Creative Forces Community Engagement Grant Program

A Conversation with Christine Bial, Stephanie Shine, Lauren Gunn
Graphic showing hands comming together.

Jo Reed:  From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed.

It’s a two-part podcast today with one topic: the community engagement initiative of Creative Forces. First, some background:  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. It seeks to improve the health, well-being, and quality of life for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma, as well as their families and caregivers.

The program has three components which I’ll go over quickly: Clinical—Creative Forces is placing creative arts therapies at the core of patient-centered care at military medical and Veterans Health Administration facilities.  Capacity—Creative Forces invests in capacity-building efforts, including the development of toolkits, training materials, and other resources as well as research on the impacts and benefits of these innovative treatment methods.

And finally, community—Creative Forces invests in community arts engagement activities in order to broaden our understanding of their benefits and impacts for military and veteran populations exposed to trauma. In 2021, the NEA announced the Creative Forces Community Engagement grants to support emerging and established non-clinical arts engagement projects. And that is our focus for today. The first year of Community Engagement grants are winding up. So, later on, we are going to focus on the work of one of the grantees. But first, we’re going to get an overview of the community engagement piece from Christine Bial, she is the Director of Arts and Humanities Grants at Mid-America Arts Alliance which partners with National Endowment for the Arts in the Creative Forces Community Engagement Grant Program.  I began my conversation with Christine by asking her to discuss the goals of the Community Engagement initiative of Creative Forces

Christine Bial:   There are two sets of outcomes, two sets of goals, if you will, that the grant program has. One is for the grantee, the organization that is receiving the grant. They are working towards creating a relationship with another organization, a partnership, if you will, that will build networks, strengthen their own capacity and increase their understanding and impact within the military-connected community, especially with respect to increasing the value of the arts. The other set of outcomes that we're looking for are those that are related to the participants, those that are actually involved in the programming that the grantee is providing, and there we are specifically looking to see and understand creative expression, social connectedness and a sense of resilience, a hope that those that are participating in the program feel a sense of independence and can successfully adapt to civilian life. So there's a wide variety of things that we're really aiming to achieve through this grant program.

Jo Reed:  Who are being served by the program?

Christine Bial:  The primary participants that are being served are anyone that is military-connected, so that could be the military individuals themselves, be they veterans, currently active military members. It could also be our reservist and National Guard members as well as their families and caregivers. Anyone really who has a connection to the military could be a participant within this grant program. Those folks are the ones that are primarily connected to others that have potentially experienced trauma of various kinds, and so we're really looking at how this grant program can help support the community and those individuals who may have experienced trauma perhaps secondhand because they are family members, they are friends of those who have directly experienced different kinds of trauma.

Jo Reed:  As organizations design their programs, how involved are the military-connected communities that they hope to serve?

Christine Bial:  That is a key piece of the puzzle. The organizations that are applying-- those are typically the arts organizations-- they must partner with a military-connected or culturally competent organization or individual for that matter. So the grant program requires partners. The applicant needs to be a 501C3 nonprofit organization, which could actually be one that serves military members or their families, but more likely it is going to be an arts organization, and the 501C3 if it's a military organization must partner with someone who is involved with the arts and vice-versa. If it is an arts organization that's applying for the grant they must partner with an organization that serves military members or their families. So it's a combination of both arts and military cultural competency coming together to create a program that will impact a specific set of individuals in their community.

Jo Reed:  And how many grants were awarded the first year?

Christine Bial:  In the first year we had 26 grants awarded across the United States. They implemented a variety of projects in terms of artistic disciplines and partnerships, and we are in the process of determining and notifying those grant recipients in our second round, so we're so excited to be able to announce that in early June.

Jo Reed:  And can you give us some examples of the range of projects and the military communities that they're intended for?

