What is the Creative Generation?

by Jeff M. Poulin

Witnessing the Creative Generation

 On March 24, 2018, I stood in my apartment in Washington, D.C. as the city was abuzz with the nation’s latest protest – A March for Our Lives, it was called. Since fall 2016, Sunday morning protest had become a thing in the wake of the presidential election; people were mobilized. However, this march seemed different. In fact, it was different – it was led by students: young artists, creatives, and activists. I stood in awe as I watched a group of young people raise their voices to change the country for the better.

This march was in response to the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., which occurred on February 14, 2018. Seventeen people lost their lives that Valentine’s Day. The survivors moved directly into action, speaking to city government, testifying at the State Capitol in Tallahassee, and collaborating with CNN to host a townhall where actors, singers, and musicians from among the school’s arts programs stood on a national platform and raised their voices with an original song, “Shine”:

“We’re gonna stand tall, gonna raise up our voices so we’ll never ever fall … we’re tired of hearing that we’re too young to ever make a change.”

In a series of spoken word statements during the bridge of the song, the students proclaimed:

“We refused to be ignored by those who will not listen.”
“There are so many things you can do to become involved.”
“Reach out to your Congressman; mail, call, and tweet.”
“Be the voice for those who don’t have one.”
“Together we have the power to change the world around us.”

This movement captured by their song is not the first of its kind. Only twenty months earlier, on June 12, 2016 – during LGBTQ+ Pride month – 49 people lost their lives and 53 more were injured during the shooting of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fl. Only four days later, Orange County Public Schools unified the voices of over 400 performing arts students and teachers to perform “Beautiful City” from Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell.“We can build, a beautiful city,” they sang, “yes we can, yes we can.”

Working alongside the young people in both Orlando and within A March for Our Lives, are a group of adult counterparts – or co-conspirators, even – that are committed to the growth and development of these students. Whether parents, educators, teaching artists, or mentors, we know that these intergenerational relationships enable the voice of young people to be heard.

These moments may bring a tear to your eye or ignite a fire of anger about the injustice in our world, but for me they showcase hope – they exemplify the type of artistic learning, community engagement, and youth empowerment that should be coming from our arts programs. In our increasingly complex world, I wonder how we can best support young people and their adult counterparts to raise the voices of a generation?


Describing the Creative Generation

For years, I spent my career advocating for increased and more equitable access to arts education for American learners. I often talked to grassroots organizers and political leaders about the benefits of arts education: “Graduation rates increase,” “drop-out rates decrease,” and “test score go up, on average, 100 points!” However, when I think about these young leaders and how they are utilizing the capacities they have developed through their arts and cultural learning, I recognize that we – as a field – are using the wrong vocabulary.

In 2012, when I was in graduate school, I came across some terminology in the course of a marketing class. My original exploration was intended to be for purposes of segmenting the market to target likely arts and cultural consumers. In the 2000’s, this language originally described the “connected consumer” as being one who created, connected with others, and largely consumed culture and media. However, in the course of my reading, I came to understand that this vernacular described the segment of arts and cultural consumers, while simultaneously encapsulated the outcomes of quality arts and cultural learning.

 The “Creative Generation,” or Gen C for short, describes an intergenerational group of people who care deeply about creativity, culture, connection, and community and are uniquely positioned to solve society’s greatest challenges by catalyzing creative community action.

In the original literature, this ‘generation’ is, in fact, multigenerational; it includes members who are not bound by birth year, but rather by a set of common characteristics. These defining characteristics, or capacities I would argue, bring together intergenerational relationships in the course of taking action.

I would make the case for a use of Gen C  to become our new vocabulary to most accurately describe the type of arts and cultural learning happening in communities today. As we discuss the work, we can define the  four capacities which are often exhibited by Gen C:

  • Creativity – a comprehensive approach to solving problems in new and different ways.

  • Cultural Consciousness – a deep understanding of one’s own cultural identify and a respect for, and often participation in, other diverse cultures. 

  • Connectivity – a commitment to remaining engaged with peer or social groups regardless of time or location.

  • Commitment to Community – acting as a servant leader, regardless of means, to strengthen the communities to which one belongs. 

