Dr. Niyati Dhokai

Program Director, Veterans and the Arts Initiative at George Mason University
Headshot of a young woman.

Photo courtesy of Niyati Dhokai

Niyati Dhokai I think that the importance of arts in community for veterans and their families is just so profound. It provides opportunities to come together as a community, to engage, to strengthen social relationships that one already has and to form new ones.  To learn new skills and consider new hobbies, new ideas for creative expression, and to do all of that in a community space… and then to share that artwork or that music with others.  I mean there’s just so many components to this that come together.

Jo Reed:  That is Dr. Niyati Dhokai, she is Research Associate Professor in the College of Visual and Performing Arts and the Program Director for Veterans and the Arts Initiative at George Mason University. And this is Art Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

I think it’s fair to say that while the Arts Endowment is proud of all its programs--Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network has a special place for all of us. Creative Forces is an initiative of the Arts Endowment 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. Creative Forces places the creative arts therapies at the core of patient-centered care at military medical centers and at veterans’ health administration facilities.  But what Creative Forces has also done is support research and resources like the development of training materials and toolkits and it’s invested in community arts engagement activities in order to understand the benefits of nonclinical arts engagement and the impact of community arts engagement for military and veteran populations.  One of the programs supported by Creative Forces is Veterans and the Arts Initiative at George Mason University’s Hylton Performing Arts Center.  Veterans and the Arts Initiative is a robust, impressive program—reaching some 2,000 veterans, service members, their families and caregivers each year with a variety of workshops and programming.  The program director of the initiative Dr Nyoti Dhokai believes the program’s success has its roots in its origins.

Niyati Dhokai: The Veterans and the Arts Initiative began so organically out of a series of community conversations. In around 2014, the staff at the Hylton Performing Arts Center noticed that there were many veterans getting involved with a lot of the aspects of the Hylton Center, whether it was some of our committees volunteering their time or just attending performances, and they started to have conversations with the staff on ways they could get more involved, and the staff listened to their needs and began considering how a program could be built.  Around that time, I circled back to George Mason University, which is actually my alma mater, and I had been working with veterans and service members recovering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress at the time, and I had been working with them on community integration through the arts, and so when I heard about this opportunity to help support the building of a new program at George Mason University, it was like a dream come true.

Jo Reed:  How do you even begin a program like this?

Niyati Dhokai: So alongside the staff at the Hylton Performing Arts Center, I talked to groups of veterans, service members and their families.  We talked to people as individuals one on one.  We learned about their military service during different eras.  We learned about the role that the arts had in their lives, whether it was guitars that had been taken on deployments or music that was important to them currently, and we began to really get a sense of how the arts came together for people in a meaningful way and considered how we could design programming that would support this.  So resulting from these conversations, we had our first Veterans Day celebration in 2015 that the entire Hylton Center participated in, and it involved so many of our local artists and musicians and community members and we just tried so many different things.  We had performances.  We had opportunities to create visual art and poetry.  We had opportunities to make music, and we reflected on what honoring our service through the arts meant to us.

Jo Reed: Let me just interrupt right here, because we need to be clear.  You’re not talking about therapy here, creative arts therapy.  This is something quite different. 

Niyati Dhokai: That is true.  This is something quite different from the creative arts therapies.  What we’re talking about here is the community arts programming, which does support a person’s health, but in a different way.  It supports a person’s health by getting them engaged in the community, by helping them learn new skills, and by helping them consider what supports their well-being.

Jo Reed: Okay.  That’s a great distinction.  Thank you for that.  Veterans and the Arts is supported in part by the Creative Forces Initiative.  When did that relationship begin, and what are the resources and support you get through the program?

