Arts-Based Practices in Res Life: Community Building

This is part of a multi-part series on utilizing principles and techniques from arts-based research practices and applying them to the residents life setting. Explore more parts in the series:

Introduction and Strategies | Community Building

In the previous segment of this series, Arts-Based Research (ABR) was demystified. Definitions, readings, and examples were provided to help uncover the world of ABR and its innovative practices concerning Residence Life. 

For a quick recap, Arts-Based Researchers employ creative practices in order to conduct qualitative research. In doing so, they empower the individuals and participants in their studies, providing them with authentic and personable avenues to express their stories and experiences; the outcome of these expressions becomes the researcher’s findings. ABR is helpful in unshrouding the intangible and the cultivation of meaning-making. With ResLife’s focus on concepts such as developing a sense of belonging and interpersonal or cultural competencies, number-based metrics and straightforward approaches may not always be the most helpful. That’s where I believe Arts-Based practice can come into play. 

For the rest of the series, I want to focus on specific ways that I believe ABR can be applicable and helpful in connection to Residence Life. 

If you happen to take up the task of researching the ways that ABR practices are utilized in various contexts, you will inevitably find that the possibilities of its use are nearly endless. From the facilitation of therapeutic methods with mental health professionals to the expansion of STEM education, Arts-Based practices can be found in a variety of fields and take on many forms. That said, I found it important to ensure that whatever I chose to hone in on was pertinent to the work that ResLife professionals do. 

And what could be more important to residential professionals than the concept of community? 

Regardless of the university in question, a primary goal of Residence Education is community building. Although this is a common goal, every institution’s model is different. At some universities, there may be a 4-year live-on requirement; professionals in this context should expect to build and maintain a community that is sustainable for at least 4 years of a student’s experience. At others, there may be only 1-2 year requirements increasing the likelihood that third and fourth-year students will fly free from the nest of on-campus residency and into off-campus apartments and houses nearby. In either case, the student’s time as a resident on campus is viewed as pivotal to their success. Both academically and socially, the residential aspect of an institution is a large contributor to the overall outcome of a student’s college experience. For that reason, it becomes our job to ensure that our communities are not only safe with a side of fun but that they also meet our residents’ needs accordingly. 

Often the assessment of said needs can be quite impersonal. Quick surveys and ratings may be utilized to reflect an extremely nuanced situation. Having experience with roommate conflicts and conflict management, ResLife professionals are aware of the intricacies that can come with living with strangers for the first time. For some, this is their first time sharing a space. For others, intercultural interactions play a role in their experience. For all, the specificity of these complexities is relevant. This is where ABR comes in handy. 

Arts-Based Community Building & Human-Centered Design

Arts-Based Research cultivates empowerment in its participants by encouraging them to dictate and make meaning of their own experiences through storytelling and creativity. This can be particularly helpful when it comes to engaging in social design (a creative process dedicated to understanding social issues and facilitating social change) and community-centered change. In our case, we should look to empower our residents to share their stories and feelings towards their experience on their floors and in their rooms, bringing to light what our buildings can change or continue to implement to support the residential community. 

Human-Centered Design is not new, and although typically applied to larger societal structures, it is useful here. In centering the self-expressed narratives of both residents and paraprofessionals, communities can become more cohesive and inclusive. One ABR method utilized to explore arts-based community building within the scope of social design is The Life Story Mandala Method. In a 2019 paper written by three Finnish scholars, The Life Story Mandala as an ABR practice was explored and examined in two case study examples.

One case study was group-oriented, engaging a collective of textile artists in creating their versions of a Life Story Mandala, later to be sewn together at the end of the process. Before engaging in the creative activity, the group collectively determined their need for intentional collaboration and established goals via mind mapping. While composing their mandalas, the artists shared stories aloud. After sewing together the textiles, the group hoisted it at their gallery, leaving it visible to the community at large to serve as a reminder of the shared experiences that they communicated in their artwork.  In the end, the artists shared a space where they were able to not only create but make meaning of their needs and how they might be reflected in their artwork and met through future endeavors. 

