Forum Theatre and Stigma in the UK & Uganda: Is it Mad if it works?

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What’s this all about?

I have recently returned from a trip to Butabika Hospital for the “mentally ill”, not far from Kampala in Uganda.  The trip was part of a project set up by Sharing Stories – in layman’s terms, a small group of UK & Ugandan psychologists and mental health service users dedicated to improving well-being for people experiencing and working with mental health issues.  The idea is that both countries are on an equal footing, neither is more important or knowledgeable than the other, but both have lots to give and learn.

Odd Arts’ partnership with Sharing Stories was a natural and obvious one – both passionate about innovative & creative approaches to mental health.  Our specialisms are of course different (one applied theatre, the other clinical psychology) but complimentary. The project we have just delivered in Uganda was first delivered in Manchester to mainly UK participants, but those Ugandan members attending were keen to take the approach back to their own country and peers.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The Theatre of the Sitgmatised

The project was an intensive 3 days of delivery, heavily influenced by and authentic to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and Forum Theatre.  As someone interested in Odd Arts, you will know that the interactive Forum Theatre approach is favoured by us in schools and prisons to tackle radicalisation; abusive relationships; anxiety and self-harm, to name a few.   Forum Theatre asks the audience to become the ‘spectactor‘ in which the spectator and actor become blurred.  The performance is created by the ‘oppressed’, developed by involving them in games, discussion, role-play, mime or imagery to explore their feelings and experiences and the challenges or ‘oppression’ they face.  The performance concludes often with an unsolved ‘problem’ which is posed to the ‘spectactors’ as something they can then influence and change.  This is done by inviting them to stop the performance in order to try out solutions as a ‘rehearsal for reality’.  As opposed to the traditional cathartic approach where theatre ‘cleanses’ the audience, Forum Theatre relies on audiences taking an active role and gives responsibility to all those watching to make change.  In 2004 Odd Arts founders interned and learnt from Boal in Brazil and his work has influenced us continuously for the last 15 years.

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Odd Arts working with Augusto Boal, 2004

In the UK we commonly manipulate Forum Theatre, using an inauthentic (but effective) approach where actors perform a pre-scripted play, with intended intervention scenes.  This allows us to tackle the contentious issues many of our participants face, in a timely and cost appropriate way which has proved to be highly effective at changing attitudes and behaviour.  It gives people the chance to think critically and explore complex themes.  However, a pre-scripted performance takes away the important journey, ownership and authenticity that traditional Forum Theatre allows when made by those who are themselves oppressed.   Our project in Uganda went back to basics, we delivered in a format that reminds me of that which we saw in Rio 15 years ago.  At that time Boal was practicing most Forum Theatre as a Politician, tackling oppression around homosexuality and mental health stigma:  Some of the laws that Boal introduced were around these themes (including the banning of both Electro-Convulsive Therapy and higher prices for homosexuals in hotels).  I was struck by some parallels with Uganda. Right now my understanding is that Ugandan anti-homosexuality laws have become much stricter and in some cases aggressive approaches are used within the community in the name of ‘treating’ homosexuality. Similarly with mental health, more aggressive interventions are adopted in an attempt to cure people. This latter oppression was the focus of the trip and we set about exploring mental health stigma. The group of people we worked with at Butabika Hospital were both health practitioners and mental health service users at different places of recovery.  The oppression faced by this group was apparent:  Lack of resources and money (both professionally and personally); ostracisation by wider society; lack of access to support.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStigma was thought to be a key cause of oppression for people experiencing mental health challenges, as well as hindering their chances of recovery and reintegration back into their community.  We began the week with no idea of what would be told, created or performed, but knew every game, exercise and role play would be exploring wider themes of stigma.  The performance that was created told the story of Gody (31) who struggled with depression, and Susanne (19) who had bipolar.  Throughout the performance we see Suzanne’s boyfriend leave her, and her friends and college exploit and abuse her.  Gody brings shame on his family and is left isolated and unemployed after his employer sacks him after finding our he had received treatment at Butabika Hospital.  We rehearsed until the performance was stage ready, and shared the facilitation techniques in a Train the Trainer session to increase likelihood of lasting impact.

Same but different: Stigma & mental health in UK & Uganda

As a non academic and having only participated in Sharing Stories once in UK, once in Uganda, my experience is limited – however, it has highlighted some key themes that are strikingly similar:

  • The widespread avoidance of discussing mental health:  Whilst here in the UK, the understanding and profile of mental health is growing, there is still a real fear and avoidance of discussing mental health in the same way we do with physical health.  Mental health is still seen as a danger or failure and something we like to describe as ‘other’.  Likewise, in one scene created by our Ugandan participants, they depicted a family desperate to hide their son’s depression from their neighbours, removed him from sight and lied about where he was to avoid judgement.Hiding mental health from the community
  • A struggle of acceptance:  Acceptance and understanding in work, families, and communities is an ongoing battle for people in both the UK & Uganda and something stigma contributes to greatly.  Self acceptance seems a more complex issue to breakdown.  “I am enough” and “This is me” were statements by members in UK & Uganda following the forum theatre participation.  The teamwork, confidence building, shared experience, safe space, trust and acceptance from others was key to enabling self acceptance for participants and to realise that they were good enough.
  • Judgement on wider capabilities:                     p7100555.jpgIn the performance created in the UK & Uganda, the academic / professional capabilities of people experiencing poor mental health were part of the story-line.  Both stories also saw personal and romantic relationships breakdown, where partners were no longer seen as suitable.