Niyati Dhokai: Sure.  So the Creative Forces initiative is really wonderful. So for our program, what had happened was when we encountered Creative Forces, we had had a couple of these pilot project events through our Veterans Day celebrations where we really learned what our community was interested in learning.  And the Veterans and the Arts Initiative began with a series of workshops.  Our first workshop series was our Veterans Guitar Workshop Series, which continues to be one of our most popular today, because overwhelmingly we just kept hearing about the significance of the guitar for a lot of our veterans.  What was so interesting for us though was that as our veterans attended the Veterans Guitar Workshop Series, we noticed that approximately 20 percent of our attendees were also military kids and teenagers who were attending alongside their veteran or service member parents, and they were super engaged in the process of these workshops, but they were also kind of creating their own little subgroups as they began to know each other on a weekly basis and they were sharing ideas about songs, and from there, we thought, “Why not create a dedicated Songwriting Series for our Military Kids?”  And so we created that, and at the Songwriting Series for Military Kids we encouraged the military kids to bring instruments that were significant to them. And one of the things that we noticed was so many of them brought ukuleles with them, and these ukuleles were personalized.  They were different colors.  They had different décor on them, and they were just so unique in their presentation, and they really began to tell us a story of each military kid.  So we asked the military kids, “What do these ukuleles mean to you?” and the stories were as diverse as the kids themselves, so from there we thought, “It would be so neat to create a Ukulele Workshop Series for military families to come together and just play the ukulele together,” and that’s when we encountered Creative Forces and the opportunity to create new programming that we were seeing a need for at the time.

Jo Reed: When did this workshop begin and what was the response to it?

Niyati Dhokai: So in the summer of 2019, we launched our Ukulele Workshop Series, and the response was just overwhelming.  We had military families participating together, all of the kids in a family alongside their parents or guardians. People would come with their partners, with their friends.  People would come on their own just to see their community, and we had people of so many different age groups within the classroom.  We had everyone from military kids as young as seven years old to veterans who had served during the Korean War era, and so to bring that kind of intergenerational perspective into one room that we had seen before in our Guitar Workshop Series, but to see it further amplified through the Guitar Workshop Series was just really exciting for us.

Jo Reed: How many workshops do you typically do a year?  Let’s take the pandemic year aside.  We’ll talk about that in a bit.

Niyati Dhokai: That’s a good question.  I would say that we probably do about 30 workshops in a year.  Maybe 30 to 40 was probably a better answer for that.  One of the reasons why we have so many is because we’ve really found that offering workshops in a series is a wonderful way to create community.  Within the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason University, our dean, Rick Davis, always says the arts create community, and there’s no better example of that than the Veterans and the Arts Initiative, and so we created these workshop series so that people that come together on a weekly basis to really reflect on what they were learning together as they were gaining these new skills, and it’s really been an impactful opportunity for them, as we’ve noticed.  And then one of the other things that we do as a standalone is just to have special events where then they can share some of their efforts, through photography exhibitions, through other types of special events that they choose are important to them.

Jo Reed: How many veterans, service members, family members, do you typically serve a year, and how many have you served since the program began?

Niyati Dhokai: Since the program began, we’ve served over 10,000 people.

Jo Reed: Whoa.

Niyati Dhokai: Yeah. <laughs> And on a regular year I would say that we would probably serve a couple thousand, and the reason for this is that we have a variety of events that we do.  Some of our workshops are intentionally very small in number. For other workshop series, they may be larger, such as our guitar workshops, which can have anywhere up to 60 people in them participating on a weekly basis. But we also have a series of special events.  So we have photography exhibitions.  We have concerts.  We now have virtual concerts as well, because we find that people are looking for different types of arts engagement.  Some folks might be looking for that active arts engagement where they really want to try out something new and learn something and build on a skill, but some people just want to take in the arts and just experience them.  They want to go to a concert.  They want to go to a art gallery and engage in the process of reflecting on it and considering what the impacts of it are in their own lives as they reflect on that experience, and so people are looking for different things, and so as a result of these types of different activities we have, we have approximately a couple thousand people a year.

Jo Reed: I’m curious about what is unique about programming for veterans, service members, their families.

