A presentation and discussion titled Human Power: Arts for Social Change (organised by Avid Learning) in Mumbai last month left many of us in the audience wondering if the arts can actually foster social change as the title of the event suggested. A question of measurement was called for which, I feel, dampened the spirits a bit. No one felt comfortable with measuring social change, nor the arts. At least, not among the members of the audience gathered that evening. I mean, we know social change happens; and, if there is change, we know it can be measured… simply by tracking the ‘before’ and ‘after’ scenarios. All social sciences do that, though accurate measurements are sometimes difficult to determine.
The trouble, I feel, was with the inclusion of the term ‘the arts’. The arts have always been antithesis to science and, if they have not actually defied measurement over centuries, they have definitely challenged it. Hence, measuring social change as an outcome of arts projects or initiatives is always a difficult proposition. Yet, over centuries, individuals, groups, institutes of learning, associations and governments have continued their efforts and initiatives in employing the arts to bring in social change. For instance, schools and universities, by virtue of their being and their purpose, have transformed and improved our lives and societies. The question is, can the arts do the same?
Recently, President Barack Obama of the United States organised A Call to Arts: The One Million Mentor Hours Pledge initiative which sought “to inspire tomorrow’s storytellers through programs, events and other mentorship opportunities — with a goal to reach one million hours of mentorship over the next three years.” According to a White House blog post and A Call to Arts website,
“The initiative is a partnership with AFI [American Film Institute] and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) that answers the president’s nationwide call to service to mentor aspiring storytellers who are pursuing careers in the cinematic arts. AFI and SAG-AFTRA will work with the Corporation for National and Community Service to help work toward the goal of one million mentor hours over the next three years.”
A Call to Arts: The One Million Mentor Hours Pledge, of course, is not the first initiative to employ the arts to foster social change in the world in some magnitude which is worth considering. There have been thousands and thousands of such initiatives and projects over centuries, many of them in India. Although I’m not sure if any of them have been measured in any scientific manner to declare fostering social change in a sizeable magnitude, some of them, I’m sure, have been and still are exemplary. This would mean that these initiatives have not only fostered social change for a while at a certain point in history, but have actually sustained their efforts to transform our lives for ever.
The interesting thing is that the A Call to Arts initiative has set a specific goal and is talking numbers similar to a marketing plan: “Through A Call to Arts, more than 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members and 300 elected leaders in 25 localities across the nation are being asked to mentor aspiring creative artists during the next three years.” Not to mention “The One Million Mentor Hours Pledge.” Once such specific goals are set for a ‘the arts for social change’ initiative/project, it’s a lot easier to measure the initiative’s/project’s performance against those goals and document its achievements. If the initiative’s/project’s performance can be measured, then there’s a strong likelihood that the social change as an outcome of the initiative/project can be measured as well.