Can you imagine what social justice would look like?

I would like to see communities where everyone has the capability to fulfil their potential. I’m not talking about some heavenly vision of fully realised individuals but a real place where we all feel valued and respected and have every opportunity to find out who we want to be, where we explore life’s journey together.

What would such a place look like? What would be different if we were all able to be our true, creative selves? Is it really that hard to imagine?

Of course there would be a lot of changes, I suggest that:
Instead of competing, we would be creating
Instead of teaching, we would be learning
Instead of consuming, we would be collaborating
Instead of delivering – or receiving – we would be realising our potential, together.

Everywhere we looked there would be creative people, projects and places but the I thing we would notice most is that we would have all got a lot better at providing opportunities for each other, at building our capabilities together.

With social justice would come a recognition that creativity, inclusion and sustainable development are good for life and good for business. In a society built on social justice we would all realise just how closely our mutual interests are aligned; that we all contribute best by being our best and that we are all at our best when we listen and learn from each other.

A world of social justice would be one where everywhere we went we would find simple ways to build capability and find opportunities for creative experimentation and peer to peer learning.

If we were serious about social justice, we would assume that each and everyone one of us has a unique creative potential that needs to be recognised, valued and nurtured, that we all need to learn from each other and that none of us can fully realise our creative potential in a society that aspires to anything less than social justice for everyone.

So, why not make that assumption now? Why not start working together to build capability everywhere, to create opportunities for each other and give us all every chance to live in the creative, inclusive and sustainable communities we all deserve?

If you’d like to help build social justice now, here’s a few simple things you can do:

• Design and share a simple creative challenge that can help people get involved in a collaborative project or make the most of a public space near you.
• Choose your own creative challenge to do on your own or to share with a group
• Explore your creative potential?
⁃ What is your vision?
⁃ What capabilities will you build?
⁃ What can you offer?

Do let me know how you get on!

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Tool Shops – the context for collaborative community arts projects

Projects are by nature short term yet they can only have a lasting legacy if they take place in the context of a long-term plan. It’s not the projects themselves that are the problem – it is the lack of context. When we have a sense of a long-term plan for ourselves we can see everything we do as a learning opportunity and a step towards a long term goal.

This is more difficult at the social level as we need to find a context that enables us all to contribute in our own unique way towards a goal we can all share. I suggest that this goal can be: ‘to build communities where everyone has the capability to fulfil their potential’. In this context anything anyone shares can create capability and everything we do can help us build the tools we all need to achieve our long-term goals – both as individuals and as communities.

To achieve this we are developing a diverse and inclusive network of people that all support each other to make tools. According to Wikipedia tools are ‘anything physical that helps people achieve goals.’ Physical tools can help us create change, demonstrate our progress and enable others to learn from our experience. Tools can also be anything that helps us achieve our potential, the full range of social and psychological tools that help us all live increasingly independent, purposeful and creative lives.

Since we all fulfil our potential by building our capabilities then we can design projects as opportunities for people to acquire specific capabilities. This can help us develop collaborative community arts projects as equal creative collaborations in which everyone contributes and everyone benefits equally.

It can also provide a sustainable context and a connection between all the many short-term projects and initiatives that take place in the community by sharing opportunities for people to build tools and capabilities. Creating tools from these projects can facilitate input from a diverse range of people and enable people to contribute to a wide range of projects. For example people will soon be able to contribute to collaborative projects by developing tools to create your own postcard; poster; radio or stained glass window.  All these projects focus on specific issues like violence against women, isolation and social exclusion but all examine universal themes and all can build capability across the community.

These tools and many other will be shared in newsletters, on-line and at ‘Tool Shops’ – public events and forums in community venues where we share tools and make new ones. We are hoping to see Tool Shops pop up in a wide range of community venues, shops, cafes, galleries, museums etc so that people can begin to see their entire community as a creative resource for creative capability development.

Please let us know if you are interested in hosting a tool shop in your community or if you would like to share anything at all that can help build sustainable social change:

We are particularly looking for people to:
Recommend a tool
Share an opportunity
Come to a Forum
Sign up for our newsletter
Host a Tool Shop in your community
Join our team.

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Four Steps to Sustainable Social Change.

To build sustainable social change we need:

1. A process that everyone can contribute to on an equal basis.
2. A means to unlocking our potential.
3. A method that everyone can use to build and measure development.
4. A long-term plan that puts everything we do into context 

We can do this through collaborative, creative capability development:

1. Collaborative – an equal process for people to support each other.
2. Creative –  the key to unlocking our potential.
3. Capability – a  method to build and measure all development 
4. Development – a long-term plan that puts everything we do into context. 

