14 October 2015

Building movements of young changemakers

Unusual suspects festival Glasgow 2015_copyright Social Innovation ExchangeUnusual Suspects Festival Glasgow 2015

The Unusual Suspects Festival is a festival of ideas, solutions and debate, exploring what happens when social innovation meets collaboration and how together we can meet some of society’s most pressing challenges. The festival is in its second year of infancy and grew out of a frustration of attending events and constantly seeing the same people and having the same conversations. Social Innovation Exchange, Collaborate and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation joined forces in 2014 to host the first Festival in London, which enabled ‘unusual suspects’ to have a different conversation.

I was invited by the Foundation to attend the Festival, held in Glasgow this year, and contribute to a panel discussion: ‘Building movements of young changemakers’. I spoke on behalf of The Agency. To provide some context: in 2012, Battersea Arts Centre, Contact Theatre in Manchester, and People’s Palace Projects adapted a methodology, which was pioneered in Brazil by Marcus Faustini with the aim to engage young people in a programme that uses creative processes to help them to develop social businesses. With support from the Foundation, The Agency was piloted in 2013/2014 and involved young people aged 15-25 years in London and Manchester. The programme engages young people by developing their ideas and encouraging them to see themselves as agents of change for their communities. The young people whose projects have been selected by an external panel receive mentoring in order to develop their business idea and entrepreneurial skills. The programme aims to not only empower the young participants, or Agents, but also seeks to have a long-term sustainable impact on the communities at the heart of these projects.

Due to the pilot’s success, the Big Lottery Reaching Communities Fund has enabled The Agency to continue the programme for the next three years in London and Manchester, whilst developing a plan for how it could be scaled up and expanded. We are beginning the next cycle of work in November this year.

The invite to the Unusual Suspects Festival was a timely opportunity to share the Agency’s story and to take inspiration from others championing the ideas of young changemakers. A number of contributors who are working across the globe on social action projects attended the session. We spoke about ‘A Litre of Light’, a project born in The Philippines, which brings sustainable lighting solutions to homes without access to electricity. I met with spokespersons from MAD, a platform for changemakers in Asia, and ‘Tell it in Colour’, a grass roots storytelling project based in Belfast.

These initiatives are each facing different social challenges and are using unique methodologies. However, the potential for collaboration is underpinned through the many similarities shared by these international projects. A clear thread linking the initiatives is the importance of networks. Networks are an intrinsic part of The Agency methodology and we spend a lot of time exploring the potential of connections. Our Agents understand that establishing networks is the most important part of any social action project and I realised during the Unusual Suspects Festival that a strong network enables a global movement to develop out of grass roots participation.

‘A Litre of Light’ follows the notion that the replication of an idea in different territories can mobilise a movement. This led me to consider if The Agency is, in fact, a movement. Does it want to be? I have never really thought of The Agency in that way. Why?, I wonder. The method has been replicated by the project partners, from the favelas of Rio to the streets of the UK. We know the method is transferable and that the need for the promotion of youth voice and action is universal. ‘A Litre of Light’ began in a slum in Manilla and has now lit up homes and buildings all around the world. I want to take this idea of ‘movement’ forward into the next phase of The Agency, encouraging the Agents to consider if The Agency should be facilitated as a movement.

An important point that was discussed during the session related to how best we can keep the movement authentic as it develops and replicates. One risks the potential of a watered down impulse, method and output. Yet the people who are willing to take a chance are the galvanising force behind movements of change. And, after all, what is innovation without risk?

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Kate Bradnam is a Theatre Practitioner based in the UK who is leading the way for youth participation in the arts. Her innovative and often bold work has been showcased both nationally and internationally notably by The Royal Exchange, Contact, Hull Truck, The Library Theatre Company, BBC and La RESAD (Spain).

Alongside heading up The Agency in Manchester as Artist Facilitator, Kate is working on a new piece based on Macbeth with a company of young performers for HOME (Manchester) and is developing practical research on cross-cultural engagement of young people in theatre.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @katebradnam.