Making Social Change Sustainable – workshop report

Making Social Change Sustainable” workshop

Saturday, April 9 saw the third in our Economic and Social Research Council supported popular education-based events. The purpose of these events has been:

  1. To strengthen the capacity of activist and community organisations to self-organise, and to assist in making links between campaigns and individuals with different but related concerns and aims. We particularly want to help empower under-resourced and marginalised people and groups;
  1. To contribute to So We Stand’s ability to build its skill and resource base as an organisation that uses popular education for those aims; and
  1. To encourage research by activists and allied researchers into how these processes work and how they can be made more effective in a way that is beneficial to both communities

The first event on January 15 featured day-long workshops in both Freirian popular education and the social (or applied) theatre of Augusto Boal. We saw this as a training day for people interested in various popular education practices, as well as a day to actually use these methods to address social and environmental justice campaigners’ concerns and conundrums. On February 26th, we held a follow up day led by popular educator Liam Kane of the University of Glasgow, and on April 9 we were led by Julia Taudevin through a day on ‘Making Social Change Sustainable’, using social theatre inspired by Augusto Boal’s “Rainbow of Desire” approach.1

An extremely warm and sunny day cut into our attendance a bit (it was a scorcher by West of Scotland standards), but in spite of that we had eighteen folks participating at the Pearce Institute in Govan. One of the earliest exercises Julia got us to do was to make a series of maps by standing in different places in the room. We were asked to locate ourselves according to: places of inspiration for our politics and activism, places of obstacles, and finally, places where we wanted what we do to have an impact. It was not only a good way to meet one another, but it created some interesting spatial relationships as we zoomed in and out from Glasgow and the Central Belt, to the UK, and ultimately the globe.

Places of inspiration included Glasgow generally (someone happily noted how many people stayed in Glasgow for inspiration), Zambia, Easterhouse, Venezuela, India and Stirling…places of obstacles? Hollyrood and Westminster with their purse strings and agendas, also New York as a symbol of US cultural imperialism, the pub during football time as a place of political ‘distraction’, Glasgow University with its autocratic and business-oriented management team, and Scotland in general – where, as one participant said, “You can talk about poverty, but you cannae talk about oppression.” One very interesting ‘place of obstacles’ for one participant was the very community garden they also saw as their place of work and inspiration, as they felt a lack of regular meetings and decision-making structure eroded their good work and ideals.

One of the things these body-maps did was to get us to see our situations in terms of relationships, distance and closeness, difference and commonality. We then built on this sense and began making more specific images in pairs. We started with something totally freeform, based on an initial handshake, and then we added the element of ‘social justice’. One of the things I noticed, or perhaps projected on to what I saw, was that the paired images became more about oppositions and partnerships rather than images that just happened to consist of two people. Soon pairs joined to become small groups of four, and from there each new group progressed to making a series of four images with each person taking the lead at creating it, taking an ‘obstacle’ to social justice as a starting point.

These were shown back to the whole gathering as a sort of slideshow, and we were invited by Julia to comment on what we saw. We saw – or thought we saw! – sleeping jailers, asylum seekers raided in their home, traditional hierarchical classrooms, walls of exclusion…or solidarity. Out of all these images, sixteen in total, we were then asked to decide which one spoke to us the most, or represented something we saw quite clearly throughout all the images as a whole. This was the image we worked on as a group – a man on his knees menaced by three looming figures, one hooded, one dangling a set of keys, the other menacing with fists, while a fifth person crawled to the other side with a hand outstretched to the stricken man.

In the all-too brief time we had left, Julia had us come up and take the central ‘character’s’ spot in the image (the man on his knees), encouraging us to take action to change their situation. No one was successful in breaking free, seizing the keys, or ‘defeating’ the menacing figures, but we experienced important lessons in the process. The issue of violence as a resistance tactic was raised – would it work in this situation, with the numbers so stacked against them? The creation of allies was envisioned – when the keys were almost taken by the crawling figure with the outstretched arm. And the question was asked “Just what is the goal?”, as at one point the kneeling man could touch the keys, but didn’t take them as he was focused on trying to ‘dehood’ the menacer. Tactical approaches, the importance of alliances, and the possibility of creatively remaking the terms of the struggle by pursuing surprising or alternative goals, all emerged in the brief time we explored this single image.

In the discussion that followed, it was pointed out that “the topic doesn’t really matter; it’s about the process…[they may be] amorphous topics, but its building relationships and changing the way that we act…” It may be that we retain longer and give more consideration to what we learn through our bodies, rather than through the round table discussions that dominate our activist work spaces. In terms of the way we care for ourselves and others, “lying on the floor can be liberating!”; politically, “creating an image is a really meaningful way of speaking up.”

1 Boal, A. 1995, The Rainbow of Desire: the Boal Method of Theatre and Therapy Trans. Adrian Jackson, (Routlegde, London)

ESRC April flyer[2]