Creating destiny: Youth, arts and social change
Stevenson, L. M. (2011). Creating destiny: Youth, arts and social change. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Stanford University, Stanford, CA.
This ethnographic study examines how a company of high-school-aged artists in a community arts program, makes social change while creating an original hip hop, modern dance, and theater production. The study describes the ten-month process through which the company creates and performs its production, articulates a theory of social change embedded in the company’s work, and describes how the arts function as media for personal and social change in the company’s rehearsals and culminating performance.
Based on inductive analysis of field data, the researcher articulates a theory of social change embedded in the collaborative process of a company of youth artists. For the company, social change is a process of changing relationships—changing how individuals relate to themselves, to one another, and to the world around them. She finds that the company members believe that as the foundation of social change, they must change themselves—becoming more aware of their own ideas, feelings, and ways of interacting with the world—and that they do so through their artistic practice. In dance, theater, and scriptwriting, company members were able to explore their inner worlds in concrete form—for example, movement, words, or character—and as a result increased their self-awareness and ability to express themselves to others. In addition, the researcher found that dance, in particular, provided a means for the young people to process, self-regulate, and express their emotions in ways that allowed them to be more self-possessed and to relate more positively to the world around them.
Through dance and scriptwriting, company members also learned about one another; learned to relate more effectively across lines of social difference (including race, ethnicity, and socio-economic background); and built cross-cultural understanding. As they got to know one another, the researcher found that a sense of community and group identity developed among participants that was family-like, supporting participants’ individual artistic, personal, and social development, as well as ensemble-like, enabling them to collaboratively create an original work of art and to act collectively to make social change.
Community members external to the company (including teachers and family members) reported that company members were able to model cross-cultural understanding for others through their actions and relationships at school and in other settings outside the company. The researcher also found that the company’s performance facilitated cross-cultural understanding for audience members, three quarters of whom agreed that they learned something from the performance about people of a different racial and/or ethnic background than their own, and two-thirds of whom agreed they learned something from the performance that would change the way they treat other people.
Approximately two-thirds of audience members also agreed that the company’s performance made them think differently about their own life, and made them want to take action to make their community a better place.
The researcher found that the company scaled social change radially from a hub of intensive interactions among company members—in which personal change created new possibilities for inter-personal change and group relationship and vice versa—extending out to the surrounding community through company members’ individual action (walking differently in the world) and collective action (performance).