Sometimes the medium is not the message is a case study that highlights the challenges involved in using arts-based programming as a method to engage youth. The case study focuses on a situation when the arts-based programming is not accompanied by any issue-based learning. The youth must be connected and engaged in an issue for the art to be meaningful and memorable.

An organization I was working with had funding available for youth, or organizations that work with youth, to do art-based projects on global justice issues. We asked that youth and youth-focused groups apply, telling us what they are going to do, how much money they need, and how it links to a global justice issue. We received several diverse applications, most of which were accepted. One of the most exciting applications came from a group that wanted to pair inner-city youth with youth from a developing country (via Canada World Youth) to create a movable mural on the theme of “more and better aid.” This application was a dream! It brought youth into our programming that we had not been very successful at engaging in the past and had them create something that we could use on an ongoing basis. They received funding without a second thought.

A few months went by during which I kept in contact with the project, and from the sounds of things it was going really well. When we were presented with the final project it was a bright six-by-nine-foot mural. At first glance I was thrilled, but as I looked at the content of the mural I became more disappointed. “More and Better Aid” showed a bird’s-eye view of the world. On one side (presumably North America) there were smiling white faces and a factory pumping out boxes with the Red Cross insignia on them. Trucks were then driving the boxes to airplanes where they were being air dropped to people across a body of water (presumably Africa). There were desperate looking black faces on this land (and a giraffe).

Though well-meaning, and though not the fault of the youth, the message in this mural is very problematic. This type of disaster aid is what most people see on the news. It is also the type of aid that is demonstrated in many commercials. However this type of aid is not at all what our organization means when it talks about “better aid.” Concepts like solidarity, empowerment, capacity building, and so on were what we thought would be explored through this mural. How we thought these inner-city and developing-country youth would magically know this, and be able to transform complex ideas into a mural escapes me now.

The lesson learned here is that using the arts and creative media are effective ways to bring more and different youth into your programming, but for it to be meaningful, the youth also have to be engaged with the issues.