Above, ‘Uncovered’, a short animated film inspired by women’s attitudes to community, participation and politics.
The best ideas are, usually, the most simple ones. That’s one reason I’m a fan of a new project called Politics Uncovered, a community-based attempt to demystify politics for women.
Working on the premise that a) women are still woefully underrepresented in politics and b) very few people know even the basics of democracy and government, social enterprise arts organisation The Original Ranch has produced an event that is something of a beginners guide to politics.
The Original Ranch recorded women’s views about community, participation and politics during several discussion groups last year. It used the material to create a short animated film (above) which, along with a basic lesson in the workings of government, constitutes the event Politics Uncovered. The lesson explains the key structures at national and local levels, describes the main players and their roles, and gives participants an opportunity to ask questions.
The first Politics Uncovered event at the end of November involved around 30 women from London, all political novices who wanted to find out more about government issues.
According to Olivia Bellas, founder of The Original Ranch, what makes the project unique is that it is a free and accessible ‘lesson’ in politics, presented in a non-politicised environment (the launch event was at the Women’s Library in east London and offered a crèche facility) and it offers interactive and creative approaches to learning.
Put simply, if you want a beginners guide to politics, delivered in an informative but interesting way, look no further.
“Politics can be quite difficult to grasp; there are many different players, institutions, mechanisms, and formalities,” says Bellas, “and so it is hardly surprising that many people may not fully understand it”.
Although there is as yet no formal evaluation, Bellas says that anecdotal evidence from participants reveals
an increased knowledge of and interest in politics and a feeling of empowerment.
The quirky template used in Politics Uncovered could be used to raise awareness of all sorts of social issues in communities, in a visually appealing way that participants find neither too intimidating nor too condescending. I’m interested to see how the project evolves in 2011.
Kayla Whiting lives in Hackney, a former administrator for media social enterprise Poached Creative, she project managed the short community film Life’s A Bitch which got local young people involved in media and raised awareness about Staffordshire Bull Terriers. Here, she explains how and why she did it.
I did the film because … I wanted to defend the breed of dog and get people in the community to think before they stereotyped the dog and also give the young people an opportunity to learn valuable media skills.
My aim was…to produce a piece of footage that would change people perception on Staffordshire Bull Terriers.
The hardest thing was…keeping the young people engaged with the project and taking responsibility of all the paper work.
The most rewarding thing was…knowing all the young people enjoyed the experience and learnt new skills; which helped them back into training.
I funded it by…applying for funding from funding body Mediabox with the help of Poached Creative and youth-led media group Mediorite.
My tips for others wanting to do the same are…to keep the work as practical as possible. Make sure you create a strong bond with your team.
The biggest problem for communities today is…young people not being able to get jobs and progress in fields they would like.
If I could have a word in David Cameron’s ear I’d… tell him to make politics more understandable and engaging.
My inspiration is… being a young person myself. Being able to help other young people and help them to work towards their dreams as I am.
In terms of unusual musical collaborations, it’s right up there with Jay-Z and Coldplay or Ozzy Osbourne and Miss Piggy. Rising star of the urban grime scene, Ghetts, has paired up with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on a track urging young people to the complete the census form.
In a move that paves the way for Tinchy Stryder to hang out with MPs (oops, hang on – he already did) or Tinie Tempah to flex his lyrical muscle on behalf of the Electoral Commission (TBC), 25-year-old rapper Ghetts is calling on people to stand up and be counted on, Invisible, released this week.
On a serious note, however, the release of Invisible is part of a much-needed campaign that sees Ghetts (formerly known as Ghetto, real name Justin Regikala Clarke Samuel) encouraging young black people, to participate in the 2011 Census.
Ghetts’ reasons for taking part are simple and admirable; he feels the needs and interests of young people in the UK are ignored and that reaching them through music is one way of making sure they take part in the 2011 Census: “The point is that young people are the future. We’ve got to take every opportunity to get our views across so that we get the sort of communities that we want for our own kids. The census gives us a chance to shape the future of our neighbourhoods. It’s time to stand up and be counted.”
Ghetts involvement is a way for the powers that be to reach those they assume are ‘hard to reach’: “Young people can feel that they can’t influence the future, but with the help of Ghetts we can encourage them to take one step towards making a real contribution to their communities,” sas ONS head of stakeholder communications Helen Bray.
The slick production and marketing is as impressive as the message, which lends the whole project an air of credibility. As yet, it’s too early to see if it captures the attention of its target audience, or with how much cynicism the singer’s young fans will greet the track. But anything that can capture the attention of disinterested young people is welcome. Talking to an unemployed teenager from Hackney, east London, at a recent event, I asked her if she was cynical about the big society concept and she replied she had no idea what it meant (although this could just say more about the woolly nature of the concept than the teenager’s lack of knowledge).
In a break from usual pr form for a government agency, the track was launched at a school in Newham, east London and is getting airplay on radio stations with black listeners, such as BBC 1Xtra and pirate radio stations.