 

  • Never letting go:  Being allowed to recover is often a desire of people who have previously experienced acute mental health problems.  I noticed no difference in the experiences of those people in the UK & Uganda; they described other’s inability to forget them at their worst moments, where they are referred back to even years later often causing feelings of shame and humiliation.

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  • A feeling of dis-empowerment:  Not being listened to; lack of control; being spoken down to and having things done to them rather than with them is a common frustration.

We saw differences as equally striking:

  • The concept of contagiousness:  The idea that mental illness can be passed down, caught or damage future generations seemed much more widely believed in Uganda than in the UK.  This also influenced the breakdown of relationships and the idea that people who had mental health challenges should be avoided as a partner.  Many service users had been rejected and deserted.  
  • Causal and recovery beliefs:
    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the UK, people we know have different theories on the why and how of mental ill health, but these seem very different to beliefs widely held in Uganda.  Traditional healers (which you may have heard people refer to as ‘witch-doctors’) are commonly used to remove spirits, and sometimes it is believed it mental ill health is the result of a previous life or behaviour, which adds to and changes the stigma, blame and isolation faced by people in Uganda.  In the Ugandan play, a traditional healer diagnosed a young man (who the performance creators knew had bipolar) as experiencing a punishment by his step-mother’s jealousy.   Traditional healers and rituals are a well accepted treatment.  Talking therapies are much less widely available in Uganda.  Medication is used widely by UK & Uganda, but interestingly in the UK where I feel the battle is to empower people to be less reliant on medication; in Uganda, the health sector is trying to encourage people to use, trust and rely on it much more for psychological problems. 

The radical in the mundane

Strong and trusted relationships, where open and supportive conversations can take place, and problems can be shared are overwhelmingly what increases chances of long-term recovery, but stigma stifles.  The ability to hold meaningful and non-judgemental conversations about mental health seems so simple, yet so difficult for either country to achieve.  Both Forum Theatre performances saw the ‘spectactors’ step in to try out holding difficult conversations; negotiating ways to sensitively support people in need, and challenge others to rethink damaging stereotypes and stigma.  The outcome on the characters was massive.  Characters who were isolated, humiliated or feared, became able to be involved, valued and with purpose.  Talking and treating others with empathy and respect, even at times where this might seem most difficult, seems an obvious, almost mundane answer to overcoming oppression, trauma and stigma.  However, the Forum Theatre showed us these conversations could be life changing.  One person’s words influenced not only those characters who were in times of inner turmoil, but reduced wider societal fear, increased understanding, and impacted on the way other people acted:  This is when the mundane becomes radical.

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I would like to end this blog with the words of Uganda’s Health Minister Dr Hafsa Lukwata, who not only attended the Forum Theatre performance, but who was an active spectator, stepped onto the stage and took responsibility for the experiences of the vulnerable characters… Characters who were in essence the same as those people who were acting them.

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With thanks to Butabika Hospital, all the participants and Sharing Stories

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Applied Theatre – Measuring What Works And What Matters (and really believing it).

 

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Believe me… 

I know, I feel and I see that what Odd Arts does – works. It changes people’s way of thinking and seeing the world; it opens up new opportunities through self-belief and realisation of personal ability; it empowers people to find ways to challenge the things or people that harm us.  Proving this is another matter.  Of course, we should have to prove we make a difference.  There is ever growing scepticism of charity morals and we are at a time of national austerity – proving our impact is necessary and right.

Within its 15 year history, Odd Arts has of course evaluated it’s work.  We have used a lot of techniques: Before and after questionnaires;  Case-studies; Recording indicators for change (all the usual suspects).  Often showing a journey of real change and impact.  However, there have been a few things happen in 2018 that made me really question how authentic this is, resulting in a complete shift in attitude towards data collection, evidence and evaluation.

Did I always believe what our data told us?  No.  Did it mean we did our job better and served our beneficiaries better?  No.  Did it help us tick boxes and gain funding?  Yes.  Our past response:  “It’s out of our hands” 

This response is not reflective of the values of our organisation.

This is why we have changed.

Telling us one thing, but knowing another…

 

Let me explain.  Recently I took part in Social Value UK’s Impact Management Training.  It gave me a little time to sit back and think about the WHAT and the WHY of evaluation and reflect on some of our findings.  It made me think in particular about a recent project and the data it produced:

In this project, we worked with men in a community rehabilitation unit (Langley House Trust) delivering workshops around issues relating to resettlement.  The male ex-offenders all developed their own interactive forum theatre piece based on their lives and experiences, in order to re-imagine their future and resolve past issues.  The project was everything we hope for as applied theatre practitioners:  Meaningful; personal; supportive and with the capacity to be life-changing.  However, the questionnaires from the men told me that they had less confidence; fewer employment skills and a reduced ability to work with others.  I knew this simply wasn’t true.

Similarly, I have worked on projects where participants on paper show a zero to hero transition, suggesting they had no ability at the beginning of a project, yet on completion were now demonstrating exemplary employment skills and sky high confidence, when you really know this journey was no where near as black and white and was, in fact, far more subtle.  The self-evaluation questions we have used for years rely on the ability to honestly and effectively reflect on our personal state of being, participants mark themselves between 0 and 6 on their skills in different areas.  But what if, at the beginning of a course, the participant has never reflected on their well-being and confidence, and has no idea what critical thinking skills are?  Surely by participating in a project that builds these skills enables them to understand what they mean.  Surely part of that journey is the forming the ability to effectively and realistically evaluate their own being and behaviour.  Sometimes we complete evaluations at the end of a performance and presentation, when spirits are high and participants are buzzing…  But what about 5 days later when they are alone in their prison cell, would the answers be the same?

