This blog is the first in a series of three on ethical facilitation by Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol City Poet and Temple Quarter artist-in-residence.
How many times have you been privy to conversations about a group to which you don’t belong? It happens often in the worlds I frequent (media, the arts, education: the self-proclaimed pillars of progressive thought). In such conversations there is a lot of academic terminology, statistics and percentages. Faces scrunch up in devastating earnest, heads are nodded, pledges are signed, quotas are made. “Whatever to do about young people, women, Muslims, working class people, BAME people?” Yet representatives from these groups are often not in the room.
To say these conversations don’t create important change would be overly cynical, but there is something persistently othering in how they are framed. I say this as both the person who belongs to many of the minority groups discussed and also as a member of this ham-fisted group of agonisers. I sometimes catch myself speaking of entire demographics of people in lazy sweeps, as if they were a bloated monolith and not an intricate web of individuals. Is there a way to speak of prevalent trends amongst a group without flattening communities and their stories? I like to hope so, but we haven’t quite found it yet. As the Latin phrase “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis” (Nothing About Us Without Us) succinctly asserts, no conversation around change should occur without those affected present.
Whilst thinking of how to involve residents in the immediate area surrounding Temple Quarter, I felt it best that I reach out – and even this benign phrase seems to have a whiff of neo-colonial heroism about it! I had a vague notion that I wanted to work with local people in Lawrence Hill and that it would be good to work with young people in particular. After running creative writing sessions with a group of Somali girls in Barton Hill Settlement, I have been reflecting on the ethics and ultimate purpose of outreach work. I am still in the process of acknowledging the shape of my own ignorance, accepting that I am not entirely buffered by my youth, my blackness, my woman-ness, my general liberalism and artistic temperament. Coming in as an outside entity with an ambitious yet vague aim to enlighten a group in some way, there can be dangerous assumption that the group in question must be in the dark.
This is not a neglected area of discussion; I recently read this brilliant piece on the potential pitfalls of outreach theatre work that has deeply informed my thinking on this issue. I organised the workshops with the help of Travelling Light Theatre that is also based in the Settlement. We had some great discussions on how to do outreach sensitively and the many mistakes made by well-intentioned facilitators. We discussed the importance of not exploiting the stories of others, no matter how pertinent, and not appropriating people’s narratives. As easy as an airtight definition would make our lives, there’s no cut and dry consensus on what appropriation constitutes. It often comes down to the relationship between facilitator and participants and an unsparing consultation with one’s conscience.