Susan Erenrich April 2018

The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner
Teaching About Social Justice Within the Arts Leadership Context – How One Professor Used Grassroots Leadership and the Arts for Social Change in His Graduate Classroom

By Susan J. Erenrich and David Edelman

Learn more about the book and download David's chapter Acting Up & Fighting Back: How New York’s Artistic Community Responded To AIDS 

Susan J. ErenrichSusan (Susie) J. Erenrich is a social movement history documentarian. She uses the arts for social change to tell stories about transformational leadership, resilience, and societal shifts as a result of mobilization efforts by ordinary citizens. Susie holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and is the founder/executive director of the Cultural Center for Social Change. She has more than four decades of experience in nonprofit/arts administration, civic engagement, community service, and community organizing and has taught at universities, public schools, and community-based programs for at-risk, low-income populations. Currently a professor at American University, she is the editor of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change (a volume in ILA's BLB series).  She is the producer/host of Wasn't That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, a live community radio broadcast on WERA.FM. Listen on-demand or live every Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 PM Eastern time.

David EdelmanDavid Edelman is Associate Professor of Arts Management and Director of the Performing Arts Leadership and Management Program at Shenandoah University. He is the founder and co-editor of The American Journal of Arts Management and serves on the board of directors of the Association of Arts Administration Educators. He has been a professional arts manager, AIDS activist, and fighter for LGBTQ social justice for much of his adult life.

Dear Friends,

Welcome! In this month’s corner, I’ve asked David Edelman to write about his experience successfully incorporating ILA’s Building Leadership Bridges book, Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change into his graduate performing arts management leadership class. David and his students had a positive experience adding this text to the curriculum. We hope his example encourages others to consider utilizing the publication in their university courses.

In addition to the column, I am sharing the chapter David penned for the book titled, “Acting Up & Fighting Back: How New York’s Artistic Community Responded To AIDS.” The chapter explores grassroots leadership through the lens of participatory democracy and the role of the arts in social movements in the United States.

I hope you enjoy David’s important contribution to this column as well as his chapter (availble for ILA members to download). 

A Successful First-Try at Using Grassroots Leadership and the Arts for Social Change in the Classroom

By David Edelman

Adapting an existing course syllabus to incorporate new texts, topics, and teaching strategies is rather nerve wracking for an academic. Even more so when the text is brand new and none of your colleagues have as yet tried it out in the classroom. When Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change was published by ILA in 2017, I saw this as an opportunity to introduce issues of social justice and the arts in a meaningful way into my graduate performing arts management leadership class. It meant adjusting the entire course plan, eliminating certain topics, and streamlining the teaching of others. It meant connecting issues of social justice to the work and ethos of the artist, the production of art, the relationship between arts institutions and communities, and global arts policy. No mean feat. But, I’ve always found it best to run into the ocean full tilt and dive under rather than take the incremental, cautious approach.

Putting aside the fact that I am the author of a chapter in Grassroots Leadership, the book presents a marvelous collection of case studies from around the globe, written by an equally marvelous collection of contributors. But much more than this, the book provides a sophisticated yet accessible approach to teaching about social justice within the arts leadership context.

That’s an important consideration for me, since students in my Performing Arts Leadership and Management (PALM) graduate program at Shenandoah Conservatory all come with undergraduate performance degrees. They are dancers, actors, vocal artists, and instrumental musicians. They are training to be arts managers — not policy wonks, researchers, or academics. The underpinning of leadership training for these young artists and would-be arts managers is the theory of emotional intelligence. It is rather eye-opening for my students to learn that their training and experience as performing artists closely mirrors the characteristics and styles of the emotionally resonant leader that Daniel Goleman et. al describe in books like Primal Leadership and Focus. It is also a pleasure to watch unfold. As their self-awareness grows and they connect the dots between the mind of the artist and the mind of the arts leader, the aha moments come fast. From a pedagogical point of view, this learning task requires me to connect the practice of arts leadership not only to theory, but also to artistry.

I sensed that the case studies presented in Grassroots Leadership would serve the pedagogical need and students would connect their understanding of leadership theory to the generative work of artists who are engaged in social change. In the process, they would also encounter new theories of art, such as Theatre of the Oppressed, examine the work of artists through a geopolitical lens, and look back in time to see how artists of earlier generations confronted the world and sought to change it. I also believed that students would find these case studies to be terrific stories.

And right I was. The subjects encountered in Grassroots Leadership’s stories as well as the way in which they are presented had a visceral effect on my students. They were enthusiastic about their readings and their assignment of a twenty-minute PowerPoint presentation on two chapters of their choosing and peer reviews of each other’s presentations. The presentations themselves demonstrated that all of the students connected on a personal level to the artists and their work, even if it was thoroughly unfamiliar turf. They dug a bit deeper via Web searches to better understand the artists and their contexts. And they were direct in stating their desire to learn more about the world-views, history, conflicts, and challenges posed by these case studies.

In providing feedback (a required part of the assignment) one student wrote: “The book provides very specific and detailed descriptions of specific instances where art and social movements collide. For me it was incredibly beneficial to walk through these detailed stories to gain a more thorough understanding of how art can and has made real change in communities in the past. From inspiring conversation between enemies, to using music as a means of defiance and protest, I felt like this book covered a wide variety of topics that expanded my understanding of social justice and the arts and the history these acts have in our artistic community.”

Another stated that she was intrigued by the connections that “most of these arts leaders have to some sort of international network” and another student found herself “curious and wanting to learn more.” All six students in this class thought the case studies in Grassroots Leadership were an important part of their learning about social justice and the arts. They also felt the text and assignment were a positive enhancement to the course and should be continued.

And so, as my arts leadership course moves into its final weeks of the semester, I push through to the end of another school year with a wipe of the brow and a, “phew!” knowing that this change to a course that I have been teaching for years did indeed hit the mark. It’s not usually the case that revising the syllabus results in such enthusiasm and a desire by students to learn more. A heartfelt thanks to the many authors who contributed to Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change , to editors Susie Erenrich and Jon Wergin, and to the International Leadership Association for supporting this work. Well done! Hopefully this book will find its way into more classrooms before too long.