Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Remaking Society

Graham Jeffery, Reader in Music and Performance has been awarded a grant from the AHRC, as part of the Connected Communities 'pilot demonstrator' follow-on funding scheme, jointly with Dr Tom Wakeford of the University of Edinburgh and Dr Kerrie Schaefer of the University of Exeter. A brief summary of the project is below, and a project blog will be set up in due course. Partners for this project include Mission Models MoneyCadispa TrustNHSGGCTheatre ModoBradford Community Broadcasting, Swingbridge Media, Love Milton,, and Professor Jon Hawkes from the Community Cultural Development Network, Victoria, Australia. 

Remaking Society
Realising the potential of cultural activities in contexts of deprivation

Remaking Society will exemplify the central themes of the Connected Communities Programme via three inter-dependent routes:

i) Working with local partners in demonstrating and assessing participatory cultural
activities in four contrasting contexts of deprivation – Bradford, Glasgow,
Fraserburgh and Newcastle.
ii) Using these four pilots to generate new forms of evidence about the lived
experience of poverty and exclusion.
iii) Creating opportunities for marginalised and less visible sections of society to
communicate with wider audiences, including policy-makers.

Cultural dimensions of regeneration – making, creating, performing and celebrating – are often neglected. Yet these aspects can be vital to the sense of shared wellbeing, belonging and aspiration for community members. Hawkes calls the integration of a cultural perspective into the planning of change the "fourth pillar" of sustainability, alongside economic, social and environmental dimensions. He suggests that cultural projects provide "avenues for the expression of community values..[that can]...directly affect the directions society takes" (Hawkes 2001).

Recent Government-commissioned research has added to a growing body of evidence suggesting that participatory arts and media processes can act as portals to wider processes of social development, by offering for example access to further learning, training or social networks (Scottish Government 2006). Activities which promote imaginative engagement through creative practice can offer additional opportunities to conceive and enact alternatives. Members of a community experience processes allowing them to imagine different possible futures. Collaborative participatory arts have been shown to make a significant contribution to both the confidence of individuals, their trust of others participating the process and in overall quality of life and wellbeing. Remaking Society is to collaborate with four experienced partner organisations that work intensively, through participatory arts and media practices, with communities in four neighbourhoods - Bradford, West Yorkshire (community radio), Milton, North Glasgow (visual arts), Benwell, Newcastle (film) and Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire (theatre). With much of the population in each area currently experiencing high levels of economic and social deprivation, we will explore the socio-cultural dimensions of 'living with/in poverty'.

The practice of community cultural development (CCD) in North American cities, such as that led in Chicago by John Kretzman and John McKnight from Northwestern University, exemplifies the model demonstrated in Remaking Society. Traditionally the communities that were identified as deprived had been provided with services and programmes designed and delivered by outside experts. The effect of this now discredited cultural deficit model was to position people as passive recipients dependent on service providers (including university researchers) to address their deficiencies and their needs. Yet the model still persists in most deprived areas of the UK. By contrast, our asset-based approach recognises such communities as resourceful and gifted (Goldbard 2006). We draw upon and harness the capacities and creativities of local people to address issues and solve problems. Outside assistance and resources from government agencies, institutions and other organisations are still going to be required to address issues of deprivation. But, in our model, the agenda of such interventions is to be set more by the community of people most directly affected. 

Using performance, visual art and digital media, the Remaking Society research collaboration will this demonstrate ways in which communities conventionally regarded as excluded can negotiate either their own inclusion in - or their continued exclusion from - society. In this project, the concept of community is not restricted to communitarian accounts of 'a group of people in a given place', or as a site of consensus and constructed oneness based on social categories such as race, class, gender or location. Ours is a dynamic model in which community formation is seen as a continual re-negotiation of co-existence and interdependence, not confined by place, as illustrated by the thirty years of pioneering work by Southall Black Sisters (Gupta 2003). 

Questions about how communities conduct these negotiations become particularly important now, at a time of economic crisis, when resources are scarce and stress levels among vulnerable individuals are high. The study will make critical connections between our understanding of community performance and participatory process across academic fields - including conflict resolution, cultural geography, public health, social psychology and sociology. It will allow a re-examination of inter-disciplinary concepts of community through arts and media practices. 

Belonging to a community is critical to a sense of wellbeing for individuals and families, particularly significant for those who live on the breadline. The second element of Remaking Society is the generation of narrative evidence of the cultural dimensions of poverty and social exclusion. It will add a unique inter-disciplinary arts and humanities perspective to the ESRC's national study, Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK (PSE).


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