As for the second case study, a somewhat more individualized approach was taken. This case study covered the participants engaged in a capacity-building course for those looking to become peacemakers and mediators for their respective communities. The Life Story Mandala Method was incorporated in a workshop during the course and was embodied by healing via storytelling and visualization. The participants were instructed to utilize outdoor materials that were representative of their life stories. Once collected, the materials were combined to create a group mandala. All participants had the opportunity to verbally share their connection to chosen artifacts, which created an intimate space for storytelling and healing through narrative. 

I find these two examples to be transferable to both paraprofessionals and residents.

Applying The Life Story Mandala 

For Staff 

Similarly to the first case study, a staff of paraprofessionals will have common goals, but is inevitably made up of individuals who may have differing perspectives on how to reach said goals. Engaging your staff in a similar mandala activity could be helpful for the professional development of the students and for the overarching support of the community that comes from a stronger sense of shared purpose. 

In order to incorporate this with paraprofessionals, one might do the following: 

  1. Engage your staff in a mind mapping session. Use guiding questions about your community in order to steer the brainstorming session.
    1. What are our community’s strengths? 
    2. What are our community’s weaknesses? 
    3. What can we continue to do to maintain our strengths? 
    4. How can we improve upon our weaknesses? 
  2. Create personal/professional mandalas as a group. Use whatever art supplies or templates made available to you and your staff. Come up with guiding questions to incite thought while engaged in the activity. 
    1. What has my experience as an RA been like thus far? 
    2. How do I feel supported by my fellow RAs and senior staff members?
    3. What are my relationships with my residents like? 
    4. What are my strengths within this role?
      1. What tasks am I confident about completing?
    5. What can I improve upon in this role?
      1. What tasks am I nervous about taking on? 
  3. Allow staff members share the meaning behind the artwork they’ve created and how it represents what was outlined in the guiding questions.
  4. Connect the mandalas of the staff members and highlight common themes and intersecting ideas. 
    1. What are commonalities in our stories and mandala artworks? 
    2. What overlaps between community themes and staff themes? 
    3. What opportunities do we have to build a community that upholds the ideas we identified?

For Residents 

Similarly to those engaged in the second case study mentioned, residents have individual experiences that shape their viewpoint of the community. Some will be positive, having been formed around memories and laughter. Others will be negative, characterized by roommate conflicts and miscommunication. Both come together to tell a story about your community and its needs. 

In order to incorporate The Life Story Mandala with residents, one might do the following: 

  1. Assess what this group of residents (perhaps hall or community council boards at your institution or willing participants from your building’s floors) wants to accomplish.
    1. What are you looking to get out of today’s activity? 
    2. What are you looking to get out of your residential experience? 
    3. What is your vision for a positive residential community?
  2. Have residents collect or create artifacts representative of their community experiences. Use whatever art supplies or templates made available to you and your staff. Come up with guiding questions to incite thought while engaged in the activity. 
    1. What is my best memory from living in this building thus far? 
    2. What is my worst memory from living in this building thus far? (if comfortable sharing) 
    3. How have I been supported in my residential experience thus far? 
    4. How do I personally need to be supported?
  3. Combine the artifacts provided by the residents to create a group mandala. Have residents share the meaning and reason behind their selections and curation. 
  4. Identify the overlap between the goals of the initial assessment and common themes expressed in the stories and the newly created mandala. 
    1. What are the commonalities in our stories and selections?
    2. What overlaps between our collective goals and the stories that we told?
    3. What can be done to increase support for residents? 


In both activity scenarios, you discover more about your building and its community. Every community has its strengths and weaknesses. How you approach and adapt them based on the needs of your residents (which is ever-changing with each year) is the challenge. Engaging students in The Life Story Mandala practice assists in providing qualitative context for how best to meet the needs dictated by students. In both cases, students take on a sense of self-efficacy. They establish and assess goals collectively before reflecting on their individual experiences, making meaning of the overlap and outcomes of both. In the end, they are left with an artistic representation of the community, and a reminder of the community they would like to build. This practice goes beyond the simplicity of the likert scale and instead relies on the authentic expression of the students in your building. 

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