I am working with art + power to put this process into practice by developing ‘Tool Shops’ in our community.  We want to see Tool Shops in lots of different spaces – cafés, galleries, community centres etc –  so that everyone – and particularly disabled and socially excluded people can use the community to build their capabilities. 

Tool Shops can help create sustainable change for individuals and organisations but what about communities?   That’s where art + power comes in. 

art + power is an inclusive network of people that support each other to create sustainable social change. Everyone is welcome, every contribution is valued and everything that people share contributes towards a long-term strategic plan to build communities where everyone has the capability to fulfil their potential. 

(You can read more about tool shops and sustainable social change here.)

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Here’s my story, but it’s not about me!

I’ve always enjoyed working in groups. After I left school at 16 I was surprised to discover that I was actually good at leading groups. I’ve no idea where that came from, it can’t all be down to the natural arrogance of my class or gender. Whatever the reason I’m still here, decades later, still leading groups, and still wondering why.

I’ve never been ambitious for myself. I look back on my childhood as an idyllic time spent playing in the garden or wandering the beautiful Mendip hills. I have memories of deep floods, massive snowdrifts and theatrical thunderstorms but mostly I remember it as a time of long days of lazy sunshine. I was acutely aware of how lucky I’d already been and how much this contrasts with the opportunities other people have. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that I was never really motivated to do much for myself and am much more comfortable supporting others. But I’ve never really known what someone like me can do about it. Until now.

I don’t belong to any minority group. I don’t think my claim to be part of the largest minority of all, as a man, cuts much ice with those who have experienced oppression first hand. So, if my personal experience doesn’t count for much and I’m not arrogant enough to believe I can know what is best for other people, I’ve not been quite sure what to do.

Fortunately, circumstances brought me to art + power. I’ll always been grateful to those who introduced me to the idea of art as empowerment. Art does indeed set people free and it’s set me free too.

I’ve always loved seeing others excel. Maybe I have helped people along the way but I claim no credit and why should I? The best part of my job is seeing people achieve things themselves, things they didn’t think possible. Besides, As with art, so with life, intervening in other people’s art is just not good art. I know people can do extraordinary things, I’ve seen it happen again and again. Yet, strangely, the less I have to do with it the more likely it is to happen. Perhaps it’s not so strange but most of my job seems to about getting out of the way and allowing people to be, extraordinary.

art + power was set up by people that have been empowered by art themselves and want art to empower everyone – for it to go all around the world. The last 15 years with art + power have been a lesson in how art empowers. Not that we’ve got everything right – the clearest lesson I’ve learned is how much easier it is to foster dependency than independence – but, at last, I think we’ve cracked it!

I’ve finally realised that art empowers by building capability. It builds social justice – places where everyone has the capability to fulfil their potential. The great thing for me is that social justice is something that we build together – simply by being the best we can be and supporting each other to do the same. It a universal process that is best done together – the best way to build your own capabilities is by providing opportunities for others to build theirs.

We’ve started this process, simply by setting a daily creative challenge – each challenge helps people build specific capabilities – and this is just the start! We’ll be using the things that people share in response to inspire others and to build collaborative arts projects. There will be a whole host of forums and events to support people to support each other and we’ll share everything we learn along the way and take every opportunity to build capability in the community.

Now we understand how art empowers we can begin to realise our long-held ambition for everyone, everywhere to be empowered by art, every day!

Let’s get creative!

Young DavidYoung DavidAre you up for a creative challenge?

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Imagine a community where everyone has the capability to fulfil their potential

Imagine a place where each and every one of us felt able to fully be ourselves. Wouldn’t it be amazing! Can you imagine the collaborations we’d develop? The diversity and scope of creativity would be truly extra-ordinary! It has to be worth considering what we’d need to do to bring this about.

It’s actually remarkably simple. All we’d need to do would be to find a way for each one of us to be positive, active agents with a clear sense of our own narrative and to find a way to support each other.

We could do this by creating communities of capability – places where we all support each other to increase our capabilities.

(I find it helps to think of capabilities as a catch-all term for anything at all that makes it easier for people to achieve their potential. Skills and abilities are important but they are only part of the process, there are plenty of people that are capable of doing extraordinary things but are prevented by a vast range of social, psychological, political, environmental, or technological barriers. So we also need more tools and resources to help us deal with difficult situations, stronger networks of support, a supportive and encouraging environment, easier access, inspiration opportunities and much more).

Focussing on developing capabilities makes us better able to tackle the barriers we face and increases the opportunities and possibilities available to us. Whatever we want to achieve it will be easier if we have more possibilities to choose from.

The beautiful thing about capability is that we can use anything at all as an opportunity for capability development. We can design all our activities as opportunities for each other to build our capabilities – then everything we do will open up new possibilities for each other.

