COVID has simultaneously proven beyond doubt that the rich will always get richer at the continued expense of our most poor, vulnerable and oppressed, and that the public’s appetite for a more ethical, moral, socially conscious, mutually compassionate and creatively collaborative future has never been stronger.
Take a minute to reflect on sociopolitical history and you’ll see that in a systemic hierarchy cultural change never starts from the Top-down. This makes sense when you realise that it’s in the best interests of those maintaining the status quo to keep their dominance precisely as it is (after all, our systems are not broken… they were designed this way).
Progressive, legacy-centred change only ever starts from the Grassroots, where individuals and groups who have suffered repeated abuse, oppression, and marginalisation work cooperatively to coproduce solutions and amplify their voice. This awareness and voice inches outwards, harnessing the attention of like-communities, gaining portfolios of proof of concept and growth of its allies, until it agitates the ears of the early-adopter-like-minds in the Middle who then help to spread it further outward and upward. Only once these new practices have gained a stronger mainstream attention (over painfully long periods – unless self-reward bumps things up a few notches) does the Top finally take heed and start to adapt, creating new policies and practices to reflect the groundswell of cultural shifts.
Or, at least, that’s how change works when you don’t live under an Oligarchy. How things will work in the United Kingdom are very much uncertain in a post-COVID, post-Brexit reality (just take a look at the current crossroads our Arts and Heritage Sectors are currently facing).
Coproduction, or cocreation, is a relatively new term for the mainstream, despite its deep roots in the art world’s frequently collaborative nature. In social justice it is gaining traction by demanding that decisions made by policymakers and power-holders are not taken in arrogant, ignorant and tokenistic isolation. By ensuring the individuals who’s lives are being decided upon have (at very least) a seat at the tables of power, you are far more likely to end up with marginalised communities being heard and actively involved in those decisions – or, in the words of disability movements: “nothing about us, without us”. (You might want to read my definition of coproduction/cocreation for a bit more context – we still have a long way to go in getting it right… not least challenging the very paradigm of those tables of power).
Arts Homelessness International (previously called “With One Voice”, an organisation I have freelanced with since 2018, just after I was homeless myself) have been one of several organisations driving forward conversations and guidance around coproduction. Their Jigsaw of Services, Cultural Spaces Response to Homelessness, and Coproduced Practice Guide have helped to forge clear, evidence-based, creatively-driven understanding about how the Arts and Grassroots sectors can come together with Policymakers and Public Services to drive social justice in relation to homelessness. This work is powerful, and its vision is not just limited to homelessness; coproduction is a value which can provide and expand meaningful impact in all aspects of all social imbalance (just like the arts in general). AHI have been working with Scottish Arts & Cultural organisations to help to shape these new dialogues and practices since 2017 and (while I don’t think all the credit can go to AHI), this legacy is now showing some quite remarkable results.
[Update 12/4 – since I shared this post Matt Baker (founder of The Stove Network, one of the awardees) has kindly shared some more of this backstory on his twitter feed @_mattbaker – highly recommend reading the thread and its various links as it’s a great example of different individuals and sectors coming together for the good of everyone <3]
In a stunning example of Grassroots-led efforts being recognised and supported by decision-makers, Creative Scotland (the Scottish Arts Funding body) have not simply created an entire strategic initiative to support coproduction (community-led socially engaged creative practice), but have taken the astonishing decision to increase its original COVID economic recovery commitment from £1.5million to £6million! As if that wasn’t enough, they have also framed the programme within a new Culture Collective, to ensure that interdependent learning and sharing can take place between each of the funded groups and the broader Scottish Arts sector (and beyond). If that wasn’t a recipe for a tasty cookup, I honestly don’t know what is!
[By the way, if anyone’s wondering why a relatively recently homeless person was invited to help decide how to spend £6million of public funds (aside from ‘why the hell not?’)… there’s a backstory. I’ve been involved in creative digital culture since 1996. Between 2009-2011 I ran the “Arts Content for the Digital Era” strategic initiative for the Australia Council for the Arts, an AUD$2.4million programme to explore how the Australian Arts sector was being affected by new shifts in digital culture. My work there gave me incredible insights into how Arts Policy could be shaped by the Grassroots – in that case, a Grassroots consisting majoritively of Media Artists (a community I have been personally and professionally part of since 1996 – I’ve even been described as a ‘pioneer’ in that space through my very early work in the -then non-existent- mobile phone arts scene). That background, combined with a talk I gave about data gathering and visualisation (particularly when working with vulnerable people) at an event called From Participation to Co-creation, run by AHI in partnership with Creative Scotland and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation early last year, is why I was invited to be an external peer reviewer for this new cultural initiative. It was a real treat to be back in those kinds of strategic discussions which support social justice movements, and I’m super-grateful and proud to have been invited – it was a genuine JOY to vicariously meet so many incredible practitioners and be recharged by their commitment to a better world.]
The full announcement went live on 16th Feb, so (albeit belatedly!) I am delighted to be able to share this news publicly. Given the frankly epic work being done by these amazing communities (and was being done long before this grant was a glint in anyone’s eye), I wanted to give them all a little signal boost and encourage you all to follow their feeds and engage in their development. I’ve gone through all their websites and grabbed all the social media accounts they mention (I am a massive nerd, after all). Scroll right on the spreadsheet below to view their website, facebook, insta, twitter, and any video/audio/images accounts they each have. Some are partnerships, so I’ve clustered them in boxes, aligned-right. [NB: If you’re one of the awardees and notice that I have any of your details wrong, please let me know so I can update the list.]
We need SO MUCH MORE of this kind of deeply meaningful and impactful practice to be known, celebrated and supported. I’ll admit to having my own personal favourites and I have already offered to come up and meet every single one of them once the plague is deemed safe enough for travel :). I’m genuinely excited to watch what emerges from each one and the collective overall – and to see what other inspirations flow from this kind of model.
Huge congrats to all involved. And for any policymakers out there: take heed. This is the future.