Scattered across Southwestern PA, nonprofits, educational institutions, religious organizations, foundations, activists and more are working toward asserting greater agency over the future of their communities. Since the fall of the steel industry, community leaders have regularly lamented regional division as well as a misaligned direction for the future, making many residents of the region uncertain of how to formulate effective, sustainable change. That’s where creative advocacy comes into play.
On March 30, New Sun Rising and RiverWise announced the release of the Creative Advocacy Playbook, a dynamic in-depth resource that provides adaptive, evolving and practically applicable tools for practitioners of community-focused work. Creative advocates are committed to understanding, engaging and transforming mindsets in ways that produce greater agency and transforming mindsets in ways that produce greater agency and more vibrancy in their community.
The Playbook was introduced during the Ignite Creative Advocacy workshop, where leaders received information about the concepts and strategies of creative advocacy, individual mentoring from artists and advisors on campaign plan development, and participated in a pitch competition where they shared their campaign plans with a panel of judges. Three creative advocacy campaigns were then selected to each receive a $5,000 grant and three months of technical assistance to support the implementation of their plan.
The Creative Advocacy initiative is a partnership between New Sun Rising and RiverWise to help build community capacity and power across Allegheny and Beaver counties. The development of the Playbook was supported by a diverse team of Creative Advisors, along with the research and design support of Trailblaze Creative and Collaborative Craft.
“Although community leaders are increasingly aware that their communities are missing out on opportunities, they often do not know how to make a public case for something different,” said Daniel Rossi-Keen, executive director of RiverWise. “The Creative Advocacy Playbook helps leaders develop effective strategies for communicating what they want to see come alive in their communities.”
This form of advocacy is a public and intentional form of engagement that employs artistic practice to disrupt prevailing narratives and strengthen community movement toward an identified goal. Creatives — artists, writers, artisans, performers, documentarians, and more use their skills to expose, explore, and elevate a specific issue, all while inviting others to think critically, ask questions, and find their own way to be active participants in that movement.
“Creatives help you dig a little bit deeper into seeing things in their natural state, answering questions with people that are going through the issues, seeing their surroundings and their environment, being able to see their actual emotion as opposed to it being scripted, or acted out or reimagined in some way,” said Jay Manning, otherwise known as JM the Poet, who serves as a creative advocacy advisor.
When undertaken intentionally and deployed wisely, creative advocacy can help communities become better informed, inspired, connected, mobilized, and resourced to realize their shared vision for the future. RiverWise used creative advocacy during a 30-day social media campaign in September 2022 to raise awareness of a bridge and trail project, which includes transforming Black’s Run Bridge, an historic bridge that crosses Route 51 between Monaca and West Aliquippa.
Most recently, RiverWise and New Sun Rising together produced “Boom & Bust,” a documentary following a handful of community leaders from Beaver and Allegheny counties who, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, took a trip to Louisiana’s chemical corridor to learn from locals about the impact of petrochemicals. The film poses questions about the future health and vibrancy of Beaver County in the wake of Shell opening its ethane cracker plant in Potter Township. Beyond Rust, an artists’ response to industrial development in Beaver County, will take place on April 21st from 7-9PM and kick off an ongoing campaign.
Creative advocacy is meant to engage a wider group of people in dialogue and provide opportunities for them to contribute to the future that they envision. Using creative and innovative techniques can equip residents to be active participants in moving their region forward. New Sun Rising helped communities advocate for a just use of vacant property through the Ground Truthing project led by Grounded Strategies. The alternative future expressed in the campaign video was envisioned by Homewood residents, and produced by artists Marlon Gist and Christopher Padgett, owner of Human City Creative.
“If we are to overcome the economic, social, and environmental issues of our time, we must find new ways to inspire more people to take action,” said Scott Wolovich, executive director of New Sun Rising. “Our hope is that people will use the resources in this playbook to bring community leaders and creatives together and mobilize people towards shared goals.”
The Creative Advocacy Playbook combines theory and practice to help community organizations de-risk their commitment to and investment in advocacy efforts. It explains the who, what, when, where, why, and how of building a campaign. The playbook includes 17 worksheets that can be adapted, used individually, or together as part of a sophisticated campaign to guide readers through the creative advocacy process.
New Sun Rising supports the people building vibrant communities through culture, sustainability, and opportunity. They provide capacity building, accessible funding, data, and creative advocacy to help nonprofits, social enterprises, and collaboratives lead and benefit from the future they envision.
RiverWise is a nonprofit organization working to organize community power and voice so that residents of Beaver County can create the kinds of communities in which they wish to live,