Are you a Tulane University scholar struggling to understand what the nascent field of social innovation is about? Have you seen or heard of the Taylor Center and wondered what it was or how it could help you in your studies? You are not alone!
I am currently a Ph.D. candidate in Art History and Latin American Studies, but until I became a Graduate Research Assistant in Research and Scholarship for the Taylor Center this past summer, I had NO IDEA what the Taylor Center did or what social innovation was. Over a series of blog posts, I’d like to share with you my journey in understanding social innovation and exploring the role I see it playing in my scholarship. I think my own fledgling perspective might be useful to others who are perhaps overwhelmed at the thought of approaching this interdisciplinary, and relatively new, field. For the first post, however, I want to introduce myself and position my work to give some context for my perspectives on social innovation.
I am just finishing my fifth year at Tulane and I would be in Mexico City conducting field research on a Fulbright grant right now if it were not for COVID-19. My dissertation research is centered on the revolutionary murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera and the state-sponsored cultural initiative of the postrevolutionary Mexican state. In my scholarship, I gravitate towards art movements that are aligned with political ones, such as the artists of the Russian and Mexican Revolutions. I have always been most interested in what we call in Art History the early twentieth-century Avant-Garde movements (a French military term that means on the vanguard) such as Russian Constructivism and Mexican Muralism, that were trying to break down the boundaries between art and life and to create artworks that could critique current conditions or facilitate the emergence of utopian visions.
Thus, more generally, my research and practice has largely centered on the role that art can play in social struggle. I think that art has the power to critique existing social and economic relations, to make visible inequalities and violence, but also to propose new radical visions for society. An example I often give students is the collaboration between artist Molly Crabapple, the scholar Naomi Klein, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Together, they produced an illustrated video titled “A Message From the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which depicts a world in which the United States enacted a Green New Deal. In the video, Ocasio-Cortez notes that part of the obstacle to enacting the necessary radical change to address climate change is peoples’ inability to imagine what a different world could look like. This video visualizes that future for its audience through Crabapple’s illustrations and Ocasio-Cortez’s words.
Since I study art that models better worlds, I aim to do the same in my scholarship and activism. While my primary passion is teaching, I also want to develop a community-driven curatorial practice. I am currently working on an article on the concept of Curating for Social Justice, and how museums can create exhibitions that contribute to the struggle for social change by partnering with communities, social movements, and organizations. As a Mellon fellow for Community-Engaged Scholarship at Tulane, I worked on the 2019 Newcomb Art Museum exhibition, Per(sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana, which pioneered a number of innovative, community-led exhibition practices while highlighting the issue of mass incarceration in our state. The Mellon Program in Community-Engaged Scholarship helped me to refine my thinking around the marriage of my academic work and my ambitions to create social change. Through the program I not only developed a CES project, but I developed relationships with faculty and community leaders who mentored me in what it means to create social impact through your scholarship. I built community with my graduate student cohort who are doing incredible and inspiring community-based research and activism (many of whom are also unfamiliar with social innovation!).
Last year, I started working as a graduate assistant to the Research and Scholarship team of the Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking. This job has offered me opportunities to contribute to scholarship based on my own knowledge and experience, and has also challenged me to write and work in a field that is beyond my disciplinary comfort zone. I’ve drawn on my experience teaching service-learning courses while learning about the innovative partnerships between SISE classes and local organizations like GrowDat Youth Farm and PlayBuild NOLA. Witnessing conversations between faculty, staff, and community partners at the Taylor Center has offered me new insight into community-engaged scholarship. I got to watch the generative and detailed discussions of power dynamics, compensation, organization missions, and mutually beneficial goals between institutional and community partners in a way that only further developed the thinking and growth that I had begun as a Mellon fellow.
I have also worked on projects where I had to stretch myself disciplinarily. For example, I helped to edit a monograph written by Dr. Laura Murphy and Dr. Joshua Schoop called “A Map of the Landscape of Social Innovation Theories.” This is part of the Taylor Provocations series and is still forthcoming. I found that this manuscript was a great resource to understand the field of Social Innovation, its origins, and which projects and paradigms are driving current thinking. Though I did have trouble (and to be honest, still have trouble) with the wide range of products, processes, and paradigms that the term “social innovation” can encompass. I roughly see it now as innovative activities, relationships, and systems that not only address social problems but change the social conditions that created the problem. However, I am still reading, learning, and adjusting my understanding of what social innovation is!
As a scholar trained in the humanities, the field of literature on incubators and social labs was entirely new to me, as were the concepts of complexity theory, innovation diffusion, and systems thinking. Over the course of my learning, however, I have come to see some important overlaps and distinctions between some of these concepts and my activist scholarship in art history and museum practice that I am looking forward to exploring further. Stay tuned for my next post where I share my thoughts on the definitions of and intersection between Social Innovation and Community-Engaged Scholarship!