What does this tell us about the traditional questionnaires?  Maybe they’re meaningless.  Maybe they’re not.  Definitely they’re unreliable as standalone evidence.

This is why we have changed.

It’s out of our hands…  Or is it?

 

Another experience influencing our shift in attitudes in responding to data was being part of two research reports (with Manchester Metropolitan University and UCLAN).  The researchers from UCLAN’s The Psychosocial Research Unit recognised real benefits to the participants involved in our Creative Leadership programme including:

  • ‘Raised self-esteem, enabling re-evaluation of past ‘failures’ and future opportunities; Developed awareness of imaginative approaches to life and problem-solving; Demonstrated to participants that creative activities offer opportunities for self expression and peer recognition; Enabled participants’ voices to be heard through theatre increasing their ability to communicate; Enabled participants to share and reflect upon apparently intractable issues that might otherwise have remained unexpressed; Developed a feeling of empowerment and personal authority, highlighting aspects of leadership other than rule-bound discipline; Increased appreciation of the nature and benefits of teamwork; Provided an opportunity for pleasure, freedom of thought and a sense of release that was obtained through being able to participate in the creative process’.Screenshot 2018-03-29 at 14.27.18

HOWEVER, they also raised points regarding things they thought could be better or were providing potential setbacks in the programme, these being:

  1. The style of how we encouraged participants to complete accreditation was in complete opposition to the creative, inclusive and exciting style of delivery we pride ourselves on.  We always aim to make learning fun and experiential embedded completely in the creative process.  Our partners asked us to use workbooks they provided to take participants through an accreditation module.  It was evident in our delivery we didn’t ‘believe’ or ‘buy in’ to the workbooks we used. Odd Arts facilitators often tried to persuade learners to complete them through statements like “just write this out quickly and then we can do something fun”…  The underlying message:  Education and qualifications are dull. How did we respond to this feedback? “It’s out of our hands, their books have nothing to do with us” 
  2. Partner staff often posed challenges and could even hold back the achievements of our programme by making obstacles, negative or destructive comments or mocking the young people when they joined in (an experience many applied theatre practitioners are up against).  How did we respond to this feedback? “It’s out of our hands, their staff have nothing to do with us”
  3. Partners often banned particularly contentious discussion topics, whilst allowing others.  To be more specific, in one unit where we were working with children who had been victim and perpetrators of sexual violence we were told to under no circumstances talk about this issue.  We were however allowed to discuss issues such as gang violence, drugs, bullying and other offending behaviour.  Everyone (including the children) knew we must know about the sex-related crimes and we all knew no-one would bring it up…  It became the elephant in the room, especially when discussing issues around ‘personal barriers’.  The underlying message:  This is something to be ashamed of and that should never be spoken about, and that other violent or gang related behaviour was more acceptable.  How did we respond to this feedback? “It’s out of our hands, their policy has nothing to do with us”
  4. Partners might feel threatened or fearful of our work:  Will it damage the young people they work with?  Will it show them up?  Will it mean their job or role has less meaning?  How did we respond to this feedback? “Nothing to do with us…”

Our response to all of the above points is not ‘restorative’, is not ‘strengths based’ and is  absolutely not reflective of the values of our organisation.   This is why we have changed.  

“It is in our hands and has everything to do with us”…

So, we say we have changed.  Here’s how.

Accreditation:  What do we do now?

  • Follow the approach we have to wider learning which throws out of the window traditional desk based learning and use experiential, visual, audio, and creative ways to measure and record the criteria needed for gaining accreditation
  • If the qualification can only be achieved through desk based write ups then it’s not for Odd Arts
  • We have created a series of art-work postcards that help participants complete the evidence based element of the accreditation.  They are nice to touch and look at and something to be proud of and keepScreenshot 2018-03-29 at 14.28.35

Evaluation:  What do we do now?

  • Don’t evaluate anything we believe is meaningless or box ticking
  • Record things we feel are meaningful but may not be obvious
  • Evaluate to better ourselves and our service and not only for funding
  • Don’t promise to ‘prove’ change beyond our means
  • Scrap a ‘blanket approach’
  • Select data collection methods from a series of evaluation mechanisms that can swap and change to meet the needs of our participants
  • Ensure evaluation is inclusive, embedded and creative
  • When we know we can’t provide evidence to the level needed, stick to what we’re good at (delivering the programme) and find funding for external researchers
  • Ensure our staff understand the aims of Odd Arts and their projects so that data collection can be steered towards answering these
  • Be open to learning things we didn’t anticipate:  The unexpected outcomes
  • If we don’t care we don’t record it
  • Be open to change in response to what the data tells us (we will make mistakes and from this, get better)Partnerships:  What do we know now?

     

Before delivering any key programme of work we now incorporate an introductory training and vision sharing session with partner staff.  The aims of this are to:

  • Build trust and positive relationships with partners
  • Outline expectations and roles from both sides
  • Include partners in the programme plan, value their experience and knowledge
  • Listen and respond to the needs of partners
  • Be willing to learn from partners
  • Provide an experiential understanding of how we work and the theories behind it to reduce fear (with the view that we might even be allowed to address the elephant in the room and reduce risk of reaffirming shame and stigma)
  • Allow space for potential challenges to be discussed and find potential solutions to it
  • Inspire creativity with partners

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Why did this take so long?

Reflecting on the impact of the external factors influencing your work is something many of us (including myself) rarely find the time to do.  With the best intentions we focus on programme content and learner needs.  But if the impact of external partners, accreditation and data collection is done in a way that is detrimental to our delivery then we need to find the time to respond to this.  We also need to be honest about which data has the potential for real impact.

