Thursday, June 4, 2015

Ka Vang - Humanities with Impact

Ka Vang is the Director for Impact and Community Engagement with American Public Media Group/ Minnesota Public Radio. She is a recipient of the Archibald Bush Artist Fellowship and several other artistic and leadership awards. Ka is the author of the children's book “Shoua and the Northern Lights Dragon,” a finalist for the 23rd Annual Midwest Book Awards in 2012, published by the Minnesota Humanities Center and Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.

Upon my family’s arrival in the United States from a dingy Thai refugee camp, my mother declared two things: First, she didn’t want us to eat at McDonalds. She found Ronald McDonald creepy. Second, she didn’t want us to lose our Hmong folktales. In retrospect, her dislike of McDonalds had more to do with her dislike for junk food than Ronald McDonald’s flaming red hair and nose. As for the folktales, she told me to tell vivid folktales so even the wind would stop to listen.

That was great advice and over the years I have developed an audience happy to hear Hmong folktales. Still, questions plagued me. When audiences listened, how did my folktales affect them, in what unique and meaningful ways? In other words, what was the impact of my folktales?

Gwen Westerman described the humanities in a previous blog as the thing that makes us “human”—languages, music, the arts, philosophy, history, literature, and religion. The humanities foster creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and reasoning. We are pushed to love and reject, to truly be human. But one of the things I do not see the humanities asking us to do--particularly for organizations whose mission it is to create and promote the humanities--is to measure the impact of our work on people. Historically, there are ‘vanity’ measures like collecting data on how many people attended an art show, visited a website, or even donated money to an organization, but we don’t go beyond that to really understand how and why the humanities matter to people and in what unique ways. Nor do we know with specificity how people really respond to the humanities.

It may not be the cool thing to say that we have to measure the humanities impact on people, but it is a conversation that needs to happen. That is why I am writing this blog to discuss the impact.

Accountability. Most organizations that support the humanities, both small and large, are mission-driven organizations. How do these organizations know with confidence and specificity that their work is making a difference in people’s lives unless they track and measure their goals? More importantly, how do these organizations know they are fulfilling their mission?

Funding. As humanities funders, e.g., foundations and major donors, move towards outcome-focused projects, humanities organizations are expected to prove that they achieved those outcomes. Additionally, funders expect mission-based organizations to use the money they give them in effective and meaningful ways.

The reality of the current humanities community is that it is essential for us to demonstrate we are having an impact. So how do we go about doing that?

Being Intentional. Before starting a humanities project, organizations should be intentional about setting impact goals. Ask critical questions about the difference you want to make with your project -- on individuals, on institutions, and on communities. This backwards design approach will help you set measures to track your impact.

Tracking Impact. Just do it. We need to show the value the humanities have in the community. The only way to do that is to put impact measures in place. There is no cookie cutter measure, no single set of ideal metrics, because your measure of success depends on your goals. The important thing to remember about tracking impact is goal-setting and putting measures in place before you start your project or initiative.

Tell Your Impact Story. Once we learn how and why our humanities project made a difference we have to let the public and funders know also. We have to celebrate it. Again, it was my mother who taught me to celebrate storytelling. We have to tell it to everyone even the wind!

I currently work as the Director for Impact and Community Engagement with American Public Media Group/ Minnesota Public Radio. APMG’s new standard for impact is everything I outlined above: intentional goal setting, measuring, and accountability process where content creators answer the questions: How will the content matter to our audience, and how will you know if it matters to them?

We define impact as ‘an intentional change in the status quo’ as a result of something APMG created for our audience. Examples of the ‘something we created’ can be music or news, digital or live events. We define impact change as something that can happen to an individual, group, organization, and/or system. This change can be a social or physical condition, and is revealed by what appears to be different as a result of our work.

As a news, music radio, and digital media company, we want our audience to know we listen to them and we know them. Knowing our impact on audiences ensures that we will fulfill our mission and play our role in using the humanities to make a difference in our world.

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