Together is Better: How to make art with new Mainers to build community

Refugee resettlement programs in Maine have created development and investment in communities but has lacked cohesion at times. Urban and rural areas should look for ways to assimilate new Mainers without taking away from their home culture identities- one way to do this is through public and community art. Humans have a fundamental relationship with the arts- the creative imperative is almost a biological necessity. The arts have a dynamic role as a mediating connection to meaning, identity, and cultural expression. Specifically for the refugee population, art making involves processes of conflict transformation, resolution, survival, social reconstruction, healing and acceptance. New Mainers have a lot to offer the social capital of their communities. Sharing indigenous art forms can help them become civically and socially engaged while maintaining their cultural identity. This balance is important to keep a society functioning effectively.

Sharing artmaking experiences can help promote physical health, maintain family cohesion, and make social and economic connections. Teaching an art or craft, especially, allows for self-assertion as teachers and allies to new neighbors. It can also enable elders to communicate cultural traditions to younger generations (who may not remember or may not have even seen) and incorporate these traditions into their new land. Art invokes playfulness through unique expression and can be expanded upon to overlap into present circumstances of families.

Creating art often mirrors the creation of purpose and reinforces a sense of power and agency. Therapists and facilitators in art, dance, music, and theatre can offer tools to help cope with trauma and dislocation. A student at Telling Room in Portland created this multimedia piece on the unrest in Burundi, processing some of her feelings about war while containing it in a short format.

Sharing art with community members will foster cooperative values, engender mutual respect, and challenge stereotypes. It’s important for communities to explore their own deeply embedded cultural assumptions. Two conflicting groups in Ghana, the Konkombas and the Dagombas learned the intricacies of the ‘other’ through psychodrama’s techniques of role reversal and staged scenario exercises. The arts can safely address sensitive issues, indirectly and directly discussing them for public consideration. Check out this creative writing from a student at Tree Street Youth in Lewiston, addressing some of the misconceptions about Somalians and swimming programs.

What are some considerations in putting together arts programming for refugee populations? First of all, they need to be participatory- this type of art has intrinsic value in its ability to inspire (sort of like religion). Also be sure programs are intergenerational and community-based so as to create shared expressions of culture. Explicit group dynamics combined with individual creativity will create the strongest connections. Civic bridging and bonding will happen if the programs are accessible to a broader group- invite community members old and new. Partner with social services agencies to provide the safest structure for participants- personal disclosure should not be a requirement, and focus should be on present feelings and future goals.

If you’re interested in starting an arts program for new Mainers in your community, go into it with a conscious interest in learning about another culture, not preconceived ideas and plans. Participants should feel a sense of ownership and choice in what they’re doing. Facilitators should model respect and equality, and be able to adapt different experience levels to the creative process. Be sure, if you’re facilitating a group from a culture you have little experience in, that you spend more time listening than speaking.




Kate Beever

About Kate Beever

I am a board-certified neurologic music therapist and owner of Maine Music & Health, which provides services and consulting to healthcare and arts agencies throughout the state.