These four capacities, I believe, uniquely position Gen C to solve society’s greatest challenges by catalyzing efforts of creative community change.

 If we consider that these four capacities – creativity, cultural consciousness, connectivity, and commitment to community – describe the intrinsic benefits of arts and cultural learning, then we may have a new frame as a field. We already have great examples of member of Gen C, I would argue, as described in the opening of this blog. Young people, every day, are using their creative capacities to improve their communities, drive systems change, and ultimately change the world. Now, we have a language for it.


Learning About the Creative Generation

Since April 2019, I have been hard at work learning as much as I can about Gen C – read the research plan here . As an academic, I set forward with a basic research questions: How do artists, educators, and community leaders effectively cultivate the creative capacities in the next generation? I learned a lot and authored a paper titled, “Towards an Understanding of Gen C, the Creative Generation,” and will be sharing it at the World Alliance for Arts Education conference this October in Frankfurt, Germany.

In this paper, I became more clear about my line of inquiry. I concluded that I wanted specifically to understand more about the work, which could be encapsulated into three areas: support for youth, support of adult counterparts, and the systems which govern their work. I set forward a second set of questions in my further exploration:

  • How can young people be supported in the pursuit of creative community action?

  • How can adults - such as artists, educators, and community leaders - be supported in their work supporting the development of young people as catalysts for creative community action? And lastly,

  • How can both young people and adults who are committed to creative community action, navigate the strict systems which govern their work?

In this endeavor, I spoke to 30 different stakeholders around the world: 20 in the United States and 10 abroad; 10 young people and 20 adults. I captured their stories, dove into their processes, and unearthed key learning about the concept of the Creative Generation in practice in the global context, specifically in the lives of individual members of Gen C, their organizations or programs, and within the communities where they live. 

This work uncovered two main findings:

First, there is an assumption that the examples of the Creative Generation (like at the start of this article) are an anomaly. This if false; the work of young people and adult intergenerationally cultivating creative practices to drive community change happens everywhere, all the time. The anomaly is found in the times in which this work gets the spotlight it deserves. Our field struggles with talking about the work in a way which translates to outsiders. Often times, those engaged in the work are so busy that they don’t have the time or space to tell their story or articulate their process.

Second, there is real isolationism in the field, which perpetuates a barrier to action for those who may want to pursue this work. Since we don’t tell our story, often times, this means that others do not know that they have peers with similar interests and skills. Without a community of practice or network of likeminded peers, we are self-siloing ourselves and creating a barrier to action for others looking for the connections, inspiration, or know-how to get started in this work.


Supporting the Creative Generation

Now, I am committed to working on these items. I have begun framing out tools and resources for individuals who share my commitment to the Creative Generation. The effort intends to inspire, connect, and amplify the work of individuals and organizations committed to cultivating the creative capacities of the next generation. Visit the website here .

First, I am focused on telling the stories of the Creative Generation. We have preliminarily launched the Campaign for a Creative Generation on the web and through social media. Through these platforms, we will focus on telling the stories and working with those in the field to document their practices. You can sign up for updates or follow the effort on Facebook , Twitter , Instagram, or LinkedIn  to stay up to date.

Second, I am beginning a third phase of research to test out several hypothetical framework which will aid in the professional learning and building of communities of practice in the Creative Generation. This method is being piloted in three settings: with certified arts educators hosted by the Arizona Department of Education in Prescott, AZ in June 2019; with the Mississippi Alliance for Arts Education and Mississippi State University-Meridian with arts organizations, teaching artists, and pre-service educators in Meridian, MS in August 2019; and with American University with arts managers and community organizations in Washington, D.C. in October 2019.


If you would like to support this effort, I invite you to join the effort. Please consider taking action today:

  1. We are looking to raise capital to fund the next phase of the work, so please consider donating here.

  2.  If you would like to get involved or are interested in spreading the word, please express your interest here

  3. To stay up-to-date on the effort, please provide your contact information here  and we will send you the latest information as soon as it comes out!

 I know that this work is prevalent in communities around the work and I am thankful for being welcomed into so many of them. Young people are changing the world and we owe it to them to be by their side.