The following has been previously published as a chapter in Theatre, Performance and Change edited by Stephani Etheridge Woodson and Tamara Underiner (Palgrave, 2018). Now that a year has passed since the publication of the book, I am happy to share the text with you here. 

A theory of change is about causation: we theorize that if we undertake action “A” it will cause impact “B.” When public funding underwrites “A,” the impact, “B” may be measured in the return on the investment of those public funds. Sometimes all it takes to tell the story of cause and effect (or return on investment) is an “N” of 1 and a means of connecting that “1” to the many.

“At Home in the Desert: Youth Engagement and Place” embedded nationally renowned visiting artists and Arizona State University faculty artists in Phoenix and Mesa youth communities to create a series of original, meaningful, multi-disciplinary performance works showcased at South Mountain Community College (Phoenix, AZ) in April 2012 and subsequently in an expanded site-specific performance in December 2012 as part of the Desert One Festival in Tempe, AZ. This collection of activities consisted of three inter-related performance projects. In this comprehensive and innovative program connecting art, science, technology, culture and communities, young people examined their desert city and their experiences through an artistic lens and used collaborative, creative tools to find new ways of knowing and understanding their desert home. As director of evaluation for the project, I wanted to assure our community partners and our funders, the National Endowment for the Arts and the ASU Institute for Humanities Research, that the project caused positive change and was a good use of public funds.

Statistical analysis in this situation has significant limitations. There were 60 youth participants and approximately 25 university students, staff and faculty, too small a group to achieve truly significant results, although we did conduct pre- and post surveys of participants that indicated a positive correlation between program participation and some changes in perception of their desert homes. As the saying goes, correlation does not prove causality.  What does?

An individual, unsolicited, telling another person, “I did this because of that;” or “that helped me to do this” sounds like one way of showing causality, albeit only for that one individual. The fall after completing the Home in the Desert pilot residency at a local high school, I ran into one of the youth participants at a university freshman orientation event. He volunteered, “yeah, that really helped me understand where I am, cause you know, I’m not from here.” Project goal number one, to broaden and deepen participant perspectives on the desert as home, had been met for this one participant.

The project was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Is the impact on this one person a good investment of public funds? To answer that question, it is helpful to combine the small data (n=1) observations with big data conclusions. The young man I ran into addressed another goal of the program: youth participants would envision college in their future. Here I was, talking to a newly minted freshman who had not been sure he would attend college six months earlier. “When I worked with the ASU students, it really helped me want to come here,” the young man added. On the same day I write this, I watched him walk across the stage at undergraduate convocation.

But one student’s decision to enter—and complete—college is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Big data helps explain the scope of the return on public investment. A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center indicates that the median income of a young person with a bachelor’s degree is over 50% higher than someone who attains only an associate’s degree and such a person is also far more likely to find full time employment (Pew 2014). Not even accounting for the fact that the gap between the college educated and those without a college education will increase over time, if he works for 42 years, the young man I ran into at the incoming freshman event will earn $735,000 or more over someone who just has some college. He will return in taxes more than three times the $32,000 investment made by the NEA. Further, as a college graduate he is more likely to vote, more likely to send his own children to college, and, as a dance major, is likely to have high levels of job satisfaction.[1]

This young man was just one of 60 youth participants. While we can’t assume the same positive outcome for every participant, it is safe to assume his story is not the only story of success. Formal observation and informal conversations with participants indicate that youth participants were deeply engaged in the creative process across multiple artistic media at all three sites.  At the Gabel Boys and Girls Club, youth were observed creating “beats” that used poetry they had written. Using an “I am” poem format, one young teen wrote  “I am hard like a rock; bright like the sun…am I me?” while another wrote of God the creator.  They listened to each other respectfully, all while in the context of learning how to digitally edit their text with recorded percussion. The sessions at the South Mountain High School site, both with the site faculty and guest artists, were rich in creativity and artistic expression.  For example, guest artist Cassie Meador led the high school youth and ASU participants through an exercise in which they explored that which is visible in the desert and that which is invisible.  Two weeks prior, the group had been visited by a member of the ‘Ecology Explorers’ team from ASU who provided a primer on desert ecology.  The youth combined their new knowledge of desert ecology with their own subjective impressions of their lived experience in the urban desert to develop text for “Above the streets/Below the streets” poems that developed over the course of months into choreographic material.  One youth participant commented that a “mirrored pair” reminded her of the bulldozer on her street, in an example of how the students synthesized new creative experiences with their real lived ones.

In a post-performance discussion, one youth commented, “Now I think about keeping things not so dirty. I think about heaven, how you would want it to be in heaven, and make it so.” This is a good example of the “broadening perspective of desert as home” objective of the project.  Also at this showing, family and other community members participated in a post-show workshop, exploring their relationship to the desert and its sustainability in a kinesthetic embodiment of their experience. A Girl Scouts staff member noted, “They loved being here; they felt so special.”  This comment echoed one made by a Boys and Girls Club staff member during preparations for the earlier showing: “This is the first time any of these kids have had a chance to perform anything—even for friends and family.  The boost it has given to their self-confidence is awesome.” Youth, college students, faculty and guest artists were deeply engaged in art-making and in exploring their desert home through a variety of artistic media. They were changed by this program, one individual at a time. Each of these “1s” is a wedge, leveraging their own entry into culture and education.


Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute with South Mountain High School, Arizona Cactus/Pine Council Girl Scouts and Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Phoenix. Tempe AZ. Photo from http://www.ejengagethroughdance.com/photography/


Pew Research Center.  2014. “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.    http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/02/11/the-rising-cost-of-not-going-to-college/. 11 Feb. 2014.  Accessed 1 Oct. 2016.

Strategic National  Arts Alumni Project.  http://snaap.indiana.edu/. Accessed 1 Oct. 2016

[1] For more information on job satisfaction levels among arts graduates, visit the Strategic National  Arts Alumni Project at http://snaap.indiana.edu/.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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