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Three Ways the Arts Can (and Sometimes Do) Impact Poverty

In honor of Blog Action Day, this post will discuss this year's theme: poverty. Here are three ways the arts can make a positive impact on poverty.

  1. Raise Awareness The most obvious and common way that the arts affect any issue is by raising awareness. The hope is that the audience will leave the performance or piece more informed, but with more sympathy for those affected and a genuine desire and ability to create change. It occurs to me that poverty in art today more often serves as a backdrop rather than a subject. While the the lack of funding for a desired activity sometimes shows up as a convenient plot device in novels and movies, we rarely see stories focused on the issues of poverty. Two exceptions I can think of in film are “Pursuit of Happyness” and “Cinderella Man.” While the former adequately portrays the difficulty of succeeding in a professional career without money and connections, the latter depicts the horrors of poverty itself. Such work helps the audience to realize that we must not allow such situations to exist whenever we can stop them.

  2. Empower the Poor People who are directly affected by poverty are able to express their condition themselves through the arts. It is important for us not only to hear about the poor, but to hear from them as well. During the 19th century in particular, readers were exposed to idealized images of the poor from romance writers like Hugo, but that is fundamentally different from hearing hip hop artists like Keith Wiggins discuss what it is like to be poor from their own experience. We need to know more about what those who suffer poverty actually have to say about it—and not only from young men in inner cities, but from people of all ages and genders in rural and urban areas around the world. After all, those who know their own situation may have unique ideas about how it could be improved.

  3. Raise Funds As I mentioned in the last blog post, performances such as benefit concerts have proven effective not only in promoting awareness, but also in raising money for good causes. It may be an old model, but don't knock the benefit concert. I participated in one last Sunday at my home church with other area United Methodist Churches. They called it “The Great Gospel Sing-Out of the North.” All the choirs who performed come from small towns in a rural area that has been struggling economically for a long time. Their musical abilities varied greatly, and there were no big names. Even so, the concert raised nearly ten thousand dollars for UMCOR, a humanitarian relief and development agency run by the United Methodist Church. People attending knew that the need was great, and gave sacrificially to meet it. While this was clearly a response more to the issue than the performances, I do believe that the music spoke to the audience in a very personal way that inspired them to give more.

There are, of course, more ways that people in wealth and people in poverty can use the arts to help address the situation, but this is a start. If you have other suggestions, please comment on this post to share them.