Understanding Neighbors Case Study: Out North Contemporary Art House, Anchorage, AK

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Resource Details
Lynn E. Stern
Animating Democracy resource
PDF icon understanding_neighbors_case_study.pdf419.87 KB

In 2003, Understanding Neighbors, a collaborative project between Out North Contemporary Art House, the Interfaith Council of Anchorage and Alaska Common Ground, brought together nearly 100 citizens in a month-long series of dialogue sessions to address the question: “What is the social, moral, and legal place of same-sex couples in our society?” Artists Peter Carpenter, Sara Felder, and Stephan Mazurek created eight performance and video works derived from interviews with nearly 70 community members to serve as the catalyst for small group dialogues. Using a customized dialogue approach based on the Public Conversations Project’s “Power of Dialogue” model, the project trained 25 community volunteers to facilitate dialogue sessions. To engage a representative mix of Alaskans with socially conservative, moderate, and liberal viewpoints on this emotionally-charged topic, the project implemented a broad-based recruitment plan and media strategy. The project also engaged a social research team to evaluate the impact of the arts-based dialogue experience on community members. Understanding Neighbors concluded with a multimedia work-in-progress performance reflecting the artists’ experiences with the project. Understanding Neighbors succeeded in its goal to foster respectful dialogue and mutual understanding among community participants. The project also contributed to shifting the tone of media reporting around issues of same sex couples from a contentious to a positive tenor. However, in spite of Understanding Neighbors’ proactive media and dialogue recruitment strategies and its conscious efforts to establish a safe and neutral space for dialogue, the project was less successful in attracting holders of more conservative viewpoints. Other challenges occurred regarding employing art with a “point of view” in dialogues, but were productively dealt with. The project illuminates how efforts to establish neutrality and credibility in the eyes of the community fostered significant commitment and investment by partners and the coordinating committee. At the same time, however, such measures diminished Out North’s role to an extent that was unsatisfactory for Out North. Given Out North’s activist-oriented leadership and its previous work, Understanding Neighbors raised questions for Out North about the efficacy of civic dialogue as a means to achieve its vision for social change in its community.

Outcomes: understanding, values, attitudes, discourse/dialogue/media, skills/practice For more on this topic, go to the Social Impact Outcomes and Indicators section.

Evaluation sought to test the hypothesis that through art-inspired civic dialogue:

Participants would be more comfortable discussing controversial issues with others holding different points of view.

Participants would better understand complex, emotion-charged issues and each other.

The tenor and focus of media coverage would shift from controversy and polarization to more positive and balanced coverage.

Approach to evaluation:

A social research team from the University of Alaska was engaged to conduct focus groups and create surveys to measure changes in participants’ pre- and post-meeting attitudes.  The research team analyzed data to determine the degree to which participants became more comfortable over time discussing same-sex relationships with those holding differing viewpoints; and the extent to which the arts-based dialogues  impacted participants’ attitudes.

Dialogue facilitators’ observation and methodical notes were central to understanding effectiveness of art in dialogue and the dialogues themselves.

Steering committee members wrote statements that collected qualitative learnings and observations about the project’s structure, implementation, and outcomes.  

Data collection and reporting methods:

Participant pre- and post-survey instrument

Exit interviews with participants who did not continue the dialogue process

Qualitative data collection at facilitator training sessions about dialogue groups

Documentation of the dialogue participant recruitment process

2 focus groups with all participants

10 in-depth participant one-to-one interviews

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