Episode 27

Published on:

30th Jun 2021

The Nouvella: Story-based Learning for Creative Change Agents


Hi I’m Bill Cleveland, the host of Change the Story / Change the World. This week we are going to share something a bit different. In June of 2021 I participated in an international conference convened by the Art in Society Research Network. My part was a presentation about using story-based strategies for community arts training. Because of the pandemic, the conference was entirely online, with most of the presentation were delivered asynchronously, or what I call In UNREAL TIME, Which I have to admit is not my favorite mode of teaching. My response was to use a few stories about how using stories help prepare artists and their partners from other community sectors for work in communities and social institutions. 

What we came up with is a game show, a scene from a novella about artists working in prison, and a visit to a fake town in the midst of a harsh reckoning around issues of race, justice, othering, and belonging. 

Welcome to a special edition of change the story Change the World —- as we pay a visit to the 16th Annual Art in Society Conference. 


Hi: I’m Bill Cleveland. I am speaking to you from, Alameda CA, near Oakland which is the traditional land of the Ohlone people and home our county’s new VP Kamala Harris.  

I run the Center for the Study of Art & Community Our name is a mouthful to be sure but we have a pretty simple mission. Which is basically, helping to Create new community art partnerships in service to building caring, capable & equitable communities and then telling the stories that rise up. Over the past couple of decades, the Center has done that by conducting research, providing cross-sector community arts training, and producing studies, articles books and a podcast on arts-based community development and social change efforts all over the world. 

Enough about us. I’d like to begin this presentation by inviting you to participate in one of our fabulous Quiz shows. 

The show is actually a little game called TRUTH OR NO. The object of the game is to spark your imaginations and have a bit of fun. To do this you will need write a few things down, Yeah, I know you thought this conference would be just sitting and watching, but please, indulge me here. I’ll give you 30 seconds to grab a pencil and paper. 

OK now lets start. The game goes like this: In a little bit I am going to share 4 really short-stories that may or may not be true. Your job is to identify the ones that are false. Before I start t you will need to write 1 through 4 on a piece of paper. Now after each little story I tell write T for those you think are true and N for No for the fabrications. This will happen very fast. So here we go. 

  1. Space Out: Way back in the 20th century the US Space Program felt they needed more public support. So, they decided to engage artists to help them to draw more positive attention to their efforts. This NASA arts program started with a bang – hiring Oh Superman, Laurie Anderson and Pop artist, Robert Rauschenberg as resident artists to make art celebrating the exploration of the cosmos. 
  2. CRACKED: Once upon a time A group of neighbors found themselves with a crack house problem. They responded by engaging law enforcement, zoning officials, and the city council, all to no avail. In their desperation they turned to a group of artists from the community. These artists went crazy, whipping out a mural that was so powerful that within 24 hours of its completion the dope peddlers had totally fled the scene, never to return. 
  3. MAXED OUT: If you are incarcerated in SuperMax prison you spend 90% of your life locked in an 8x10 cell and will breath fresh air only 60 minutes a week. A woman artist who felt that this was a terrilble thing decided to use her art to shut down her state’s supermax. After she created her work the governor of her state decided it was time to shut down the state’s, 700 bed supermax prison and now its gone. 
  4. TREES, WOLVES, & DEMOCRACY: There was once an artist who planted trees, slept with wolves and decided to change the world. To do this he and some fellow artists created an artwork that resulted in the election of thousands of progressive candidates to local and national elective offices in dozens of countries around the world.  

Four pretty crazy, improbable stories. So, how did you vote. If you get them all right you have won am an all-expenses paid trip to a place called St. Francis Maryland, which I’ll tell you about in a moment. Here’s the lowdown on the 4 stories.

  1. NASA: Yes, Laurie and Robert were employed by a NASA arts program that goes back to the 60’s
  2. CRACK HOUSE This is true too. In Atlanta mural artist Normando Ismay and a mural crew turned a crack house into a Massive multicolored 4-sided billboard advertising the best drugs at Deep Discounts. For some reason, customers stopped showing up.  
  3. SUPERMAX: What can I say, this one seems like a stretch, but its true too. In 2008 Laurie Jo Reynolds, a videographer who calls herself a legislative artist launched TAMMS ten year, an arts project to expose the inhumane conditions at an Illinois’ supermax prison specifically designed for sensory deprivation and solitary confinement. In 2013 Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced its closure. 
  4. ART and ELECTION: Number 4. There’s no way for this one, but what can I say. The green party was established as something called a social sculpture by a group of artists led by Joseph Beuys. 

This game was a quick and silly way to introduce some history that has helped define what has variously been called community arts, or arts-based community development, or more recently creative placemaking and social practice. In it, we used a fictional game show to tell some hard to believe, but true stories. Along the way, some of you may have encountered some degree of skepticism about the power of the human imagination to provoke change. When we train artists and their community partners for creative collaborations, we use games like these with multiple rounds to have fun, and get out of their heads, and into a place where they can exercise their imaginations, individually and, most importantly together. 