Christine Bial:  Absolutely. So in this first year of grants we had, like I said, 26 grants across the United States, and this included a concert series that was presented by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem in collaboration with the New York-based Black Veterans for Social Justice organization. There was a grant that was distributed to Literary Cleveland, who is collaborating with the VA, the Veterans Administration, of Northeast Ohio Healthcare System, through which they are offering a series of online writing workshops. The Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, is working with Joint Base Lewis-McChord and the Washington State Office of Veteran Affairs to expand their eight-week glassmaking experience. And another one here in the Midwest is Caregivers on the Homefront in Kansas City, which will partner with a local art teacher to host standalone painting workshops both in-person and virtually in service to military caregivers and children.

Jo Reed: It's a wide variety of programs.

Christine Bial:  It really is. The scope and scale varies widely. The grant projects-- some are one-year projects. Others are two-year. The one-year projects typically have requested and are receiving roughly $10,000. Those two-year grant projects receive approximately $50,000, anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 depending upon the scope and scale of the project.

Jo Reed: Since you've mentioned military families and caregivers. Why is it important, do you think, to be inclusive of the broader military-connected population?

Christine Bial:  I believe that the whole person needs to be respected and fully embraced and supported, and in order to do so it means reaching out to those that care most and are directly involved in the wider community. The overall well-being of our military men and women and their families is something that cannot be overlooked and that the community on the whole comes together and supports them in ways that to leave any of those participants out of the greater picture creates a gap in that bridge between the military experience and that of civilian life.

Jo Reed:  And you're also involved in capacity-building through community engagement. Can you explain a little bit what that is and how that's implemented?

Christine Bial:  Absolutely. So the organizations, particularly arts organizations, are expected to carry out a number of surveys and participate in community development as a cohort with one another, and the capacity-building comes into play… we are working with a consultant who is providing support, technical assistance, to the grantees so that they can best carry out the surveys that are part of this program and collect the data that is necessary for us to fully understand the impact of the program in those communities. The consultants also are working with the two-year grantees towards developing logic models and theories of change for their program so that they can fully understand the importance of the project, what the inputs were, what the elements going into the project were and how those affected in the long run the outcomes on the far side, so to speak.

Jo Reed:  Okay, so the first year is coming to an end. Tell me what you learned from this first year.

Christine Bial:  We have learned so very much about this program and through this program in its first year. The organizations are passionate about supporting our military men and women and their families. They are incredibly engaged and committed to this work. They are inspirational frankly in their efforts to meet those individuals where they are and provide arts experiences that allow those individuals to communicate their most inner thoughts. It has been very, very deeply gratifying <laughs> to be able to support the kind of work that's happening across the country and in the field. Knowing that the clinical aspect has been so powerfully impactful on those that are experiencing traumatic brain injury and PTSD in the clinical setting, we're very excited to see how this kind of creative arts activity can impact the local community and those families and caregivers that are working with our military men and women.

Jo Reed:  From what you've seen, why do you think the arts and arts organizations are uniquely positioned to help tackle the challenges faced by these communities?

Christine Bial:  I believe that the arts are uniquely situated to carry forward messages and viewpoints from a variety of individuals that are expressed in a wide variety of ways. The arts community, the arts organizations, they are deeply embedded within their communities as a means of expressing the local community and cultures, traditions, artists who have voices that often are not heard in other realms, and I believe without the arts day-to-day living loses a little bit of its color and vibrancy. The arts organizations in our communities that are carrying out this work are a connective tissue within the communities to help leverage voices that are not heard, help people express themselves in ways that perhaps they have not tapped into before and allows them to communicate and bridge a gap in experiences that other means of communication simply cannot do.

Jo Reed:  That was Christine Bial—she is the Director of Arts and Humanities Grants at Mid-America Arts Alliance which is a partner with National Endowment for the Arts in the Creative Forces Community Engagement Grant Program.  Now we’ll turn to one of the grantees. Feast of Crispian-South is an outreach program of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company. It can perhaps be seen as an unusual grantee of the community engagement initiative since its work, while not therapy, so far has been centered on veterans who are hospitalized inpatients. But it’s a program with a track record and here’s Stephanie Shine, the Director of Outreach who supervises the program, to tell us about it.

