Over the last few years, as an evaluator, I have been exploring the impact of a community arts project known as Billy facilitated by Tasmanian community arts company Creature Tales (you really should take a look at the Vimeo – it is only a few minutes and it is magic).
My professional background has not been community cultural development or arts and health, or arts and well-being, it was ‘traditional’ community services. Evaluating Creature Tales’ Billy has led me into this inspiring space of community arts and well-being.
The Billy project is quite well known in the north west Tasmanian city of Burnie. It is a community arts /community development project run in a family support context. The project was developed for Montello Primary School, and under the auspices of the Burnie Communities for Children (C4C) program.
The Burnie suburb of Montello was selected on the basis of concentrated disadvantage. According to the 2008 Australian Early Development Index, 19% of Burnie’s 0-5 year olds were considered vulnerable on one or more developmental domains, with one suburb recording 23% of its very young children as being vulnerable (AEDI 2007). Some readers may remember when, in 2011, Burnie made the headlines for the second highest rate of teen pregnancy in Australia, and some may also have noticed the recent focus on low literacy rates in Tasmania: 1 out of two Tasmanians are functionally illiterate.
Tasmanian’s know that there are very many strengths and assets in every one of our communities, including Burnie. However, from a family support perspective, the indicators do point to higher levels of child and family vulnerability. And the links between postcode and potential disadvantage have been well documented since Vinson’s 2007 report, Dropping off the Edge
The evidence is also clear on the importance of positive parental engagement as a success and protective factor for children and as an indicator for later well-being and social and economic engagement into adulthood. Montello Primary School Principal Deb Hutton has been very focused on developing and fostering warm, supportive relationships with families in the Montello area which is characterised by high levels of intergenerational disengagement from, and deep mistrust of, the school system. Innovative, non-stigmatising ways to do this was what she sought from the community cultural development approach which evolved into the Billy project.
In supporting the Billy project, the C4C Facilitating Partner and Consultative Committee effectively introduced innovation in engaging with ‘hard-to-reach’ and ‘vulnerable’ families based on the indications from the growing body of experience from the arts and health space.
In simple terms the project celebrates the completion of the first full year of school for Prep children and their transition from ‘school starter’ to first gradersthrough school-based, family-involving, art-making processes.
Sounds simple. So how does this relate to the family support context?
If we look at the way the elements are layered, we start to sense the subtle complexity of community arts projects:
- Prep students make billy carts, and billy dolls with the community artists.
- Family members, carers, volunteers and residents from a locally based aged care facility come into the school to build billy carts & dolls with their Prep kids. Each child spends a few mornings across the school term doing this. This is the first art-making phase.
- Older kids in the school, particularly those struggling with pro-social classroom behavior and/or ticking the box for levels of ‘vulnerability’ are recruited as “Billy Buddies” to buddy the Preps and, in turn, be buddied by some of the ‘old timers’ from the residential aged care facility.
- Billy “buddies” build their carts at the aged care facility where community elders can see, show and help out. This second art-making phase is at heart also about building pro-social relationships, family connection to the school and community-based social connections.
- The Preps and their families build their carts in the centre of the school, where kids in other classes, parents, teachers, and any visitor to the school can see them – building pride and ownership over the process, and embedding the art-making process in the school environment.
- Local businesses donate time, resources and materials. Local residents came along to the school regularly, participating in the art-making processes and also building pro-social relationships with the school (which becomes a site for community connectedness), students and parents.
- The celebration of the transition from Prep to full school takes place at the end of the school year, bringing the whole school community into the process through the celebration phase.
The celebration is multi-modal, including an exhibition and celebratory parade, and involvement in the community parades. This second phase of the art-making process effectively brought the broader community into the process.
Creature Tales maintained a steady community communication and engagement strategy that from my perspective entwined all the participants- students, families, buddies, aged care residents, school staff, aged care facility staff, local arts community, local business community and broader Burnie community – in the production of the creative outputs of the project. At the same time, this process entwined all the participants in the community development processes related to vulnerability and promotion of positive, safe, engaged families.
The experience of Billy germinated from a specific parent/carer – child activity (in this case billy cart-making as a school based activity), drawing parents into the school as a site for positive parenting, then progressively wrapping a supportive community around each child and their family through art-making activities.
Did it work?
In bringing together the findings of nearly 3 years of formative and summative evaluation I was staggered by the quite profound impacts the project brought to its participants. Parents/carers reported to me significant impacts for their family relationships and level of connection to the school. Teachers were able to identify specific improvements in child engagement in learning and behaviour self-management.
There’s a lot more for us all to consider in this innovative space as we ponder some of the challenges we face when focusing on social impact. Improving child and family well-being, increasing literacy and numeracy, and ageing gracefully and with dignity is just the start.
Maree Fudge is a Director of RDS Partners and specializes in social impact related work, including evaluation, research and organizational and project development.
 This phrase is used extensively within the community services and FAHCSIA Family Support Program context. The definition applied here is taken from Cortis Katz and Patulny (2009) ‘Engaging hard-to-reach families and children’ FAHCSIA Occasional Paper No 26 www.dss.gov.au
 FAHCSIA definition of ‘vulnerable’ applies in this context as the project was funded under the FAHCSIA Family Support Program via the Communities for Children program:
“families and children who are vulnerable to poor outcomes because of multiple or complex needs or who lack resources (financial, physical, personal or social) to support their wellbeing and positive family functioning.” www.dss.gov.au
 See for example Mike White 2009 Arts Development in Community Health, Radcliffe, UK