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What We Learned: Community Creativity Cohort

by Arts Midwest

A person holding a megaphone speaks to a group of people standing outside a building with a colorful mural.
At the Little Africa Annual Festival in St. Paul, Minnestoa, cohort member African Economic Development Solutions shares the story of Greta McClain’s mural, Braided.

From 2019-2022, Arts Midwest served as operating partner for the Bush Foundation’s Community Creativity Cohort program. This partnership provided an unparalleled opportunity to connect with 40 incredible organizations who use creativity to connect and strengthen their communities. Here’s what we learned along the way.


In 2019, we partnered with Bush Foundation on the Community Creativity Cohort 2, a program that worked with 40 community-based organizations across Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and the 23 Native Nations that share that geography.  

Participating organizations were primarily led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color; many were centered in rural communities. They shared regionality but were diverse in size, mission, structure, audience, and the communities they served.  

The purpose of bringing these incredible organizations together was to support them in making art and culture central to problem-solving. The program leveraged three strategies to support that work: 

  1. 1

    Grants

    The 40 selected organizations received a $100,000 operating grant and the opportunity to access additional capacity-building and gathering funds.

  2. 2

    Connectivity

    The program convened participants to help build relationships and encourage collaboration.

  3. 3

    Capacity Building

    The program offered structured learning experiences, intended to be emergent and participant-led.

Jennifer Martel from Sitting Bull College stands in front of members of the CCC2 cohort outside, sharing her work around herbal resilience and community wellness at the May 2022 CCC2 Retreat.
Photo Credit: Nedahness Greene
Jennifer Martel, Sitting Bull College, describes her work to the CCC2 Cohort around herbal resilience and community wellness at the May 2022 CCC2 Retreat.

By the Numbers 

The Community Creativity Cohort supported 40 organizations across the Bush Foundation’s geography of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and the 23 Native nations that share the same geography.

  • $1.1m

    Awarded

  • 3

    In-Person  Retreats

  • 25+

    Capacity Building Sessions

Explore Stories from the Cohort

A collage of photos of people engaging in different arts events.

Art Changes: Audio Series

Art Changes is an audio mini-series that highlights stories on how creativity can change your community, featuring members of the Community Creativity Cohort. As part of our storytelling effort, Arts Midwest worked with Ampers, an association of 18 independent community radio stations in Minnesota, to create 90-second radio spots featuring program participants. Seven organizations opted in – sharing their reflections and experiences in community work.

Featuring

  • Julie Garreau

    Cheyenne River Youth Project

  • Dr. Gene Gelgelu

    African Economic Development Solutions

  • Buddy King

    Higher Works Collaborative

  • Maggie Rousu

    White Earth Land Recovery Project

  • Michael Hoyt

    Pillsbury House + Theater

  • Stephanie Rogers

    Anderson Center at TowerView

Lessons Learned and Unlearned 

When Arts Midwest partnered with Bush Foundation to manage the operations of this Community Creativity Cohort, we were committed to trying new ways of working, to building relationships with new partners and advisors, and to centering the participants in the program.  

Many of those things happened. But not perfectly, and not all the time.  

Four months after the official handoff from Bush Foundation, we found ourselves in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our early plans for in-person gatherings shifted to virtual; travel among participants to each other’s communities was put on hold. We had staffing transitions, shifted plans mid-stream in response to evaluation and feedback, and extended our original timeline so we could gather folks in person and wrap up our work. 

Our organizational values are equity, integrity, and learning. In the spirit of doing the work, holding ourselves accountable, and making space for growth, feedback, and brave conversations, here is what we learned along the way.  

Two flautists, a cellist, and a guitarist on stage with various other instruments and sound equipment.
Her Crooked Heart perform at cohort member New York Mills Regional Cultural Center’s 30th Anniversary Year of Gratitude in January 2020.

1. Collective leadership takes time and capacity

This program was at its best when it was being created and debated by its participants. But that model can take a toll on participants who are already at capacity. 

From the start, the Community Creativity Cohort was intended to be participant-driven. Within this model, we knew: 

  • Capacity building, trainings, and workshops would be strongest when they were identified and initiated by the participants.  
  • Funding models and decisions would be more equitable when they came from the community.  
  • Retreats and networking would be most effective if participants were in the lead on setting the agenda and shaping the content. 

In many ways, this model was successful – helping participants make new connections with each other, share perspectives, and deepen their experiences.

In their final report, our independent evaluators reflected, “Centering in what is useful and meaningful to people of color, Indigenous people, and rural communities was highlighted as the most important principle by those interviewed.” 

But how do you balance the positives of co-creation with the reality of decision fatigue, overwork, and burnout? 

The program intentionally selected 40 community-based organizations as participants. The four years of the program spanned the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and local and national calls for racial justice. The stakes, and community needs, were higher than ever for many of our partner organizations. This meant that even though participants were full of ideas and ambition, they were tight on time and resources.

We found ourselves asking: When do you set co-creation aside and make a plan, so others don’t have to? When are executive decisions helpful to keep the work moving and when are they detrimental to the outcome or the relationship? How do you facilitate a self-driven, de-centered program with a collective leadership model – while remaining accountable to your funder? How much should the latter even matter? 