Odd Arts is an organisation that prides itself on a restorative approach, creativity, innovation and inclusivity.  As long as we extend our values to every part of our organisation – even the boring bits 😉 – then we create more opportunities for ourselves, the people and the organisations we work with.

 

Isolation to Radicalisation… What do we know now?

As someone following Odd Arts you are most probably already aware of our project  ‘Isolation to Radicalisation’.  Over the last 6 months we have documented our journey ‘posting’  quotes, pictures and daily reflections of the workshops online.

As noted in much more detail in our previous blog: ‘Manchester & Boston Radical Exchange’, the workshop includes a theatre performance highlighting authentic divisions around race, religion, and politics between 3 vulnerable college students.  These issues are not dealt with, and the result… all the  characters end up in grave risk of social isolation and radicalisation.  Within the performance we highlight warning signs and triggers; and characters follow a common process seen in the route to radicalisation:

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The performance looks at far right and DAESH inspired radicalisation.  *We try to refer to ‘DAESH’ rather than ‘Islamic State’ to avoid it being confused as something reflecting Islamic practice.

The workshop uses an interactive theatre technique to bring in audience members to try and influence the outcomes and prevent the harm being done.

Now we do not profess to be specialists in terrorism and extremism, nor do we understand fully all the vast and complex international and internal politics that underpin much of the dangerous extremist behaviours and attitudes that exist.  However, we are highly experienced in holding difficult conversations, we have worked for over 15 years with vulnerable, excluded and isolated groups, and we have a good understanding of safeguarding issues and vulnerabilities that make people more likely to take part in high risk behaviours.  In the past 5 months we have worked with over 4500 young people, exploring issues around radicalisation, and wanted to share some of the key findings from doing so.

Our top ten tips for effective work around radicalisation:

  1. Stop avoiding the difficult and awkward conversations: 

    We all know when it’s going on:  Racism, Islamophobia; Anti-immigration attitudes, in other words ‘blaming the other’.  Often we can find a way to avoid dealing with it:  “I don’t know enough about it”, “They don’t mean it”, “People are entitled to their own opinion”, “I wouldn’t know what to say”…  All valid concerns BUT who said you need to have answers.  We don’t need answers, we don’t need arguments but we do need to to talk to one another.  The more we listen, the more people are willing to open up and the more we understand about why other people (and ourselves) think the way we do.  Are they / we angry, upset, fearful?  Understanding the way each other feels means we can unpick attitudes, increase critical thinking and encourage new ways of seeing the world.

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We were blown away by the young people’s willingness and openness to change.  Notably more than many adult groups we work with, many of the young people would accept they had understood something wrong, critical of their own behaviour and honest about what they had learnt.

2.  Preaching and shouting doesn’t work:  

Often our gut instinct to tackle divisive, hateful or opposing attitudes to our own is to point our all the reason’s why we think THEY’RE WRONG.  But ask yourself, have you ever witnessed this:

a: (to b) “You’re racist”

b: (in response) “oh yeah sorry I will stop being a racist now”

Although we want to ‘call people out’, often this approach is ineffective.  Instead of             blaming, shouting or pushing people away, can you find a different way to really                 challenge them?  “Why do you think that?”,  “Tell me more about what you mean                   there”,  “I hear what you’re saying, you’re angry, I can see why, but I think…”  This will           once again open up a conversation and give more opportunities to challenge in a               meaningful way.  Which leads me on to my next point…

3. Validate people’s feelings: 

People that are compelled to ‘do something’ be it ‘good’, or ‘bad’ are usually responding to strong feelings.  Anger, hate, grief, injustice, jealousy, shame, sadness.  When we try to gloss over negative feelings, it does not make them go away.  A good example of this is when I say to my husband “That upset me” and his response is “well that’s stupid, you shouldn’t get upset about that”.  Often I’m not looking for an answer, but simply to be acknowledged:  “I can see that would upset you” *

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If we want people to be less of a danger to themselves or others don’t deny their feelings, validate them.  Acknowledge, without judgement what turmoil they may be going through and see if this makes them more open to talking, and eventually possibly more open to new ways of thinking.

*Note to self, send this to my husband 🙂

4.  Be authentic:

Our first attempts at the performance were difficult.  We felt the well know ‘fear of offending’ that often accompanies work around radicalisation.  During one focus group someone pulled us up on one of the characters…  “I don’t believe in him.  This isn’t genuine.  It isn’t enough for me to invest or care about him…” .  Straight away we knew what was missing:  An authentic voice.  We had avoided some of the most upsetting and political voices out of fear of upsetting someone, but without these the performance was pointless because it didn’t hit that nerve, it wasn’t authentic.  We went back to the drawing board and wrote into the script what deep down we knew already, and we voiced the elephant in the room.  This was one of the best decisions we made.  Young people who watch the performance time and time again said: “this is me”, “this is true”, “it’s real” – and it’s this authenticity that has enabled some of the most meaningful conversations.  One young person disclosed: ‘I think I am being radicalised’*, something that was discussed in our workshop was real, relevant and relatable to them.

*All necessary safeguarding was put in place

Above photo, Odd Arts & actors trying to overcome initial challenges at rehearsal stage…

5.  See radicalisation as a safeguarding issue:

Often people feel confident in addressing a young person at risk, with increased vulnerabilities.  We aren’t frightened to discuss issues around drugs, sex, truancy, offending behaviour because we know we must respond with positive interventions and refer people to specialists or agencies who can prevent further harm.  This is no different to a young person at risk of radicalisation.  Approaching radicalisation as we do any other safeguarding concern makes it something many more people understand and have the confidence to deal with.