This workshop is about how stories can help us access some of the most difficult lessons about art making in service to community learning, building, healing, and mobilizing. In Truth or NO the story was a game that I made up that you, hopefully played along with. Playing is the key here, because PLAY, is basically life practice. This is true for all the creatures in the animal kingdom, including us. When we are young a lot of our play is physical testing and problem solving. As we get older it migrates more and more into realm of thinking and what we call adult learning. As community arts trainers we are trying provide a memorable learning experience that can help our students respectfully engage often complex and ambiguous institutional and community systems and cultures. 


Another of our most effective training resources are stories about fictional neighborhoods or agencies that we use to tell the real story of what it’s like to navigate them as creative change agents. In these narratives’ artists, and community members, administrators and staff explore the conundrums and contradictions, the heartaches and little victories that creative partners dance with every day in these “other places.”

The example of this I’m going to share was created during time I ran California’s Arts-in-Corrections program. Its called The Nouvella, which is a work of fiction by writer/teaching artist/activist Judith Tannenbaum that was used to train artists getting ready to teach one of California’s 32 correctional facilities. At the time A_I_C was the largest arts residency program in the world, with over 1000 artists and 25,000 students. As I am sure you have noted, it has also provided the title of this workshop. 

North Coast Correctional Facility (Unit 3, Third Tier) 

NCCF is on indefinite lockdown following an inmate stabbing. Because of this, writing instructor Susan Robertson is working with her students through the bars of their cells. She approaches Mitch Reiser’s cell.

"Hello, Susan. Coming this way?" Mitch Reiser's voice broke into Susan's thoughts on violence and its effect on the mind and soul. She walked past a few cells to where Mitch was housed. 

"Are you psychic or what? How did you know it was me?" Susan asked, always on her guard with Mitch. 

She was never able to be herself with Mitch around. And Mitch was always around. There were so many silent ways in which Mitch made sure he was there, always there. 

"I am psychic where you're concerned, but this time I have to give credit where credit is due." 

Mitch pointed to the small mirror that he could adjust to give him a reflection of just what was coming along the walkway. Susan stepped back and looked at the other cells and saw that many such mirrors were now focused on her. 

She shook her head, "I’m a trained observer, but I'm not seeing anything well today!"

“You may not be seeing well, but you sure are looking good."

Susan smiled, "Cute. Corny, but cute." 

This parrying with Mitch was easy, but dangerous. If she wasn't careful, he'd pick up whatever she said and run with it as far as he could.

“Susan, come closer." 

"I can hear you fine." 

"But I want to smell your perfume." 

"I don't wear perfume," she said, then thought, Shit, he's trapped me. I've

got to get out of this dialogue without one more personal exchange.

“Then why do you always smell so sweet?" 

"Mitch, what poems are you going to read at the banquet?" 

"I don't want to talk about poems."

"That's what I'm here for." 

"Does your husband give you flowers?" 

"Mitch ... " 

'Im going to send you flowers. You'll see. Sometime you'll be home alone, night will be coming on. Maybe you'll be taking a bath or rubbing oil over your naked skin. And they'll be there, these surprise flowers. And you'll know they're from me." 

"Okay, Mitch; that's it." 

Never had the promise of flowers sounded so like a threat. 

"I'm going to love you forever," Mitch whispered toward Susan's departing back.

 Although she tried not to hear, she heard, "I've got all the time in the world, Susan, and I'm going to take as long as I need to convince you. And I'll convince you, you'll see. 

A bird had flown in through the open transom and was singing in the block; Susan focused on this bird. Its song made her hear the weighted silence of the gray sky outside, the ocean water; she listened to these silent sounds that rode under her quickly beating heart, under all the noise in the block. She wanted to leave Unit 2, run back to the office and talk to Al about Mitch. But she decided to see the rest of her students first, and she walked down the tier. As steady as she could… 


This scene is a dramatic turning point in one the many subplots that are woven into the 100 page narrative that unfolds in The Nouvella. Beyond the episode with Mitch, the North Coast story unfolds with other unsettling twists and turns, all of which are based on the true events chronicled in Judith’s Tannenbaum’s exhaustive one year research process.  

In addition to the fatal stabbing and subsequent lockdown, there is a discovered tryst between a teacher and a prisoner, a crippling state budget freeze, and most devastatingly for the arts program’s teachers, students and their families, the cancelation of the first-ever arts program awards banquet, which had been a year in the making.

Despite the intensity of this string of events, Judith Tannenbaum’s narrative is not overly dramatic, and pointedly so. This is because one of the most incongruent characteristics of prison life is the plodding drumbeat of hard-to-imagine juxtapositions — boredom and fear, cacophony and silence, bad news and no news. If the joint could talk, it would surely be shouting. “You think you caught us at a bad time? Nah, this is normal. You think this is crazy? Wait ‘til next week!”

As daunting as it might seem, Judith understood that her principal job here was as a translator — making some sense of a place where the Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter would feel quite comfortably at home. A place where seemingly simple questions about the “right” thing to do are answered with alternating layers of clarity and quicksand. 