Stephanie Shine: The Feast of Crispian-South was modeled after the original Feast of Crispian program that was founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin which uses Shakespeare's language and creative writing to strengthen the psychological resources that are available to veterans with post deployment, mental, health and chemical, dependency issues. And our program serves Memphis Area veterans. We are now about to conclude our sixth year partnering with the Memphis VA medical hospital, and facilitating sessions in which veterans use the language of Shakespeare to articulately and safely speak their thoughts and feelings. Our groups are very diverse. They are male and female inpatients who are ages 18 to 91. All from the Tennessee area. And this population is defined by the hospital as veterans with disabilities, PTSD or other combat related physical and cognitive disabilities as well as chemical dependency issues. And what we do is we facilitate two one-hour sessions once a week with our inpatient veterans. It makes our program a little different from many others because we are part of a wellness package, as it were, that the Memphis VA supports by giving us access to their patients. And we implement a strategic combination of theater practices, giving them an opportunity to some live performance, and always inhabiting Shakespeare's text so that they can find a safe way to deescalate some of their issues, and also to find their own words. Once they have the context of a Shakespeare play and realize the community that's within Shakespeare's characters, they can find their own words to better articulate and give a name to their very deep feelings that often have no other way of being accurately expressed.

Jo Reed:  I had to ask Stephanie about the program’s unusual name Feast of Crispian-South. 

Stephanie Shine:  The Feast of Crispian that name of the project comes directly from one of my favorite Shakespeare plays "Henry V."  Within that play there is a glorious speech that Henry gives to his comrades right before they go off and fight the French and they're horrible underdogs, they're outnumbered something like six to one, it's just terrible odds.  And he goes through one of the most glorious speeches every written and he says that, "Today is called the Feast of Crispian and he who sheds his blood with me today he will become my brother."  And this is where that beautiful line, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," comes from.  The idea that when we survive this, not if, but when we survive this we will forever be bonded by that experience.  Not only is it a turning moment within the play and a play that is taken from actual history, but for the veterans that we serve, the fact that they have all had those similar experiences does prove to be a bonding factor for them that the title of our program speaks to.  And the reason why we are Feast of Crispian-South is because this program Feast of Crispian was developed up in the Milwaukee area by our friends Bill and Nancy Watson and they named it Feast of Crispian.  And when we asked for their guidance and permission and to work under the umbrella of Feast of Crispian we adopted since we are south <laughs> of Milwaukee Feast of Crispian-South.

Jo Reed:  Lauren Gunn, the teaching artist who works directly with the veterans at the Memphis VA medical hospital, describes a typical workshop.

Lauren Gunn:  Once a week, every Thursday I go to our VA hospital here in Memphis, Tennessee and I spend two hours with the veterans, we spend an hour working on creative writing and then an hour on Shakespeare and his verse, all in an effort to be an auxiliary or a complementary service in their own programming of rehabilitation through their programming at the VA while they are inpatient.  In terms of what a typical class might look like that we usually for the first hour we have creative writing, we find that exploring self-expression through the written word we're finding ourselves using our own metaphors, similes analogies and poetic language in our writing using these creative prompts facilitates an interest in exploration then Shakespeare's work--using Shakespeare's verse to explore a character's perspective and encourage the exploration of the poetry to see what might come from the poetry in terms of what happens in our body and how we use our breath to explore these words. 

Jo Reed:  Lauren has seen Shakespeare’s language speak to the experiences of these veterans.  

Lauren Gunn:   Stephan Wolfert with DE-CRUIT another program that uses Shakespeare to serve veterans, he talks about how ultimately Shakespeare's verse is a vehicle for our own words.  And so using the big words for big feelings that Shakespeare provides us, using that for our own needs and what I have discovered for the veterans is that they explore the language, seeing them see themselves within the words.  We talk about how, Shakespeare wrote this 400 years ago and yet there can be such specificity of a reflection of our own experiences within his language and within his characters that the delight, the curiosity, the surprise that is often in the room I think is something that's extraordinary.

