The Power of the Arts to Heal

The Power of the Arts to Heal

The Nord Family Foundation has been exploring the role we can play regarding emerging evidence about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), a significant risk factor for a variety of health and social problems across the lifespan and a major factor in much of the work we fund. One of our recent grantees in this area is the Resilient Richland Initiative (RRI) in Columbia, South Carolina, one of several NFF-funded projects that are working to address trauma-informed care.

Our decision to support RRI is based on numerous conversations with leaders and officials from nonprofits, government, and schools who struggle to address complex social issues rooted in ACEs, which researchers have defined as physical or emotional abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse or mental illness in the home, parental separation or divorce, having an incarcerated household member, and, in rare cases, not being raised by both of one's biological parents. According to researchers, the effects of sustained trauma during childhood and adolescence have an impact on adolescent health and educational status, increasing the likelihood of an adolescent having to repeat a grade, lowering his or her resilience, and increasing his or her risk for learning and behavioral issues, suicidal ideation, and early sexual activity and pregnancy. For too many in our nation, these factors can lead to a life of poverty and desperation.

Once ACEs have been diagnosed, the goal is to create resilience in the individual in which it has been diagnosed, with a focus on the assets — as opposed to risks and deficits — that he or she possesses, including such things as coping skills and family and community supports.

Our own strategy to address resilience has deferred to organizations in the health and social services arenas. Upon further consideration, however, we've begun to see our local arts community as an important and perhaps overlooked asset. Many of the arts programs we support play an invaluable, if underappreciated, role in addressing this piece of the poverty puzzle. As Mother Teresa once noted, "Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty." To which the poet Robert Browning might have replied: "Who hears music, feels his solitude peopled at once."

Trauma produces isolation, a feeling of "I am in this alone." Arts programming — be it music, theater, or visual arts — helps erase that sense of aloneness and provides a platform for building the kind of resilience all of us, but especially young people who have struggled with ACEs, need. For vulnerable youngsters in need of connection, a community theater company can serve as a second family. Through our grantmaking, we have found that access to adequately funded music programs such as Education Through Music provide hope and spiritual buoyancy to children and their families, many of whom quietly struggle from crisis to crisis. The empowerment one feels when she hears, as I heard a director of a day center for homeless women assure her clients, that in "this studio you are not seen as someone who is poor, you are seen as an artist" is incalculable.

The potential of the arts to heal is captured beautifully in Seen and Heard: Women and Girls in the Midlands, a documentary from the extraordinary Indie Grits media center in Columbia, South Carolina. The film opens with a picture of laundry detergent and cleaning materials taken by one of the program's participants, who then describes it to her group of peers. She explains why the images are so powerful, saying, "If this picture had smells, this picture would smell sooo good." She then elaborates: "It would be days when I would pretty much be in the bathroom — you know in the sink with a pump 'cause we didn't have nowhere to live." The group murmurs its support, and one woman says, "I know where you're coming from. We used to bathe in the sink at McDonalds."

The trauma of homelessness, of not having a place to bathe or wash your children's clothes, is something most of us struggle to understand. And living with that anxiety day-to-day is only one example of the kinds of trauma that affect so many of our fellow citizens. In Denver, a theater director at Mirror Image Arts moved our program director and me to tears by sharing with us how their arts outreach effort in a youth detention center changed the life trajectory of a nineteen-year-old who, like so many in his situation, was about to be released from detention with no supports in his life aside from the "family" that the theater program had created for him.

ACEs and building resiliency may seem like complex problems to which immediate interventions are scarce. Unaddressed, however, the consequences inevitably impose a significant economic burden on the larger community and lead to more people falling into poverty. As philanthropy looks for solutions, it is important to remember that this is an area where our well-intentioned desire to focus on measurable outcomes is best set aside. Foundations that focus on health and, in the process, declare, "We don't fund the arts" might want to have a conversation or two with the leaders of arts groups that work in and with low-income communities. As I first began to learn about the therapeutic value of the arts years ago, a wise leader in the field told me, "If you cannot deal with ambiguity, you should not be working in philanthropy." Artists in particular struggle to demonstrate outcomes of their work to ardent program officers. As behavioral therapists and social services agencies work to address these complex problems, direct support for arts organizations will continue to play a significant, if unappreciated, role in supporting both healing and resilience.

John Mullaney is the executive director of the Nord Family Foundation, a private family foundation in Amherst, Ohio, dedicated to supporting charitable and philanthropic purposes in Lorain County and several other communities of interest to the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Walter and Virginia Nord.