How We Work

What kind of world ARE we making? What kind of world SHOULD we be making? What kind of world CAN we be making? – Elizabeth Coleman, President Emeritus, founding director of CAPA

The Challenge

Problems proliferate. From income inequality to climate change, from failing schools to failed states, from exiled histories to foreclosed futures, our present is beset by challenges. Many of these entrenched and emergent problems seem just beyond the scope of a liberal arts education. What might it mean to more directly orient the liberal arts around these complex problems, not just in contemplation of them but with a deliberate aim to intervene in them? How can artists, scholars, and scientists collaborate and contribute to finding effective solutions to these problems? How can the classroom be expanded to foster new linkages between thought and action, the classroom and the outside world? What new insights and capacities are now needed to enact meaningful change?

The Response

The Center for the Advancement of Public Action (CAPA) at Bennington College responds to the urgent problems of our current world, discovers what one needs to know to understand them, and acts to implement solutions. Rooted in the liberal arts with a commitment to public action, CAPA teaches the essential capacities needed to develop an educated and emboldened citizenry. Through initiatives and curriculum, CAPA leverages the classroom as a new kind of studio for innovation and informed change. With engaged scholarship, community partnerships, and creative problem-solving strategies that draw on the skills of conflict resolution, complex systems analysis, and research and design, CAPA addresses the issues of our time from a novel vantage point: action.

Creative Problem-Solving Strategies

CAPA responds to urgent challenges with creative problem-solving strategies that draw on the skills of conflict resolution, complex systems analysis, and research and design. With a deep commitment to collaboration, CAPA works with existing public and private organizations locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. One of the ways this is accomplished is by linking the classroom to outside agencies, think tanks, and community groups. By bringing students, stakeholders, and citizens together, CAPA aims to cultivate democratic debate and public action around specific problems.

Through such collaboration, our goal is to make the world a better place and to create the replicable structures that can adapt, serve, and sustain a quality of life that all humans deserve.

Conflict Resolution  |  The ability to define one's interests and interact effectively in everyday life is the skill of negotiation. Whether it is a collaborative and principled approach or an adversarial position, the ability to negotiate is essential for citizens to work for the public good. Learning how to be an impartial third party who can facilitate others to resolve serious conflicts is the practice of mediation. Facilitation skills are essential to lead public and private discussions and collaborative skills allow groups to tackle complex problems together and find innovative design solutions. All of these conflict resolution skills: negotiation, mediation, facilitation and collaboration are necessary to navigate this complex world and be effective in creative problem-solving.

Complex Systems Analysis  |  The contemporary issues in our world today—from climate change adaptation and mitigation, to incarceration reform, to peacebuilding in conflict zones—are increasingly complex. An understanding of hierarchical and non-hierarchical structures, emergent patterns, and self-organizing systems are important to understand in order to deconstruct complicated, intractable problems. Tipping points, triggers, moments of criticality, and places of leverage are all ways to analyze and intervene in complex systems across the globe. The ability to improvise is increasingly in demand as there are more asymmetric forces confronting each other, producing more conflicts. The ability to adapt to changing conditions, to recognize pattern formation, to live with ambiguity and unpredictability are all capacities that are needed to understand complex problems and acquire 21st Century skills.

Research and Design  |  Information abounds in today’s world, but salient and reliable data can be hard to come by. More than ever, successfully addressing existing problems calls for first producing better understandings and measurements of those problems. Through student-led projects, faculty guided initiatives and community collaborations, CAPA sponsored research helps draw contemporary predicaments into actionable focus. Whether in clearly defining the stakes or in tailoring arguments for stakeholders, whether in sharply confronting the causes of injustice or in crafting equitable solutions, research in CAPA is conducted with the aim of informing meaningful change. Research techniques include: identifying constituencies, mapping outcomes, visualizing data, and bringing stakeholders to consensus. As important are teaching the capacities and skills for designing structures and their implementation. These skills include strategic planning, visual mapping, emergent structuring, pattern recognition, project management, adaptive functionality, and evaluation of outcomes.