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6.  Teach skills:

After reading over 4000 feedback forms you really do get a feel for what’s needed!  An unexpected outcome from this work, is the value young people themselves gave to learning new conflict resolution, restorative and critical thinking skills.  The interactive theatre performance asked them to think outside of the box, question why we act and feel like we do, be aware of the media influence, and find new (less aggressive) ways to challenge and combat hate and division.

Teachers and youth workers, as much as students, were enthusiastic to learn techniques and tactics for dealing with conflict and responding to challenging attitudes.  Investment in these skills would hugely benefit community cohesion and resilience.

   7.  Avoid reaffirming stereotypes:

Muslim women are like this….

Immigrants are like this….

Middle class white people are like this…

Young black men are like this…

Teachers are like this…

See people as an individuals, with their own story, their own personality and their own identity.  The more buy in to the idea of the ‘other’ the more likely we are to creative a divisive and more dangerous society.

   8.  Question yourself, question your concept of the ‘radical’:

Try to be aware of your own perceptions.  Your take on the world is neither wrong or right.  Are you  Corbynite?  Are you a Brexiteer? Are you a strict vegan?  Are you very religious?  Are you a sports fanatic?  Could YOU be seen as extreme or radical?

Radicalisation is not a static state, it is a continuum people can drift up and down.  At the lowest stage you have VERY STRONG OPINIONS, and right at the other end you have EXTREMIST TERRORISM.  Do you sit on this continuum with any of your views?  Is there a line where things go to far?  Don’t be scared of any radicals… After all Manchester is known for the rebel and radical Emmeline Pankhurst, and where would we be without her!

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9.  Know your job is never done:

This isn’t a one off conversation.  Dealing with radicalisation needs to be a community wide approach.  We need to hold these difficult conversations, question one another, and think critically long term.  Dealing with the risk of radicalisation means dealing with isolated and vulnerable people.  This does not mean daily discussions about extremist views, instead we should be normalising conversations about feelings, attitudes, justice, inequalities and how we understand the world.  ‘Dealing with radicalisation’ is not something we can ever tick off as ‘done’, rather it is an approach to life and the way we interact with one another and society.

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10.  Deal with the issue before it’s an issue!:

The process of radicalisation (as drawn above) is complex and abstract.  We will never know for sure if a someone was going to be exploited, groomed, or radicalised.  Why wait?  If you see signs of isolation, vulnerability, sadness, loneliness, fear, disengagement with society, or someone merely struggling to fit in, then deal with the issue you face.  We can all take more responsibility and be more socially active by communicating more, and helping people feel safe, giving a greater sense of belonging, greater self worth and improved well-being.  THIS is the first stage to tackling radicalisation.

With huge thanks to Manchester City Council who supported this programme of work, and the development of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manchester & Boston Radical Exchange: Shared approaches to tackling radicalisation & extremism

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You may be wondering why Odd Arts, a theatre & arts organisation is writing about a U.S. Embassy exchange between Manchester & Boston on ‘countering violent extremism’ – unless you are already aware of the type of work we do.  For those of you who don’t know, in short, we use theatre and the arts to challenge attitudes & behaviours, increase opportunities, reduce people’s risk and increase community cohesion – and have done for 15 years now.  More recently and relevantly, we have delivered work specifically around ‘radicalisation’, to 1000’s of young people and also to 100’s of professionals in partnership with Manchester City Council and Manchester High Schools.

Radicalisation is a complex, vast and contentious issue.  Society has generally been sceptical of the Home Office PREVENT strategy, and often people avoid the subject matter out of fear of offending or worsening a situation, and sometimes because they simply don’t know what it means…  And this is understandable!  In a nutshell, the approach we take to tackling radicalisation is:

  • Allowing people to explore the meaning – understanding that being radical can be a good thing, and understanding when radical views might become dangerous, and in extreme cases, potentially terrorism
  • Encouraging difficult conversations, where people voice their fears, prejudices and perceptions of the world especially around issues such as politics, religion, immigration and race
  • Promoting critical thinking so that people can understand where their own and other’s viewpoints come from
  • Challenging & exploring hateful or divisive attitudes without blame
  • Supporting people to become active citizens that promote inclusion and social cohesion
  • Highlighting the vulnerability or risk factors that make individuals more susceptible to being groomed or radicalised

 

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The work we deliver to do this includes a theatre piece and interactive workshop that involves three characters:  One young man with far right involvement; another DAESH inspired young man; and a female  Muslim also struggling to ‘fit in’ due to the society she lives in and wider Islamophobia.  The ‘forum theatre’ piece (inspired by Augusto Boal’s work) later invites the audience member to intervene and try out solutions they feel will help to support the young people in the performance and prevent them leading dangerous or harmful paths.  The audience practice conflict resolution, negotiating skills and empathy – transferable skills we hope will support them in ‘real life situations’.  The response has been fascinating – perhaps another blog once the full evaluation of around 3500 participants has been completed!

This project, alongside other work we deliver around identity and belonging, is how we received our invite to participate in the U.S Embassy’s exchange between Manchester and Boston to Counter Violent Extremism.  We went alongside representatives from Greater Manchester Police, Manchester City Council, Levenshulme High School, Manchester Central Mosque, and Community on Solid Ground.

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Below I have written diary like notes of my learning journey in Washington, then Boston, and finally tried to summarise the main things I have taken away from this exchange.

