Rising Arts Agency is a youth-led social enterprise run by young creative thinkers (aged 18-30) in Bristol. Our mission is to empower Bristol’s underrepresented young people to fulfil their creative ambitions and affect radical social change through the arts. We are co-created with and for young people and strive to develop new models of working and embedding young people in the creative and cultural sector on every level. The arts can play an instrumental role in creating social change, however the sector is notorious for unpaid, extractivist consultation practices and for serving a predominantly white, middle class and able-bodied demographic.
Through this funding, we wanted to replicate and adapt our successful ‘Whose Culture?’ model/pilot with other groups of 18-30 year olds in Bristol. ‘Whose Culture?’ developed deep, co-created work with communities of young people of colour (POC) in Bristol to map their cultural engagement, challenge dominant narratives and influence Bristol’s cultural strategy. This model helped shape the demographics of Rising’s community and inform our ways of working. We therefore hoped to replicate this approach with 4 groups of young people who identify as either disabled, D/deaf, working class or from a refugee background to support an intersectional community to make demonstrable social change through ‘Our Culture’. We developed Our Culture in collaboration with four young members of Rising’s community; Dave Young, Rediat Abayneh, Cieran O’Brien and Osei Johnson who also shared the lived experiences we were seeking to support through ‘Our Culture’.
Together we devised a framework, informed by the learnings from Whose Culture, that centres a slow, considered process of exploration through relationship building, conversation and action-planning where everyone is adequately paid for their time. We already knew and could evidence the value of small groupings, so each of the four Our Culture groups consisted of only four young people of shared lived experience who were paid to take part in 9 workshops over 4 months. These workshops were facilitated by either Dave, Rediat, Cieran or Osei and were divided into three phases: ‘Relationship and Community Building’, ‘Conversations’ and ‘Action-Planning’ to explore how arts and social justice can be truly entwined.
This was the first time that we would have worked so intensively with four different groups at the same time in this way and as part of this process we recruited a project coordinator to work with us one day a week over eight months to coordinate the nine workshops with each of the four groups, collate evaluation materials, and support the development of the outcomes.
There were a number of things we hoped to achieve through this growth and replication process:
- Paying and working alongside these young people to build and establish solid relationships between themselves, us and strategic partners.
- For the participants and facilitators to connect and share the change they want to see in the culture sector
- Co-devising strategies for Rising to support that change in our wider work and co-create opportunities for the young people to co-lead on radically shifting cultural sector practice.
- Ensuring Rising can grow in a way that is intersectional and sustainable by interrogating our recruitment processes.
- Rising to build relationships with key, strategic partners and funders who can support us to deliver the next phase of this work, whatever that may be.
We built Our Culture through virtual sessions during COVID. Although we weren’t quite sure of what to expect, we anticipated that by the end of the project we would have facilitated and documented 36 rich conversations between the participants, developed an inclusive internal and external recruitment strategy and refined our methodology for doing this type of co-created engagement work.
What we did
We spent the first 6 weeks developing inclusive recruitment materials to recruit a project coordinator to work one day a week on the project. It was imperative that they were also from one or more of the lived experience groups supported through Our Culture. We created a jargon-free job description, with easy read and BSL versions – with a simple video application process where they had to answer three questions. The shortlisting process was a simple traffic light system and shortlisted applicants were invited to interview by sending a video answering five questions.
By April, we had successfully recruited and remotely inducted Jessica Starns – a young inclusive arts practice facilitator and artist based in Buckinghamshire as the Our Culture project coordinator. Jess was on hand to hold the structure of Our Culture, support the young facilitators, assist with the recruitment of the young people and co-create the evaluation aims.
Shortly after that, the recruitment of the young participants began. This aspect was intentionally led by the young facilitators, as we acknowledged they had more access to and credibility within their respective communities. We provided them with inclusive recruitment materials, which were co-shaped by them as well as offering additional support where needed. We had originally planned for the four groups of four young people to be recruited at the same time and have their respective 9 workshops across the same 4 month period. However, due to various challenges we found recruiting young people who identified as D/deaf and refugee more difficult and so they began their workshops later than the working class and disabled groups. This meant that we staggered the workshops to allow the groups to begin in their own time and resulted in us being responsive to any learning and implementing it for subsequent groups.
The facilitators worked with Jess to co-design a series of 9 virtual workshop sessions with their groups. The initial 3 sessions were part of the ‘Relationship and Community Building’ phase and involved curated shared experiences like watching films together online, remote making sessions and other low-pressure activities. Then the following 3 workshops were part of the ‘Conversation’ stages. A programme of conversation topics specific to their lived experiences were devised by each group and these discussions were carried out over the course of 3 workshops to help the participants identify what issues felt most pressing to them. The conversations were documented by the project coordinator and/or the participants via a medium that suited them. The transcripts/ notes of these conversations were then condensed into clear accessible resources for sharing and continuing the conversation with our wider networks beyond the project.
