Democracy's Promise

What Art Has to Do with It

Frances Phillips

Recent decades have seen rapid immigration into traditional gateway cities as well as rural and suburban communities throughout the United States. Craig McGarvey's thoughtful Pursuing Democracy's Promise speaks to the importance of new United States residents' fully participating in civic life alongside the native born. The report provides examples of valuable lessons learned, policy changes instituted, and personal advancement achieved by immigrants as a result of their participation in civic life; but, aside from these outcomes, McGarvey asserts, “Civic engagement is an end in itself, providing an important vehicle for newcomer integration.” The arts are included as one roadway for the civic engagement vehicle.

Pursuing America's Promise opens with a primer for the field of immigrant civic participation, providing key definitions and a context for grantmakers new to this arena, along with explicit advice about program analysis. The best results are achieved when immigrants can learn how to participate in civic life, solve problems collectively, and take action based on what they have learned and analyzed. This approach to addressing the social and economic disparities immigrants face is very different from providing direct services or advocating on their behalf: It turns recent immigrants into their own advocates.

Sharing stories is introduced as an organizing technique that can break down barriers between people from different cultural backgrounds, and the report's mid-section tells compelling stories of seven immigrants, tracing their evolving activism and the personal and community changes achieved because of their civic participation.

The report's third section provides examples of different organizational models and pathways, such as youth engagement, labor organizing, and hometown associations. Among these examples is a chapter on the role of cultural expression and exchange. McGarvey writes, “Cultural exchange connects us to one another, enabling interpersonal communication and providing insight into the universals we share.” A featured profile of community-building achieved through an arts activity tells the story of Tamejavi, a three-day cultural exchange festival developed by a diverse group of immigrants in Fresno, California (see Tamejavi by Dudley Cocke). Aside from Tamejavi's vitality as an arts event, it is the spine for community organizing:

From the start, they used the event as an organizing opportunity, reaching out to participants and diverse community residents to plan and implement collectively; the actual festival, then, was but a milestone in a continuing series of civic activities, and the distinction between audience and performers was blurred.

Just over a year ago, the foundation for which I work adopted the theme of building civic engagement as the core value for all of its work and, within the arts, one grantmaking strategy focuses on supporting immigrants' artistic practices as a means of connecting them to one another, across generations, and to broader networks in the United States. As a program officer, I've struggled to separate the wheat from the chaff among proposals in this program area. Many organizations propose to reach out to recent immigrants, to include them as audience members and students; but this seems to be the equivalent of providing services for them rather than fostering their collective action. My struggle has forced me to examine my assumptions about arts and professionalism, the status of an artistic product, and immigrants' attitudes about preserving cultural authenticity. (I was surprised when a Croatian dance company's project to strengthen bonds across generations in immigrant families was based on developing a hip-hop performance rather than passing down Balkan dance forms.)

Reading Pursuing America's Promise helped to identify questions I should be asking about the potential power of this work. I close with advice excerpted from the report's text:

  • Are art and cultural presentation viewed as integral to community and civic life, owned by all in the community, and not simply as performance by experts for quick consumption by passive receiving audiences?
  • Is diversity of immigrant culture valued, each heritage as important and richly faceted as others? And does the project exhibit intentionality in attracting a diverse audience?
  • Is cultural expression intended to lead to cultural exchange?
  • Are performances accompanied by context setting frameworks and descriptions?
  • Does the project create democratic space that draws immigrants and refugees out into the public?
  • Are planning and preparation for the project viewed as organizing opportunities in themselves?

Frances Phillips is a senior program officer for the arts at the Walter and Elise Haas Fund in San Francisco, board member of GIA, and co-editor of the Reader.

Pursuing Democracy's Promise: Newcomer Civic Participation in America, researched and written by Craig McGarvey, published by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees in collaboration with Funders' Committee on Civic Participation. 77 pages, 2004,, (707) 824-1100.