Accessibility

Partnerships are Critical and Worth the Investment

While effective partnerships take time to develop, they are essential for meeting the needs of the intended participants. Project leaders and partners reported that they would not have been able to implement program activities and serve the target population without the partnerships.   

Through the Community Connections study, veterans service organizations, state or local arts agencies, and a clinic emerged as three partners for inclusion in community arts engagement activities for military-connected populations. Together, these partners provide clinical and community support; networking among arts, military, and clinical communities; and a platform for multi-directional referrals.

At the very least, an effective program requires expertise in and access to military-connected communities and high-quality arts programming.

While community arts engagement programs for military-connected individuals may state that their program does not provide therapy, program leaders also acknowledge:
1) their programs serve individuals who may experience social, psychological, or physical challenges;
2) personal expression through the arts may stir up difficult feelings.

Personnel and other program leaders from Community Connections partner organizations could benefit from the support of mental health professionals who are on-site or on-call. Teaching artists who were interviewed for the Community Connections study emphasized that they are teachers and facilitators, underscored that they are not trained as therapists, and said they relied on support from creative arts therapists or other mental health professionals from Creative Forces or veterans’ clinics. Project directors typically build this therapeutic support into their project budget or obtain a commitment from a partner or host organization to provide a staff member from their mental health program.

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Ongoing Engagement Builds Belonging and Community

Programs with ongoing engagement build belonging and a sense of community. While there is a role for single events and brief activities, trust, personal growth, and relationship-building require continuity of engagement. It allows time for trust to develop, which supports authentic relationships, higher levels of engagement, and growth.

Program leaders and participants said individuals are more likely to engage in community arts programs when they establish trust with the leaders and other participants, develop relationships, and develop social networks. During the Community Connections study, some participants shared that they would not have participated without being invited by a friend. Interviewees also believe it is important to allow participants to bring friends and family members. 

Other program models with ongoing participation, such as classes, can also cultivate relationships that develop into cohorts over time. Both staff and participants of programs using this strategy observed that strong peer cohorts resonate with military experience, and ongoing commitments have value for military-connected individuals.

One person said, “We were hearing consistently that people wanted three things. People want consistency and engagement, so that means every weekend. [They want] to engage in the arts, whether that's with fellow veterans or part of the broader community. They want continuity: ‘After I finish this, where do I go next?’” Some organizations have expanded their service delivery model or offerings to extend opportunities for participants. An effective referral network with other arts organizations also provides additional opportunities for participants.

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Many Factors Influence Participation

Individuals’ motivations vary widely among a desire to develop artistic skills/identity, explore personal experiences through art, socialize, or simply try something new. Competing commitments and other concerns can interfere with ongoing engagement.

Directors, teaching artists, and partners spoke of the hesitation many potential Community Connections participants have on entering a new environment or experience. According to military partners, there can also be a stigma associated with programs that are perceived as addressing psycho-social concerns. Building trust, relationships, and networks were reported as the most effective means of recruitment. Community Connections personnel also stressed the importance of creating a safe and welcoming environment, as well as a sense of belonging and ownership for participants. They recommended creating opportunities for people to “test the waters” through a single event or an open house. At some sites, inviting family or friends has been helpful.

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Programs Benefit from Participant Leadership

Community art engagement activities for military-connected populations will benefit from participant input at all stages of programming. This will also enhance cultural understanding and communicate respect for the target population.

Several interviewees described an organic shift within their programs toward providing leadership opportunities for participants. This move tended to occur as the program design matured, implementation stabilized, and participants’ skills and confidence grew. Program leaders saw value for the participants and for the program in involving them in program decisions, recruitment efforts, and instruction.

For at least one organization, this ultimately led to a new programming component: leadership development for participants. Program leaders believe participant leadership minimizes gaps between the program design and what participants expect to gain from the program. Reflecting on how participant leadership impacted their program, one person said, “When you listen to the community you serve, you end up creating a program model that's very authentic to the needs of that community.”

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Importance of Understanding Military Culture

Participants placed high value on programs that invested in understanding military culture.

Community Connections project directors and partner personnel underscored the need for program leaders, teaching artists, and other staff to understand military culture in order to competently serve the target population and to interface with military institutions. This was also reflected in participants’ comments about how they valued staff members’ ability to understand their experience and challenges. Community Connections partners used different strategies to enhance understanding of military culture and experience and received informal advising from military personnel and creative arts therapists working with military-connected individuals.

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Sustainability Requires Planning

Planning for sustainability should start at the beginning of each project. Sustaining or scaling up a program requires considerable planning to ensure resources are in place, particularly for new programs.

The lead organizations for the Community Connections projects were highly committed to serving military-connected populations through arts engagement. Where staff time and resources were limited, this personal commitment sustained the staff members who were responsible for the program. However, some acknowledged it would be difficult to sustain the same level of work over longer periods of time and in the face of competing demands. Project directors noted that long-term funding, as well as strong partnerships, are needed to make programs sustainable.

The extent that Community Connections partners addressed sustainability depended primarily on whether the project was an extension of an existing project and the lead organization’s plans for the future. Some sustainability planning was evident for projects that were intended to establish an ongoing network. These project leaders sought to strengthen existing partnership commitments as they looked to the future. These commitments represented a range of resources and roles. One director shared, “I believe the way you do this is by keeping people involved and building partnerships.” 

Some project leaders focused on building systems, dedicating a portion of their budget, assigning staff, and building capacity for this work. For one project, this included building logic models and mechanisms for data collection: “We are setting up for [sustainability]. We want to build this into the project and collect data, rather than just one or two organizations doing this on their own. We want to have a larger pool, working together, to show the value.” 

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Balancing person-centered programming with evaluation needs can be challenging

Program partner personnel embraced the idea of program monitoring. They believed outcomes data would demonstrate the benefit of community arts engagement for military-connected individuals, build knowledge to serve this community, and improve the impact of their programs. In short, partner personnel were committed to the idea of evaluation, though they encountered some challenges during execution.

Although the Community Connections partners were committed to the idea of evaluation, lack of expertise, capacity, or resources hampered data collection and evaluation. Community Connections partners were also concerned about leaning on their participants for evaluation data. Several observed that participants can be reluctant to merely sign an attendance sheet, and hesitation increases with program feedback surveys and even more so with assessments of personal concerns.

In addition, there is a perception among those who work with military-connected individuals that this population is frequently under study, and they believe it is important for participants to feel valued for their presence and not their data. This perception was echoed by a few of the participants who were interviewed. This leaves Community Connections partners grappling with how to conduct person-centered programs, where participant needs come first, while monitoring program outcomes.

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