The University of Michigan has long included public engagement in its educational mission, aiming to reinvest its resources in the communities it serves. Such engagement also contributes to the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) strategic plan by increasing awareness and access among underserved populations in the state of Michigan. At the same time, U-M students’ participation in community outreach is essential to the University’s goal of “developing leaders and citizens.” SMTD’s sponsorship of frequent public performances already make it one of U-M’s most outward-facing units, but many students seek to make more of an impact. “So many of our students seek to be ‘artist/citizens’ whose work makes a difference,” says SMTD Dean David Gier. “They can learn and grow through their interactions outside the curriculum in ways that are not possible through other means.”
Enter SMTD’s PEERs (Performance Engagement Educational Residencies) program. Now in its fourth academic year, the program provides mini-grants as well as logistical and programmatic support that allow SMTD students to partner with underserved communities throughout Michigan to create mutually beneficial arts experiences. Every project must include some element of performance and some element of education, and SMTD students must return to the community at least twice. The goal of the latter requirement is to encourage students to consider the longer-term implications of their work in the community, says Rikki Morrow-Spitzer, SMTD’s DEI coordinator. Students are not simply giving a single performance and leaving, but developing a sustained relationship that can grow and evolve over time.
Equally important to PEERs’ mission is the mutuality of each community partnership. The partnering organizations have their own culture, talent, and resources to contribute to each project. Often the only element they lack is access to and opportunities in the arts, which is precisely what SMTD students are able to provide. Meanwhile, the U-M students themselves learn that they can use their art to make a difference in the community, something Morrow-Spitzer calls an aha moment. “When the students forge that human connection and realize they can make an impact, it’s really special,” she says. “We really believe that our students are getting just as much as the community members” from their PEERs experiences.