Finally, and crucially, capability development is not something we do to, or for, each other but something we create together. It is an equal and universal process which enables us to build true collaborations that value and nurture the unique contribution that each and every one of us has to offer.

But before we can realise this vision we do indeed need to find a way for everyone to engage with their own creative potential. We all need to find the tools, the capabilities that enable us all to tell our own story and begin to shape our own destiny.

There are already lots of tools out there that can help us do this like, for example, the excellent DIY Development toolkit.  The Guide to Capability Development we’re working on will help people find these and more like them and most importantly help people develop their own tools and capabilities so that each one of us can fulfil our potentials as individuals and communities.

So, do please share, tell us your stories, tell us what works for you and what you think might work for others, or, better still, sign up for our newsletter and join a growing community of people that build our capabilities by supporting each other.

Then maybe one day we will be able to use our whole communities as resources for us all to explore, create and share together.

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Why art matters to me

One of the most compelling ways to understand why art matters is to try and imagine a world without art.  When you think about it it’s actually hard to see what life would be like without it.  A few years ago art + power made a film about a world in which art was banned: Condemned to Darkness makes a forceful point about the value of art in our lives and communities with humour and pathos. It is also an excellent example of how art can be more eloquent than mere words.

This film and others like it demonstrate how the arts are central to who we are as people. It is through the arts that we that we make sense of the world around us and define our identity. This is perhaps one of the reasons parents get excited when they see a child’s first painting  as it indicates a stirring of this identity, an early indication of who the child will become.

As well as being deeply personal, art is also a social process.  Art is how we represent ourselves to ourselves and to each other. Just as it is through our creativity that we understand our own uniqueness so it is through our culture that a community represents itself to itself and to the world. This is why cultural exclusion is such a blot on our humanity and our communities. Each and every one of us has a unique creative contribution to make to our collective culture and only when our  our culture truly reflects this enormous diversity  can we be comfortable with ourselves as a community or nation.

Fortunately the arts are more than just an indicator of the health of a nation they are how we build social justice. Creativity is an active process, it is the process of becoming, of creating and shaping who we are and how we choose to live.

When people discover their creativity later in life it can be a completely transformational experience. This is particularly true for people with personal experience of disability or social exclusion whose identity may have been consistently expressed in a negative, who have become accustomed to being described as a problem to be solved rather than an individual with a positive contribution to make to the social and cultural life of the nation.

There are many examples of how discovering our unique creative voice can be the catalyst that enables us to create change in our lives and in our communities. Surely recognising the innate value of every individual and finding ways to release the latent creativity is the key to building build more creative, inclusive and sustainable communities? If so our collective challenge must be to create the conditions by which each and every one of us can fulfil our creative potential.

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Has Arts Council England lost its keys?

Yesterday Arts Council England brought out yet another report about the value of arts and culture. This one is a review of 500 other reports and their main conclusion is that they need to commit ‘substantial research grants’ into producing bigger and longer studies and yet more reports! Isn’t it about time they recognised that it doesn’t matter how hard you look if you’re looking in the wrong place?

The other morning I spent half an hour looking for my wife’s keys, the longer it took the more desperately we looked – I even looked in the fridge! – but it was only when we stopped looking so hard and had a calm look in the most obvious place that we found what we were looking for. When you search for something so hard it can be really easy to overlook the obvious.

So, what is the most obvious place? Well, I found the keys in the first place I looked. So let’s go back there. In his foreword Sir Peter Balzalgette (Chair, Arts Council England) says that ‘When we talk about the value of the arts we should always start with the intrinsic…’ My computer’s dictionary says intrinsic means: ‘belonging naturally; essential’ it even chooses to exemplify this definition with the following example: ‘access to the arts is intrinsic to a high quality of life’.

Art is indeed intrinsic to all our lives. Art is about doing things well, that’s what we mean when we talk about mastering the art of something. The value of art is that it is how we all achieve our potential both as individuals and as communities. Art is how we all grow as people – how we all achieve our potential as individuals and as communities. Put simply, art builds social justice.

If we understand the value of art in terms of social justice we can help Sir Peter achieve his goal: to ‘articulate a new language of cultural value that will help all of us to understand better the essential contribution that the arts make to our lives’

What’s more, if the Arts Council bear this in mind and go back and have another look amongst the three themes which the report’s authors state ‘did not return any suitable evidence’ – international development, environment and sustainability and science and technology – they may learn more than just how to understand the value of the arts, they may also learn what to do about it.

I particularly recommend they look at the capability approach. This is not a subjective approach but a deeply practical, objective approach that is increasingly used as both a measure of human development and a tool to help bring it about.