Niyati Dhokai: So what’s unique about programming for them are some of the life experiences that they have had that have affected their arts practices sometimes in a lot of different ways.  So for example, we will have some fantastic musicians join us -- they’ve lived around the country and around the world, and then they arrive at George Mason University, which is a center of teaching and learning, and they share with us all that they’ve learned, and a lot of folks have told us that it’s really nice to have a place where they can arrive as they are and who they are and, you know, with their musical preferences, with the musical knowledge that they have and that they don’t have, and find a place that they can put it all together.  Socially what we’ve noticed is that a lot of our veterans and service members seek us at a time of transition.  For a lot of folks, that military to civilian transition is a time when they’re seeking support for the veteran, for the service member, but also for the families, because the families have had just as spectacular of a career journey as the veteran or the service member, and so it’s an opportunity for families to participate together.  For a lot of folks there may be an injury involved, whether it be visible or invisible.  So there’s a lot of accommodations needed sometimes, for post-injury accommodations that people are just kind of learning about as they reintegrate into community settings, so we’re there to support that, and then for our veterans who’ve been in our community for a while, engaging in a creative or artistic endeavor can provide the support that one needs to support other facets of their lives and to know that they’re not alone in their experiences and to know that there are other people who are experiencing the same things alongside them but then also to have a release from the day-to-day concerns and challenges by picking up an instrument or a paintbrush or a sketch pad and then to share that artwork or that music with others.  I mean there’s just so many components to this that come together.

Jo Reed: And I’m also wondering, is there special outreach or programs for women who are veterans or service members?  Because I know they often feel marginalized.

Niyati Dhokai: Absolutely.  So one of the things that we’re so proud that the Veterans and the Arts Initiative has actually been recognized for is our service to women veterans.  In 2018, I was named the Change Maker of the Year by the Virginia Department of Veterans Services and I was--

Jo Reed: The first one ever.

Niyati Dhokai: The first one ever, and I was so humbled by this particular designation and I was a bit surprised by it too, because I have had the honor of working with strong women veterans throughout the time that I have worked with the military. To me, working with this group was just such an important part of the work that I did, and so as we designed the Veterans and the Arts Initiative, and so to be recognized for our service to women veterans when Virginia Department of Veterans Services noticed how many women veterans were participating in our workshops was truly humbling, because for us it just felt natural.  For us it just felt natural to make sure that they were there, and as they felt comfortable we actually noticed a lot of our women veterans started participating alongside their kids.  They would make sure-- my favorite was we had two women veterans who would bring their daughters every week to our guitar workshops and it became mother-daughter time for them.  So as we began to learn their stories in a community setting, we created a specific workshop series for our women veterans, and the first thing that we tried was Smartphone Photography, and the reason why we did that is because we really feel like these days so much of our life experiences are mediated by our smartphones.  And so we thought, “Why not bring our women veterans together, reflect on the types of photos that we’re taking right now and what that says about us and really consider how we can represent ourselves better through improving our photography skills?” and we were blown away by the participation.  In our first Women Veterans Workshop Series, we had everyone from Vietnam Era veterans through veterans who had deployed to Iraq in one room together, and they were telling us about their experience of being women identifying veterans in the military during different eras, and they were talking about the similarities, about the differences, what their lives were like now, and they were expressing all of this through photos, and they created such a powerful collection of photographs that we’ve actually displayed them at the Hylton Performing Arts Center during Veterans Day.  The Virginia Department of Veterans Services has featured our digital exhibition during their virtual Virginia Women Veterans Summit, which was the first time that they had to go virtual during the onset of the pandemic last year, and we’ve even been able to take our photos down to Richmond to the capital of the Commonwealth in person so that people can see these photos and reflect on what life means for women veterans and see the similarities and differences in their own lives.

Jo Reed:  You have this programming and you clearly create community through it, and I was curious about how you go about doing that.  And as you said, one way is the series of workshops so that a community can build that way.  Are there other ways that you’ve found that are really good for community building through this work?

Niyati Dhokai: Yeah.  I this that, you know, going back to how we started the Veterans and the Arts Initiative, it’s those initial community conversations.  It really was at the heart of how we started the Veterans and the Arts Initiative, and it’s really at the heart of how we have continued.  Those weekly interactions that we have with our community, we’re always checking in with our veterans, service members, their families, their military caregivers, to ask how their participation in a workshop is going for them, what aspects they’re liking, what aspects they’re not liking.  We actually encourage feedback about what they think could be improved.  We’re always interested in what their inspirations are for their artwork or for their music, and so we’re always learning a lot about that.  And then we also just encourage group conversations as well, where people can understand where their fellow community members are coming from so they know how it is that we’re making the choices that we’re making.  Because as I always joke, having such a diverse and intergenerational group of people who identify in so many different ways and who are from so many different eras of service that they have supported, I feel like the Veterans and the Arts Initiative is a lot like hosting Thanksgiving dinner week after week after week, and for every person who participates, they have their favorite thing that they come for and then they have that one thing that they’re just kind of not, you know, that interested in but they know that it means a lot to somebody else.  And I feel like that’s a lot of what develops within the Veterans and the Arts Initiative is that, that understanding of what creates joy for themselves but what creates joy for others and negotiating all of those preferences in this beautiful group space and sharing in that experience together.  I think that that’s really at the heart of what we do to build community.

