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The Relationship Between Innovation and Impact

Students display a bench they created for their school/community garden.

I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s Americans for the Arts Annual Convention in San Diego. One of the most engaging ideas that I took home with me was the relationship between innovation and impact.

We talked about how these two ideas are often assumed to go hand-in-hand and although many innovative ideas do have significant impact on large groups of people, sometimes innovation is for the sake of innovation.

One member of my table used the analogy of the space pen – how NASA spent tons of money and research developing a zero gravity pen that could write in space, which is a cool, I want one, but pencils always seemed to work just fine in the past. Was this innovative, probably, did it have a significant impact on a large group of people or was it a catalyst of great purpose, probably not.

I must admit I am a bit biased on what we termed ‘The Space Pen Theory’ because of my arts education background. We are trained to weigh much more heavily on the impact of a project than the novelty of the idea, not to say that we aren’t often able to bring those two elements together but for educational purposes, the process is often more closely examined than the product.

We deliberately tried to balance impact and innovation with the 53rd Street School Community Garden Project. Community gardens and school gardens are not super fresh ideas but the fusion of the two in a project that uses the arts to engage the entire community from the inception, brings new life to both.

The art component was easy. Students worked with some amazing local artists to design and measure the actual layout of the raised beds which turned out to resemble sun rays, paint pickets that were assembled into a colorful fence, create and paint birdhouses, assemble and design Aldo Leopold benches, and are currently working on a variety of other projects connecting the science curriculum to the arts.

Ensuring the sustainability of the garden was more of a task.

First and foremost, 53rd Street School was excited about the project. The principal was fully on board and the teachers were eager to begin connecting their science curriculum to a hands-on, outdoor element. This along with the enthusiastic buy-in from the district level at Milwaukee Public Schools was the most crucial part making this program a success.

Next, we were excited to partner with two dedicated neighborhood organizations, Norwood Neighborhood Group and Sherman Park Neighborhood Association helped to engage the surrounding community through a series of planning meetings, which allowed the garden to really be driven and shaped by the neighborhood from its inception.

Yeshiva School is a Jewish Elementary School across the street from 53rd Street School and although the students share the same baseball field, there is little interaction between the two schools.

Arts @ Large was able to develop a relationship with Yeshiva by providing various opportunities to get engaged with the program, including providing an artist to work with students to create their own garden bench decorated in Hebrew to be placed in the garden. In the couple short months of existence, the school garden space has brought an entire community together around the arts, education and growing.

The next entry (publishing Thursday) will talk about future plans for school gardens in Milwaukee and what lessons of innovation Arts @ Large has taken from the 53rd Street Community Garden.

Please comment!

I would love to hear your perspective on both the relationship between innovation and impact as well as examples of projects that have used the arts for sustained community engagement.

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