What's art got to do with it?

The arts are a great tool for connecting the community to policy making processes. Both communities and policy makers find artistic processes fun and engaging. If used correctly, artistic process can help communities manage the way their issues are presented to the wider community. It can also complement more traditional community engagement and research methods, adding depth and shine.

Zoe Dawkins from Storyscape Consulting discusses her experiences in using the arts as a tool to connect communities to people of influence.


Five years ago, I set up a community arts and advocacy organisation in Melbourne with Pip Chandler – called Storyscape. We work with government, NGOs, and community groups to advocate for social change. The way we work is to train individuals and groups in filmmaking, photography, and storytelling, so they have both the confidence and the skills to speak up about issues and policies affecting their lives.

Prior to establishing Storyscape I had been working in community development as a consultant for four years, both in Australia and overseas. After undertaking a few reviews and community planning jobs, I quickly realised the limitations of traditional forms of research and felt there had to be a better way. I was drawn to the arts through my own artistic practice, but also I recognised the potential the arts have to bring community members into the planning and review process.

The first time I used the arts in community development was in Vietnam in 2007. I had been living on Cat Ba Island in Vietnam the year before, an island just south of Ha Long Bay. I was undertaking a social impact assessment of conservation projects, and observed that many young people were unemployed, bored, and largely excluded in community decision-making. I approached a filmmaker living in Hanoi, and together with a local NGO we developed an advocacy project working with young people on the island. Through a series of workshops we trained a group of students and unemployed youth to create their own short films using basic point-and-shoot digital cameras. Once the films were finished we invited local government leaders and service providers to attend the screening event. I was struck by how surprised local leaders were to learn about the issues young people thought were important – topics such as domestic violence, environmental degradation, gender stereotypes, and employment (and there was a little bit of karaoke in there too). It was my first experience with filmmaking and I quickly recognised the ability of the arts to facilitate communication between decision makers and community members.

I’ve been using creative approaches in my work with communities ever since my experience in Vietnam. This has involved running filmmaking projects, photography workshops, and working with a wide range of artists, musicians, filmmakers, and performers. There are a few key reasons why I continue to use these approaches and more generally why the arts are great for community engagement in policymaking.

  1. It’s fun

Firstly it’s fun. While traditional forms of qualitative research are also useful in capturing in-depth experiences, they can be pretty boring for participants. Running an arts project is the complete opposite. People learn new skills, they get to tell their story the way they want to, and skills can be taught using games and practical activities. A local woman attending a workshop we ran in Normanton, Queensland told me it was the best workshop she had ever been to. I’ve never had anyone say that to me following a focus group discussion.

  1. Communities maintain control of their stories

Secondly, it gives community members more control over their stories and the way their views and experiences are presented. In 2011 we worked with a community in the Northern Territory to prepare a community plan. Young, unemployed community members were trained in filmmaking and interviewing. They determined the focus of the film in consultation with Elders, designed the questions, filmed the interviews, and worked alongside us to edit the film. Community members were invited to review the footage and provide their feedback through a number of local screenings of the film.

  1. It’s engaging for the audience

The arts are a great way to engage policy makers in the real life impact of their work. Through the sharing of artistic works created by community members, policymakers come face-to-face with people who directly benefit (hopefully!) from their work. In 2012, we worked with David Stratton and Parks Victoria to document David’s work in bringing the all-terrain wheelchair, the TrailRider, to Victoria’s National Parks. David continues to advocate for the TrailRider in Australia, and was recently the Keynote Speaker at the World Parks Congress in Sydney where his filmed was screened to an audience of 6,000 people.

  1. It complements and strengthens other research methods

Lastly, it can generate in-depth accounts of experiences and impacts that can easily be combined with other forms of research approaches and data. We often work with evaluation consultants to produce films that are then combined with data from surveys, interviews, and other traditional data collection methods.

Whether you are a policymaker, researcher, or consultant, incorporating arts-based activities into your process will only enhance your engagement with community. As digital media becomes more accessible and affordable, it will be increasingly viable to include film and other art practices in social policy research in the future. However, if you are thinking about using the arts in a social policy setting, it’s always a good idea to reflect on who your audience is, the community you are working with, and if this is the best fit for the outcomes you hope to achieve.

Visit Storyscape at www.storyscape.com.au