Quick Study: January 19, 2023

Jo Reed: Welcome to Quick Study, the monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. This is where we’ll show stats and stories to help us better understand the value of art in everyday life. Sunil Iyengar is the pilot of Quick Study. He’s the Director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment. Hello and Happy New Year, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Hi. Happy New Year, Jo.

Jo Reed: Thank you so much.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah. It’s great to be able to talk to you again. I would say with the start of every New Year, it’s pretty conventional to play the optimist. So, I guess Jo, it’s my turn today.

Jo Reed: Well, considering I started the New Year with a case of COVID, I could use some cheery news. So, go to it Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah. Again, I’m sorry about that. But what listeners may not know is that many of us in federal agencies, we often sit on multiple task forces and what are called interagency working groups to come up with recommendations and solutions typically to tackle challenges or issues common to government. So, I’ve served on more than my share of these, probably. But what’s truly inspiring to me is how one particular effort of this type seems highly poised to yield lasting dividends for the public, for good government, and also for the arts, all at the same time. So, lately, I’ve been pretty pumped about that.

Jo Reed: God, that sounds like the trifecta. Tell us about it.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah. So, contrary to many of the other types of studies I’ve shared with you and our listeners before, this isn’t an academic or government report about research findings in the arts. Instead, it shows us why research into the arts can help to advance broader societal goals. So, we’re talking about something called the equitable long-term recovery and resilience plan. This is led by the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS, and the idea is to map and mobilize resources across the entire federal government, allowing departments and agencies to work together to strengthen the conditions necessary for improving resilience and wellbeing across the nation for individuals and communities. So, this framework is based on something called the Seven Vital Conditions for Health and Wellbeing that should exist in every community. This list has been out there, Jo, for some time. You can look on the website, for example, communitycommons.org. It includes such values as basic needs for health and safety, humane housing, and so on. But what’s unique about these conditions is that belonging in civic muscle is smackdab in the center of the model and this is where you see the value of vibrant arts, culture, and spiritual life called out as essential, along with other contributors, to this condition.

Jo Reed: Well, that does make for a refreshing change. I mean, the NEA has been beating this drum for years.

Sunil Iyengar: That’s right. In fact, one of the report’s recommendations is to integrate arts and cultural programs into quote “core resilience resources across agencies,” and also, to quote “incentivize the integration of arts and cultural resources across agency programs for all vital conditions.” So, the authors go so far as to write-- this is in quotes-- “Arts and cultural assets are too often viewed as a side effort or a resource to amplify ideas instead of a central driver included from the outset as a meaningful partner and supported financially,” and then the report continues “The arts can be better integrated into efforts across agencies to help address collective trauma from COVID-19 and other events over the coming decades. Agencies need to devote federal resources to make this happen and harness the positive effects of the arts to strengthen all sectors.” That’s in the report. Not only that, but it says “Federal agencies can work across domains to support communities through arts, cultural, and faith-based programs with demonstrated effectiveness in achieving positive outcomes for community wellbeing,” end quote.

Jo Reed: Okay. So, in real terms, what does this mean? What are these moving parts and how is all of this supposed to be accomplished? What does it actually mean?

Sunil Iyengar: I think there’s a tendency-- there’s some of this language-- I know there may be a tendency to think it’s kind of inside baseball because it is really pitched to not only to federal agencies and to others, but I think what they’re trying to do here and what’s really proved kind of promising is really creating a playbook here that uses the vocabulary-- kind of a common vocabulary and common terms so that across government, people aren’t defining resilience in different ways. It actually has a clear definition of what resilience means and how it’s translated into community life. There’s also a real reference throughout this plan to assets that are already existing in communities and how they can be leveraged and improved and that kind of language, I think, goes a long way, especially with community partners in understanding that here’s-- if you’re working at a local level or you’re working in the Mayor’s office or you’re working in a Governor’s office or even if you’re a nonprofit community partner or even a for profit community partner, you might be able to then see this plan as setting forth the way and saying “Here’s how we can make our own communities more resilient,” but it also involves integrating arts and culture. It involves integrating faith-based programs and other types of sectors that may historically not have been at the table when we talk about community development and resilience.

Jo Reed: Well, as I mentioned, the agency has been doing this work for years and that includes your office of research. I wonder if that’s referenced at all.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah. Like I said, the NEA was one of the-- played a role in-- it’s part of this interagency group and in fact, the plan does reference some of our own initiatives in creative placemaking and in arts education and as you know, Jo, we have this-- NEA’s interagency taskforce in the arts and human development. So, these are all referenced as tools and resources that can be used further to build private/public partnerships around community wellbeing and resilience. The report even cites the work of our own office at the NEA and the NEA research labs we support to maybe-- yeah, exactly.

Jo Reed: Can you hear my applause?

Sunil Iyengar: Snapping here-- to provide maybe technical assistance to other federal agencies. So, wouldn’t that be exciting?

Jo Reed: Yes, it would and we know that this is an area the Chair wants to emphasize.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah. The rationale and vision of the equitable long-term recovery and resilience plan resonates with much of what Chair Jackson has said about the arts intersecting with other domains and also about how the arts can unlock resources and opportunities for cross-sector collaboration in ways that might not be possible otherwise and of course, the word equitable is right in the plan’s name. So, the plan offers a way to strengthen existing assets and resources and to improve service delivery to historically marginalized communities. It’s really all about seeking to eliminate disparities in outcomes and to encourage thriving for all.

Jo Reed: What is the next step? How are we moving forward with this?

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah. So, I know that HHS is continuing to share this plan out with organizations outside government, including, of course, the federal family, as they say. Meanwhile, many other agencies have started taking action on some of the recommendations in this report. Again, I encourage listeners to check it out on health.gov. Lately, I’ve been part of a team that includes representatives from the US Census Bureau, the National Institute of Health, and many others, as we seek to build a measurement framework for tracking implementation of the plan once a sufficient number of agencies are on board and have adopted its many moving parts. It’s not prescriptive, but it’s really trying to create a rallying point, I think, for good government.

Jo Reed: Well, I’m looking forward to see how this roadmap, as you call it, unfolds.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, me too.

Jo Reed: Sunil, thank you so much.

Sunil Iyengar: Thank you, Jo. Great talking to you again and I’m glad you’re over your illness.

Jo Reed: Thank you, you and me both. Thanks, Sunil. That was Sunil Iyengar. He’s the Director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment. This has been Quick Study. The Music is “We Are One,” from Scott Holmes Music. It’s licensed through Creative Commons. Until next month, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.  

In this episode, we look at a federal plan—developed with input from multiple agencies—that would integrate arts and culture with tactics to foster equitable well-being and resilience for communities.