Dec 4th, Melrose Hotel:  Federalism Briefing

Fascinating overview and context of U.S. Government.  Emphasis on States encouraging ‘individual initiative’ and ‘bottom up’ approach.  Strategies have to be formed by civil societies themselves – never from Government.

 “No law can be made against freedom of speech” meaning hate laws cannot be made.  Government is forbidden to say what religion is and always separates Government from Religion (in order to protect interference)…  I think this explains a lot about Trump’s ability to share certain ‘religious hate’ views that some here in the UK feel would be illegal.  

85% work in the private sector and therefor strategies always have to involve business.

Federal states is the equivalent to 50 flags – 50 different sets of laws.  No National Curriculum, no NHS, and 1000’s of Law Enforcement Agencies.

Key learning / questions:

  • U.S. approach to radicalisation cannot be directly compared to UK due to such hugely differing Governance

  • Could we extract more of the ‘bottom up’ approach into our work?

  • Could UK ever have such integrated involvement with community, society and the business and private sector?

 

 

Dec 4th, U.S. Dept of State’s Office of Countering Violent Extremism

Reflection on programme aims, content and context

Dec 4th, George Washington University, Program on Extremism 

Researcher suggests there is no real concerted effort to deal with the issue of CVE in U.S. and that central Government is not pushing it and the FBI is not prioritising prevention.  No mention of ‘Neo-Nazi’ or White extremism.  Suprised to hear how little researchers think is being done in ‘soft terrorist prevention’.

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Dec 5th, World Organisation for Resource Development and Education

A good example of ‘prevention’ work that reflects many of our UK approaches, including work around ‘vulnerabilities’ and ‘inclusion’, ‘community engagement’ and a ‘whole community approach’.  It aims to: Connect – Engage – Intervene – Educate

Clearly work IS being done, but it isn’t part of a wider Government strategy.

Dec 5th, Dept of Homeland Security

Interesting to hear how the DHS has recognised that embedding RESPECT and RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY UNDERSTANDING is critical to ensuring people’s civil right’s should not be impinged.  They have introduced ‘Cultural Competency Training’ to security staff.  Interesting to hear that 96% of Washington people VOTED AGAINST the current U.S. president.

 

Key learning / questions:

  • The overriding values of ‘respect, inclusion, acceptance and diversity’ came across – the absolute opposite to that of their current President (I personally believe).  Interesting to see how people have managed to maintain these values under the current President Trump – perhaps a sign of Federalism in action – never giving too much power to the Government.

  • The 50 State laws and local governments means that a wider knowledge of one another’s work seems impossible.  While Washington University says prevention work is not happening widely or strategically, clearly many pockets or individual States and people are taking a lead on this.

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A picture here with me, my youngest child (who the Embassy kindly let go on the trip as still nursed by me, along with some of the other delegates).

Dec 5th, Center for Islam and Religious Freedom

We met with a previously convicted terrorist who had been released Dec 2016 following a 13 year stint in prison.  Fascinating to see how he as a ‘reformed’ individual understood and analysed  his ‘former’ self.  It gave a real insight into the mindset of a convicted terrorist.  Also really interesting to see how he see’s himself as more of a “80’s, 90’s freedom fighter” and separates himself entirely from the DAESH inspired terrorists who “wage war against all humanity”.

Dec 6th, Travel from Washington to Boston

This was not an enjoyable or restful flight with my baby!

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Dec 7th, Boston Police Dept

 

 

Totally inspired by their work.  Really progressive dept.  Fantastic multi-agency ‘out-of-the-box’ approach to tackle gun crime.  The Boston wider Policing picture is quite unbelievable (when compared the Manchester).  The City has 260-280 shootings per year (mostly within a 2 mile radius).  They were at an all time LOW last year of 40 homicides through shootings!  The City is comparable size to Manchester, but the gun laws mean the picture is hugely different.  We came in to the meeting following a night where 3 young people were shot, 1 fatal.  Within the City they estimate 120 different gangs  or groups.  

Partnership work with social workers, youth leaders, sports and education organisations is critical.  Massive effort to deal with post traumatic distress.  They recognise that the CHRONIC EXPOSURE TO MULTIPLE FORMS OF VIOLENCE needs addressing.  They try to LIFT UP NOT LOCK UP.  Businesses very supportive in funding (with tax break) many of the services that support young people in gang related areas / situations.  

Key learning / questions:

  • We NEED to deal support young people in South Manchester who have witnessed violent / traumatic incidents, and not only with those immediately impacted.  Whole communities can suffer from PTSD when a murder / violent episode happens to the people they know and community they belong to.  I think Boston is way ahead of us in multi-agency working and effective response to trauma.

  • Boston clearly understands effective and progressive way to  deal with ‘gang related’ and ‘violent young people’ but not specifically with potentially radicalised young people.  This is probably because the gun laws and homicides make it a matter they cannot ignore.  The subject of ‘radicalisation’ seems somewhat ignored.

Dec 7th, Emergency Services and Resilience

Like Manchester, the people of Boston were resilient and the city was proud of the emergency service response to the Boston bomb.  

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I shouldn’t have, but I did…   This is me above determined (and successful) in getting on the big screen an a basketball match we went to one evening!

Dec 7th, One World Strong Foundation

Survivors of Boston bomb come together to support victims of other terrorist acts.  Clearly this is hugely beneficial to the ‘survivors’ who are part of the group, and many people they visit.  My concerns are that not all survivors of a terrorist attack would want this initiative.  For those who state individual choice to receive this support it could be fantastic.  I would be interested to hear more about how they know people want this intervention and how they safeguard the people they visit as they want to see them at times of extreme vulnerability and may not be trained to deal with this.

