Making a Difference… or Not

There comes  a time, and it comes with increasing frequency, to reflect on the purpose of my work. According to Will Durant’s definition, We are what we repeatedly do. (Will Durant 1885-1981) I’m  a storyteller, a writer and a musician and if called for, I can elaborate on the genre, medium and style of my practice. However, the diversity and context  of my work has changed over the years and I find myself opting for a more general and inclusive term to describe my work – artist.

I am an artist. I am no more special than any other human being, and my work is no more important than anyone else’s, or less for that matter. Obviously if your house is burning down you want to have a firefighter on hand, not a storyteller, and if you have a brain tumour you want a neurosurgeon not a ukulele player.

Generally speaking, artists don’t ‘save’ lives, so we don’t fall into the ‘heroic’ category of workers. However many of us in the arts education and health and well-being field believe our work can improve the lives of others, and this is at the heart of what we do. We want to make a difference.

One of the first things many artists are told when working with marginalised people or undertaking community development or health education projects that address ‘big’ issues in communities or sections of them, is ‘don’t think you can make a difference,’ or words to that effect. We are reminded that we are ‘not the first to try and make changes here,’ and that we ‘shouldn’t expect too much.’ Health workers and educators may also be greeted with similar sentiments. Rest assured I have spent many hours reflecting on the impact of my work and whether I and other community artists make a difference.

Evaluating the work of artists in communities is problematic because evidence-based programmes and projects often expect the artist to also be the researcher. The fashion of having everyone do everything does not lead to excellence. It’s not the democratisation of skills (unless people want to learn them).  That, a reliance on quantitative rather than qualitative methodology, (numbers versus stories)  and a lack of sustainable funding has meant that many arts programmes are not ongoing or connected to each other.

So why do I continue to be an artist and not a (substitute what you like)? I have listed a few examples of why I believe my work makes a difference. It may not make a difference to a lot of people but to make a difference in one person’s life is enough for me.

The two year Storytelling for Literacy and Connectedness Programme had many outcomes, from picking up on children’s hearing problems to strengthening their relationships with their carers. However one outcome stood out for me.  A young mother told me she read a book. Seeing the joy her children experienced from being read to and told stories in the storytimes, we brought to the young mothers group, inspired her to want that for herself. She hadn’t read a book since being at school, and then she only read the prescribed texts because she had to. Now she chose to read a book for her own pleasure. Modelling storytelling and story reading is empowering and now she was modelling to her children.

Over my three decades of storytelling I have twice considered the impact of storytelling on people who found it difficult to communicate their responses. In the first instance I would visit a group of people with Alzheimer’s disease and conduct reminiscence sessions, telling stories set in Australia during the 1930’s and 40’s. A worker told me not to worry because half my group went to sleep. She reassured me that  the stories relaxed them and made them content. One woman was often in an anxious state and picking at her clothes, when the sessions began but by the end was showing much calmer behaviour. Another of the ‘awake’ participants told the worker that at the end of a session she felt very happy. She didn’t know why she was happy, she just was. I learnt from this, the power of being in the moment and that the emotions experienced listening to stories are more important than the stories themselves.

At the Support Unit at my local primary school I spent a number of years playing music and storytelling with children who had disabilities, some with severe and life threatening illnesses. While some children were active participants, others, because of their illnesses could listen but it was difficult for me to gauge their responses. Working closely with the teachers and aides helped me to interpret individual responses and interact accordingly.  A child who I mistakenly thought was happy because she was was smiling was in fact, fitting. As I got to know the children over the years and in consultation with the aids, I became familiar enough with their verbalisations and movements to be able to understand when they were engaged in the storytelling. They taught me about being in the present, spontaneity and communication, and I will be forever grateful for their teaching.

As an artist I have learnt the following and much more:

I am not an engineer who can build a bridge across treacherous terrain that will shorten the distance and make it safer for children to walk to school, but I can build a bridge of desire for knowledge, where a child can learn from and care for others.

I am not a surgeon who can restore a limb, remove a cancer or heal a broken body, but I can facilitate the telling of a story to demand justice, heal pain and ease sufffering.

I am not a farmer who grows food to nourish family, friends and community, but I can plant seeds into the minds of young people so that they will grow and mature into productive, resilient and beneficial human beings.

Artists Can Make a Difference

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Photo by Roman W Schatz

The Story of Philosophy: the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers by Will Durant,(1924) New York: Simon & Schuster

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