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Where The Arts Meets Social Change

22 April 2015

We’ve been thinking a lot recently about the balance between social change and involvement in a physical change on our projects.

Sometimes it is easier to describe our work by the tangible outputs that we deliver: a new playground, artwork for an underpass, graphics for shop shutters, wayfinding, window vinyls, maps and lesson plans being amongst our recent work. However, the real work for us is how we operate as enablers on projects and follow user-centred design processes so that people are at the heart of changes in their neighbourhood.

I am not totally comfortable with the term ‘social change’ but it is true that our projects involve us working extremely hard to engage people who live, work and play in an area of change and that fostering a belief in that process takes a social paradigm shift. Our work often includes showing people that they can use their civic voice and that they can have influence over local decisions; often easier said than done when people feel increasingly removed from change. For example, people may know they do not want the poor quality of building they see from their kitchen windows, or may not want public space to be designed blandly, with ease of maintenance in mind but how can we as citizens influence these things?

This is often the challenge that faces us when we begin projects. There is cynicism over whether there is any point saying what you think and it is part of our role to shift this perception. To this end we look for small change opportunities where we can demonstrate local influence in the short term to build capacity to be involved in the long-term change. We look for local skills, interests and appetite for change that we can support. For us, giving projects a legacy is about leaving a confident and empowered community behind with a clearer understanding of the odd language around ‘regeneration’, making them feel better placed to influence future dialogue on the subject.

This means that the arts work we do doesn’t always immediately meet the social change, but is intertwined together; you can’t do one without the other. So often it is the crafting, drawing, making we are doing at a micro scale that act as a great starting point for getting people into conversations about the macro issues affecting them and routes to improving them.

Just jumping into the big stuff right at the beginning feels too hard to tackle, too daunting but with the small change and relationship building we do, we create the social context for ongoing community engagement. When we built the bee hotel in Barking, it was a starting point for conversation about putting a place and a community on a map and in the record books, and changing what a place becomes known or famous for, and how as residents, they can really tangibly shape that stuff.

Quite simply you can’t have one without the other: making, drawing and building is the engaging, enjoyable and achievable activity and the first vital chance to demonstrate the working together and sharing of ideas, so necessary to shift involvement in the wider social change, that otherwise seems impenetrable.