Freelance participatory theatre maker and AWA member Rachel Griffiths explores how artistic practice can combine with community organising to make a lasting, positive difference.
“Imagination lets us glimpse a world that has not yet materialized and move mentally back and forth between what was and what is, and what is, and what might be.”
There’s been a lot of talk about imagining and re-imagining over the past few months. Like me, you’ll undoubtedly have been on many a Zoom with other participatory arts practitioners and organisations, lamenting and dreaming, often with complete strangers, into the alien safety of your laptop screen.
It’s not a new concept. The participatory arts sector has perpetually been asking itself how to shift from “for” to “with”, in our work with communities. And many succeed in co-creating beautiful, meaningful processes.
But now we are imagining with a new urgency. The food banks are busier; the education gaps wider; the job prospects fewer; the budgets tighter. We’re going to need more than a mask. We know our work can make a difference; we know it can give voice. But can we offer assurance to the people we engage, that the artistic practice provides a language and a pathway to tangible, lasting change? Beyond the life-giving essentials of increased confidence, self-actualisation, agency, and group cohesion?
Well, artistic practice alone may not achieve this. But I believe that, combined with the methodology of community organising it will. I have spent the last three years learning the practice of organising through training with Citizens UK, and in particular my local chapter, Lambeth Citizens. In 2017 I co-founded a voluntary neighbourhood group called Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees to embark on the government’s Community Sponsorship scheme which enables community groups to prepare for and welcome a refugee family to live and become integrated in their locality. Just a bunch of neighbours, we needed to formalise our status so we joined Citizens UK, who were leaders in the campaign to persuade David Cameron’s government to welcome 20,000 refugees from the Middle East from 2015 to 2020.
My first local chapter meeting was the stuff participation departments dream of. Me, a white, middle aged, theatre practitioner; Christian by faith, there to represent a non-faith group; sitting under fluorescent lights in a classroom of the local Islamic school, dunking my biscuit into the tea I was offered as I arrived, in the company of a leader from a local mosque; a Muslim head teacher; a couple of C of E vicars – male and female; a young, female liberal rabbi from the synagogue down the road and two young adults from a local charity which teaches campaigning and activism for social change. I had the feeling I’d been waiting for this moment, this gathering all my life and I hadn’t even realised it. And the leader? Well there was a professional organiser there, but true to the methodology of organising, the leaders were all of us. Diverse in age, ethnicity, faith, and life experience; united in our desire to seek the common good.
The gift that community organising gives people is POWER. Power to bring change where it is most longed for. And this power is not automatically allocated to individuals who attract it naturally – the articulate, connected, highly educated. Those people might be well intended and valuable supporters! But they aren’t the focus. Rather, power is built among those most affected by the issues they want to address. The non-networked people who are fully qualified to speak on behalf of themselves and their neighbours or families; it’s just that society hasn’t identified them as powerful before.
This power is not placed in the hands of individuals. It belongs to groups: to alliances of institutions: faith groups, schools, colleges, trades unions, refugee support groups. This eclectic gathering of people faces common concerns, and it is into their – our – collective ache that organising can reach. Now imagine if publicly funded theatres, museums and art galleries also belonged to these alliances. How could organising make a difference to their community work, outreach initiatives, education programmes?
Well to begin with, arts organisations who make meaningful, participatory art with, not for their local community are already aligned with one of the key tenets of organising: never do for someone what they can do for themselves. Yet organising offers an even greater power shift than that. By conducting a listening campaign with members – which in the case of an arts organisation might be their youth theatre, elders’ company, schools, teachers, residents (the list is long and rich) – to establish what issues concern them most, the arts organisation doesn’t waste time and resource creating work on a topic which isn’t at the top of local peoples’ agenda. In addition to the communities they are already in relationship with, membership of a local organising chapter provides relationship with a far broader spectrum of the community, such as the faith, neighbourhood, education and other groups I met at my first meeting. So the listening process ensures that from the conception of a project, the community determines the subject matter – they become authors from the get-go. Consequently, as the community decides the issue they want to creatively explore, then inevitably their engagement in the process will be authentic. Referring to people as “hard to reach” could be a thing of the past if arts institutions spent time listening to them. Chrissie Tiller, in her extensive think piece on the Creative People and Places programme, “Power Up”, reminds us we work in a sector “where hierarchies impact at every turn…”, and by way of suggested antidote, goes on to quote John Berger:
“Listening is what is important. The listening to a story is always primary, the listening is always primary.”
So what next? As Saidul Saeed of Birmingham Citizens explains, “community organising … is preoccupied with the importance of people being able to participate in public life and affect decisions affecting their lives.” Reminiscent of Boal’s Legislative Theatre, the methodology of community organising ensures the public become the change-makers. How many participatory arts projects have we experienced where good, meaningful, work takes place; lives are touch and affected; a profound experience is shared, but nothing changes in the social landscape? Of course if that is not the intended outcome of an artistic initiative then there’s nothing to worry about. But many of us are committed to this work because we believe it brings transformation. And if anything is needed now, it is hope. Hope that in difficult days ahead, society need not languish while waiting for the economics to improve or the powers that be to bring some good news. Civic society is the good news. Art is good news. How do we collaborate?
Having listened, we take action. In a participatory arts project, action might mean a performance, an exhibition, a concert or a festival – a means to express feelings, issues and a challenge. We know the power of these moments. However, community organising never leads to an action without first identifying what the intended reaction will be. In arts funding speak, its “outcomes”. The difference here is that the reaction is not the audience response, or the participants’ experience. It is the reaction of the individual or individuals in positions of authority who can make decisions which will bring change. For example, the local authority banning ‘idling’ outside a primary school’s gates; or the mayor of London agreeing to fund a centralised online resource for English learners who need to know where classes take place; when; whether childcare is provided.
Key to the process is the understanding that the big request might not be granted, but a smaller request might be. And that leads to a community feeling emboldened to continue to work for the greater win. The role of the artist and arts organisation here, could be to co-create a dynamic performative piece with the community – an ‘action’ in organising terms – which in itself will generate the intended reaction from the audience. I imagine meeting rooms in local authorities becoming platforms for spoken word creations in place of power point presentations; Head Teachers’ offices becoming socially-distanced (for now at least) theatres; badly-lit paths being transformed into exhibition spaces, curated by the people who fear walking at night. Our theatres, galleries and concert halls are closed. As are many civic buildings. But our streets are not. Nor are our parks, our pavements. And if my experience of facilitating workshops online tells me anything, the screen can usefully serve as our civic square.
Imagine an evaluation being not just a list of outcomes on a form, but a photo of a woman smiling beneath a streetlamp as she walks home at night, following a series of artworks she’d helped make to show her fear; or a letter from a parent saying their child’s asthma has improved since the idling stopped, thanks to the school community choir writing and performing a song to exhibit their anxieties; or a Snap from a young person showing off the laptop they have been given since they made that piece of theatre exposing the digital divide.
The way I see it, community organising and socially engaged arts practice are natural collaborators. There is a shortage of shows on stages; and a shortage of funding. But there is no shortage of need for hope; nor of people to bring it into being. So let’s organise.
To find out how your institution can join Citizens UK, go to https://www.citizensuk.org/
Rachel Griffiths can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter at @rae_griffiths
Photo: Members from Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees campaigning for a property to be offered to a refugee family, in our local Herne Hill Market (2018).
 Chambers, Edward T (2010) Roots for Radicals. p23. Bloomsbury.
 Tiller, C. (2017) Power Up. p33. Creative People and Places https://www.artworksalliance.org.uk/awa-resource/power-up/
 Black, L. (2016) Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters. Goldsmiths Press