In the final phase, the groups were supported by us to build on their conversations to devise a changemaking action that felt most appropriate to them. The actions that came out of the conversations were:
- Curating a disability in the arts festival
- Continuing consultation with the D/deaf community around the arts and deaf awareness
- Delivering inclusive workplace training specifically focused around class and power
- Creating stop motion animations to share the experiences of forced migration.
In addition to this, we are inducting these young people into Rising’s community to support them to get professional work opportunities. We’ve also been able to make connections with a range of partners across the country, including BSL interpreters and captioners. Despite the project finishing, we have also scheduled an in-person meet-up at the beginning of December, where all the groups can meet each other for the first time and share their action planning and conversations with each other and build on the legacy of Our Culture.
Although we had anticipated that recruiting the young people would take a while, we didn’t fully appreciate how challenging it would be to virtually recruit refugees and young people who are D/deaf or hearing impaired for this project. Through reflection and the conversations with partners, this challenge has re-emphasised the systemic barriers for these groups accessing the sector. The d/deaf community in particular described their scepticism of arts organisations’ capacity for inclusivity – even when they were approached by members of the d/deaf community.
Young refugees face significant barriers and have to deal with financial, language and cultural barriers that make accessing cultural offerings difficult or not a priority. To further our learning, we ran a lab/event in August called ‘Our Culture: Refugees, Asylum Seekers and the Arts’ where we invited organisations/professionals who work with refugees and asylum seekers to join us to create an action plan for best practice for supporting refugees and asylum seekers within the arts. We offered them £50 each to cover the organisations’ and young refugees’ time for attending. There, we were able to pool expertise to highlight the very real barriers for young refugees accessing arts such as lack of mentorship and visible opportunities, being in survival mode, financial pressures from family to contribute or acquire more lucrative job opportunities. As a result of that session, we refocused the refugee workshops around making stop-motion animations to give the participants a tangible skill that also combatted any potential language barriers. Although we were only able to recruit two young people for the refugee group, this meant that we could give them more concentrated support. We ran a 2nd lab for organisations supporting young refugees in October to update them on the progress of the refugee group and provide a support network for organisations doing this work. We hope to make this a regular feature to run alongside our engagement work in the future.
In addition to some of the recruitment challenges, we recognised that we had not budgeted enough to resource our holistic and developing understandings of access, and we were often constrained by the budget and BSL interpreters’ schedules. This meant that Our Culture not able to be as flexible as we would have liked. When we asked the young group who identify as disabled about their access requirements, many of them didn’t know how to answer it as they hadn’t been asked before. It showed that we perhaps needed to factor in more time to explore those aspects of the work through catch-ups in-between sessions.
Despite this, we were able to refine an inclusive recruitment strategy for the agency. The learning from this project has informed how we safely bring new people into our community and ensure they feel held. It has also highlighted the need for spaces for young people to come together and discuss the realities, barriers and opportunities for creating change in the arts.
Being able to model a method of co-creation that has been replicated through the young people we’ve worked with has been exciting to witness. We co-created this bid with four young people who were then able to co-create social change plans with four more people with the hope that this ripple effect will continue through their social change projects. It has highlighted to us that that co-creation is really effective when it starts small and reproduces in close contact groups.
As a co-created agency, we have very little experience of other forms of participatory engagement practice. However, this was the first time we had done a co-created project of this scale online and while many elements of it worked, there was an overwhelming demand from the young people to meet in-person. Currently it’s hard to gauge whether we’ve successfully managed to transfer agency to the participants but they are really keen to continue this work alongside Rising.
Our Culture has re-emphasised the ways that co-creation can work well and some of the pitfalls of when it’s led by an organisation rather than a community group.
At times we found some of the young people (particularly those who identify as neurodivergent) weren’t used to the slow pacing that’s often associated with co-creation community projects. We received feedback in the evaluation that not all the young people understood what the bigger plan was, and this made them feel anxious at times about whether they were contributing enough / properly. We sometimes found it difficult to communicate our expectations to the young people without steering the project, so on reflection, we could have gathered all the groups together at the beginning of the programme to re-emphasise that this is a co-created piece of work and we are not expecting any tangible outcomes – unless it felt important to the young people that there should be. We’ve found that when a co-created relationship doesn’t evolve naturally, there’s the danger of a power imbalance where one party tends to look to the lead party for reassurance, clarification and direction. From our experience, good co-creation occurs when there is proportionate and equitable input from all parties and it works best when it happens between two groups as opposed to co-creating multiple ways.
Our Culture feels like a really replicable way of working with new groups and embedding inclusive practices into organisations. Because it is a people-centred approach, it’s simple enough to be transferred to different organisations and serves as a framework that can be tweaked to accommodate different contexts. We’ve been insistent that the process is the main outcome and this feels like an important facet to grow (develop) and replicate. This model works best in intimate groupings, where genuine, slow and embedded relationships and change-making can take place. Because Our Culture has been delivered solely online, we would be interested to see how a model like this fares in-person. The inclusive ways of working and recruiting has been iteratively embedded into Rising as Our Culture unfolded and this has meant that not only has it been an invaluable relationship building asset, it has also been an incredible learning resource for the team and wider community.