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Incorporating Art into Youth Philanthropy Programs

by Jackie Portman
Incorporating Art into Youth Philanthropy Programs

Does art inspire generosity?

The Social and Biobehavioral Research Group reveals that participation in arts activities has been found to strengthen prosocial behaviors like empathy and helping behaviors in children and young people. Art can be an effective vehicle to engage young people and increase motivation and passion toward philanthropic efforts.

This question remains: How can art be embedded in youth philanthropy programs to strengthen young people’s drive to make positive change?

Art teaches empathy.

Empathy is the heart of philanthropy. Successful philanthropy relies on understanding and connecting with the emotions, needs, and life experiences of others.

Art inspires imagination and creative thinking. It can help young people see beyond their immediate environment and develop empathy — which is increasingly important in a technology-dominated world.

Neuroscientist Terry Wu explains, “People are very quick to blame, shame, and attack others while hiding behind the screens of various devices. […] Technology is depriving people of empathy.”

Wu continues, “Art plays a unique role in re-establishing humanity in this technology-dominated world. Art can be a powerful way for us to gain a better understanding of human emotions and stories. It gives us a unique lens to look at artists’ inner worlds. It trains our brains to slow down and think more rationally, instead of emotionally. It restores our capacity to connect with others.”

“Through the act of creating and viewing art, young people can find it easier to expand their hearts and minds, put themselves in other peoples’ shoes, and imagine what it would be like to experience similar adversity or challenges. ”

Through the act of creating and viewing art, young people can find it easier to expand their hearts and minds, put themselves in other peoples’ shoes, and imagine what it would be like to experience similar adversity or challenges. They can, therefore, become more passionate about and committed to their philanthropic efforts as a result.

Simplifying Complex Issues

Art is also a great way to simplify complex social, political, or cultural issues, and make them easier for young people to understand. If you want to spread awareness of a specific social injustice or inequality, for example, try showing your group relevant photographs of the topic at hand as a way of sparking discussion. The See-Think-Wonder approach can be useful here.

“See-Think-Wonder,” an exercise developed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, involves first asking your group participants to study a collection of photos and note what they see. Next, you ask them to jot down what they think about the photos. Lastly, they write down any questions they find themselves wondering. You then ask the students to share their notes with the group and facilitate a discussion on the social issue you aimed to explore with them, that issue’s resulting impact on the community, as well as the philanthropic actions that could be taken to improve the situation.

Organize art lessons.

You can also organize art lessons as part of your youth philanthropy program. YouTube is a great resource for free online art lessons. Whether you’re interested in painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, or crafts, there are endless art channels out there that can inspire creativity and artistic enthusiasm in children and teens. Some videos are traditional in-depth, step-by-step tutorials, while others are fun time-lapse demos that show the process of creation from start to finish. Each member of the group can choose a lesson based on their individual interests.

Udemy also hosts a large selection of free art courses. For example, Em Win’s five-hour “Building Confidence Through Drawing” video course is designed to help kids and beginners learn key artistic skills and create thirty-two cartoon drawings. By the end of the course, students will have developed the confidence and self-esteem needed to create their own unique masterpieces.

Alternatively, you can contact local artists and/or art organizations to see if they’d be interested in leading art classes in person. Ideally, you should work with someone who shares your philanthropic values. This way, the art teacher will find it easier to make the sessions relevant to your philanthropy efforts, as well as more engaging and worthwhile for students. In turn, you’ll pave the way for a long-term and successful partnership between you and your chosen teacher.

The students may also get more out of the art classes if they’re given the freedom to experiment with different mediums like pencil drawing, oil painting, pastels, and watercolor painting. With this variety, there’s bound to be something for everyone. Whatever shape your art lessons take, they can ultimately help students “more subtly understand what is going on around [them] and be better at expressing what [they] see and feel,” writes David Brooks for The New York Times.

Visit art galleries.

Visiting a local art gallery is another fun way to incorporate art into your youth philanthropy program. While many traditional art galleries may charge entry fees, your group may be able to find art in surprising spaces. Grand Valley State University (of which the Johnson Center is a part), for example, is home to a huge art collection with exhibitions in six different gallery spaces and works on display across campus buildings. Many restaurants, coffee shops, and office buildings in your community likely display original artwork, as well. A group visit to a gallery or other public space can be a great way to spark discussion about key themes like social justice, human rights, and empathy.

Even simply viewing great art can inspire empathy in young people. “In encounters with vast mysteries, awe makes individuals feel small, humble, and less entitled, thereby shifting their attention toward the needs and concerns of others rather than the self,” reads a new study from Eftychia Stamkou et al in Psychological Science. After viewing either awe-inspiring, joy-inspiring, or neutral video content, children were first asked to count items for a food drive and then asked if they would be happy to donate the chocolate reward they were supposed to get for being in the study to a refugee family.

Children who viewed awe-inspiring content chose to count 50% more items for the food drive than the children who viewed joyful art, and twice as many items than the neutral group. They were also two to three times more likely to donate their chocolate rewards than the other two groups. “Awe, an aesthetic and moral emotion, helps societies flourish by making children more generous,” the researchers concluded.

Art and philanthropy go hand in hand. By incorporating art into your youth philanthropy program, you can help your group develop compassion and empathy for others and strengthen their drive to help make positive change.

Jackie Portman
Jackie Portman is a retired youth engagement coordinator and passionate freelance writer. When not writing and volunteering in her local community, she enjoys reading as much as possible and spending time with her family.