Arts As Social Inclusion? Exploring Grassroots Community Arts Programs for and By Queer and Trans People of Color
The use of the arts as a kind of programming in social work settings has been justified on the basis that the arts help to foster the social inclusion of marginalized groups. While some studies have pointed to the success of the arts in countering the marginalization of excluded groups, existing research on the study of art programs have focused on institutionalized settings and used relatively short term research methods such as surveys and interviews. Adopting long term ethnographic methods in the study of three grassroots community arts programmes run by and for queer and trans people of color, the research on which this paper is based sought to empirically examine the claim that the arts serve as a means of securing social inclusion.
This study is based on 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork in a large Canadian city. The three programs were chosen based on the criteria that they provided arts programmes; were largely run by and for queer and trans people of colour; and were not affiliated with formal institutions. One program focuses on creative writing and serves Asian youth, another provides music programming for Black communities and the final program offers dance. The data on which this paper is drawn is taken from the fieldnotes that the researcher had taken based on his experience in these programs both as an organizer and a program participant as well as interviews (n=45) he conducted with program organizers and participants across all three programs. The transcribed interviews and fieldnotes were analysed by the researcher for themes of social inclusion.
This project found that the three art programs adamantly reject the notion that the arts serve as a means of social inclusion into mainstream society. While program organizers and participants spoke of the importance of art as a response to forces of social exclusion, they also were wary of assimilationist inclusion into formal organizations that perpetuate the practices of marginalization that they struggle to counter. Instead these programs made and showed art in order to create, maintain and improve relationships within their specific communities. They used the arts to build their communities AGAINST social inclusion into oppressive spaces in mainstream society.
This study points to the need to re-examine the notion that the arts serve as a means of social inclusion for marginalized groups. Unfortunately, this notion underscores the policies in arts funding institutions. The organizers of the programs in this study are sometimes reluctant to approach these institutions as they know they may be forced to change their work in order to accommodate goals of social inclusion- goals that they see as problematic. Recognizing the challenges that queer and trans communities of color face in mainstream social contexts due to racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, arts funding instituions need to change their policies so that the arts may be used as a means of strengthening and building these communities as opposed encouraging potential damaging forms of social inclusion.