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Power in culture and the arts part two: Martin O’Connor reflects on new approaches in shifting the power balances

In November, our Creative Learning team hosted a professional development event in Perth, with Henrietta Imoreh and Liz Moreton from Battersea Arts Centre, who discussed how shifting power could have a profound effect on participants and organisations.

In this guest blog, theatre maker and participatory artist Martin O’Connor reflects on the stories that were shared and the discussions that followed. 

In the first part this event, we grappled with definitions and notions of power, and we considered where the power balance lies in our own organisations and practices.

In the second half, Liz Moreton and Henrietta Imoreh from Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) in London, presented another example of what the aesthetics of power may look like, in particular their participatory project The Agency. Running for six years now (and also featuring at a previous Creative Learning event as part of Year of the Young People) The Agency works with young people to make their entrepreneurial ideas a reality.

A participant’s own experience

The impact that a meaningful power shift can have was best outlined in Henrietta Imoreh’s moving and compelling account of her experiences with the Agency as a participant and later as an employee. Imoreh was 14 when she was taken into care and had a difficult childhood, being placed with eight foster families and living with a constant feeling of abandonment. However, she did have a creative outlet and through the project at BAC, and her own idea – a theatre company for young people in care – was realised.

Imoreh’s Redefine is a theatre company for young care leavers in Wandsworth. It provides them with a platform to express themselves in a creative way and to inspire and provoke change. Imoreh created Redefine to create positive representations of care leavers and to offer young people a creative process to think about their desire for change.

It was, she says, not only transformative for her, but also for the participants and BAC staff, especially when they see a young woman of colour, a care leaver herself, who has managed to shift the power balance from service user to colleague.

One tool the agency gives participants is a compass, and I was interested to hear the project being spoken of in terms of territory, and asking questions about what does territory look like and need? And so participants are encouraged to explore the needs of their local area, and engage with their community to gain support and to receive feedback.

Having a bigger impact

Liz Moreton then explained the impact this has had on BAC programming and the organisation as a whole. The shift from projects that focus exclusively on theatre or performance to projects that focus on board games, visual art, sport and coding allows for broader thinking in other parts of the organisation. “This has meant that we are interacting with so many different people – people that we would never have worked with if our focus was still narrow.”

And in making this slight shift, those in more privileged or powerful positions, such as funders, programmers, managers, are coming into direct conversation with those they aim to include or provide for. This lessening of the gulf between ‘us’ and ‘them’ can encourage those who hold the cards to take creative risks and lead to a more genuine and authentic arts practice. I’m sure I’m not only speaking for myself when I wonder how such a radical change can take in place in an organisation as established at Battersea Arts Centre, and how we can convince more people to make these changes, especially funders. But as Moreton explains: “It takes trust. We gathered trust as we went along. We started tentatively and seeing results and impacts gave us confidence to continue pushing. The methodology brought us together to share the process where the young people are in the lead with their vision. It took us a long time to learn how to do it - but we have reaped rewards far beyond.”

Realising the force of power

It’s obvious that power is a negative force in the world, especially when one, or the select few, at the top of a traditional structure hold all of it. But when that power is shifted to a young black woman who has lived at the bottom rung of the ladder for so long, then that definition of power is one we should all get behind – because her type of power is needed and it is welcomed.This event is part of a series of events planned by Creative Scotland’s Creative Learning team taking place from November 2018 to March 2019. The events aim to inspire practice and support networking and skills development. For more information and to keep informed of events visit the Creative Learning events page.