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 (Unpublished doctoral dissertation).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.

Key Findings:

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).

Significance of the Findings:

Little research has been conducted that examines how youth art and performance can effect social change. Participating students experienced changes that went beyond themselves to also affect the group and the audience attending the performance. This study points to the need for additional research on how youth arts can serve as a catalyst for social change.


The researcher conducted an ethnographic study of the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company in Oakland, CA, selected due to the program’s reputation for artistic excellence and rigorous social change practice. The company included 18 high-school-aged youth diverse with regard to their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual-orientation, and socio-economic background. The researcher documented the company’s ten-month process from auditions through to its culminating performance with fieldnote and photographic data that she collected as a participant observer. She also conducted semi-structured interviews with all youth participants and the program’s co-directors at two points in time, interviewed participant family members and program alumni, conducted focus groups with audience members who attended the company performance, administered surveys to audience members (N=839), and analyzed program record data. Qualitative data were coded inductively in NVivo and clustered based on relationships between the codes. Survey data were analyzed in SPSS. To ensure the validity of analyses, the researcher triangulated among fieldnote, interview, focus group, survey, and record data and discussed data and emerging findings with colleagues in education and arts research throughout the process of data collection and analysis. The researcher also conducted a member check with one of the company’s co-directors to confirm the accuracy of the data and analysis.

Limitations of the Research:

The researcher selected a youth performance group that was known for both for its arts education and social change program, so it may not be generalizable to other performance groups without an emphasis on social change. Also, the researcher’s role as a participant observer may have inadvertently introduced personal bias into the findings.

Questions to Guide New Research:

Would findings be similar for youth performance groups that did not focus on social change or did not serve such a diverse group of students?