Engaging communities

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"Art is not just a mirror to reflect reality but a hammer in which to shape it." - Bertholt Brecht

Social initiatives make greater impact when they engage community participation, and the arts hold a unique power to inspire people to ignite change. For centuries, marginalized communities have turned to the arts to express social concerns and educate about issues. 

ArtCorps, the Community Engagement program of Creative Action Institute, fosters that engagement by matching field artists with partner organizations to lead focused, high impact community projects. The artists apply their creative skills to involve the local community, especially children, in culturally sensitive activities that educate, raise awareness of and give voice to pressing issues.

The community arts process fosters individual collaboration and solidarity, democratic decision making, and a sense of collective identity and unity. Together, they envision sustainable alternatives to the existing systems and translate their visions into creative action.

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The Story of ArtCorps

In 1999, a spirited French woman named Martine Kellett decided to start a program within New England Biolabs Foundation, where she served as Executive Director, to explore art’s power to improve communication and participation of rural communities in Guatemala facing environmental challenges. She called the program ArtCorps. Born from an epiphany of the power of art to transcend language barriers and cultural differences and inspired by the Peace Corps model, Field Artists engaged in participatory art projects to bring communities together in the common goal of achieving grassroots change. Artists also collaborated with leaders and educators to apply creative approaches for greater buy-in for their program outreach.

Each year, a select group of talented artists packed their bags and embarked on an adventure full of unexpected challenges, heartbreaking realities, and inspiring transformations. They marched with women to proclaim their rights; directed plays that allowed youth to find their place in the world; depicted good health practices in colorful murals; promoted sound environmental approaches through bookmaking, photography, poetry, marches and painting; and urged behavior change through countless plays, murals, puppet shows and exhibits. Their creativity was limitless. But their time was not always easy. One recurring challenge was trying to convince partner organizations that this work was meaningful, useful. But organizations, strapped with limited resources, did not prioritize creative approaches, mostly because they hadn’t worked alongside the artists and learned the importance and relevance of creativity in their work. So, when the artists returned home, the communities they served felt the loss when the creativity left with them and the spark went out.

We decided it was time to re-evaluate the approach - incorporating a rigorous and engaging curriculum to transfer knowledge partner organizations need to unearth new solutions to old problems. They are inspired when they discover the kernel deep within brimming with creative thinking, seeing the world through a new lens. They are invigorated by the new methods for building communities and leadership. For motivating and mobilizing. For breaking down barriers and breaking open new thinking. They feel a sense of community with their peers, together tapping into this bountiful and free resource, bringing forth new ways of engaging those they serve. They paint, sculpt, act, sing, make music and dance together, with guidance and accompaniment.

The result - a more viable and impactful model that reaches more and ensures lasting change.

Today, ArtCorps continues to thrive as the community engagement program within Creative Action Institute. Teams from our partner organizations undergo extensive training, then focus on building upon the skills they learned, and as the final piece, work with our artists on the ground on community projects to highlight key issues.

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Project Highlight: Ya'axche Conservation Trust

"Take Care of the Earth and the Earth Will Take Care of You." This is the powerful collective message of the mural created by 40 members of the primarily Mayan community of Medina Bank in Belize. This project was part of building the creative collaboration capacity of our partner Ya'axche to build local awareness about climate change.


Project Highlight: FUNDAECO

Sixty residents of all ages of Livingston, Guatemala also took paintbrushes in hand to express their commitment to protect nearby Cocoli Bay, home to manatees, shrimp, robalo fishes and mangroves. The three-wall long mural project is part of FUNDAECO's Campaign for Cocoli Bay Pride. Students, neighbors, fishermen, women and families alike expressed their shared vision of a thriving bay for generations to come.

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Project Highlight: SACD

Together with Sarteneja Alliance for Conservation and Development (SACD) of Belize, CAI engaged several schools in creating songs, poems, theater and folk tales to express their hope for alternatives to the climate change they face right now in low-lying coastal Sarteneja. Their awareness of environmental stewardship as crucial for the survival of Corozal Bay inspires them to take action. 

Students of the Immaculada School adapted a centuries-old folktale starring La Llorona - the Weeping Woman - whose ghost is said to live along the riverbanks, always crying for her drowned children. The students reimagined La Llorona as the future protector of Corozal Bay. Sarteneja Nazarene Primary School students adapted Bob Marley's “One Love," to teach the role of mangroves in providing for both marine life and people.

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Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) of Belize wanted to raise community awareness of the threatened Hicatee turtle following their Hicatee Release program. Students of the Forest Home Methodist Primary School had fun writing a story, crafting characters, and bringing them to life through the art of puppetry - performed for parents, students, teachers, and the wider community at the Fresh Water Cup Tournament - a popular yearly conservation awareness event. The Hicatee mascot even made an appearance. The resulting video is in use by local teachers as a conservation lesson tool.

WATCH: Hicatee Puppet Show


Bridging the culture divide, speaking to children and adults alike.
Giving voice, gaining attention and instilling hope.

“This experience has equipped me with a variety of styles and approaches that can be tailored to any education organization.”
– Julio Cheb, Community Outreach & Livelihoods, Ya’axche Conservation Trust