While we continue to believe in and lean towards co-creation, these kinds of questions continue to surface in our work and projects.

“The Community Creativity Cohort is the only forum where I didn’t feel like a square peg. It is also the only forum where I regularly heard Native voices, saw Native art, heard Native music, on Native land. The co-creative nature of the structure lent itself better to the artistic temperament than the other grant-funded organizations in which I have taken part. As we put our culture back together, the voices of [the cohort] are the type of voices that will lead a culture that is human, humane, and sustainable.”  

Paula Anderson, High School for Recording Arts, St. Paul, MN  
Ten children in traditional Hmong clothing dancing in front of a wall with flags of various countries.
Kanyar Maw Karenni Youth Dance group performing at the annual Taste of Nations hosted by the Welcome Center in Austin, Minnesota.

2. It takes capacity to build capacity. 

At the start of the program, there were funds set aside for each organization for capacity building, networking, or projects. But by summer of 2021 – three years into the four-year program — less than half of the funds had been requested and disbursed.  

Many of the participants were deeply focused on how to respond to the varied needs of their communities. Understandably, though ironically, they didn’t have the capacity to pitch us on a project to build their capacity. 

So, we pivoted our grantmaking. We worked with Bush Foundation to reimagine those funds and disbursed them as general operating support rather than project support (see #4 below for more on that work). We removed the application and panel process, and reflected on our role in perpetuating problematic systems — these organizations were already in the program; why would they need to reapply for the funds that were already earmarked for them?  

We also pivoted our expectations around capacity building. Everyone was struggling with Zoom and webinar fatigue. Folks often lacked the time or energy to attend sessions, even those they had co-created.   

We reconsidered how to measure success. And we continued to remind ourselves that the value often isn’t in the breadth of participants served, but the depth of the content – the sparks and ideas that are catalyzed in smaller, more intimate conversations. 

3. Sometimes you need an incentive for self-care. 

In Fall 2021, we held a series of check-ins with participants and one theme emerged: folks were burned out. Teams were stretched thin, programs were a complicated mix of online, hybrid, and in-person; and communities were needing more – not less – of our participants. 

In response, we disbursed $750 to participating organizations. No strings attached, but we encouraged them to prioritize self-care, staff appreciation, and wellness.  

We did not burden participants by asking for a report back on how they used the funds (truly, no strings attached), but we remained hopeful that it would help folks treat their teams; honor some unprecedented, hard years; and bring rest to the forefront. 

As an intermediary, Arts Midwest doesn’t always have the power to decide how funds are disbursed or what they support. We were moved by the response, and are eager to find more ways to do this work.

“This is such wonderful news! How thoughtful and so VERY much needed. Our office greatly appreciates this opportunity to foster wellness and creativity in our workspace.”

Cohort Member
A group of ensemble members from Pangea World Theater’s “Life Born of Fire” performs in front of Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis. They look forward and pose in determined stances.
Photo Credit: Robert Alberti
Ensemble members from cohort member Pangea World Theater’s “Life Born of Fire” performance.

4. There is no substitute for general operating funds.

If there’s one thing that the pandemic made clear – there is absolutely no substitute for general operating funds. Full stop. 

As a grant-seeking organization, we have held that truth since long before the pandemic – all our nonprofit friends have. But as an intermediary – an organization that is often managing programs or disbursing grants on behalf of another funder – we don’t have the chance to give general operating funds as often as we’d like.  

When we pivoted the program’s capacity building fund into general operating support, we leaned into trust – knowing that the participants knew where those funds were needed most. What we saw is that trust begets trust.

The Community Creativity Cohort participants were able to give those funds more freely to their teams, to projects that just needed some support to cross the finish line, and to artists in their communities.  

“The [CCC2] cohort allowed us to be artists without boundaries. Arts Midwest fueling into the cohort members the trust in artists and communities led me to treat the artists we worked with the same way. This cohort experience opened up my soul.” 

— Sylvia Roy, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe 
A reflective 8 point star sculpture stands on a circular cement slab in the middle of the grass. In the background, there's a bulldozer and people surrounding another sculpture in progress.
Photo Credit: Sisseton Arts Council
Blaske’s 8-point star sculpture, displayed in Sisseton, South Dakota.

Wrapping Up + Gratitude 

The Community Creativity Cohort program was designed with relationship building in mind.  It was structured to incentivize connectivity, peer-to-peer learning, and coalition building. To do that work across a group of 40 organizations took intentionality, communication, and organizing, transparency and trust. 

We want to extend profound gratitude is extended to all involved – including the participant organizations, the Bush Foundation, evaluators, and the creative communities that served as the beating heart of this transformative journey.

Even as the curtain closes on this chapter of work, the vision behind the Community Creativity Cohort continues on. We are filled with appreciation for the power of creativity and its profound impact on community development and collective well-being. These lessons learned from the Cohort will continue to influence future work at Arts Midwest.

We encourage you to learn more about the Community Creativity Cohort by reading stories about several organizations, created in partnership with NewPublica.

Explore Stories from the Cohort


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