Judith Marcuse

Ashoka Fellow
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This description of Judith Marcuse's work was prepared when Judith Marcuse was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011 .


Judith Marcuse, a choreographer, producer, teacher, and social entrepreneur, is increasing the effectiveness with which disparate communities use the arts as tools for promoting social change. Through her International Centre of Art for Social Change (ICASC), Judith connects arts-based social change organizations and leading practitioners in the field within Canada and abroad, creating a global hub for collaboration, research, teaching and knowledge-exchange. Judith works with artists, teachers, youth, social activists and many others to better understand how the arts can be used by communities to address issues of concern to them—and to move from these arts-based forms of dialogue to concrete, change-making action.

L'idée nouvelle

Although many organizations around the world effectively use art practices as vehicles to promote social change, there is little infrastructure to support discipline-wide collaboration and knowledge-sharing. Judith’s work at ICASC (and in a wide variety of other settings around the world) provides skill-building opportunities and exchange in a wide variety of contexts to build community capacity to drive change by providing innovative, arts-based resources and innovative strategies for change-making. Her arts-based work stimulates community-led dialogue on relevant social and economic problems, leading to sustainable solutions for often complex problems. Judith’s work has influenced policymakers and has empowered communities to become more creative, collaborative, and resilient.

Through her centre, Judith integrates community engagement with arts, academic research, training, professional development, and global networking. She brings together leaders from across Canada and globally who are using the arts as potent elements for social change. Through this network, she is strengthening leaders’ skills and their combined impact as they engage with marginalized and other groups to explore issues and strategies for the future. She is also providing and consulting on new university programs to help educate the next generation of practitioners in Canada and abroad.

Le problème

Emerging and experienced arts practitioners working to promote social change have few opportunities to access concentrated, integrated learning and capacity-building in ways that also connect them with other change leaders. Organizations around the world increasingly integrate arts-for-social-change practices into their work; many of these are highly innovative and transformative. However, there is little global infrastructure and few opportunities for discipline-wide collaboration and knowledge-building. There are few places to learn about this fast-evolving field or to network with others already working in it. Evaluation of these forms—their short and long-term impact—is only one of many areas where networking and exchange are critical.

The arts are underutilized as effective vehicles for communities to explore and solve complex problems. Instead, governments and businesses typically use traditional methods such as town hall meetings and surveys to understand what the public would like to see happen. The arts are rarely the medium through which the public and private sectors learn about and engage with local communities to understand them, collaborate, and better serve them. The legitimacy and efficacy of the arts-for-social-change field is typically not recognized by institutions that have never experienced the field’s approach.

La stratégie

Judith’s ICASC, created in 2008, in partnership with Vancouver, BC’s Simon Fraser University, has created a network for art practitioners whose work promotes and catalyzes social change. Judith’s approach is to create a platform, both online and offline, to assist artists and those who work with them to animate and inspire communities with new forms of community-building, dialogue and action to address issues, and enact solutions.

Judith’s leadership throughout the 1990s in arts-based workshops, dialogues, live performances and media productions informed the perspectives for which she advocates for today, including action for policy change. After a performance residency at a large inner city high school, Judith began to explore the issues and concerns of teenagers. (Until that time, most of her work with and for young people had been with elementary school-age children.) Much of her subsequent creative focus has been issue-based and youth-centred. She explored arts-for-social-change methods with other socially-engaged artist/facilitators, a process which deepened and expanded her knowledge. Three five-year projects culminated in national tours of large-scale theatre productions (ICE: beyond cool; FIRE…where there’s smoke; and EARTH=home). These productions were each based on three years of arts workshops with thousands of youth that explored issues leading to suicide, violence as experienced by young people, and their thoughts and feelings about environmental and social justice issues. Judith documented the young workshop participants’ thoughts and feelings, their experiences and the dialogues that explored their suggestions for positive change, including discussions with friends, family members and teachers. This documentation formed the basis for creating the content for Judith’s multimedia dance/theatre productions, ultimately performed by young professional artists.

The productions toured across Canada and included “talk-back” sessions during which audience members often told their own stories or commented in other ways. Counsellors were present to ensure that emotional support, helpful information and professional referrals could be provided as needed. For example, following performances of ICE: beyond cool, each audience member left the show with a toolkit of resources including information pamphlets specially created by youth for youth and vetted by professionals in the field of suicide prevention at Health Canada and in other youth-centred agencies. These materials suggested ways to identify symptoms relating to suicide, suggestions about how find help (and convince others of this need), and a wallet-sized information card complete with local emergency phone numbers.

