Creativity as a Tool for Social Change

Posted: August 16, 2013

Creativity as a Tool for Social Change
by Lisa Tapton

There has always been a natural connection between creativity and social change. Generations of artists and creative thinkers have employed protests songs, paintings and other visual arts to stoke activism and raise awareness of oppression, inequalities and injustice. Today, artists have turned their attentions to such areas as climate change, globalization and rape culture, and they employ new technologies such as online flash movies and video installations alongside more traditional art forms to spread their message. However, the role of creativity in social change goes beyond individual artists and collectives. The power of art is such that it can reach out to communities throughout the world to transform lives and bring about social reform.

[Image – ‘Rape’ by George Romney (1734-1802) – art has always been used to raise awareness of social issues]

Creativity and education

A key function of art is to educate vulnerable young people who may be affected by such problems as drug trafficking, violence and poverty. For example, an alternative school in Puerto Rico is helping teenagers by running classes in animation through a program called Puerto Rico se Anima. These sessions give students from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to learn new skills and express their creativity. By enhancing self-esteem and encouraging collaboration, the program is showing the students they can have a more positive future. Similarly, the renowned El Sistema program, which was started in Venezuela 33 years ago, uses music to reach the country’s poorest children. The program now also provides a support and advocacy network for people and organizations throughout the US and around the world. Domestically, the Move this World initiative engages young people in dance to address issues such as conflict, violence, and bullying. Its peace education curriculum encourages empowerment and physical expression, and aims to generate social change through the use of movement. These diverse examples highlight how engaging young people in the arts can help in both transforming individual lives and creating a new generation of artists who may go on to produce important works that raise awareness of the issues they feel passionate about.

Creativity as therapy

While it can be used as an educational tool to inform both observer and participant, art is now also employed as a therapeutic instrument. Used in conjunction with more traditional treatments and recovery programs, different art forms are used to treat issues affecting adults and young people, such as drug abuse and addition. Given the expressive and personal nature of art, it can be utilized to encourage communication and help therapists reach people who are unable to express their feelings and emotions through verbal communication. Music, painting and dance are just three examples of how healing can take place through self-expression. In turn, this increases awareness, both of the individual and wider issues. One example is the Art Not Violence project, which aims to raise awareness of violence, especially against women and children. Many of the images are created by participants in sexual assault and domestic violence programs; helping the women involved deal with their own issues, as well as working towards changing cultural attitudes.

Creativity and leadership

Creative thinkers and artists also have a role to play in civic engagement and training the next generation of activists. Given its power to reach out to people, arts are a natural conduit to get people interested in such activities as fundraising and voter registration, which can make a real difference at a local level. Programs such as the Hip Hop Caucus’ Respect My Vote!, which aims to educate and mobilize young people of color to vote, highlight how the uniting of creative people and an important cause can inspire actual change. Beyond this, creative leaders can go into schools and help inspire young people to take on a leadership role in their local communities. While a key element of social change is organization, without the right guidance, tomorrow’s activists may have the passion to inspire change but may lack the tools to go out into their communities and make it happen.

The power of creativity

Artists have always used their talents to express ideas connected to the things they feel passionate about. Consequently, their work has a unique way of reaching people and provoking a strong reaction. This is the great strength of art; it is universal. Visual art forms can transcend all barriers and stimulate a lasting emotional response. As long as oppression, inequalities and injustice exist in the world, art and artists will have a role, even a responsibility, to make a positive change to people’s lives; whether on a global or individual level.