The Cultural Agents Initiative is a network of academics, artists, educators, and organizations who develop recognition of the arts as resources for positive change. Thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Cultural Agents Initiative began at the end of the 1990s. The term "Cultural Agents" emerged from a number of successful conferences and corollary programs developed in response to a challenge posed by the Social Science Research Council: to develop arts-based projects that would engage social scientists and individuals concerned with the political and material wellbeing of underserved populations. This challenge led to explorations of notable creative practices in Latin America and beyond in collaboration with the Hemispheric Institute at NYU, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Department of African American Studies, English, and East Asian Studies at Harvard University. These explorations in turn yielded a project focused on the cultural complexities of immigration: "New American Studies," which the Rockefeller Foundation funded through a four-year conference-series grant. The successful conferences and corollary programs focused on the concept we coined as "Cultural Agents," which we adopted as a title for the Initiative with the Rockefeller Foundation's encouragement and an organizing conference in Bellagio. Thanks to support from the Ford Foundation, the SSRC convened a first conference in January of 2000, which resulted in the book Cultural Agency in the Americas (Duke University Press, 2006).
The Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University has sought to increase the impact of creative and scholarly practices by identifying artists, educators, and community leaders who have developed socially productive artistic practices, by reflecting on the role of art in building civil society, and by disseminating best practices through workshops and public forums. Our distinguished guests have included Werewere Liking, Mariam Said, Antanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá, and Augusto Boal, whose interactive theater workshops at Harvard produced sequels from AIDS prevention programs to an anti-discrimination theater program in collaboration with the Equal Opportunities Commission. The Initiative's regular activities range from graduate student workshops, to conferences on "best practices," artist workshops in the community, internships, and "active learning," a pilot program to coordinate public service with academic classes. A new community-based course, "Youth Arts for Social Change" stimulates local teachers, after-school providers, and Harvard students to use the arts in regular public school classrooms.
Since its inception, the Cultural Agents Initiative has invited participation from broad constituencies based on collaborators' existing efforts. For example, the conference "Visible Rights: Photography for and by Youth" grew out of visits by practitioners engaged in collaborative photography projects, "¡Culturas en el aire!," a conference on indigenous radio gathered individuals who recognize radio as the medium of cultural continuity in modern environments, and the Cambridge CCTV show encourages young filmmakers and technicians to explore their talents as they engage exemplary agents for an avid public. Our programs are an open invitation to propose scholarly and artistic projects that explore creativity as a resource for non-violent social change; they rest on the belief that creativity is vital to the health of democracies, that it is critical to the development of ethical, resourceful citizens.