Practicing Uncertainty with CITY’s Social Innovation Internships
Six days, 14 hours, and 37 minutes without a reply to my request for an interview. I interpreted the deafening radio silence as an unmistakable signal: Anne Coates didn’t want to meet me. Meanwhile, a reply from email@example.com lounged in my Junk folder, unopened, for almost a week. When we finally met at 80 Audubon Street to talk about Tsai CITY’s Social Innovation Internship, Anne brushed off my apologies with a wry smile. Her only advice? “Never make assumptions.” *
At its core, the project proposal she handed me that day is about repositioning Creative Arts Workshop (CAW) as a hub for creative thinking, instead of a traditional art school. Repositioning an organization usually just means rebranding what’s already there, because the alternative (let’s call it “innovation”) is basically an all-you-can-eat buffet of risk and failure (without the mimosas). At CAW, this looks like dreaming up and developing a new line of intensive creativity workshops — with a focus on professionals who don’t self-identify as creative, working in sectors that routinely underutilize the innate creative potential of their employees.
To me, the idea sounded promising. Original, even. Practically glowing with a kind of hip, relevant je ne sais quoi. My bouncing enthusiasm clashed perfectly with Anne’s sharp intuition. When she’s on a roll, her questions are an immersive, stream of consciousness experience. Who is this for? Is it professional development? If not, what is it? Do we have the bandwidth to design a robust curriculum? How do we make it robust and adaptable? Can creativity be taught? If yes, how do we make it stick? I left her office feeling dazed, and determined to make a legitimate case on behalf of Optimists Everywhere.
After getting an introduction to CAW’s small core staff, I wandered around the building — a three-story tower of soaring studio spaces and odd, angular windows that catch the sun at every hour. “Lonesome wandering” is also a good way of describing my first few weeks of research. Occasionally, I would use “field work” as an excuse to talk to people (e.g., interviewing a large group of medical students who happen to love making pots and mugs on Wednesday nights). But for the most part, I was just reading: studies documenting the startling effects of arts education, existing frameworks for innovative play, and papers on the nature of creativity.
That last category has a special place in my heart, because it validated my longstanding beef with the art world. Artists and gallerists are deeply invested in maintaining the Creative Genius trope (to the tune of 91.1 million USD), but I would argue that the real magic of art lives at the intersection of storytelling, perspective taking, and community building. On a smaller scale, these very same values ended up shaping the trajectory of my internship, as we shifted from the initial research phase into the more collaborative planning and building phases. Suddenly, I had access to two passionate and imaginative faculty members for curriculum-building, and a team of brilliant consultants from Fathom for reckless brainstorming. Even when the dynamics got fiery (our safe word was “asparagus”), there was an overarching sense of shared direction — we were taking Creative Arts Workshop somewhere new.
Fun fact: there were actually two Tsai CITY internship openings at Creative Arts Workshop, and the other one would’ve been a more natural fit because it was arts-focused. Somewhere between my first crayon masterpiece (circa 1999) and my last art show (2019), I bought into the idea that creativity is at odds with objective analysis and strategic planning. Unpacking that personal misconception was surprisingly relevant to my work this summer, because “practicing complex problem-solving through art” became an essential component of our value proposition. If I had let “qualifications” guide my professional decisions, I would’ve missed out on an opportunity to fundamentally reevaluate my pre-existing potential and the untapped potential of the arts.
In hindsight, going for the position that I knew a lot less about also aligned with the values of CITY’s Social Innovation Internships. Conventional internships often encourage students to leave behind their (lofty! naive! impractical!) visions of what’s still possible for them and the world. Keep your head down, and get to work. On top of that, I think the depth of Yale’s resources can encourage narrow-mindedness, because there’s limitless access to exponentially increasing knowledge —
option 1: specialize
option 2: implode.
This is where Tsai CITY steps in, offering a legitimate avenue for practicing uncertainty and learning while doing. Placing students in local organizations without being overly prescriptive implies that we have something profound and undefined to learn from each other. And the growing number of Yale College graduates living in New Haven, coupled with the success of programs like FOCUS, is a testament to Yale students’ willingness to invest their human capital in the city — as long as there are resources to support them.
*thrilling update: I still make assumptions; Anne still tells me to stop.
Vicky Blume is a 2019 graduate of Yale College.
This Social Innovation Internship was generously supported by the Yale Club of New Haven. Learn more about Tsai CITY’s work here.