Jo Reed: There’s a research arm to this, and clearly as you’ve said, this program is just motivated by listening and observing, but there’s also a research arm.  So talk about that and how you collect this info and assess it and what you’ve learned.

Niyati Dhokai: Absolutely.  My background is a researcher is as an ethnomusicologist, and I love to uncover the who, what, where, when and why of every single situation that I’m in.  I love participant-observer interactions.  As time has gone on, I have taken a lot of the ethnographic work and I have created semi-structured interviews so that I could really talk to all of our participants about what they were seeing past my initial observations, and with George Mason University being a research university we have an institutional review board, so all of this work is IRB approved, and we began to create semi-structured interviews, which then led to survey-- ethnographic surveys, and we began to find that for our participants, some of the strongest themes that emerged for them as benefits were a sense of community.  A very strong sense of community that was very much present when they were coming together in person but that has been sustained through virtual platforms during the pandemic, and now as we continue to try hybrid programming. Another thing that we’ve observed and that they have told us through these interviews and through these surveys is that they have an increased interest in learning new skills and an increased sense of well-being as well.  And so these are themes that we’re very interested in tracking and learning more about and doing more in-depth research in for the future. And I know that as we continue to sort out what it is that our new normal will be in the long-term, it’ll be interesting to see if these themes hold and what other new themes emerge as we continue to talk to our veteran community during our research studies.

Jo Reed: Yeah.  I’m curious about the pandemic.  I’m assuming you did workshops virtually.

Niyati Dhokai: We did, and one of the things that actually motivated us, for the fastest-ever pivot that I have done in my life, was actually funding <laughs> from Creative Forces.  So we had a microgrant extension from our Community Connections project from Creative Forces, and we were to reimplement our Ukulele Workshop Series, because from that first implementation in August 2019, we noticed strong participation numbers, up to 40 people per workshop, and we noticed high adherence and retention and just wonderful engagement and we wanted to know what was happening through that.  We wanted to know what the response was from our participants.  So we wanted to do research on what those outcomes were for our participants, and so we planned an IRB research study and then we had to pivot our platform virtually within five days.  Not five business days but five actual days.  But we collected data, and we found that our that while our participants initially came to the workshop series for the information that they would gain through the workshop series, which was to learn how to play the ukulele better, what led them to stay in the series week after week as the world outside them kept changing so much was actually that sense of community that we were able to develop.  It wasn’t learning the ukulele but maintaining that sense of community that led them to stay within those workshops, and so we continued to refine our virtual delivery of our workshop series as the pandemic continued.  Our entire 2020 to 2021 season was virtual, and that included a lot of music and visual art workshops.  And now as we go to this next stage of the pandemic, we’re introducing hybrid workshops and seeing who it is that is interested in returning back to the Hylton Performing Arts Center to an in-person workshop and understanding who it is would still prefer to be online for reasons that are really individual and unique to them. For some folks it’s about the public health aspects.  For some folks it’s an accessibility piece.  The online workshops are a lot more accessible and transportation is no longer a barrier for them, and for a lot of our very busy families, the workshops are just more accessible in terms of family scheduling through an online virtual format.  So different people are telling us that they’re interested in the workshops for different reasons in both these formats, so this semester we’ve done our first hybrid workshop series and we’re interested in how retention ends up at the end of the semester.  At this point we’re going quite strong and we have a couple more weeks to go, so we have our fingers crossed.

Jo Reed: And in this vein, you created a Tele-Arts Engagement Guide.  Just very briefly, what is that?  What does it do?

Niyati Dhokai: So for us, creating virtual workshops, especially so quickly, was not the most elegant process.

Jo Reed: <laughs> For any of us.

