what co-creation is:
embedding voices of marginalised people at the heart of the entire process of a piece of work, crediting and remunerating them for their contributions of both time and knowledge.
what co-creation is not:
* inviting marginalised voices to comment on, or contribute efforts toward, a piece of work that they have had no part in creating or determining the future of, and have not been paid for;
* using the names of marginalised people to assert more weight, credibility, or kudos to a piece of work that is about them, but was not created by, with, or for them.
co-creation, co-production and collaboration are words used frequently in the arts world. they describe the practice of individuals coming together as a group to develop a new artwork or event as a collective (as opposed to a lead artist driving all the ideas and making all the artwork).
this language, and their practice, are increasingly found in social justice work – for good reason. marginalised people are seen to be ‘other’ in an unjust society – we are made vulnerable through systemic bigotry against disenablement, economic status, class, race, gender, sexual preference, religious beliefs, etc. we are often described as voiceless when in reality we have plenty of voice, we are just not being heard by those who make decisions or judgements about our lives.
demanding that our voices are centred right at the heart of any work that affects our lives is an essential foundation to genuine efforts to improve our lives. for example, in the Autism world we use the phrase “nothing about us without us” to reinforce that Autistic people’s lives should not be decided upon by people who do not have any understanding of what it is like to be Autistic.
unfortunately, given this is new language and practice in many social justice sectors, it is often misunderstood and misused. this causes not just confusion but often significant harm to the individuals, communities or causes they claim to support. it is repeating the message that our voices – and lives – do not matter, in a world where that message is already brutally clear every minute of every day through policy, environment, and mainstream behaviour.
even worse, projects which use this language erroneously are frequently produced by people in positions of authority, supported by the kinds of salaries which accompany such positions. marginalised people generally lack both authority and financial security, yet we are always expected to donate our time and knowledge (largely learned through painful lived experience) without any respect or remuneration.
when you present research or projects that claim to be co-created but are in reality tokenistic, you are taking kudos and weight from people who have nothing, and are giving nothing in return for our efforts. this is not a position of solidarity but a perpetuation of oppressive norms. it not only harms the individuals but causes widespread damage by diluting the impact of those who genuinely do support marginalised people: those who listen, amplify our voices and agitate the ears of those who need to hear us. trust takes a long time to gain, but no time at all to lose.
if we are serious about building a better world together it is vital that we are true allies, ethically and meaningfully, with people who are marginalised. we understand that this is a new way of thinking and being in contemporary society, but we must end bad practice by those who are ignorant of our realities. we can – and must – be better, individually and collectively.
Footnote: I proudly claim my othernesses to include being a neurodivergent, queer, gender nonconforming person with lived experience of homelessness.