Practicing Agency: The ‘Art’ of the How (Symposium 2017)

Nicole Bennett

May 8, 2017

In this post, Nicolle Bennett looks at the role of the arts in fostering individual and community agency, and explains her role as a documentarian at the 2017 symposium

I’m a former health educator and current arts administrator. In my work with the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service, I learned that while access to information is essential, it’s only one aspect of health literacy. Health equity and justice comes not only in providing access to information, but in expanding one’s capabilities to seize and benefit from the opportunities that arise from it. As a result, my work has focused on exploring and fostering personal and community agency in relation to health.

Agency, Community and Belonging

I am now Program Director for Feel the Music!, an organization founded after 9/11 to foster healing through participatory music-making. I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of finding and using one’s voice, fostered, in the case of our work, through music, while grieving and/or coping with crisis.

Beyond the physical and emotional benefits, though, I’ve seen how these opportunities to practice personal agency increase a sense of community and belonging. The process opens spaces for in-depth sharing, conversation and collaboration – things that are so important in the communities we work with, communities that are hurting. As a result, the work has evolved; we connect teaching artists with hospitals, non-profits, and other community-based partners to facilitate creative self-expression in individuals AND create spaces for community.

This observation that personal agency and community agency go hand-in-hand is also apparent in my work with the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, an organization that seeks to rethink and reshape policies, orienting toward a new economic and political system: one built by many for the good of all. It compiles student-authored policy ideas, on health and other topics, into publications that are distributed to – and acted upon – by legislators each year.

Listen and Act

Exercising one’s voice is one thing; knowing that it’s being heard and respected is another. In my work, I have learned that this is fundamental to whether we foster agency, whether individual or community. It’s not enough to simply gather the perspectives of patients, community members, and constituents, we must also listen and act informed by those perspectives. This is easier said than done, especially when, as is inevitable, multiple stakeholders are involved.

At Community Agency & Health I hope to explore three questions through my work:

What actions need to be taken, from the perspective of the grass-roots and grass-tops, to allow people to feel that their voices matter?

We are learning that having a voice not only contributes to our physical health and experiences/interactions as a patient within the healthcare system, but to our personal definitions of what constitute health. These definitions have traditionally been systemically and institutionally constructed.

What tools can elicit and foster those voices that have been otherwise suppressed or defined by others?

As an arts administrator, I have seen how the arts can ‘make known’ (shed light on and build narratives around) current realities and ‘make way’ (open up spaces for possibility and exchange) for new realities. I have also seen how the arts can amplify work across sectors, and, in the process, help to re-integrate what have become disparate elements in our ideas – such as individual and community, or health and agency.

As a health educator, I have great respect for biological knowledge. This is not mutually exclusive to my experience of the arts. Initiatives like IDEAS xLab’s Project HEAL are using the arts to provide a bridge between communities and traditional decision-makers. This is essential work as health policies begin to incorporate a broader set of health determinants, and care payers and providers seek to engage others within and across sectors. One such sector are communities themselves, and arts helps to bridge between community-authored narratives of health and technical approaches to health and care.

My goal in attending the symposium, then, is not about making the case for the ability of the arts to contribute to this work, but to explore and understand the breadth of work that is already taking place. While we may ultimately need to create new solutions and/or new ways of working, we will get there by shedding light upon, learning from, and catalyzing work that is happening now, across sectors.

How can we foster more learning across sectors and newer ways of working to expand the capacity of people and systems?

That Bridging Health & Community have been able to bring together such a diverse group of people to participate in its symposium is testament to the fact that we know what we need to do. The challenge is to shift to how. Recent political events have illustrated that ‘participation’ is both overdue and much-desired. The symposium creates an opportunity for a group of multi-disciplinary but like-minded people to embrace the idea and possibilities of ‘participation’, all in the service of improving health through community agency.


Nicolle will be participating in the forthcoming symposium thanks to a grant from Musagetes, and capturing insights and lessons learned for A program of Musagetes, ArtsEverywhere is a multi-disciplinary platform that explores the role the arts can play in addressing contemporary problems, and how new ways of working can help people and institutions imagine new possibilities.

Nicole Bennett

Nicolle Bennett is an administrator and technical consultant for community-based arts organizations and foundations. She serves as a contributing editor for arts, health and policy to, and as alumni editor for the Roosevelt Institute’s 10 Ideas for Health Care.

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