Creating Change is a three-year collaboration between BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and three Gateshead Secondary Schools. BALTIC is working with the same cohort of young people through years 7, 8 and 9 to co-design creative social actions projects that respond to and tackle social issues.
Creating Change is part of #iwill, a National campaign to embed a culture of meaningful social action in the lives of young people across the UK. #iwill aims to inspire 6 out of 10 young people to make a positive difference in their communities by engaging with activities such as campaigning, fundraising and volunteering.
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art received funding in 2017 to work with the same cohort of young people in their first three years of secondary schools to co-produce innovative contemporary art projects in collaboration with professional artists that explore social issues and campaign for change.
Aims and Objectives
Creating Change aims to empower 2,000 young people in Gateshead to use contemporary art, co-created with inspirational artists, to make social change. The programme strives to forge sustainable connections between young people and their communities so that they continue to campaign, help and support others into the future. Young people involved in Creating Change are encouraged to celebrate their Northern identity, believe in themselves and develop the skills and creativity needed to make a positive change in the world.
The three Creating Change schools are located within 5 miles of BALTIC and serve the top 20% most deprived neighbourhoods with 1 in 4 young people in Gateshead living in poverty (Gateshead Director of Public Health Annual Report 2017-18). From the outset, we intended to address barriers to cultural access and work with those young people who were least likely to engage with cultural activity outside of school by consulting with teachers to target young people who would be most likely to benefit from the opportunity.
Recruiting participants presented some challenges as there was a tendency at first for schools to want to select their ‘best’ pupils for the opportunity and we have had to work hard to gain the trust of teachers and develop their understanding of the programme and its aims. We have designed activity to engage and reach as many young people as possible within each of the three schools, for example by running taster workshops for the whole year group and planning activity both during curriculum time and in after-school clubs. We wanted to ensure early on that every pupil in the cohort was aware of the project in their school and that those facing barriers to participation would have a range of opportunities to take part.
Any young person who shows interest is signposted to join an after-school group where they are supported to develop skills to take a lead on the project and design activity. We are continuing to refine our approach so that it is most impactful for young people, they have clear routes for progression and can engage in a way that is right for them.
Developing Ownership and Belonging
All of the young people taking part in Creating Change have had multiple opportunities to visit BALTIC, where they are invited to view and reflect on the exhibitions, to see their work exhibited in the galleries, take part in and run workshops and develop a sense of ownership and belonging. We want them to feel as though BALTIC is a space for them. We usually provide food and have a designated space for young people with computers and a sofa where they can make themselves at home. Several of the participants, having never visited BALTIC before Creating Change, have told us that they now come regularly with their friends and family in their own time.
As well as visiting BALTIC exhibitions, young people have been taken on trips to other cultural venues and events and have had the chance to try a range of art forms including ceramics, sculpture, choreography, performance, film making, photography, textiles, animation and printmaking, developing their ability and confidence to explore and discuss the world through contemporary art and use their creativity to affect change.
Each term we run a range of projects in school and increasingly, young people programme activity themselves. Initially, we invited professional artists to run short term (usually 6-week) projects with groups of 15-30 young people around a broad theme such as ‘inequality’. This has formed part of a gradual process of getting to know each other, listening to ideas, becoming acquainted with the potential of contemporary art and the meaning of social action. Through this process, we have been able to hand over more and more responsibility to young people so that rather than being participants, they are co-producers in the projects.
As the programme has developed, we established young ambassadors’ groups in each school for young people who were interested in taking a lead and designing activity. Through these groups we have been able to get to know individual young people and incorporate their interests and ideas. After a year of working closely together, planning events and taking part in trips and activities, one of our young ambassadors’ groups have recently taken over programming responsibility for the next phase of the project. They have defined the theme, produced an artist call-out, interviewed three artists and have subsequently appointed someone to work with them for the summer term.
Our approach to working with young people is to value them as experts in their own lives, listen to their ideas and act on their concerns. They don’t always have all the information they need to tackle the issues that they face and they can feel powerless about how to make change happen but they care about the world around them and are passionate about injustice when they see it. Where young people express an interest in a big global issue such as ‘gender inequality’, ‘global warming’ or ‘animal rights’, we build on that interest and what they already know to support them to learn more and to develop an awareness of different perspectives.
For example, many of the young people we work with have expressed a strong desire to take part in a project about women’s rights issues so we have commissioned a specialist organisation, who will work with a group of 14 year 8 girls over 13-weeks to understand and challenge the root causes of gender inequalities and develop their leadership skills so that they can make change happen.
Activism in a Secondary School
Youth-leadership and activism are not always straightforward within in a secondary school environment. Promoting discussion about complex social and political issues, planning activity around school timetables and encouraging community engagement and events within school safeguarding frameworks have created some barriers to progress. We have built strong collaborative relationships with each of the three partner schools to understand their ethos, priorities, young people and the school environment. We work closely with lead teachers to track young people’s progress and reflect on the project.
Before we started delivering the programme with young people, we created a partnership agreement which covered roles and responsibilities, expectations and requirements, safeguarding and evaluation. Teachers, as much as young people, have needed support to understand the potential and reach of the programme, particularly how we could combine social action and art in participatory projects with young people. We often have to think creatively and adjust our planning to illustrate the potential of the programme.
An example of a recent challenge that presented itself in one of our after-school groups was when one young person wanted to share a video she has seen on YouTube questioning the purpose of education. This inspired the group to have an impassioned conversation about the injustice of school uniforms, pupil-teacher power dynamics and a narrow curriculum that wasn’t preparing them for life in contemporary times. Whilst this was an incredible moment, seeing a young person speaking out and engaging her peers, we could not realistically take forward a project that criticised school, within school. We listened to her concerns and, in consultation with the teachers at the school, have been supporting her and the rest of the group to design an alternative curriculum that teaches life skills such as everyday cooking, self-defence, mental health and money management. This is to complement and enhance rather than criticise what the group are already learning in school.
In-depth, longer-term projects give teachers, artists and young people the time and space to get to know each other and build trust. Establishing processes of continual feedback, evaluation and reflection have meant that we have identified and addressed any problems quickly and responded effectively.
Social action instigated by a contemporary art gallery in a secondary school has come with both opportunities and challenges. This is partly related to balancing the expectations of project funders, artists, teachers and young people as well as working within the secondary school behavioural, safeguarding and educational frameworks.
We have overcome challenges by agreeing expectations at the start of a project and engaging young people in honest discussion when challenges come up as there is a huge amount of creativity and learning that goes into problem-solving. It is about acknowledging the frameworks you are working within and coming up with creative solutions to work within those frameworks.