How to build a values-based community engagement strategy

On the left is a photo of me at age 3, one year into playing violin.

On the right is my 3-year-old daughter after one of her first dance classes.

I use these photos to guide me when I build community engagement programming because I want the children I serve to have the same type of experiences we were afforded when we started in the performing arts.

Here are seven things I consider when building high-quality community engagement programming.

Cultural affluence is important. Both my daughter and I had parents who were artists. My parents were music educators, I’m a bassoonist, and my wife was a dancer for over 20 years. All four of us understood what it took for their children to be highly successful because they had years of lived experience pursuing their art deeply.

This is not to be confused with cultural colonialism. I think about cultural affluence in terms of understanding what the process is for a child to get better. , Parents want to be supportive of their children but they often don’t know how, leaving a gap in how they are able to support the development of their children. For parents who are not familiar with the art form, training in the performing arts can seem a bit like alchemy. You will be far more successful if you build parent education into your community engagement programs.

Access to financial support is necessary. The parents of the children in these photos were not rich, but they could afford to pay for the ongoing training their children received.

Build in funding for instruments, supplies, and what we call a “last dollar in” fund, which allows you to help students with summer programs, extra lessons, and even travel for auditions.

Access to high-quality teaching is a must. Having a highly qualified teacher who could set my daughter and me up for success was vitally important to our long-term success.

Your teaching staff will make or break your program. Identify faculty who are fantastic at starting students and are flexible to the different needs of the families they serve.

Decide on programming that is rooted in breadth or depth. I wanted to build a program rooted in the same type of small group and private instruction my daughter and I received when we were growing up. Depth instruction is more expensive so I keep programming smaller in size to balance the budget.

Given the budget you have, decide whether you want to offer depth or breadth in your programming. Neither are wrong, but having a specific plan in place enables you to build a path forward and socialize how your programming will build over time at your institution.

The pursuit of excellence in the arts is objective. My parents knew when I played a wrong note or performed with poor technique. My wife and I also set high expectations of regular practice and study for our children because we know what it means to be successful in the art form. All of us had a background in the performing arts so we were able to objectively identify signs of success.

If you are going to have a community engagement program, it should be rooted in sound educational practice that allows the students in the program the opportunity to thrive. Define success for your program by benchmarking student progress against field standards.

Community Engagement programming is not (necessarily) about professionalization in the art. Although I ended up pursuing music as a profession, it is not something I ever felt the pressure to pursue from my parents, and I certainly don’t hold that as an expectation for our children.

Professionalization in the art form is one path but not the only path that signifies success in your community engagement program. If a student in your program would like to pursue the art form as a career, make sure your programming is set up so that they can pursue that path if they choose to.

This is an opt-in pathway. At the age of 3, neither my daughter nor I truly had a say as to whether or not we were going to engage in the art our parents chose for us. However, both of us knew pretty quickly that if we wanted to pursue something different, we could choose to opt into more training or opt-out to pursue something else.

Identify pathways for students entering and exiting your programs. Entry into community engagement programming should be rooted in interest and proclivity, not talent.

There are several different approaches to best practices in community engagement programming. As you build a strategy for your programs, work to identify a set of values like the seven I’ve identified above that are mutually beneficial for the institution in which you work and the community you hope to serve.

Having a regular, thoughtful dialogue about the path your programs are on will ensure long-term programmatic success.

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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