It’s the same tactic that led Def Jam records founder and hip hop impresario Russell Simmons to tackle election apathy among black Americans and and get involved in voter registration campaigns in the states (judging by the midterm results, it’s debatable as to how far his message got through).
Invisible explains that people need to fill in and return the census questionnaire to make sure local and national authorities know where services such as transport, housing, hospitals, schools, community centres and libraries are needed for the future. Ghetts raps: “Just remember this; if minorities don’t fill in the forms what’s the point in living in Britain at all? There ain’t nothing worse than being invisible but we can change that, ASAP.”
The census is carried out every 10 years by the ONS and helps government allocate resources to the areas that need them the most. On March 27 next year, 25m households in England and Wales will get a questionnaire through the post or by hand.
And now, in a gratuitously playful exercise not intended to detract from the message above, here are some tracks that might appear on Now That’s What I Call Census! Anyone got any others?
Nobody home – Pink Floyd
Where the streets have no name – U2
Across 110th Street – Bobby Womack
Say my name – Destiny’s Child
My name is – Eminem
Is there anybody out there – Pink Floyd
Who are You- The Who
That’s not my name – The Ting Tings
On a Scotrail train a few weeks ago, my attention was caught by a sign with a smiling face and the words “thank you for not putting your feet on the seat.’” I felt immediate warmth towards the company as this positive reinforcement was a welcome change from the usual, punitive messages of “no parking”, “wait here until called” and “keep this area clear.” I’m sure most people can think of how some small, inexpensive communication has made them feel better or prompted them to behave differently.
To take a common example, the red and yellow arch of McDonald’s often provides the only whisper of colour on the landscape. Add words that lift your spirits are lifted and the impact can be dramatic; doesn’t “Happy Meal” sound more appealing than “burger and chips?”
Farther afield, the notorious favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are painted in candy colours, the result of a collaboration between residents and community artists. This doesn’t tackle the underlying issue of poverty but it does encourage positivity and optimism.
We all know how much our world is lifted by a warm smile. It’s magical and powerful. Yet I have worked with communities that report a persistent frown, characterised by a bleak landscape and negative surround sound. I recently spoke to residents who, when ranking preferences for their surroundings, placed colour and affirming messages in their top three desires. They are willing to make these changes happen; people want to see their towns and villages reflect their personality and aspirations. And why not? It’s affordable and has a lasting impact on residents during times of reduced public finance.
Does it work? Yes!
Outside of Edinburgh in Stoneyburn, I suggested using the drawings and words of primary school children to represent the landmarks of the village’s local history. This is now about to happen; the schools are behind the idea and the community is delighted to see the village’s long and illustrious history visibly featured. They believe this will restore a sense of pride in their heritage. We have used children’s words and paintings to encourage people to “Do More: Drink Less” in Stoneyburn. Adults were touched and it made far more impact than dire health warnings.
Similarly in nearby Armadale, because people asked for it, the village will now bear bright, distinctive signage, displaying the faces and words of local residents who speak of their dreams for the community. They also want to show young peoples’ art in the city centre. Displaying the talent and ideas of their residents is important to them.
Above, a poster designed by a child in Stoneyburn, West Loathian, speaks directly to the community.
“Amazing Armadale” was the result of a series of creative workshops in schools, community halls, youth centres and at parents’ evenings. The result was a real consensus on what the town should look and feel like, and this has been put into practice. Armadale has held a music festival, regular “alcohol free Sundays” with street markets and a 5K charity run is being organised. This is real community change. Add their more colourful town centre and residents have helped to make quick, low-cost, tangible changes.
And it is local townspeople themselves who are making change happen – we’re not talking about huge budgets here. Earlier in the year, for example, 100 adults and children volunteered to take part in a clean-up in Stoneyburn. It’s also hoped that support will be offered from businesses with things like painting and gardening.
I would love to see more of this but, in terms of public services, I am struck by how little real creative dialogue exists between them and their constituents. Public consultation can be dry and driven by service references and needs. What if community engagement could be fun, lively and uplifting, allowing the language of participants to lead the discussion? Masterplans, blueprints, strategies and partnerships would rarely be mentioned. I know this because the techniques I use in my work elicit imaginative solutions from the most unlikely of people.
When I showed a class of 12-year-olds in East Lothian the logo of their local council, the first thing that came to mind for one youngster was the phrase “no ball games.” He views his council as a block to enjoyment. Others are likely to feel the same and the long-term impact of this attitude will drive further distance between councils and residents.
So, does this really matter, especially during a time of austerity? When I speak on this subject I get universal approval from audiences as diverse as business leaders, primary school children and local councillors. The consensus is that they are tired of a world that headlines bad news and displays signs that instruct and obstruct. In tough economic times, the need to create environments that lift, improve accessibility and value people could be more important than ever.
Gravesend doesn’t have too many claims to fame, aside perhaps from being the place where Pocohontas is buried and the former home of Bond girl Gemma Arterton. It never makes the national headlines – unless it’s for recording record high temperatures in a heatwave. And before any Gravesendians out there start to protest, I think I’m allowed to say that as I was brought up in the town.
