This blog is the second in a series of three on ethical facilitation by Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol City Poet and Temple Quarter artist-in-residence. Get up to speed on Vanessa’s thoughts on appropriate outreach in her first blog.
As a freelancer who usually runs into creative sessions over a short period of time, there are limits to what I can do without the foundation of long-term rapport. Balancing the desire to make the workshops enriching for the participants with my own personal objectives as a commissioned artist is tenuous. In the creative writing workshops I ran for a Somali girl group in Barton Hill Settlement, I mostly found myself immersed in the task of keeping them engaged and focused. When the thought of recording the progress of the sessions crossed my mind, it felt crass to whip out my camera and start taking pictures. It’s an awkward quandary: I have an employer to report back to and clear reports on my activities keeps them happy. Twice over the four sessions, I took short videos that I promised not to share publicly. Other than that, my camera phone stayed in my bag. Building a strong enough foundation on which conversations and creativity can flower takes time. Constantly recording videos or taking pictures disrupts this and is a constant reminder to them that I am more concerned with the optics of what I am doing. I tried to be present with the group, to allow the process of talking and writing with them be its own ephemeral, worthwhile result.
So how did the sessions go? Well: these girls were absolute live wires. Loud, cheeky, smart-mouthed and fizzing with an energy that occasionally tipped into insolence. Exactly like me at their age! The first two sessions were pretty chaotic and I struggled to keep them focused on any given task for more than a few minutes. Frankly, I didn’t blame them. I was an unknown entity, encroaching on their after-school club with strange questions and writing exercises that perhaps felt too reminiscent of the classroom. So I abandoned my earnest plans for twenty-minute writing and sharing exercises and focused on games – the quicker and the more physical, the better. The group clearly thrived on this type of energetic play. I tried as much as possible to make the space one of creativity, no matter how lateral my approach. If a planned exercise disintegrated due to lack of focus or interest, I tried to hone in on what the girls were talking about amongst themselves and ask questions about their lives and interests.
This leads me on to a silly faux pas I made that still makes cringe months after the event. I say this in a bid to be transparent and show that we can all mess up and learn from it. One particular girl that we shall call Halimah was initially one of the more dismissive and disruptive girls in the group. To my surprise and delight, she eventually went on to write a stunning poem about Bristol by the fourth session. Whilst the girls were preparing for the final showcase, I decided on a whim to run to a corner shop and buy a few packets of sweets as a small prize for her. In my haste, I grabbed what I felt to be fail-safe crowd pleasers: Malteasers, Smarties and Haribo Tangfastics. After the showcase, I gave her the prize and told her the poem was brilliant. She seemed very happy with her sweets and didn’t mention any problems. It was only on the bus home, reflecting on the four weeks that had passed, that my brain made a sickening jolt of realisation. Haribo is made from gelatin, something a strict Muslim would most probably not eat. It was a small mistake, but one that made me inwardly groan at my thoughtlessness.
These are the seemingly small but avoidable errors that come from lack of exposure and cultural sensitivity. I think sometimes, in our fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, we don’t attempt to connect with different groups at all. We severely underestimate our ability to understand, and be understood, by each other. So we continue to live in an ignorance that cannot be challenged or broken down, and remain safe in our homogenous bubbles. It’s safe to say that in trying to make connections outside of your circle, you probably will make mistakes. But it’s our job to correct ourselves and keep pushing. Not so we can arrive at a mythical stage of perfect enlightenment, but to commit to the quiet and constant exchange of an integrated society.
In part 3, Vanessa will examine the opportunity gap for people in minority groups and the importance of Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus’s relationship with the community.