Why do arts based service learning?

by rachel

So… enough time has passed since GPS for me to have some time to sit down and think about everything that’s happened over the course of the trip and do the experience justice in my reflections.

Before I start on this post proper I just want to say… I hesitate when I write this post knowing that it will be read by more than just my CAS mentor/ CAS advisor, which I suppose is one of the downfalls of posting all my reflections publicly but I think doing so has also built me up somehow. To anyone out there who’s reading, I would just like to maintain that all these posts are merely a reflection of my thoughts at this point of time based on the experiences I’ve had. If you have a differing opinion, do feel free to drop me a message either through the comment box below or through my tumblr ask (linked somewhere on my profile). Perhaps I might change your opinion, perhaps you might change mine or perhaps neither of our opinions will waver. Whatever it is, I do feel it is worthwhile to have a conversation so let me know!

Over the past few days, I’ve also been working on the Gotong-Royong Arts Fund (G-RAF) with the rest of the committee in order to get it up on its feet. And that got me thinking again about, firstly, what is arts based service learning and, secondly, why should we do this?

Thinking back on the GPS experience, I think some answers can be found there – in between the mountains of Tarlac and Zambales or down in the city with the Bagong Silangan Youth Federation. For those who are not sure what I’m talking about when I mention GPS, feel free to scroll through some of my previous posts about the Global PerspectiveS programme here. As such, this is a sort of a hybrid reflection that will incorporate both my experiences on the G-RAF committee as well as on GPS

i. What is arts based service learning?

This is a conversation we had when the committee invited the G-RAF panelists for a discussion on what the criteria for the grant should be. Something that had long been decided for us by National Youth Council, the body providing us with the funds to execute the grant, was that all projects had to be arts based service projects. But then you have that big big question – what exactly is art and, by extension, what counts as an arts based service project? We eventually went with the five art forms that SOTA offers as a base guideline (Music, Dance, Visual Arts, Theatre and Film). However, I do think that there’s more to art than those 5 disciplines alone. Personally I would consider literary work such as poetry, prose etc. as art as well and I know I’m not alone in that belief.  The link that I draw between the above is that they all require very personal input from the participant. And because of that, each of them can reveal facets of an individual’s personality/ identity that we might otherwise possibly never get access to. And using such an intimate medium to serve can therefore also be a very delicate process, depending on the way in which art is being used. I remember when we approached Tapestry Playback if it would be possible for them to work with us so that we would be able to use Playback Theatre on our GPS trip to work with the community, this was something Michael from Playback mentioned to us:

The practice of playback theatre, particularly in vulnerable communities, needs sustained training and understanding. I cannot in good conscience help you with this, knowing this. There are many nuances and particularly how playback works as a community dialogue, that is challenging in the short period of time we have. It is really more than the acting that you see. The understanding of the process takes place and sinks in over time. It is like wine that must be allowed to mature.


One other thing is the lack of a trained conductor. I would be remiss in my ethics as a playback practitioner if I had a hand to play in this. Playbackers do go for workshops specifically for conducting. 🙂

I think the above segment that he said is an example of how careful we must be when we use the arts to serve, especially at a level such as Playback. Of course, there are different levels of using the arts for service, conducting a holiday music workshop for children who otherwise would not be exposed to music for example. Nevertheless in each of these, there is the element of sharing and intimacy which I personally feel is rather distinctive of service through the arts.

ii. Why do arts based service learning?

On this GPS trip, most of the activities we did weren’t exactly arts based – we recategorized a library and fit it with new books, set up a garden as well as did social enquiry, visiting all the various houses in the village in order to speak to the villagers there and find out more about them. However, in every community we visited – Tarlac, Zambales and eventually BSYF, we had a cultural night sharing with the community. And it was during these sharings that I realised how truly important art is to a community and how the sharing of art bonds people together. The first cultural sharing with Tarlac was probably the one that opened my eyes to the ability art has to bring communities together.