The good news is that Arts Council England are already helping to explore this approach. art + power have just received funding from Arts Council England to establish a universal Creative Development Programme that uses the capability approach to ‘galvanise a growing network of people in a shared and sustainable commitment to creativity and social justice’. This funding will help explore just how art can build social justice , how we can, for example, structure all our activities as opportunities for mutual capability development.

I’d be delighted if the Arts Council were to carry out further research in this area. But above all, my hope for the arts is that, once we recognise that arts builds social justice, we might spend less money on justifying the arts and more on realising our potential.

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Help build creative communities.

We are looking for people to join a network for creativity and social justice.

Social justice occurs where everyone has the capability to fulfil their potential. Every one of us has a unique and important contribution to make to social justice and everything we do can inspire and support others.

The network will help people support each other to achieve individual and collective goals. Each person will work towards their own long term goals by supporting other people on the network.

Every day for 18 months we will be setting a new creative challenge so we can help each other engage with our creative potential.

Each creative challenge will provide the focus for over 300 forums and network events where people will support each other to develop individual and collaborative projects and build an inclusive arts project to express our shared values.

Everyone is welcome. There will be regular public events and forums as well as weekly forums specifically for disabled and socially excluded artists’ and for arts practitioners, There will also be monthly forums for partners and policy makers.

We will be sharing these challenges – and people’s progress – through newsletters and social media to help people support each other to develop creative projects in their own group and community.

Everything people share will help inspire and support others and contribute towards a growing set of on-line resources including a ‘guide to creative capability development’ that will help people anywhere build creative communities.

To get involved just tell us a little bit about yourself and what you’re looking to achieve and we’ll send you all the information you need to get started.

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Social Justice is a creative process

It is through the arts that everyone gains the capability to fulfil their potential. We all achieve our potential by acquiring capabilities – by trying new things, by exploring new situations and by working together to remove the barriers that hold people back.

Effective capability development requires us to tackle all the barriers to human progress whether they are social, psychological, physical, political etc. so that no-one lacks the opportunity to achieve their potential. Building social justice is about providing the structures, the inspiration and the resources that make it easier for people to achieve their goals.

Creative development is an inclusive process. We all benefit from increased social justice and every one of us has a unique contribution to make. Creative development cannot be achieved at the expense of other people. On the contrary, social justice emerges from creative collaborations; from the process of sharing, working and creating together.

Creative development is a social process. We can only achieve our potential if we have people around us that believe in us. Fortunately, creative development is not a competitive scramble for limited resources but a collaborative process that can create social value from any activity.

Creative Development is a strategic, sustainable process. It is an ongoing process that enables us to make the best use of all our resources to achieve our goals. Once we recognise that our best resources are each other then building social justice becomes about achieving our goals whilst actively supporting others to achieve theirs.

As the process of creative development is common to us all, we can create a shared language that fosters creative collaborations and design any activity as an opportunity for mutual creative capability development. Since this process is essentially the same at every level we can build social justice by supporting each other to explore our potential, as individuals and as communities.

We plan to build a network of people with a shared interest in creativity and social justice and to use anything that people contribute – time, money, resources, even a problem to be solved – as an opportunity for creative capability development for someone in the network.

We are particularly keen to encourage people to record and share their achievements, so we can see what we are achieving together and so that we can inspire and support others to work with us to increase creative opportunities for all.

We invite everyone to participate, collaborate and share in the process of building social justice together.

What will you do?

How will you collaborate?

What will you share?

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The case for the arts is made, it’s what we do about it that matters.

It is about time the arts debate moved on from general claims about why art matters to deciding what we do about it. Too much of the debate is about justifying the existing state of affairs rather than realising the full potential of the arts. Personally, I must also admit that  I’m not really interested in the case for the economic contribution of the arts unless that income is converted to social value. So, to help move the debate along I propose a very short contribution:

‘Arts build social justice. Art is how everyone gains the capability to fulfil their potential’. Case closed.

If we accept this, or any similar statement, we can move from the general to the specific. We can stop asking why the arts are important and start examining how effective particular examples of art are in building social justice.

To do this I suggest just three simple questions:

  • How does this particular art (project/event etc) provide opportunities for people to fulfil their potential?
  • What capabilities can people acquire from participating?
  • What opportunities are there for create collaboration and mutual capability development?

When we start answering these questions we discover that, whilst everything can provide an opportunity to build social justice, the arts has a central contribution to make. The challenge is to find the most effective way to enable people to access these opportunities.

Over the next couple of years Arts in Development will be focussing on developing what we call inspiring resources for creative collaboration. I’d like your help in discovering what these resources might look like. Please share anything (practical examples, case studies, news stories, tool kits etc..) that can help maximise the social value of the arts.

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