Creative Forces, Community Engagement, & COVID-19

Hannah Jacobson Blumenfeld
screen shot of an older man holding a ukulele
Glen McCarthy teaches a guitar/ukelele workshop to military-connected participants over Facebook Live for George Mason University as part of an online Creative Forces™ Community Connections project. Photo courtesy of Dr. Niyati S. Dhokai/GMU

It hits me in waves: both the strangeness and the opportunity of this time physically distancing. It seems that I am not alone in this, either personally or as we all manage a new flow of work ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic. As community engagement manager for the Creative ForcesⓇ: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, I’ve spent the past year working with organizations as they created or grew community-based arts programs to serve military-connected populations around each of our Creative Forces clinical sites. These Community Connections projects are part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Creative Forces initiative, which seeks to improve the health, wellness, and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers. Following up on the Arts Endowment’s announcement last fall of plans to expand the telehealth component of Creative Forces to reach rural and remote veteran populations via telehealth, we have also been exploring the potential for delivering tele-arts engagement (i.e., providing arts experiences virtually) from a non-clinical, community-based perspective as well.

None of us had any idea, of course, just how pressing this need would become—or that all of us, not just the pilot sites, would be answering an urgent call to make these kinds of opportunities accessible to our communities in the best ways we could. Earlier this year, our team’s discussions were largely theoretical around telehealth, tele-arts engagement, and how community engagement could be woven most effectively into each.

The team had just returned from a site visit to one of our newest telehealth locations when the world turned upside down. The question of what makes a community came to the fore—not just how long it would take to drive somewhere, which of course was the last thing on our minds at that point, but rather what the role of community arts engagement would be at this time of physical distancing. Should we continue to reinforce the very local connections we had focused on so intently for the Community Connections projects in the past? Should we take the opportunity of this moment to expand programs to include a broader audience? As a learning endeavor, the answer seems to be: yes and yes. With the whole idea of an in-person experience now off the table, our community-based partners have turned their full attention to tele-arts engagement, and—because no one is better than the community to answer the question, What do you need?—we initiated a series of video calls (naturally!) with all of our Community Connections project leads, many of whom were working on continued projects this spring, and started figuring it out together.

The COVID-19 crisis had clearly altered nearly every community engagement program plan; each of the project leads, however, has responded swiftly to the new reality and moved ahead with innovative approaches to reaching military-connected populations via tele-arts engagement. One of the most resonant takeaways from the Community Connections projects from the start was that no two projects were exactly alike--because no two communities are exactly alike, and military-connected populations are not a monolith. As such, it is encouraging to see that the response to COVID-19 and the types of opportunities and engagements being deployed are similarly diverse.

In North Carolina, for example, the Jacksonville-Onslow Council for the Arts has steadfastly worked up over the past year from three to often more than 30 participants each week for their open studio sessions, which are facilitated by a dedicated resident artist —in collaboration and conversation with the Creative Forces creative arts therapist at nearby Camp Lejeune. It’s an incredibly cohesive and welcoming group. Until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it had been a notably in-person experience. Even so, the team in North Carolina was positioned for success because they have always been really clear about one thing: listening to the participants is one of the most important ways to be of service.

It became clear that the art, while significant, was part of a larger sense of social connectivity the open studio space had offered. The next step of the process, then, was figuring out the right platforms and how to leverage them most effectively online. In order to respond directly to the needs of their members, the team in North Carolina has now fully pivoted to an online solution that combines a weekly Zoom social session and a Facebook Live presentation by the resident artist, showing an art project that members can do in their homes with any supplies they have. The process is ongoing, as the team experiments with the order of events (social first versus art first), different creative projects that can be done from home, and even the size and scope of the studio. North Carolina serves as a model for community partners across the Creative Forces Network on how the arts can help us stay socially connected even when being physically connected is no longer possible.

