Experiences with the humanities change lives. We know that. We also know that beyond the tally of who participated directly, the impact of an encounter with ideas can ripple outward in unpredictable ways.
A few weeks ago I started a conversation about evaluating our impact in “Taking measure of your humanities project.” I talked about how we can evaluate impact both from the perspective of how programming affects how organizations operate, and what individual participants take home. This week, I’m sharing the story of Professor Arijit Sen’s project, Picturing Milwaukee, as a case study in using participant feedback to improve programming and organizational relationships.
I visited Sen at his UW-Milwaukee Building-Landscape-Culture field school this past summer to talk about how his project evolved since he received two Major Grants from the Council several years ago. His experience was enlightening. He looked beyond the feel-good successes in participant evaluations of his project to focus on where he missed the mark.
In thinking through those short-comings, Sen built a far better project and more meaningful partnerships that led to a much deeper community impact than he had initially imagined.
UW-Milwaukee Professor Arijit Sen had high hopes for his Building-Landscape-Culture field schools. He envisioned goals for encouraging community-based learning collaborations and empowering local communities by giving their stories a platform. WHC awarded Major Grants for his inaugural field school in 2012 and for his field school in Washington Park in 2014.
At the conclusion of his projects, like most of WHC’s grantees, he reported the successful new partnerships he built, the growth of interdisciplinary ties within his organization, and the numbers of individuals who attended various public events.
Interspersed, however, were blunt assessments of where he got it wrong.
He had collected data from review sessions with community members, audience feedback forms, website comments, and student evaluations. People were confused. Why were they collecting stories? His organizational partners flat out just didn’t get it.
“We failed to sustain resident interest after the data collection phase.”
“The biggest setback with our collaborating partners was to clarify and maintain our goals and expectations of this project. Our community partners expected us to produce a professional report and “solve problems.” They were not sure why we were collecting stories and histories.”
From the feedback, it would be easy to think he failed. Instead, his honest evaluation and analysis helped contribute to community building in ways that he never anticipated.
Sen said of his difficult 2014 collaboration with Washington Park Partners, “They are used to the university providing them with research reports about statistics and using knowledge to solve problems. We weren’t saying how they should react to eliminate problems like crime or something….They wanted a report that told them, like, do these five things.” Sen had stories, not quantitative data.
Sen’s evaluations revealed the importance of partner selection. Washington Park Partners organized around disbursing city development funds, and thus its interests were in tying dollars to outcomes. They weren’t set up for long-term commitments or staff support to the field school and the connections they facilitated were with organizations that were already under-staffed.
His analysis revealed a need for better collaboration with community leaders and community organizers. Since then, he formed more successful relationships with Artists Working in Education, Express Yourself Milwaukee and committed local residents. It was local residents who led him to ACTS Housing.
Today, ACTS shares its space in an old convent on West Vliet Street in Milwaukee with the Building-Landscape-Culture field school.
ACTS Housing helps low-income families buy and rehab houses. Sen explains, ACTS is “more specific in their project goals. So we’ve changed our project to meet this more focused neighborhood approach.”
Adjusting project goals made sense in light of what was and wasn’t working. ACTS “didn’t have anyone to write their story. So helping them in their efforts to build on the value of home ownership and stewardship builds our relationship with the community and our program,” says Sen.
Part of the problem, Sen says, is the relationship with academia. His team needs to build trust quickly in order to come into people’s homes and talk with people. But troubled communities surrounding Milwaukee’s many institutions of higher learning are familiar, and somewhat impatient, with a long list of academic programs that swoop in at the beginning of each semester to engage local problems, only to disappear as students gear up for final exams.
Neighbors said they didn’t want another cycle of “social justice academics” suggesting there was something broken about them, only to leave them when the course completed, still apparently broken.
The semester-based relationship may meet scholarly needs for research and to give students practical experience, but it has little to do with the community’s needs for continuity.
Sen recalls his early meeting with a local artist who is now a collaborator with his project, who asked if Sen was an ‘intellectual carpetbagger.’ “He was very hesitant to talk to us,” Sen says, noting his own personal sense of being an outsider in the community.
Such community feedback led Sen to modify his field school plan. He initially planned to work a cross-section of Milwaukee communities based on North Street, which transects sharply segregated neighborhoods in Milwaukee. He shifted his thinking and decided the work needed to be grounded in one place.
By making Washington Park the field school’s home base, ACTS could open links to homeowners and Sen’s team could provide home histories, architectural notes and heritage in return. The extended stay also allows the field school to document its own impacts on the neighborhood.
Initially leery community members have since become mentors on his project and help deepen links with Sen’s affiliated programs in the arts. Those relationships have resulted in garden tours, a farmer’s market and artisan row and he’s beginning to see the results of collaborative teaching as community members interact with the students.
While he can’t directly tie his field school to all of the changes he’s seen, his team helped establish the relationships. The partnerships also resonate within as Sen builds connections across disciplines in the university in unanticipated ways.
Evaluations and unintended consequences
Through evaluation, Sen’s goals became not to just collect information and give it back, “but find multiple ways of applying what we learn in lectures, tours of houses, dance recitals, installation art. The best is a playwright took oral history and house history to create a docudrama in cooperation with the drama program and the people whose stories were recorded, and act out those life stories.” The performance was included in the Imagining America conference in Milwaukee in early October and the intent is to tour it nationally.
The 2016 field season presented a new issue that, through evaluation he plans to tweak. “In the past we took students into the community and as they are doing their research it ceases to be an assignment and becomes about the stories themselves,” says Sen. The students become invested in the community they are working with. “This year, two students took it just for an assignment for a grade and wanted to provide the minimum for the assignment” with the can-we-go-now attitude well before a project finished. That attitude disrupted a close-knit program and did a lot of damage. In response, he hopes to open the program up more broadly to students outside UW-Milwaukee to cancel such negativity. In the past, many of those who took the class were eager for the experience and provided the driving energy.
All of the impacts Sen describes come down to building trust by becoming a part of the community. Local residents who once refused to be involved with another student project are now key partners. These relationships emerged from listening to feedback, evaluating project effectiveness, and then modifying goals to meet community needs.
Rather than outsiders looking in, the field school is becoming part of the world it’s observing. Sen notes how the relationship with ACTS has deepened such that ACTS wants to incorporate the collected stories from the Washington Park field school in its proposed renovations of its West Vliet Street property.
The closer link with the community has also helped Sen’s scholarly goals, clarifying how the dreams people hold for their homes evolved through architecture. Says Sen, “We begin to merge the practices of public history and architecture in unexpected ways.” Staying put allows participants to contemplate the meaning of ‘home.’ “We have seen home as gender, as labor, as many things.”
And for the students in his field school, they are coming to see ‘home’ as community.
[All photos of used with permission from the Building-Landscape-Culture field school.]
More Evaluating ~ More Learning ~ More Reading
In the following articles, I share more examples of how evaluation can be used to develop better projects – both our ability to offer guidance, and your ability to design great programming. I also share methods some groups have used to measure that impact on their participants, and discuss ways to think about why humanities programming matters.
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Tracking the meaningful changes
Evaluating your impact
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