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Arts Building Peace: An Online Class's Conversation on Measuring Arts-Based Peacebuilding

This article originally appeared in the Peacebuilding and the Arts Now January 2021 newsletter.Peacebuilding and the Arts Zoom class with participants on the screen

“Art practices have their own uniqueness that evaluating themt becomes a dilemma.”

“A lot of convincing needs to happen when we are thinking of doing evaluation and assessment in engaging arts and peacebuilding...convincing a different range of stakeholders who may have different ways and language of getting convinced, which makes it [evaluation and assessment] difficult.”

“It [evaluation and assessment] is important for planning purposes and learning the needs of the community."

These were just some of the responses from the participants of the Arts Building Peace online class in what was an engaging, thought-provoking conversation on the value of evaluation and assessment in arts-based peacebuilding. It was the sixth week of a 10-week online course on Arts Building Peace: Creative Approaches in Conflict Transformation facilitated by Babu Ayindo from Kenya and Kyoko Okumoto from Japan. This course was one of the four virtual peacebuilding courses that the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI) organized and implemented in the last quarter of 2020, and one of the first online classes offered by MPI in its 20-year existence as a peacebuilding institute.

Until 2020, MPI had always provided in-person training, with the training taking place in Davao City, Philippines. However, as in-person training and face-to-face interactions were made impossible because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Annual Peacebuilding Training scheduled in May of that year was canceled. MPI was challenged to step outside of its comfort zone and try alternative ways of connecting to sustain its mission of being a resource to peacebuilders around the world. Thankfully, MPI has a network of supporters and believers enabling it to make the transition from doing in-person training to providing remote capacity-building.

And so, from the 25th of September until the 27th of November 2020, 12 participants from the Philippines and one person from India met every Friday for three hours, learning, exploring, and sharing stories and experiences about arts approaches to building peace. As indicated in its course description, Arts Building Peace: Creative Approaches in Conflict Transformation is “built from experiences and lessons of offering the Arts Approaches to Community-Based Peacebuilding course at the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute over the last two decades.” This course was not only a product of constant refinement, learning and growth from MPI’s two facilitators, Babu and Kyoko, who are both artists and peace practitioners in their own right, but also a testament of MPI’s belief in the transformative and generative power of the arts in bringing about positive change and disrupting cycles of violence.

This is a belief that is shared and nurtured by IMPACT, a global community of groups and individuals who believe in the power and practice of the arts in transforming violent society to be more peaceful. One of IMPACT’s goals is to encourage the emergence of an infrastructure that can support and sustain this community and the work that it does.

MPI’s partnership with IMPACT, which started in 2018, not only gave MPI access to different resources and connections, but it also encouraged the Institute to provide the same kind of space, where people can gather for critical learning, growth and support in developing arts approaches to peace, as a regional hub for Southeast Asia. This partnership facilitated the engagement of Lee Perlman of Israel and Shahid Nadeem of Pakistan, who are both part of the IMPACT network, in MPI’s Arts Building Peace online course.

In late October, Lee and Shahid together led the class in a dynamic conversation about evaluation and assessment in arts-based programs. The conversation was structured in two parts. First as a zooming in session, where Shahid shared his experience of 30 years directing the Ajoka Theater in Pakistan. Shahid told stories of how arts, particularly theater performances, bridged divisions, promoted understanding, and humanized parties impacted by the ongoing India-Pakistan conflict. This was followed by a zooming out session, where Lee provided a general picture of evaluation and assessment, bridging the connection between research and practice in relation to doing evaluation and assessment.

Prior to this discussion, the class was provided reading materials to prepare them to dive deep into the conversation. One of these was a groundbreaking article authored by Mary Ann Hunter and Linda Page that talks about the need for evaluation that better captures the complex interplay of impacts and affects that arts-based programs generate in conflict-affected communities.1

One of the highlights of this session was the opening segment of the class when Lee began the conversation by inviting the participants to reflect and engage on three major questions concerning evaluation and assessment. These questions challenged the participants to think about the usefulness of doing evaluation and assessment, critically examine whose needs and interest undergird these approaches, while also allowing participants to openly question and share their feelings and experiences doing evaluation and assessment.

Shahid, in his presentation, stressed that arts and peacebuilding share the same goal of “breaking walls and building bridges,” which naturally is a slow, time-consuming process that is not reflected in funding priorities nor in the timelines of donors—a contradiction that artists and peace practitioners have to be mindful of. He also highlighted a point that Hunter and Page discussed in their article, that is, the inadequacies of conventional evaluation measurements to assess the affective impacts of arts-based programs and the need to develop assessment that can better capture these impacts. He posed this question to the class: a woman came up to him after a play and told him that the play changed her life. How do you measure that? Or how do you quantify the crying of an audience whose emotions connected with your art?

Indeed, as Lee pointed out, the whole gamut of monitoring, evaluation, and assessment in peacebuilding is a heavily contested and complex terrain that is constantly being renegotiated and where ethical dilemmas abound. And as one participant put it, evaluation and assessment can be considered a negotiation of power as much as it is a work in progress. There should be room for the amalgamation of various stakeholders’ interests and space for the emergence of new things.
Unfortunately, there was not enough time to untangle and provide concrete examples on the range of ethical considerations that present itself when doing evaluation and assessment. For some, the conversation was dense with new concepts and ideas; they needed time and space to digest them. Nevertheless, participants were elated by this opportunity to engage with experts and fellow practitioners.

At the end of the class session, the two facilitators, with MPI staff and Shahid and Lee, had an opportunity to debrief and discuss what worked and what can be improved in the future. Both facilitators were happy with what took place that afternoon and excited to continue the same set-up in future classes. It is MPI’s hope that similar arrangements can be made for future Arts Building Peace classes and maybe even for other courses that MPI will develop. For MPI, IMPACT is a rich resource that can be tapped for the mutual benefit of artists, cultural workers and peacebuilders around the world.

Rhea Silvosa is the Peacebuilding Programs Coordinator of the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute based in Davao City, Philippines. She recently completed an MA on International Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies of the University of Notre Dame, USA.

1 Hunter, Mary Ann and Page, Linda (2014) "What is “the good” of arts-based peacebuilding? Questions of value and evaluation in current practice," Peace and Conflict Studies: Vol. 21: No. 2, Article 3.

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