So imagine my delight when I saw my old home had scored a UK first by launching an application to report anti-social behaviour on a smartphone. The local authority, Gravesham borough council, announced it was joining New York, Boston, LA and San Francisco in making the ‘City Sourced’ application available to residents.
The app, the council said, would allow townspeople to send in instant reports of graffiti, flytipping or housing repairs, and would allow the authority to streamline its response. Its American supporters are even more effusive: the app, they say, represents the future for residents interacting with government. ‘It’s like having a city official in your pocket,’ said one satisfied LA resident.
Gravesham is the first in the country to use City Sourced but it’s not the only UK authority to engage with new technology in this sort of way. Brighton led the way last year with an app showing local bus times, followed by another one which lists council services and local entertainment. Trafford has an app which allows residents to find their nearest library or leisure centre, or to see what’s on at the weekend as well as to report litter or a missed bin collection. Preston even has one offering residents – and visitors – a ‘blue plaque’ trail of notable local sights.
These initiatives are not always popular in these tough economic times. Critics have accused authorities of wasting money developing applications for perhaps a few hundred iPhone or Blackberry users in their patch. I think the critics are missing the point.
Visiting Gravesend to see my mother on the day after Gravesham’s “Download Day”, I couldn’t resist having a go. I’d already downloaded the Gravesham 24 app and it didn’t take too long for me to find some graffiti that could do with being cleaned up. One quick snap on the camera phone, choose your anti-social behaviour category and press send. The GPS on your iPhone or Blackberry automatically shows the location of the problem and your report whizzes through to a terminal at the council offices to be prioritised and dealt with. You can also use the app to check how action on your complaint is progressing. Filing my report felt strangely satisfying. I might not have have had a council official in my pocket, but I could see why Gravesham had called the app empowering.
We hear a lot about how to promote real engagement between citizens and government. We’re going to hear a lot more about it as the coalition attempts to roll out its big society ambitions. But if the big society is to be about more than just getting volunteers to provide services on the cheap, then it has to have real, effective community engagement at its core.
Too often people feel that there is nothing they can do about the problems in their community. Offering them the chance to interact with government, in however small a way, has to be a good thing. There’s little point asking citizens to do more for you, if you don’t in turn give them fresh routes to get you to do your bit.
Here’s an unforgettable question that I was once asked, ridiculous and thought-provoking in equal measure: “So tell me, what made you want to be an Asian journalist?”
Tempted to claim that my options were limited by the fact that the corner shop didn’t have any vacancies, instead I told my newspaper executive interrogator that I became an Asian journalist because being a Swedish one would have been, well, a bit tricky.
He looked confused, then chastened and the subject wasn’t mentioned again. More than a decade on, the question still resonates.
Most obviously, it reveals the preconceptions, based on differences – be that difference in health, gender, colour, class, income or age – that one person can have about another.
Secondly – and this brings me to launching this blog – the question is a reminder about what journalism and writing can do; inform, provoke debate and offer something new to the reader. Not only will The Social Issue be a platform for stories, projects and ideas that inform and spark discussion, but it should challenge preconceptions. That might be because it features a project that’s solved a seemingly insurmountable problem, or because it features someone doing something extraordinary.
To return to that initial question, I thank my parents for the fact that I became an Asian journalist. They are Asian. Therefore I am Asian. Half my career goal was met by virtue of my being born. In my bid to be an Asian journalist, I only had a 50% chance of failure.
More seriously, my parents lived in an area with good state schools. I had access to higher education and post-graduate training before the crippling student fees system came in, and I began my job hunt at the tail end of the last recession in the 1990s.
Today’s young person is looking for training and qualifications when providers are oversubscribed and seeking work in an economically hostile environment. There are 562,000 young people unemployed, according to the Office for National Statistics. And the situation can be worse if you happen to be black or from an ethnic minority. Analysis from the IPPR earlier this year shows that 48% of black 16-24-year-olds are now unemployed along with 31% of young Asian people. The rate of unemployment among white young people stands at 20%.
To compound the problem, what will become of community-based projects to raise aspirations through positive role models for black and Asian young people when funding is so squeezed?
The Black Training and Enterprise Group recently launched a small grant programme to help local voluntary and community groups working with black boys and young men across England. The REACH Programme: Community Engagement Project is laudable but small scale, offering £500 grants to local groups that can host events which encourage and inspire young black males to succeed in education and work.
There are many innovative community-based training projects out there that inspire and encourage young people in their chosen careers – but how many of them are self-sustaining enough to survive in the funding desert?
One organisation that I’m a fan of and that I’m involved with as a trainer is Poached Creative. The east London social enterprise is a writing and design company, training the young and long-term unemployed in media and communication skills.
If you know of other successful projects along these lines – better still if you’re a young person who’s benefitted from them – drop me a line. Alternatively, if you want any tips on how to be an Asian journalist, I’m your woman.