A place where the signs and signals we all depend on to find our way are offered up in a “Yes/But actually No” oscillating current that is both confounding and oddly thrilling. Our task here with the Nouvella was to create a story that attracted and supported new creative colleagues but also discouraged slackers? Who else but an artist could render this world in a way that conveyed the elusive truth of this foggy netherworld without scaring away the potential pathfinders? 

Like I said, the stories in the Nouvella are all based on the real-life experiences of the dozens of staff and incarcerated artists she interviewed during her research. These, of course, included Judith’s own experiences as a writing teacher working on the prison planet. Which is a place where truth, beauty, trust, tenderness, vulnerability, color, sensitivity, choice — all the intangible qualities humans need to thrive — are virtually nonexistent. 

But through her teaching she made these things available to her students. In the process, they become creators with a chance to own bit more of their unique story — an act of personal agency that is a precious thing, on the inside. 

Doing this takes courage for both the teacher and the taught. Writing the Nouvella, though called for another kind of bravery. This is because the scene you just heard was a fictionalized version of a real struggle Judith had with one of her students. Like “Mitch”, this poet, a lifer, with two rape murder convictions, was a persistent edge pusher whose obsession with Judith became more and more tenacious over time. The line was crossed when a staff member overheard him describing in detail his plans for Judith to fellow prisoners. 

This was a terrifying situation for Judith. And, because of the program, other women at Q, the rules, and a dozen other reasons, both paranoid and real, the incident could not be written off. Her conflict about reporting it up the chain of command only added to her distress. Her compassion in telling this difficult story in the Nouvella is a testament to the enormous sense of responsibility she carried for each of her students.

Prior to the Nouvella we relied primarily on the institutions to orient our new artists. This often turned out to be what we used to call a dog and pony show – A two or three hour power point workshop with a Sergeant up there saying, “Part your hair wrong, and you're in trouble. Here's the Director's Rule’s, read them, remember them, follow them, and you'll be just fine”

But for us, that did not cut it. Our artists did need to know the rules, for sure, but given the intimate nature of creative teaching they needed to understand the culture too. Something that could shed a little light on shifting shadows that define life inside—something Like the Nouvella. 

So now you might ask: How did this turn out. We created a training that used the Nouvella as its foundation. Here is what the department’s research showed. 

  • We found our artists were less inclined to stereotype corrections staff and incarcerated people. 
  • When problems arose artists tended to ask questions rather than make snap judgements. 
  • We saw improved trust for artists among staff and incarcerated students
  • There was better communication between correctional staff and artists
  • We saw better cooperation from line staff and institutional administrators
  • We got greater respect from students who appreciated the increasingly savvy artists they encountered.
  • We saw a marked Increase in participation in the program
  • And there were Fewer program threatening incidents involving artists. 

Most importantly, the characters and stories represented in the Nouvella became a safe space for exploring the complicated often contradictory issues and forces that defined life and work in prison. At the end of the day, it was much easier to ask a critical question about the fictional Susan Robertson or Assistant Warden’s motivations or decision making than it was to challenge a colleague or staff member. PAUSE

St. Francis. Our third example of how an invented storyline can help build skills and understanding takes the Northcoast institutional strategy to another level. It was developed with the University of Massachusetts', Arts Extension Service which provides online professional certificate and degree programs for arts leaders in the US and overseas. In this case, rather than provide a story about a fictional place, we asked the students in our Creative Community Leadership course to spin their own saga playing (There’s that word again) playing arts leaders in response to an escalating series of events that precipitates a mini- cultural war in the fake town of St. Francis Maryland. Along the way they learned a lot about the power of the imagination for good and ill, and each other.

Teaching Basketball Online

When theater artist Kathryn Bentley and I began designing this course we were faced with a daunting question. How do you train for relationship intensive work like community arts using a distance learning platform?

We likened this conundrum to trying to teach basketball online, which, of course, is impossible. It might work for a course on the history of basketball, its rules, and maybe some coaching theories, but the game itself can’t be learned without players, practicing hoops together on the court.

The same can be said of community arts practice, which like basketball, involves groups of people with different skills and perspectives, trying to work well together. Applying arts-based strategies to critical community issues like health, affordable housing, public safety, education, and equitable development requires trust-based partnerships. 

Learning to collaborate effectively across community sectors, takes a lot of practice with real partners, working in real communities. So, once...

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About the Podcast

Change the Story / Change the World
A Chronicle of Art & Transformation
Poets, dancers, and painters at war with white supremacy, COVID, criminal militias, and Milosevic? Muralists, musicians, and actors, making a difference in homeless shelters, planning departments, emergency rooms, and death row? Sound delusional? Yea, sure, but also true! And when creativity confronts destruction, and imagination faces fear, in places like Ferguson, Johannesburg, Belfast and San Quentin surprising things happen.

Our stories help shape and sustain our beliefs and actions. Bill Cleveland believes that meeting the challenges of the 21st century will require a revolution of thought and deed— in essence, a new set of stories powerful enough to change beliefs and behaviors.

Change the Story/ Change the World is a chronicle of art and community transformation across the globe. In each episode, Bill will introduce listeners to creative change agents working to re-imagine and recreate the social, political, and cultural narratives that define their communities. Join us
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