Creative Placemaking and the Relational Leadership Model
By Martinella Dryburgh
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Martinella Dryburgh is the Director and Leslie B. Crane Chair of Leadership Studies at the Posey Leadership Institute at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. Her teaching philosophy is that “leadership is a practice” and she is always looking for ways to include experiential learning opportunities in her classes, especially ones that benefit the Texoma community.
Experiential learning opportunities, such as semester-long group projects, are an integral part of leadership education. Using an arts and culture project during a winter mini-semester class proved to be an appropriate pedagogical tool to engage students with the Relational Leadership Model. This article describes how the class was created and what students learned about how they can be effective community leaders through relationship-building.
As many leadership educators know, one of the best ways to get students to learn about leadership is through experiential learning. In this article, I set out to add to leadership education literature by describing a unique and engaging experiential learning class with an arts and culture focus that was conducted during a Jan Term, or three-week, mini-semester in January 2017. For this class, Austin College and the City of Sherman partnered so that students could conduct a needs assessment for the city as they sought to apply for cultural district designation through the Texas Commission on the Arts.
The City of Sherman elected to apply to become a state-designated cultural district in order to enjoy the advantages of creative placemaking. Creative placemaking occurs when “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities” (Markusen & Gadwa, 2010, p. 3). The advantages of creative placemaking include improving the economic viability of local business as well as bringing individuals together to celebrate their community (Markusen & Gadwa, 2010). Because one of the major challenges of creative placemaking is fostering productive partnerships with diverse individuals and organizations (Markusen & Gadwa, 2010), an experiential learning opportunity that focuses on an arts and culture civic engagement lends itself well to exploring the Relational Leadership Model. Due to the short nature of this course, I chose to focus the class on three aspects of relational leadership and how they relate to creative placemaking: inclusion, empowerment, and purpose.
Creative Placemaking is Inclusive
The first objective of the class was for students to learn the importance of being inclusive of the different people and diverse points of view involved in creative placemaking. As students gathered information from the many government agencies, non-profit organizations, and local businesses in Sherman, they saw first-hand the importance of listening to the representatives of these groups and how they are represented in the web-like structure that will become the future Sherman cultural district. Students then reflected on this lesson and how they can become leaders who create inclusive environments in their organizations. One student remarked, “this information will be helpful for me when new people join a group and feel out of place. Being able to make people feel included and welcomed is a major leadership skill, and I know that I have gotten a significant amount of practice in that area during this class.”
Creative Placemaking is Empowering
The second objective of the class was for students to see how the City of Sherman is actively working to empower various segments of the community to participate in arts and culture activities. As students researched and made suggestions to create a new Sherman Arts Commission, they learned the importance of empowering arts and culture champions from traditionally underrepresented areas such as the African American and Hispanic communities. These groups should be encouraged to gain power and use that power to affect change in Sherman by participating in the decision-making process that determines the many arts and culture activities in the area. Using guided reflection and discussion, the students also learned how they, as leaders, can empower others in their groups by willingly sharing information and decision-making responsibilities. As one student wrote, “when each community member was interviewed, they were empowered to know their contributions mattered to this research. Most importantly with each person we talked to, it empowered us to know we were taking initiative to solve the problem.”
Creative Placemaking is Purposeful
The final objective for this short-form class was for the students to learn about how creating purposeful leadership can help an organization meet its goals. Through class research, students were able to discover and communicate the common purpose and benefits of creating a cultural district in Sherman. As part of their final class requirements, the students had to present their research findings to the Sherman City Council at an open council meeting. They effectively communicated how creating a cultural district in Sherman would greatly benefit the community. During class, they had an opportunity to determine how they can become purposeful leaders both now and in the future. In the words of one student, “before we realized our common purpose, everyone worked on the project in different ways so it was hard to put this work together. A common purpose helped foster a stronger relationship between all of the class, which in turn allowed us to produce a better report.”
As with many experiential learning opportunities, students often share insightful information with me after the experience is long over. One pre-health student mentioned that this class fundamentally changed her view of how relationships can impact a community. Although she was hesitant to join the class because she does not consider herself a creative person, she was ultimately glad she took on the project. The lessons she learned about how the Relational Leadership Model creates positive networks between organizations will help her in her future career path implementing community health and wellness programs. During their final reflections on the class, students not only enjoyed the class content, they clearly saw the importance of how relationships lead to leadership effectiveness.
Feedback regarding this project was very positive both from students and community members. It was very gratifying to see the amazing work that students accomplished in this highly structured mini-semester class. The success of this class has also given Austin College the opportunity to partner with other community organizations to create more experiential learning projects that benefit the community.
Overall, using an arts and culture focused experiential learning class, even during a mini-semester, can be an appropriate pedagogical approach to engage students with the Relational Leadership Model. Creative placemaking is an area that students were not familiar with before they came to the class, so learning about leadership from this perspective was new and exciting for many of them. Using local arts and culture as a tool for teaching leadership stresses the importance of developing leaders who are prepared to create productive relationships that lead to positive, lasting change in communities.
For leadership educators who may want to implement this style of program in their mini-semester courses, I offer the following practical tips that mostly focus on setting up the logistics of the class:
- Meet with students several weeks ahead of time to distribute any reading material and ensure that they have everything read by the first day of class. Also, be sure to explain the level of research and engagement that is necessary in order to make the project successful so that students are fully aware of the work requirements.
- Schedule interview appointments with arts and culture contacts for the mini-semester time frame and have students confirm the interviews. They can conduct the interviews in teams so that they get as many interviews completed as possible in a short amount of time.
- Secure funding to meet with additional arts and culture contacts. For this class, the City of Sherman paid for students to take day trips to meet with arts commission contacts from Dallas and Ft. Worth, as well as an overnight trip to Austin to meet with the deputy director of the Texas Commission on the Arts. These trips easily became the highlight of the class.
- Think about requiring a final presentation to an outside audience. Having the students present at an open City Council meeting gave the project a heightened sense of importance. Additionally, students had the opportunity to improve their oral communication skills, a key component in leadership training.
A very special thanks to Cary Wacker, Director of the Center for Community and Regional Development at Austin College, for her amazing work and support of this class.
Markusen, A., & Gadwa, A. (2010). Creative Placemaking. Retrieved from https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/CreativePlacemaking-Paper.pdf