Dec 8th, Rebuilding Every Community Around Peace (RECAP) 

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Meeting with the inspiring Baptist Minister Rev Jeffrey Brown, known to be responsible for the ‘Boston Miracle’ which saw a 79% reduction in homicide through gang shooting over 8 years.  He spoke of the strong and authentic partnership with Boston Police and how this was built over many years.  Spoke of the difficulty but importance in not working solo and bringing together all agencies.  Over the years he has set up midnight basketball sessions, peace walks every week, being on the scene following every murder, having young people call him at any time.  He spoke of listening and not preaching to the young people and not expecting them to attend his Church as part of this relationship.  The Church stopped looking at youth as a problem to be solved.  

As violence goes down it UNLOCKS ECONOMIC POTENTIAL.  Rev Jeffrey is trying to engage more business and real estate in the area.  

What an amazing man.  His Church was one that Martin Luther King was heavily involved with and preached at!  Fantastic to see the pictures of Martin Luther around the Church.

 

Key learning / questions:

  • Do more!  Give your all!  Never become complacent.

  • Could we deliver workshops through the night?  Midnight sessions?  Create safe havens?  This is when young people are out on the street with often least safety but most danger.  How would we safeguard this?

Screenshot 2017-12-19 at 11.32.35.png Boston snow.

Dec 8th, InnerCity Weightlifting (ICW)

A fantastic youth organisation based at a secret location.  It engages people still involved in or associated with gangs through weightlifting, and provides wrap around support and signposting as well as training them up to become professional, paid, personal trainers.  A different centre is created for each gang (or those that can be associated with one another), so that rivals will not end up in the same centre.  They have someone (an ex gang member out of prison) committed to understanding who is and is not safe to be allowed in and security is high.  Their professional clients become friends with the trainers and they become involved in parts of society they have never really engaged with before.  It is very much about trying to break down the hierarchy in society.  Many private organisations fund the work (costing over $1M per year)

It’s main theory follows:

TRUST – HOPE – SOCIAL CAPITAL – ECONOMIC MOBILITY and acts as a social leverage to other opportunities.  To complete the whole journey it would usually take 6 and a half years.

Key learning / questions:

  • Would the UK accept a centre whose rehabilitation programme takes 6.5 years and fund an initiative that took this long?  It should do as this is realistic!

  • The safeguarding seems less ‘conformed’ than in UK – Would / should we ever encourage gym clients in the personal lives and problems of the people who are training them (that are associated with very dangerous gangs)?

  • I know about many sports organisations working with ex-offenders or prisoners, but I love the building of these participants into professionals and bringing in private clients – does anywhere do this in UK?

  • Could a rehabilitation community organisation ever be fully privately funded in the UK?  Or does our whole system make this unrealistic.

8th Dec, Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Centre

Busy, vibrant community engaged Mosque that delivers many community programme including how Islam sits within modern society.  This sort of conversation is imperative for reducing the risk of people disengaging from their Mosque to become radicalised. 

8th Dec, Northeastern University, Global Resilience Institute

In U.S.  if they have a National disaster there is no formal process (each State will have their own).  

This dept researchers the wide International approach to Global Resilience – including the holistic approach to managing these events including how we successfully manage the aftermath, resources and internal reaction to the events.

11th Dec, Police Commissioner for Boston Police Dept

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Hugely inspiring, approachable and informal man who reflects and clearly steers the wider approach of his whole force.  

They want to make it clear they will protect immigration, trying to build more trust in communities.  If the Police have to enforce or act on someone in the Muslim community, meetings are held to ensure the community understand why and to make sure it doesn’t damage relations.   

Boston has over 25% of residents born in a different country.  

The force has an ice-cream / hot chocolate van to hand out free refreshments to communities in crisis in order to hold conversations and build relations.  The force gives our Christmas presents and Police have shopping trips with the people from the most deprived communities.  The staff play basketball and football with the same people they may have arrested the night before.  Real ‘on the ground’ relationships.  

Key learning / questions:

  • How do we build this level of communication and trust within our communities and GMP?

  • How could we pull in the same sorts of funding to Policing in UK when Boston receives huge amounts from private businesses?

  • Will the values of this force remain when this commissioner leaves?  They seem to be embedded within all levels / teams within Boston Police and not just one dept.

11th Dec, Medical Intelligence Centre

“Envisions a resilient Boston through healthy, informed and connected communities”.

It trains people in communication skills to deal with public health disasters or issues and equipping young people with ‘what to do’ in these emergencies.  They have Neighbourhood Trauma Teams and also train people to deal with PTSD.  Young people can request psychological 1st aid – it is voluntary.  It includes 8 core actions for dealing with PTSD as well as stabilising and resilience techniques.

Key learning / questions:

  • We must do more to deal with PTSD within communities

  • Can we train young people, communities, youth workers in ‘psychological first aid’ or the equivalent of this?

  • Can I find PTSD / psychological first aid training for Odd Arts staff – we must do more in this area!

11th Dec, Urbano

 

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An arts exhibition and engagement centre working with professional artists and communities for ‘transformation, community cohesion and social change’.  Lovely use of art to explore identity, immigration and belonging (very related to our conversation around radicalisation and the vulnerabilities that lead to it), using suitcases as the canvas.  Also an exhibition of melted down amnesty guns to create spades that were used to rebuild / replant areas of the city.  

