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How Creatively Pragmatic Do You Want to Be?

Mary-Helen Rossi

There’s no doubt about it: when budgets are cut the arts are the first to go. Those of us who’ve been at this for a while have always found ways to adapt, and this time my company’s gotten pragmatic…creatively pragmatic.

Creative pragmatism is a timely take on an old topic–using the arts to enhance seemingly disparate fields. Some of us, myself included, have been resistant: why should the arts play maidservant to fields in which most professionals view them as a distraction from the ‘real work’?

Mental health, education, and workforce development are good examples, and in this post I’ll explore the field of workforce development.

Workforce Development
Workforce Development is worth considering for at least two reasons: it’s still relatively well-funded and it’s precisely what’s needed to revitalize our youth and communities.

Most county governments have federal workforce development and workforce investment dollars, and many of those budgets are still intact–not only to keep pace with the increasing number of disengaged and marginalized youth, but also with the growing number of entry-level jobs.

The problem is that these programs are increasingly having difficulty attracting and engaging the most seriously disenfranchised youth who are either unemployable or unable to keep a job. As a result, the more progressive professionals are gaining approval to incorporate the arts in their programs.

Wait. What? Workforce Development?
As one who loves the authentic passion that comes with meaningful work, I never thought I’d see the day when I’d pitch the arts’ ability to provide corporations with entry-level workers. But I’m seeing something almost elegant about this creative pragmatism if–while empowering our youth to support themselves–we also enliven their creative spirit so that entry-level job is simply their first, a stepping off point to a meaningful life.

A Case in Point
Years ago, our program enrolled a 17-year-old guitar student who had a hard time getting or holding a job because he seemed unmotivated and uncooperative. In truth, this student felt so empty and inferior that he was defensively quiet and unable to let others in.

But after one year of studying and taking part in a high-quality, successful performing ensemble, he gained the needed self-confidence to express himself, be an active part of the group, and feel that wonderful sense of belonging we all need.

He started to excel in his restaurant job, and jokingly told us that sometimes his ability to listen to others could present a problem because he could no longer keep out his coworkers or boss. He added that he was surprised to learn that “other people have good ideas too, and sometimes they’re better than mine.”

Creative Pragmatism Can Accomplish Our Goals
So, is putting the arts to the service of workforce development really a disservice to the arts? I sure don’t see it that way any longer.

We’ve all been saying for years how good the arts are for everyday life–here’s another good opportunity to demonstrate what we mean.

Would you like to–or do you already–practice creative pragmatism in your work? It would be great to share effective practices in this and other creatively pragmatic areas such as the arts in mental health recovery or alternative education.

We’ll be posting new pages about this at our website in the next few months. In the meantime, I’ll offer more detail in upcoming posts and hope you’ll join me with your own posts or comments.

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