Note to readers: This is the third in a series of blogs I am delighted to be writing for Harmony: The WomenArts Partnership Project. They will appear biweekly on the WomenArts site, and I will also reproduce each one here.
What can be accomplished when women artists and activist organizations work together? Most activist groups struggle with limited time and resources. It can be challenging to convince them that the resulting synergy can multiply impact exponentially. The ten women artists interviewed for The Harmony Project have mounted an incredible array of projects, most of which address several simultaneous aims. Artist-activist collaborations can do many things; here are a couple of the key benefits (more to come on this in the next Harmony Project blog):
Putting a human face on issues, bringing them home much more powerfully than through conventional public information.
Consider the work that filmmaker Debra Chasnoff and her colleagues have done through Groundspark’s Respect for All Project. By now, more than a million students have seen the five films in this series, taking part in workshops and discussions designed to bring issues even closer to home. It all started with It’s Elementary, created to give adults—parents, teachers, youth workers—ways to talk with kids about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people. Subsequent films dealt with the incredible diversity of families today, crossing lines of race, ethnicity, religion, gender—and every conventional expectation; with taunting and bullying in schools and other settings; and with the challenging pressures teens face when it comes to gender and sexuality.
With moving-image media, “putting a human face” on the issues is more than a metaphor. Character-driven stories can affect us deeply, precisely because they allow us to meet and identify with real people, witnessing their real-life challenges and triumphs. Scientists tell us that human empathy is greatly aided by the presence of mirror neurons in our brains: when we observe another person’s experience, our brains respond very much as if we’d had the same experience ourselves. One image of a real person experiencing something in real time trumps the impact of a dozen statistics.
“Film can open up people’s hearts and then their minds,” Debra Chasnoff told me. “It’s just that simple. Organizations put a lot of energy into gathering data and information about their cause or their issues, and they write reports. If they’re lucky, some people will read that material and get engaged with it, but it’s not very effective for engaging large numbers of people. Film has the potential to get people excited and passionate about the issues, and then inspire them to want to do something.”
Engaging people in unearthing and exploring their own direct, personal relationships to issues.
In 2004, Beth Grossman was the resident artist on a ship traveling down the Volga River, part of Project Kesher’s multinational Jewish Women’s Summit, fostering supportive relationships between Jewish women from the former Soviet Union and other parts of the world. She started with the intention of compiling women’s oral stories in collage, painting, and drawning, and that mission was accomplished. But as the ship traveled and excitement built, her studio became a place of creativity and connection that infused the entire event.
“At three in the morning, when people couldn’t sleep, and where did they come? To the studio,” Beth Grossman told me. “I ended up keeping it open and staying there, because the level of conversation and kibbitzing and connecting that was going on while we were working with our hands—and women knowing that they were making something that was going to contribute to this ongoing project and that their voices and their stories were going to be heard—was really profound.”
She says this should be part of all gatherings: “No matter what it is, if you involve people with a creative invitation, you’re going to get their best thinking. The way to access creativity and intelligence is through this sense of play and openness and communicating and imagining. It really brings us to our core intelligence.”
Please stayed tuned for more biweekly essays on the wisdom and experience of these amazing artists, right here at The Harmony Project blog!