Niyati Dhokai: <laughs> Exactly.  These were workshops that we created virtually by necessity and not necessarily through as much intention as we would’ve hoped, and so for us it was a lot of trial and error, and we realized later as we were learning what we did well and what we could’ve done better, that we were actually collecting quite a lot of information and a lot of data that could be shared with others, and at the same time we were reporting back to Creative Forces about what it was that we were learning and they were telling us that other sites were in similar spaces to us, that they were learning, they were trying new things, and then they were modifying their processes.  And so through Creative Forces we had the opportunity to create this Tele-Arts Engagement Guide where we have listed out every part of our process, from mitigating risk to determining an appropriate activity to marketing to implementing the pedagogy and everything in between on a virtual guide.  It’s a little over 30 pages, and we’ve actually published it online on the Hylton Center website so that anyone from across the country can access this guide.

Jo Reed: Wow.  Tell me, how important has Creative Forces been to Veterans and the Arts Initiative?

Niyati Dhokai: Creative Forces for the Veterans and the Arts Initiative has really offered us that opportunity to try new things at times when we need to the most.  So when we have had an idea that we think could work, such as a family series or we think that it may be helpful to collect data on the family series or we think that it may be helpful to pivot to a virtual setting series later.  Or now even with our hybrid series, that’s being supported by Creative Forces as well, and we were kind of deliberating if we had the resources to really do this and to implement a hybrid series, Creative Forces came through for us and was able to provide us the resources so that we can not only try out something new for ourselves and for our community, our military-connected community, but then we can also pay it forward and share our findings with others so that other people in other military-connected communities across the country and even around the world can try their own programming based on what we’ve found works well for our community and what we’ve found hasn’t worked well for our community.  And so that is the impact of Creative Forces on the Veterans and the Arts Initiative.

Jo Reed: Each year you’ve celebrated Veterans and the Arts, which includes an afternoon of music, art that is opened up to the local community, and I’m wondering, will that be happening this year either virtually or in person?

Niyati Dhokai: Yes.  So this year we will be having a concert featuring The War and Treaty, which will actually be happening in person at the Hylton Performing Arts Center on Sunday, November 14th, at 7:00 P.M., and we’ve also just received information that later that week the War and Treaty will be letting us make that performance available to our veterans and service members from the 19th to the 26th virtually.  So for those who are not able to attend at the Hylton Center at that time, they’ll be able to view that particular performance virtually.

Jo Reed: Oh, Niyati, thank you so much, and truly, thank you for all the work you’re doing.

Niyati Dhokai: Thank you for this opportunity to share this.  We’re very appreciative for this opportunity.

Jo Reed: Not at all.  Thank you.

That was Dr. Nyati Dhokai—she’s Research Associate Professor in the College of Visual and Performing Arts the Program Director of Veterans and the Arts Initiative at George Mason University’s Hylton Performing Arts Center. To find out more about it go to hyltoncenter.org, and there you’ll find a link to the Veterans and the Arts Initiative. I’ll leave a link in the show notes

Applications for Creative Forces Community Engagement Grants—managed in partnership with Mid-America Arts Alliance—are available now to eligible organizations for emerging and established projects.   you can find the guidelines at maaa.org/creativeforces.  Deadline for applications is December 15, 2021. And again I’ll have a link in the show notes. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.


Dr. Niyati Dhokai is Program Director of Veterans and the Arts Initiative at George Mason University’s Hylton Performing Arts Center.  The program has been supported, in part, by Creative Forces®: NEA Military Healing Arts Network-- an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.  Creative Forces places creative arts therapies at the core of patient-centered care at clinical sites throughout the country, including telehealth services. It also invests in increased access to community arts activities to promote health, well-being and quality of life for military service members, veterans, and their families and caregivers. That’s where Veterans and the Arts Initiative comes in—it’s an arts and community hub for people connected to the military. Since Veterans and the Arts initiative began in 2014, it has served over 10,000 people—developing robust workshops in music and art as well as performances and events for the community. In this podcast, Niyati Dhokai discusses the unique aspects of programming for veterans, service members, and their families, the very concrete ways art creates community, how the program continues to evolve, and the support and resources Veterans and the Arts has received from Creatives Forces.   

A further note: Applications for Creative Forces Community Engagement Grants—managed in partnership with Mid-America Arts Alliance—are available now to eligible organizations for emerging and established projects. You can find the guidelines at maaa.org/creativeforces.  Deadline for applications is December 15, 2021.

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