Earlier this year, my esteemed colleague Moukhtar Kocache engaged me to take on a small supportive role in a major project he was working on for the Peace and Social Justice Philanthropy Working Group. The project aimed to examine where social justice and the arts converge, and how they support one another in the process by conducting research and interviews, culminating with a convening of experts for further reflection and planning. I was fascinated by the interviews with experts which I helped document, adding a new perspective to my work. Despite having spent much of my life around art (with my parents being active collectors) and most of my professional career in the social justice field, I had never quite connected the dots. Yet listening to how creative and expressive arts connect with social justice issues and agendas brought about a new level of awareness.
This awareness was converted to experience last week in China, at the 4th BMW Foundation Young Leaders Forum. More than 319 participants from 42 countries and a variety of sectors gathered to discuss issues of sustainability and qualitative growth in China and the world. Individual expression, sharing experiences and group dialogue are critical for addressing issues of social injustice, and many of us spend quite a bit of time in various conferences, seminars and forums. New forms of technology and media have helped to optimize and capture the engagement of participants; yet BMW Foundation took this to a new level by incorporating the dimension of creative arts.
Canadian digital artist Baruch Gottleib was commissioned to develop an interactive visual digital art project which, in real time, displayed the inputs (140-character messages) of participants which were analysed, categorized and colour-coded by theme and reflected on a screen with various graphic figures. On constant display for participants to see, this installation created another platform for interaction and reflection in real-time messaging. The screen was most active during the pitching session of six Young Leaders who described their initiatives and need for support. Fellow Young Leaders expressed an overwhelming and very moving response of commitments shared verbally and through the interactive screen (nearly 50 messages per pitch) offering up their connections, visibility, consulting, coaching and much more. In analysing the data, which is still in progress, it will be interesting to see what was ‘trending’ most during the forum.
Optimizing engagement and interaction in forums is only part of the challenge. In the foundation sector, our most valuable work is quite frequently the most difficult to assess in terms of impact: bringing people together. BMW Foundation once again turned to artists and the creative dimension to tackle this challenge. A stack of postcards with a graphic design by artist Eugenia Flores de la Torre were prepared for participants to answer questions about personal and professional impacts of the forum on the blank side. Each card was assigned a location on the wall (at the closing event in the 798 Art Space) and pinned up accordingly, eventually taking the form of a ‘Mural of Impact’.
When I asked Ilsabe von Campenhausen, senior manager at BMW Foundation, about this approach, she claimed it was one way to collect stories of impact from Young Leaders. The results of the 200+ cards filled out are yet to be fully analysed, and it will be interesting to see the outcome, but I informally surveyed some of the Young Leaders I know. One said: ‘This programme makes me feel encouraged and obligated to maximize the social impact of my businesses and to actively implement CSR measures in order to contribute and “give back” to the communities I operate in.’ Yet another, working in the social sector, said that the programme expanded her horizons to explore new approaches and strategies for development initiatives.
Personally, this programme enabled me to see my work in philanthropy and social investment through the eyes of those working in other sectors. And in this particular event, the BMW Foundation’s approach offered me yet another lens – one of arts and creative expression – and allowed me to personally experience how this approach can build and nurture communities of leadership and practice.
Filiz Bikmen is a philanthropic consultant and chair of the International Center for Not for Profit Law