Something about the darkness that fell around us, with the only source of light being the huge fire in the centre of the gathering space made us more open to each other as well I believe – being shrouded by darkness also meant we felt more at ease to let loose and dance with each other, exchanging dances from the two different cultures behind the veil of night. Over the course of the few days that we spent together, we learnt about the houses they lived in, the routines they were used to, the food they cook, the forests they grew up surrounded by and the list goes on. Yet, in each of these aspects a lot of what we seemed to be discovering was the differences between the Aeta community and ourselves, a Singaporean SOTA community. But gathered around the fire dancing together, what stood out for me were the similarities – how we all shared this common language that flowed through our bodies and that we were able to exchange seamlessly. Art provided us with a way to find common ground and connect with each other through that. When working with a community so foreign to what we are familiar with, that connection is so important in order to better know the people and the place. Despite the fact that that cultural night indicated the end of our stay with the Aeta people from the village of Alunan and the surrounding villages, I do hope that we might be able to someday return and serve the community through the bond that we have created with them.

And when we were back in the slightly more familiar landscape of a city, with the Bagong Silangan Youths in Manila, the strength of Arts Based Service spoke to me in a different way, and this time it wasn’t us who were serving but it was the Bagong Silangan Youth Federation – a group that Leigh, one of our co-ordinators, was the President of. The youths that were a part of the federation were mostly out of school youths. The reason why our co-ordinators chose to include meeting these youths and having a cultural sharing with them on our plans despite it not being related to the Aeta community was because they felt it would be good for us to share with these youths about art and our processes of creating art in a different context from theirs. And when we got to meet the community on the first day, we had a little sharing about what our passions were and it completely astounded me to hear how much all of them loved dancing, singing, acting etc. and wanted to pursue them moving forward. Speaking to Leigh, she told us about how they provided these out of school youths with the opportunity to explore these creative platforms so that they could develop passions to continue pursuing.

A lot of these youths were also transgender and while I don’t know if this is over-analysis on my part but I did feel like the advent of dancing, singing or simply performing in general also provided them with a platform to proclaim their gender identity. I remember walking into the performing venue on the second night and how nervous all of us were as well – unlike back in Tarlac where the cultural sharing happened by the light of fire, this time we were in a community hall with fluorescent lights and where every move we did could be seen crystal clear – it felt like there was no room for messing up.  You could see how important this sharing and showcase was to them as well – they had prepared all their costumes, a backdrop for the space, even brought in the jungle gym to use as a set piece! And then the cultural night began! The BSYF youths perform a whole bunch of different dances, ranging from those that were acrobatic in nature, performed to pop  music and others that were more ethnically rooted. Many of the transgender youths dorned the elaborate costumes and performed, their movements accentuating the physical attributes of their chosen gender, hence my sentiment that performance was also a way for them to proclaim their gender identity. And they did so with much vigor – all of their dances required such high levels of energy and yet some of them did a good 4 or so dances back to back!

However, something that I did notice was that the youths tended to talk or laugh to each other as they performed and rarely did they look the audience in the eye. Speaking to Twinkle, another one of our coordinators, she told me something along the lines of “Yeah, they are amazing but they don’t believe it! They don’t think they are good enough so they laugh it off instead and pretend like they treat it as a joke. We try to make them see that they are good enough.” And that was something that really hit me. These youths had clearly put in so much effort – they did everything by themselves, unlike us SOTA students who have the benefit of getting studio lessons from our teachers, the occasional masterclass etc, these youths were completely self taught. Yet they were so strong and beautiful. Yes, there are bits that could be polished but those were little things. They clearly had the drive to work on it if given the chance. The only thing they were really lacking was the confidence in their own capability but at least with art they now have something to develop that confidence in and here’s hoping that they continue to be empowered through art and the work of Leigh and people like her and Twinkle at BSYF.

Bringing this all back to why do arts based service learning or arts based service in general, Art has the ability to bring communities together and also to empower the communities that you work with. As much as this is sometime not seen and recognised, it really is true!! And hopefully as we move forward, more people start to use the arts as a platform for service.

If you are a Singaporean youth between the ages of 13 – 21, and are interested in starting up an Arts Based Service Learning project, do check out the G-RAF page here. Applications close 25th July 2014!