Once upon a time, in a small village in Guatemala, a spirited French woman named Martine Kellett decided to start a program to test art’s power to improve the effectiveness and participation of communities in solving environmental challenges in Central America. In her role as Executive Director of the New England Biolabs Foundation, she found that their grantee organizations struggled with effectively engaging communities as partners and in articulating their climate messages clearly. She believed that art could help these environmental organizations more effectively involve and communicate with their communities. After an initial successful pilot, she founded the ArtCorps organization in 2006 to continue that mission.
Each year, a select group of talented artists traveled to Central America to partner with grassroots environmental organizations to use art as a tool for community engagement, education, and advocacy. Over subsequent years, the artists marched with women to proclaim their rights through creative signs and music; 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; and urged behavior change through countless plays, murals, puppet shows, and exhibits.
One recurring challenge was maintaining the continuity of the programs. Organizations loved hosting a partner artist for their programs, but they were not incorporating the creative methodologies within their work. When the artists left to return home, the communities they served found that the creativity and spark often left with them.
In 2012, after many setbacks and an increasingly challenging funding climate, ArtCorps’ staff and board decided it was time to re-evaluate the model. Great community projects were being done, but the organizations were not able to continue this work after the artists left because of a lack of systemized training. After much thought, they made a fundamental shift in approach. The team systematized their many years of experience implementing arts-based projects and created a Creative Leadership Course to train the organizations themselves.
In 2013, in partnership with the New England Biolabs Foundation (NEBF), ArtCorps piloted the new Creative Leadership Curriculum in Belize with organizations protecting marine habitats in the Gulf of Honduras. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
With a rigorous and engaging curriculum, organizations were now able to access new methodologies to come up with creative solutions to challenges in their work. They were invigorated by the new methods for community-building, leadership development, and employing creative advocacy methods to bring about behavior change. They saw the change in their partner communities, who were now more engaged and quicker to mobilize to take action. They were able to break down barriers and promote new ways of thinking, focused on more participatory models of community engagement.
In 2015, staff and board changed the name of the organization to Creative Action Institute (CAI) to better reflect the new focus of the work. And the volunteer program that had sent 60 artists to support organizations throughout Central America came to an end. In its place, artists joined as permanent staff in order to facilitate trainings with partner organizations and act as guides in their implementation of arts advocacy projects.
At the same time, a gendered-lens was implemented within all environmental curriculum - as it had become impossible to ignore how gender identity affected climate change impact and community organizing efforts. An intersectional approach was adapted into the climate justice curriculum.
In the same year, CAI launched programs in West and East Africa. In partnership with NEBF, CAI initiated a Creative Environmental Course for grassroots organizational leaders in Cameroon and Ghana.
In East Africa, the East African Girls’ Leadership Summit (EAGLS) was piloted to overwhelming positive response. The program brought together teen girls from across the region to develop their creative and participatory leadership skills with the goal of returning to their home communities to lead advocacy efforts around issues impacting girls education and well-being in their home communities. Some of these projects have focused on gender-based violence, teen pregnancy, sexual and reproductive health and education, climate change impacts, and other issues.
New opportunities for partnership in the region increased. In 2018, CAI partnered with UNICEF, UNESCO and FAWE to revamp the Gender Responsive Pedagogy Toolkit for teachers across Africa.
In 2019, CAI began training local artists from West Africa to conduct community arts advocacy clinics with organizational partners involved in the Creative Environmental Leadership courses.
2020 brought the COVID pandemic and CAI responded quickly with online trainings and programs. In East Africa, the Sauti ya Dada program was launched to support teen girls with SRHR knowledge, encourage them in their education, and create a virtual network of support while they remained in their homes during the school shutdowns. The purpose was to help girls avoid pregnancy and school dropout during the pandemic.
2020 also brought the opportunity to delve further into the intersection of Gender and Climate Change. CAI was contracted to implement a girl-led research project on climate change, and to develop a middle school curriculum on Gender and Climate Change. New England Biolab (NEB) also invested in the East African girl’s educational programs as a strategy to offset their carbon emissions.
2021 brought more opportunity for collaboration and contract work through the MADRE project, which focused on girl-led research on climate change.
2022 and 2023 included the launch of the Community Resilience program which offers environmental organizations courses on food security and food sovereignty and climate justice. The Creative Environmental Leadership and Community Resilience programs expanded into South America and now serve the following countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Ecuador, Ghana, and Cameroon.
Due to its overwhelming success during the pandemic, the Sauti ya Dada program expanded and evolved since its inception. The program now organizes girls into clubs with partner organizations, trains women mentors to lead the girls through the curriculum, offers bi-monthly gatherings, an opportunity to attend the annual EAGLS summit, and clubs now receive funding and guidance to research and implement a Creative Advocacy Practicum around a pressing issue in their community. Over 240 girls are served each year through this program.
Creative Action Institute continues to grow in order to meet the need for innovative programming that cultivates the leadership and advocacy skills of grassroots leaders to create innovative solutions to climate justice and gender equity around the world. Thank you to everyone that has helped Creative Action Institute in its evolution over the years!
Current Creative Action Institute Director, Clare Dowd (on left) with ArtCorps Founder, Martine Kellett (on right).