Change from Where You’d Least Expect It

Lee Boot is Research Associate Professor/Associate Director of UMBC’s Imaging Research Center

Lee BootWhen you think about efforts to alleviate poverty, reduce crime, improve education and others aimed at making a real difference in the world, what kinds of strategies do you imagine? Laws that are more just? New technologies? Innovative medical treatments? Increasing the allocation of resources? Or perhaps you believe it’s about people simply rolling up their sleeves and pitching in to help.

All seem essential. But I’ll bet your short list of realistic solutions does not include the arts. If true, you are not alone—but that could be changing.

In October, I joined a contingent from UMBC that included, faculty, staff, students and a dean, traveling to Syracuse, NY to attend the Imagining America conference. IA is a consortium of approximately ninety universities which includes many of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the US. Founded in 1999, the consortium explores and promotes the notion that the arts, design and the humanities have a significant role to play in helping our country overcome its biggest challenges by understanding our past and present, and imagining our future.IMG_20131004_133306

This may sound like little more than a lovely platitude to boost disciplines that don’t fall under the STEM rubric (science, technology, engineering and math—disciplines more commonly associated with defining the future), but consider two trends that have developed over the past few years.

Researchers and professionals in areas ranging from health to education, public policy, business, and the military have increasingly identified cultural factors as central in both the successes and failures of what they try to achieve. Federal agencies are taking notice. Fifteen UMBC researchers submitted a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health in December 2012 to look at the mechanisms linking culture to health.

At the same time, in a seemingly different universe, artists of every stripe, from hip hop megastars and the internationally-renowned to the newly and locally emerging, have joined documentary filmmakers and other arts activists to focus on social issues as the subjects of their works. Some engage in “social practice” to create awareness of social justice issues; some create public works that help communities develop a “sense of place”; others work with underserved populations of the young and old, or those with disabilities who do not have access to learning through the arts and the human development it offers. The most sought-after designers are tackling problems such as how to build safe and affordable housing for refugees, easy-to-use water filtration and environmentally sustainable consumer goods.

My take on things after leaving the conference is that the work of IA, and the broader shift in prevailing strategies for change it might signify, are in their early stages. The movement seems driven as much by intuition as anything else. Credible theories of change are still being developed.

But at a common sense level, consider this. A person might eat too much junk food, smoke, drop out of school, or drive drunk due to what his or her family, peers, community or society might consider to be socially normal—and it’s common wisdom to connect social norms with the concept of culture. If history has proven anything it’s that human beings have used the arts in all their forms (think of the Renaissances of Italy or Harlem) to shape their cultures around their ideas of the world and how people might function in it. The arts are how we write the collective “script.”

That idea might feel alien to those in our society given how much we believe people think and act individually. But social scientists have been keyed into social influence for a very long time. The efforts of those at Imagining America are connecting all of these dots: engaging the arts to access culture knowing that culture influences the choices we all make. Is this the kind of outside-the-box thinking that is so often called for to address our most longstanding, vexing problems?

Only experimentation and evaluation will tell us, but if the idea continues to gain traction, we might see a lot of both.

Contact the author, Lee Boot, at

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