Civil Society and the arts

“Beware those men, the jokers and the tricksters and the clowns. They will laugh us into hell”.

Russell T Davies character Muriel stated in the final episode of Years and Years.

O gosh, an amazing drama which shows us a stark and terrifying picture of the world as it falls into a hell of our own making.

So, I want to talk about Civil Society.

It involves all of us. It is where “we come together” as a community for a purpose or maybe something useful… Maybe it’s the street parties, community groups, arts, events, community litter pick ups, connecting through good things, taking part in resistance -we are civil society. Right now we need it more than ever. The world and the community we live in is a divided one. Our democracy is questionable at best. Many of us feel threatened or scared, vulnerable or angry. Some of the voices in our community have turned to anger and division. There are also growing tensions between different communities often inflamed by the media. Politicians are at best creative with facts and often rail against community desire and voice. We are tired, we are scared and we are desperately seeking change.  

From rural to city, from rich to poor, from old to young power, powerlessness is a growing feeling that unites many of us. To add to our woes, austerity and an unequal society has created wider and deeper divisions within this place we call home and how we connect and work together for the better.

Ok. Stay with me. It’s going to be OK.

I recently attended a Civil society futures conference with Julia Unwin. The event held a lens up to the social tensions, stories and challenges we are all facing in our daily lives.

“We gonna leave” a good friend told me recently. “As soon as our passports are through. We have had enough of this country. It isn’t safe for the kids. This country has gone to hell. I don’t recognise it anymore”.

It is a depressing and recurring statement that I have heard and engaged with since Brexit began. I even entered into it myself for a short as I flirted with the possibility of moving back to Ireland with my family. That is until I realised how hard a move that would be for me and my family. 

But, the conference shared stories of civil society and communities bringing about change and coming together and that is what keeps me here. We were reminded of stories about how communities have forged partnerships to strengthen society through difficult times.

From the people who left their homes in the early hours with armfulls of food, clothing and gifts to those left homeless at Grenfell Tower to the small groups of people who stood picketing in the pouring rain for days to protect their beloved local libraries from closure. Or the people wrestling with the changing tide of freak weather reports to help a neighbour with comfort and support as they scoured through the rubble for precious ornaments and family treasures. Maybe you are one of the growing numbers of people who peacefully protest about climate change by making small and large gestures of resistance to raise awareness and bring about change. These moments occur despite everything that is happening around us. These moments occur with difference and sometimes because of it. These moments. 

As a community of people we want and need to have agency over things that matter and mean something to us and our families. What the civil society future report finds is that a deep connection and trust for everyone involved remains a key thread to our future. There is still desire for a sense of place, connection, collaboration and coming together.

Yes of course, the political landscape feels more and more out of reach for many of us. One person at the conference said “This change will have to come despite the government. We cannot rely on them anymore, that’s finished”.

“Yes but people have been saying that for years” said my neighbour. “Nothing new there”. Yes, that is true. Hear we are now in our call to rise up. 

However, what really struck a chord for me in the report was the notion of kindness. A call for a different language. A different language of engagement and questioning. Time for us to become more emotionally articulate with our interactions and intentions with one another. How our engagement and decisions have far greater depth and impact than we realise. To change for the future, requires all of us to consider kindness, courage and commitment as our anchor. It should be our anthem.

It made me think of a local authority that I once visited. It had placed its housing team in amongst the open space atrium. It was more cost effective. An atrium where families, individuals and staff mingled in amongst the clatter of coffee cups and the chatter of a public space.

In contrast to all of this, someone would occasionally hear that their housing has been denied or changed. The person waiting impatiently for someone to appear with good or bad news. In public. In full view. The meeting would involve the positioning and repositioning of chairs as everyone involved took their seats. I imagined the housing officer staring in silence, willing their case number to comply with change. The housing officer poised and waiting to offer alternatives and a paper sheet of numbers and contacts. Then empty seats as the chairs are abandoned.

Yet, this was the now preferred method. It may have made perfect financial sense to move the more accessible service to an open space but it now felt like a service that was unkind and publically witnessed. It had the potential to place the most vulnerable in full view. How would they rate that service ? Kind. Tick box 5, Unkind. Tick box 1. Humiliated. Tick box 1. 

If our future involves all manner of discoveries involving technology and the very way we work and engage with one another, then how are we proceed without kindness.

Imagine this:

The rush of language and definition for different social groups. “What shall we call those people?” “I know, let’s call them “hard to reach”. It is in the end, no way kind.

I dipped into twitter today to read the news. It could really do with some generous acts of kinds in language and behaviour. How do some of these interactions contribute to a kind, courageous and committed society. I leave feeling as though the divisions and gaps in society are like two huge husks colliding with one another in slow dry battle.

So, if it is our behaviours and practices that can and will shape the future how can we proceed ?

People are asking more questions. This is good. People are disruptive. This is good. People are provocating. Also good. Do I need to ready my Irish passport to abandon this country. Not just yet. For the artistic community, who isn’t here and why ? Do I need permission to be here and if so WHY? There are lots of organisations and individuals who are showing us a commitment to question and do things differently. Do they provide the solutions for society ? If you are involved in local arts and health could your progression be the answer ? Do we need to balance the power out of buildings and into open spaces and into smaller unknown spaces ? Where do local authorities fit in and how can they support us better ?

Additionally, I think the challenge we are seeking is both external and internal for the arts sector. I have witnessed small organisations bringing radical and innovative change precisely because they are the small organisation. The impact and the ripple effect they are having can be far reaching. So, we do have power. If very small organisations are pushing forward then we can make a huge difference in civil society. However, we can move forward exhibiting, modelling kindness in our own community as well as the wider world.

Here is the PACT from civil society futures aspirations:

  • Power – sharing power and using power to help everyone play a full part in the things that matter to them
  • Accountability – being accountable to the people and communities we serve
  • Connection – broadening and deepening our connections with people and communities
  • Trust – staying true to our values and investing the time and resources in activities that will help build trust in the sector

1 Comment

  1. I couldn’t agree more, thanks for sharing your thoughts and the links, I have lots of thoughts bubbling away about this and you’ve helped to articulate many of them, thank you


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