One student, about to embark on her thesis research and practicum, inquired about avenues of research that would contribute positively to the field, to which Ms. Sonenshine replied “Oh–free help!” She responded that there’s a lot of work still to be done in determining how to reach out to international diasporic communities living in the U.S. without violating the Smith-Mundt Act (on which Matt Armstrong has written most eloquently on his blog Mountain Runner) and leaving the impression of propagandizing.
Here’s one area where arts and humanities NGOs and other private organizations can pick up some slack. They’ve had several decades of intense focus on arts-based civic engagement. From the website of Americans for the Arts, the foremost entity in promoting the arts in U.S. public policy:
The arts have proven to be a potent catalyst to engage people in civic concerns. In arts-based civic engagement, the artistic process and/or presentation provides a key focus, forum, or form for public dialogue/engagement on the issue. Opportunities for dialogue/engagement are embedded in or connected to the arts experience. In addition, the arts may provide a direct forum to engage in community planning, organizing, and activism…With greater awareness and understanding of issues, arts-based civic dialogue and engagement may bring about shifts in thinking and attitude.
It quickly becomes clear that international arts exchanges and arts-based civic engagement at home have the same basic goals:
- to create spaces for public engagement connected to an arts experience;
- to stimulate further dialogue in a community; and
- to bring about shifts in thinking and attitude
They should be utilized similarly to engage audiences at home and abroad. Local arts professionals and cultural diplomats could learn a lot from each other just by sharing evaluation metrics and their successes and failures in engaging certain publics.
As I wrote here, I think the future of both international arts diplomacy and stateside arts-based civic engagement depends on participation and collaborative creation between artists and audiences. The State Department recognized this in their recent sponsorship of foreign artists touring and giving workshops in smaller U.S. cities (as in OneBeat and CenterStage).
One reason arts-based civic engagement/diplomacy is so difficult to pull off well is that it takes a keen awareness of both cultural and artistic issues. The main goal of such a project must be to reveal and celebrate commonalities between cultures, which has as much to do with (sorely needed) civic engagement in the U.S. as with international arts diplomacy.
Arts Diplomacy Network is gearing up to present a series of inter-cultural music jam sessions. The first event, to be announced shortly, is a collaboration between Arab and Mexican diaspora musicians in Los Angeles. These musicians play similar stringed instruments (the requinto jarocho sounds like, and is plucked very similarly to the oud, though they look very different), and have in common many poetic themes, a shared history of protests and youth movements, the immigrant experience in the United States, and the heritage Mexico shares with the Arab world through its Spanish lines of descent. Our hope is to create an arts-based civic dialogue that forges bonds between communities in Los Angeles. More details will be forthcoming. No word yet on whether tacos árabes will be served…