Jo Reed:  It's important to re-emphasize that while Feast of Crispian-South partners with the VA. It is not providing therapy; it’s therapy-adjacent-- it supports the therapies that are offered by clinicians. Stephanie Shine

Stephanie Shine:  A clinician is in the room with Lauren always when she teaches just to handle things that are out of our ken as theater artists.  But the VA hospital has found that the programming that we deliver has so helped their patients' recovery during their time as inpatients, helped them so much that they really are behind the program and have proved themselves to be remarkable partners.

Jo Reed:  Lauren Gunn

Lauren Gunn:  Dr. Adrian Northcutt is the clinician who was in the room with me and having her there… we often talk about that it allows the artist to be the artist and the clinician to be the clinician, that there is a harmony and a building off of each other that comes from her partnership that I just feel really lucky to get to have.

Jo Reed:  Feast of Crispian-South is six years old. Stephanie Shine explains how the Tennessee Shakespeare Company came to work with veterans in this capacity.

Stephanie Shine:  This was really the brainchild and yearning of a wonderful teaching artist named Carmen-maria Mandley and this was a passion of hers.  Quite frankly it was not anything I had known  about or thought of my focus being more within the classroom. But she wanted to serve veterans and she had had experience with Nancy and Bill and she introduced us to it. And we are very collaborative here, most arts organizations are.  If somebody comes in with a passion we listen and we go, "Let's try it, let's try to do that." And she put all the pieces in place and ran this beautifully and expanded it until she needed to be on a leave of absence. And that has left Lauren and myself to fill her very large shoes.  But Lauren's heart is now very firmly embedded into this work with veterans.  So it came because one of our teaching artists wanted to serve the population. And we're all so glad she brought this to us and so glad we get to continue this very big service.

Jo Reed:  But was there any trepidation about focusing on Shakespeare?  Do they get any pushback from veterans when they first enterthe workshops and begin reading the Bard?  Stephanie Shine

Stephanie Shine:   Yes from everything that I've experienced as a supervisor, yes, we do from time to time get someone <laughs> who says, "Shakespeare, what are we doing with Shakespeare?"  And this happens to us in many venues really, we have to undo a lot of bad street cred that Shakespeare carries.  <laughs>  We have to undo some unfortunate English classes in people's past.  But the best thing is that with just a little bit of time universally it seems Shakespeare becomes a friend and comrade, another comrade in the human experience and somebody that they meet with eagerness. In many contexts Shakespeare is the great equalizer and allows the safe language with which to explore big feelings. Shakespeare brings us all together and our veteran program has proven that over and over again.

Jo Reed:   Lauren recounts a workshop focused on Henry IV, pt 1—a play that highlights the fraught relationships between fathers and sons. The group had just read a scene between King Henry and his son Hal in which Hal promises to be the man his country needs and it spoke deeply to one of the veterans in the room.

Lauren Gunn:  A young man, Carl, we'll name him, And I'll just never forget Carl just began to laugh and said, "I never, never could have seen myself so clearly in a scene, I never would have thought that that would be possible when I walked in here today."  And that was literally his first day on the unit.  So to be admitted into this program immediately thrust into a creative writing and Shakespeare class to find for himself what he called a God wink, you know, a serendipitous series of events that led to discovery and a new consideration for a relationship.

 Jo Reed:  Feast of Crispian-South received a Creative Forces Community Engagement Grant in this first year. Stephanie Shine explained what that grant allowed the program to do.

Stephanie Shine:  It allowed us to work on expanding or own training, so we are actually being able to host the Feast of Crispian founders in just a couple of weeks to go through a further extensive training with the entire education staff.  And there are about five of us and we're very much looking forward to that.  It also afforded us a community that we could talk about best practices with which we hadn't had before.  And whenever you are able to go into something with that kind of a funding base it helps the whole community that you're serving.  It helped the VA know that we were being supported at such a level and it also allowed us to participate in some very important information gathering, we were the only program that was taking place inpatient inside a hospital.  And so we were able to be the one group that could collect data from our participants while they were hospitalized.  So that helps us add to the whole.  So I think it really allowed us a lot of marvelous things in the community, the monthly meetings and all with the Creative Forces Community Engagement Grant folks was really a wonderful experience.