Judith collaborated with schools and social agencies throughout these five- to six-year projects, including providing guides to support teachers in exploring the productions’ issues with students. By establishing a support network and providing workshops and other activities in each city, Judith’s team ensured there was resonance and ongoing activity after the production left each town. A 60-minute film adaptation of ICE: beyond cool was aired on the Canadian national television network along with a public dialogue with youth and adults. Afterward, counsellors on a specially-created online website responded to hundreds of requests for assistance. A shortened version of this film is in use in North American schools.

Judith has been a leader in advocacy for arts for social change in Canada for more than thirty years. She has consulted for, and advised, local and national policymakers and politicians, arts councils and social science research funders, as well as universities and other organizations. This work has helped to develop new awareness about the field and has created new partnership and funding opportunities for others. Judith is recognized as a global leader; ICASC has links with individuals and organizations around the world, including in several African countries, as well as India, Pakistan, Japan, Vietnam, Israel, and Palestine, many countries in the EU, and the U.S.

To foster resource-exchange through her centre, Judith launched The Chataqua Project, a national knowledge-exchange and networking project engaging invited practitioners, business professionals, funders and scholars. Partner hosts in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Toronto will facilitate knowledge-exchanges (Chataquas), the events culminating in a three-day national gathering. The Chataquas contain short case-study presentations, experiential learning in hands-on workshops and facilitated dialogues. Prior to each local Chataqua, Judith’s team, in partnership with local organizers, disseminate key ideas and information on the ICASC website. One month prior to each Chataqua, the site is used to link invited participants in themed dialogues. Projects that evolve from each Chataqua provided the starting points for the national gathering in 2013.

Judith’s newest initiative is the development of an incubator project. A collaboration with a major credit union and Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Business Administration, planning is underway for the creation of a Vancouver-based social innovation centre that includes arts practices at its core. At this incubator centre, change-leaders from diverse sectors will convene to tackle social, economic and environmental issues, eventually developing entrepreneurial projects that are a direct response to these dialogues. Judith’s arts-based methods will help to facilitate the planning process for policy creation as well as program delivery. The three organizations have committed funding for the initial research period and each will make a unique contribution to the centre’s emergence.

Through ICASC, Judith has developed an introductory course on art for social change. Delivered by the Faculty of Education and Continuing Studies at Simon Fraser University, the course, Exploring Arts for Social Change: Communities in Action, uses dialogue with experts from the field as well as experiential learning methods (hands-on workshops and student projects) as central pedagogical methods. The course launched in fall 2010 to enthusiastic student response and was delivered again in fall 2011.

A proposal for a unique, six-course, for-credit and non-credit, cross-faculty program is currently under review, which, when launched, will be the first of its kind in Canada. Courses cover critical areas in the field of arts-for-social-change, including issues of safety and ethics; the development of partnerships with community-based organizations; the arts and social innovation, including entrepreneurial business models; communication skills; the use of new media; research, evaluation, and documentation; and specialized skills in visual, performing and media arts. A comprehensive document has been developed that outlines principles to guide work in the field. Among many areas, it addresses issues of sustainability, social responsibility, inclusion and diversity.

Another example of Judith work is a recent community economic development project in Port Hardy, British Columbia. The steering committee for the initiative included the Mayor, members of the business community, the school board, youth, social service professionals, and First Nations representatives. Judith provided arts-based workshops and dialogues, the results of which will feed into the creation of a new community plan to be submitted to the province.

Judith often gives keynote talks and teaches at conferences and in other settings around the world. She also shares information and ideas through ICASC’s website, including a database of related organizations and open source research and other resources in the field of arts-for-social-change. (See www.icasc.ca.)

La personne

Born in Montreal, Quebec, Judith was brought up in a socially-engaged family. Her parents were involved in social and political activities and, from an early age, she participated in discussions about issues of the day and took part in various forms of social action. During her early training as a dancer, she was taught that her imagination and creativity were as important as her skills as a technician. Every dance class included the collective creation of a short piece of choreography.

Judith’s choreographic work has been infused with social content, from an early feminist piece, called baby, to Four Working Songs, inspired by Studs Terkel’s social history, Working. In 1980 Judith founded her repertory company, Judith Marcuse Repertory Dance Company of Canada, under the umbrella of Judith Marcuse Projects, to produce and present dance works through a varied and accessible repertoire that frequently contained humorous touches. Her company also pioneered special programs for young people and week-long “community residencies” that deepened relationships between artists and community members.

Judith has received many honors for her work in dance, theatre, opera, television and film including Canada’s two major choreographic awards. In 2002, she received an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University in recognition of her pioneering work in arts-for-social-change.

Judith continues to be astounded by the profound and positive changes that can occur when people participate in collective art-making that relates directly to their own lives. Judith’s connections with other change-leaders around the world—with activists and entrepreneurs—continue to inspire and inform the many projects she pioneers.