Further south, in Tampa, Florida, the Straz Center for the Performing Arts is drawing upon the success of their Veteran-Civilian Dialogues from the first iteration of their Creative Forces Community Connections project by continuing to host monthly dialogues online. The dialogues provide a space for military-connected and civilian populations to interact and make connections—focusing, again, on listening and adapting to needs rather than a strict agenda. The Straz team is currently facilitating these dialogues on Zoom, with the intent of holding space for interaction and community connectivity even with physical separation. The program is expanding beyond the Tampa area as well. The Florida team is working with the team in North Carolina in a variety of ways—including creating a podcast together—to open the doors more widely, while also remaining deliberate and intentional in building community. They’ve welcomed North Carolina open studio members and Community Connections project participants from across the country into the Florida dialogue digital space, demonstrating how the Creative Forces network is drawing upon collaboration and partnership to build capacity, share resources, and grow our understanding of community interconnectedness, online and off, and across state lines.

Virtual arts engagement opportunities are being explored across other Creative Forces sites across the Network as well. In Austin, Texas, Art Spark Texas and Texas Folklife are creating webinars and online course materials to make arts opportunities more accessible and approachable for military-connected populations. And here in the National Capital Region, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is offering Shakespeare scene study for military-connected populations over Zoom, with final performances recorded from home, of course. It’s not the same as standing onstage in the theater, but there is no doubt that we all learn a lot about ourselves when we see ourselves on video. Probably something many of us are experiencing right now! It’s an especially powerful tool for theater, and another great opportunity not just to survive in this time, but really to dig into the potential inherent in online platforms. Meanwhile, Northern Virginia’s George Mason University is offering their popular ukulele classes for military-connected populations online via Facebook Live, with a growing class size that is currently averaging more than 70 participants per session.

We are often at our creative best when we are all working with what we have. It is exciting to see these opportunities moving forward, but equally important to be aware of the logistical complexities that arts organizations must face as we enter this new dimension of our work. For example, the question of supplies is top of mind for many projects working on tele-arts engagement. In North Carolina, the resident artist provides a weekly “creative prompt” that can be accomplished in any medium using household items. In the George Mason program, those without ukuleles are encouraged to join using guitars with capos. As arts organizations across the network adapt to our current circumstances, they are discovering new ways to connect, collaborate, and engage our military-connected populations in the process of art-making. The barrier to participation is, in some ways, lower than ever, and the invitation to create together more exuberant.

As one participant in George Mason University’s project recently shared:

When I take ukulele and guitar lessons with the Creative Forces Veterans Workshops I feel like I'm doing something important. I know that it's improving the connection between my mind and body. I know that it's improving my spirit and my mood. And while it has always increased my sense of community, it does so now more than ever. One might think that moving to the online forum is less effective or de-personalized. But for me, a senior veteran who lives alone, the classes have become more important than ever. I am cut off from volunteering, from my gym, from my friends and family. But when I join Glen, Niyati and my classmates for a class, I am once again grounded in the beauty of music-making. I am taken away from the current crisis and forced to focus on chord making, etc. And of course, there is the happiness of singing. I am so grateful for these classes. Please thank the sponsors for me. And thank you all for continuing these classes. — D.G., Veteran, U.S. Army

Providing opportunities to find purpose, value, and happiness: overall, the continuations of the Community Connections Projects demonstrate the incredible adaptability of the arts sector and its capacity to support military-connected populations through this crisis and the rebuilding to come. All of this will require the kind of creativity and flexibility arts organizations embody and help us access, despite the many real obstacles—both operational and programmatic—they face today.

There’s an old improv adage: Always take the more interesting option. I’ve been lucky to see programs across the country at each of our project sites do exactly that, and I know so many more community arts organizations are doing the same. That is something to celebrate. As we all ride the waves of this moment and what is to come, the arts are uniquely poised to pave the way. From here inside Creative Forces, it’s clear that there is much more to explore with tele-arts engagement; we look forward to the challenge of building on this momentum to most effectively serve our service members and their families and caregivers now and in the future, whatever challenges—and opportunities—it may bring.

Hannah Jacobson Blumenfeld is the Community Engagement Manager for Creative Forces®.

Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and the state and local arts agencies. The initiative seeks to improve the health, wellness, and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers. Administrative support for the initiative is provided by Americans for the Arts.