Harnessing the Power of Impact Networks to Elevate the Arts

By Nafeesah Symonette

If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.  ~African Proverb

While it has been in conversation and practice for over a decade, I was just recently introduced to the idea of Collective Impact or Impact Networks. What we know and have often blindly held onto as arts leaders is the traditional model of hierarchical leadership within our arts organizations. The “top down” model of having the responsibility of solving big arts issues rests solely on the shoulders of one, the leader. I can assure you there is a better way.

Look around you. Impact Networks exist in nature to support the movement of our ecosystem and, quite literally, our survival. Our ancestors knew that if you want to go quickly, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. Going together describes the untapped power of Impact Networks and its natural ability to disrupt and reconfigure systems we have held onto for far too long. The system reconfiguration is quite simple:

1) Gather together a diverse collective of individuals or groups, from various sectors who are united around a common goal.

2) Make trust, relationship building, and communication your top priority within the network.

3) Participate in mutual activities that move the network closer to achieving its shared goal.

4) Create shared measurements that track data and results.

5) Allow a “backbone” organization or identified individuals to operate as the conductors and managers of the network.

Detroit, the largest city in the state of Michigan, serves as a guiding light for its commitment and willingness to support, train, and celebrate youth in the arts. The list is long and enduring of world-renowned artists of all the arts disciplines who call Detroit home. Enter DEYA, Detroit Excellence in Youth Arts. DEYA’s mission is to support the creative development of Detroit youth through racial equity, collective impact, and sustainability within and through the arts. It is the first of its kind in the city of Detroit, an initiative developed with the specific focus on raising up all Detroit-based Creative Youth Development and Arts Education organizations to support the work that has already been forged. Making opportunities more equitable and accessible, DEYA seeks to develop a dynamic network of partners serving as a hub linking arts organizations, K-12 schools, funders, healthcare providers, colleges and universities, social service agencies, neighborhood-based initiatives, major cultural institutions, faith-based entities, federal/state/local government, and creative youth development organizations. This network will create a vibrant Detroit Youth Arts ecosystem, ultimately providing for collaboration, efficiency, and lack of duplication.

By creating this collaborative network, with backbone support provided by DEYA, this initiative will be able to address the significant challenges that no single organization—nor a single funder—can address by themselves. DEYA believes strongly in the power of many, and through its co-founding by myself and Rick Sperling, we have begun the work of gathering diverse voices around a common goal: to provide access to high-quality arts education and programming for Black and Brown youth in Detroit.

What an unimaginably lofty idea, right? We don’t think so. We know for sure that the next generation of artists deserves to experience, to be seen, to be heard, to find everlasting joy in their calling; and we get there by coming together around a common goal for our communities. Join us, why don’t you, for we are stronger together and have the power to impact generational change within and through the arts.

Editor’s Note: MAEIA is also leading the way in collective impact practices. In collaboration with the Michigan Arts and Culture Council, we have been planning the development of Regional Arts Education Networks throughout the 10 regions of the state. With an exceptional model by the Great Lakes Bay Region, and in recognition of the nuances of each region, this collective will streamline communication and professional learning efforts related to arts education resources, funding, and inter-organizational collaboration. Stay tuned for more details on how you can get involved in the 2022-2023 academic year.  We must work together to create the impact we want to see for Michigan’s youth in and through the arts.



Impact Networks: Creating Change in a Complex World

Impact Networks: Create Connection, Spark Collaboration, and Catalyze Systemic Change by David Ehrlichman

Who is DEYA?

Nafeesah Symonette, MA, is a former visual arts educator with thirteen years teaching experience and over twenty years working in and through the arts. She is an arts education consultant focused on the intersection of arts education and culturally responsive teaching and is on faculty at Oakland University and Eastern Michigan University. Most recently she joined Detroit Excellence in Youth Arts (DEYA) as Co-Founder and Network Coordinator for Arts Education, Research and Advocacy.



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