Jo Reed:  I asked teaching artist Lauren Gunn what she learned from the veterans who participated in the program.

Lauren Gunn:  Every single class I learn something extraordinary and every single class is different.  I can come back to the same speeches of Hamlet or Brutus, and I think I know what the speech is about and then <snaps fingers once> bam they will delve so deep and mine these nuggets of brilliance, revelations about this text and what it means for us as humans every single class.  And it's extraordinary how varied and diverse it is no matter how many times we explore one speech.

Jo Reed:  Stephanie Shine summed up what she and the program learned through the Creative Forces Community Engagement initiative.

Stephanie Shine: I learned about the great creativity and expansiveness of programming that is being offered throughout our country by artists for our veterans. I had no idea. I was humbled by it. I was inspired by it. I was just really honored to be in that company So that was one thing I learned. The other thing it did for us as a company for Tennessee Shakespeare company is because we were an outlier from the rest of our fellow grantees because our services happen in a hospital as part of an inpatient experience. So our community engagement was really about dealing with the community that was confined, and not necessarily seeking our services or being able to engage with us afterwards. So what I realized, from my fellow grantees, is we have a large hole in our programming. As good as our work is and as important as our work is, and I truly know it is, within the hospital setting we have a larger audience to serve including our participants rather after they successfully leave the hospital. So we have been inspired to figure out what our next steps are for broadening our outreach, so that we can become a home for greater veterans services. And we've got a beautiful theater facility. There's no reason why we can't do that. It's about staffing and understanding how it works. So I'm going to continue to look at my fellow grantees from the creative forces community engagement grant to find their best practices at working within the broader community.  One thing I would love to put into play and that I'm playing with now is having a night of the week be a veteran drop in night. I know something in the early evening where they could come to our theater and know that we would be there every Monday perhaps. Every Monday we are there for a two-hour creative writing and working with Shakespeare's text session for whoever happens to be able to come. And we could continue our work and build a larger community for those veterans so they could see that they are not alone. And that perhaps even depending on their involvement and how much they enjoy what they're doing we could even come up with performance opportunities for them. Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing to be able to have a showcase, a veteran Shakespeare scene so they could be witnessed by their peers and by the larger community, seeing them grapple, and master Shakespeare's text and their own thoughts and feelings hand-in-hand. I would just love that. So it was really eye-opening for our whole organization.

Jo Reed:  That was Stephanie Shine, the Director of Outreach of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company who supervises the program Feast of Crispian-South which was a Creative Forces Community Engagement grantee. We also heard from Lauren Gunn a teaching artist who runs the workshops with veterans for Feast of Crispian-South.  Earlier in the pod, we spoke with Christine Bial from Mid-America Arts Alliance which partners with National Endowment for the Arts in the Creative Forces Community Engagement Grant Program.  We’ll have a link to all these organizations in our show notes. Many thanks to my colleagues Carolyn Coons and Allison Hill for their help with this podcast.

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at And follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps other people who love the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


This is a two-part podcast: we begin with Christine Bial, director of Arts and Humanities Grants at Mid-America Arts Alliance, which is a partner with National Endowment for the Arts in the Creative Forces Community Engagement Grant Program. She gives an overview of the program: its goals, scope, and examples of some of the programming. She also shares what was learned in the program’s first year. Then we hear from a grantee: Stephanie Shine is the supervisor and Lauren Gunn is the teaching artist for Feast of Crispian-South, an outreach program of the Tennessee Shakespeare Company. Feast of Crispian-South partners with the Memphis VA Medical Center to facilitate sessions in which veterans use the language of Shakespeare to express their own thoughts and feelings. Shine and Gunn give an overview of Feast of Crispian-South, how it got its start, its six years of work with veterans, and the power of Shakespeare’s language for veterans. They also discuss the Creative Forces Community Engagement Grant, what it allowed them to do, what they learned through the community engagement initiative, and how they hope to expand the program.

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