To create sustainable social change we need to ensure that everyone is able to create lasting change in our lives and communities. It seems to me that there are at least four key problems that need to be resolved to bring this about:
The Creativity Problem
To create sustainable social change we need everyone to have the means to achieve their potential. art is the means. It is the key to unlocking all human potential.
In my opinion too much time has been spent trying to justify the value of the arts and not enough in trying to realise its potential. The value of art is simply that it builds social justice – It is by being creative that we understand who we are, become the people we want to be and build the communities we want to live in. What we need to ask ourselves is whether the things we do make it easier or harder for everyone to achieve their creative potential.
If access to the arts is important, access to our creativity is essential. Art is far too important to be treated as a short term distraction or a luxury to be enjoyed only by the privileged few. We are all born creative, art is our universal birthright. We all need to access our creativity if we are to realise the creative potential that is our own unique contribution to society.
Art is so central to the business of living that restricting anyones access to the arts is to undermine our humanity and when any one persons creativity is stifled everyone suffers – ensuring that we all have the freedom to create should be the ultimate measure of any healthy society.
Fortunately creativity is more than just an indicator, it is not just the problem it also has the potential to be the solution. We all learn by doing, by being positive, by being creative, if any of us really want to build sustainable social change we need to learn: How can everyone become empowered by art?
The collaboration problem.
We can’t create sustainable social change by doing things to, for, or without each other we can only create it together, but how?
One thing is certain. We will never create sustainable social change if we continue to act as if there are two different kinds of people: those that know what is best for others and those that can be treated as problems to be solved. No one can know what is best for any other person. Nor can any of us can create change by ourselves.
Too often our relationships are defined in a dependent or hierarchical form that ultimately undermine social justice by assuming an inequality of value between, for example, teacher and student, venue and audience or community; service provider and service user. We need to find a way to create genuine collaborations that tackle the dependency that is is entrenched in many of our relationships.
This sense of dependency is fed by an assumption that we compete over limited resources and can only achieve our goals at the expense of others. Unfortunately many well-intentioned activities reinforce this view (it’s not just the big charities that request re-distribution of un-needed surplus wealth with a tug at the heart strings). This assumption underpins the majority of our relationships and undermines the possibility of long-term change, locking us all in dependent relationships in which none of us can fully prosper.
The search for genuine collaboration sees development as a positive sum process in which our personal and collective development are deeply intertwined. We all benefit from more equal, creative and inclusive communities. It is a big challenge, but we need to find a way to build sustainable social change together, to discover how we can build genuine collaborations.
The Capability Problem
Our society faces a crisis of capability. Too few of us have the capability to fulfil our potential.
We will only be able to build social justice if we can find a way to structure our society, our organisations and our projects so that they make it easier, not harder, for us all to fulfil our potential. This won’t be easy as, just as we all have a unique creative contribution to make, so we all face a particular blend of barriers and challenges.
We need to find a collaborative process that can be adapted by any individual and group and can tackle a vast range of political, social, environmental and psychological barriers to our creative development.
Since, social justice is something we can only create together and we all fulfil our potential by building our capabilities, we need to learn how to build our capabilities together. But to do this we will need to recognise that we we are all ‘in development; to engage with our own vulnerability and accept that we can all learn from each other.
And what about those of us who don’t yet know what we want to do? How can we even know what we want to do if we don’t know what is possible? Can a focus on building capabilities together increase the possibilities available to us and enable us all to live increasingly independent, purposeful and creative lives?
The context problem.
Often, life can feel like something that happens to us, a series of unassociated events that we have no control of. When we try and deal with things nothing seems to work for long. Whenever we take one step forward we seem to find ourselves knocked back two. It can be really hard to find any sense of progress in our lives. However, events are less likely to overwhelm us if we remember that we have been through similar, or worse, before. If we can learn from our experience we may discover our own voice become an active subject in our own lives.
When we understand our lives in a long-term context things can change dramatically, for the better. It doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen to us but that we are better able to deal with them when they do.
If we are to create sustainable change in our lives we need to find our own context, our own voice. The problem is: how can we do this? This is a particularly thorny problem for those of us that have not yet discovered our voice for the first time – as how can we seek or even value something that we have not yet experienced?
Just as our individual actions can seem meaningless in the face of overwhelming odds so it is with our collective actions. Even though many of us recognise that most meaningful change is long-term and incremental there is pressure to focus on short-term projects that may initially provide pleasing results but can even end up producing greater dependency in the very communities they seek to help.
The long-term impact of even the most inspirational projects can be questionable if they raise expectations that cannot be sustained, throw light on additional problems and stimulate a hidden demand for additional services that are not forthcoming.
The problem with trying to create lasting change is that there is only so much any of us can do.
Difficult social problems require a broader, more concerted approach than any one project, individual or organisation can provide. I’m actually a fan of projects, projects can be great but the problem with projects is their lack of context.
Without a context for our actions we can easily become stuck in vicious cycle of increasing dependency in which nothing really changes as we continually develop individual projects each of which has a questionable legacy.
However, if we were able to see our collective actions in the context of a long-term plan that we could genuinely say that every little helps. If we could provide such a context then about the best thing we could do would be to encourage a spirit of creative experimentation. The problem is – how can we build the context of sustainable social change?
Please share your thoughts or better still, join the discussion at Arts in Development – An invitation to explore. One of a series of ‘Arts in Development’ programmes that aim to create the context for sustainable social change by ensuring that all our activities contribute to our long-term development.