11th Dec, Boston Children’s Hospital, Refugee Trauma and Resilience Centre

Another example of what I would call a radicalisation ‘prevention’ programme working with minority communities, vulnerable people and holding difficult conversations – run by a clinical psychologist and clinical social worker.  They highlighted that discrimination is as much of an indicator as trauma to mental ill health.  Their approach reflects the approach we take in Manchester and the ‘Radeqaul’ programme and Prevent strategy.  This seemed the most similar to the way we work – but a one off / small example (working with only 12 people on their current programme).  

11th Dec, Cocktail Reception hosted by British Consulate-General of Boston

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12th Dec, Commonwealth Fusion Center

A Nationwide Suspicious Activity Initiative (where equivalent UK channel referrals would go – but U.S. has no equivalent – they were very interested in how our PREVENT strategy worked).

12th Dec, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency

Based in a bunker designed to withhold a Nuclear War!  Includes full ‘preparedness’ policies.  Shows how many more ‘natural disaster’ emergencies U.S. deals with compared to U.K but less on public perception / viewpoints.

My Summary.

So, reflecting on all these experiences, what have I learnt?  I do believe Manchester (and in some ways the whole of the UK) does have great partnerships, communication and a shared vision around tackling hate crime, radicalisation and extremism – in a way that would always be more complicated for the U.S. and Boston due the the size of the Country and set of of their Government.  Gun crime and gang violence is such a real issue in Boston and U.S. that radicalisation seems to be ‘less urgent’ an issue for them to explore, especially when “those at the top aren’t interested”.  Manchester has a lot to share with Boston around a wider city approach to trying to increase community cohesion and engage communities with the ‘difficult conversations’ needed.  We have a lot to learn and take from the innovative and in many ways daring approach that Boston takes to engaging young people involved in gangs and reducing wider harm.  I don’t have many ‘answers’ following the trip, however I do have many things I will definitely explore with the view to change the way we work for the better in the future, which include:

  • How can we incorporate more ‘Psychological 1st aid’ training into our sessions

  • How can Odd Arts and the community help young people in areas where youth violence is high, deal with PTSD.

  • Would it ever be safe, feasible or useful to deliver workshops through the night (midnight – 4am) when young people are potentially at their most vulnerable?

  • How can we have a more ‘bottom up’ approach to our work and involve the community and individuals from the start and at every stage?

  • Partnership, shared learning / vision, and multi-agency working is key to tackling radicalisation.  We must all  “leave our ego’s at the door” and work together to make Manchester a safer and more cohesive City.

With huge thanks to the U.S Embassy, Cultural Visitas and World Boston for organising such a fruitful trip.  We look forward to hosting the Boston delegation in January.

odd arts

My experience with Odd Arts

Welcome to The Odd Arts’ blog, I am Selina and I will be blogging about my experience. Odd arts develop and deliver issue based drama and arts programmes for vulnerable and hard to reach young people around The North West and mainly work with the criminal justice system.

I took part in Project8, This was held at a Local Youth club Powerhouse in Moss Side. Odd Arts collaborated with Rathbone to do this workshop around Mental Heath and to help us learn about Leadership skills which the goal was to help work on presentation skills, team work, coping with problems and to help with confidence and creativity of the young people.

On the project not everyone knew each other at first. we began with icebreakers and games to begin the sessions and to get to know each other more. As the sessions moved on we were introduced to the day to day issues that may effect our/ others mental health.

We then did this really interesting activity which I enjoyed. As a group we created a person, where we all wrote down day to day issues that teenagers may face around this picture of the girl that we named Naveah who was 18 and had just left college. For example, Some of the issues where that; she fell into a controlling relationship with a drug dealer, she felt isolated from all her friends and family and was lured into the world of drugs which she relied on.

We created a story by putting all these issues on a timeline where Eventually we created a story about Naveah and the others characters who were involved in her life. Each of us picked a character who we created. For Example I chose Naveahs Mother “Jackie” her husband was in jail, the mother was stressed and had a responsibility of a new baby. Naveah and the mothers relationship wasn’t great as Naveah had left home because of the arguments etc.

I really liked doing the review of characters because I felt I could slightly relate to the character because some of the issues related to people I knew and life events which were slightly similar. We did this activity to get into more depth with the Characters. We then devised our own short performance. (Non scripted) we improvised our own knowledge into these characters.

During these few weeks we also went to watch a performance about Knife Crime at Z-arts which was created by a group of young people in Manchester called “Raising Aspirations “. We then expanded on our characters while creating this performance.

After a few weeks of creating this performance we then performed it at Manchester Metropolitan University to the other group of young people, we followed our performance with workshops that we Planned in groups to raise mental health/ drug awareness to the young people.

Part taking in this project has helped me gain some work experience with The Odd Arts where I have been looking at how they plan there projects as well as helping with some similar upcoming projects looking at scrips. I will also be looking at there social media websites and I’m looking forward to doing photography and filming during a workshop next week with The big music Project.

Selina Ali

@Selinaaliofficial

Odd Arts

Odd Arts Community Interest Company is committed to working creatively with vulnerable and excluded groups for positive and realistic results
odd arts
Company Overview:
Odd Arts Community Interest Company was founded in 2004 and is committed to working creatively with vulnerable and excluded groups for positive and realistic results. The company manages and facilitates creative, issue- based workshops within the Criminal Justice System, community and education sector. These workshops consist of combining art forms including drama, film, photography and creativ…See More
Description
Company Aims:

*Empower and improve the lives and outlook of vulnerable and excluded groups through drama

* Produce high quality inclusive art

* Increase the confidence, self- esteem and personal awareness of all participants

* Explore and challenge contentious issue through practical learning