Place and creativity: Making change happen through the arts

We are all part of a project called ‘Taking Yourselves Seriously: Artistic Approaches to Social Cohesion’.  Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, through their Connected Communities programme, it draws on initial research on what artists do in communities to explore the potential of the arts for working to support social cohesion.

The original research found that artists often shifted the way people understood their lived experience and could alter perceptions of place, but also make things happen in new ways. Our project team includes poets, artists and people working in the fields of social cohesion and community development. The project is headed up by Kate Pahl, School of Education, University of Sheffield. Here we have gathered together some of the people working on this project – artist Steve Pool, community worker and researcher/writer Zanib Rasool, Social Cohesion expert Mike Fitter and Playworker and leader of the Pitsmoor Adventure Playground Patrick Meleady.  In this blog post we explore, from a number of perspectives, the relationship between place and creativity and how we can support social cohesion through the arts and dialogue.

The adventure playground as a site of creativity

Steve Pool, Artist and Patrick Meleady, Playworker, have been working together on a project called ‘A Leap of Faith’ which is about the space of the Adventure Playground. Steve is a volunteer at the playground and an artist, and sees the playground as a place where everyone gathers. Pitsmoor in Sheffield is a very multi cultural multilingual space where children from many different countries come to play together. Drawing on the utopian visions of Colin Ward of the adventure playground as a space of anarchy, this project has been exploring the potential of the playground to bring people together as a site for co-operation and cohesion.

Utopia (Credit: Steve Pool)
Utopia (Credit: Steve Pool)

Art and poetry as a way of re-claiming place

Art can be a way of re-claiming place and re-imagining what place could be. In Rotherham Zanib Rasool and together with poet Helen Mort and a group of girls of South Asian heritage met and wrote about their experiences of living in Rotherham. The poetry they produced was very positive, despite some of the negative accounts of life in Rotherham circulating in the media at the time:

Living on My Street
My street is a very long street. It is very multi-cultural.
On my street live English, Irish, Pakistanis, Scottish, Indian, African, Afghans, Italian, Polish, Slovakians and Spanish
It’s good to meet and mix with other people, and learn about each other,
We all get on with each other.
We don’t argue.
We accept everyone.
My street is the best street in Rotherham.

(Young woman, Rotherham)

Children’s art can challenge and move us to change images of ourselves. Zanib describes how young people have been making posters to challenge hate crime that have ‘brought me to tears’. Art is about telling things ‘slant’ and seeing things with a different eye.

Talk and dialogue is a place for change

Talk is another way to make change happen, and it is a way of creating new spaces for things to happen. Mike Fitter, who is the Vice-Chair of the Who Is Your Neighbour? Project in South Yorkshire talks here about the potential of dialogue to re-think spaces and places.

“A particular feature of our work is intra-community dialogue – dialogue within a community, where the ‘other’ may be experienced as a disturbance in some way but is not present in the dialogue.

A recent development of our work is facilitation of a group that combines elements of both ‘intra’ and ‘inter’ community dialogue.  Following a racist incident outside a drop-in facility we were asked by City of Sanctuary Sheffield to work with a network of groups that provide support to refugees and asylum seekers.

Sessions have been held monthly over 12 months with a group of 6 to 12 participants, a mixture of asylum seekers, refugees, and members of the host community.  Initially we explored people’s experiences of racism and how they dealt with it – learning from each other what helps and what doesn’t.  The role of the bystander was identified as important – finding a way of intervening without escalating.

Subsequently we have explored differences and misunderstanding that arise within this community – often due to lack of awareness of or insensitivity to cultural differences.  In the safety of the group we have been able to explore painful experiences.  Participants find it a helpful space to explore things that have been puzzling or troubling which they have not been able to talk about together.

The style of sitting in a circle sharing experiences was described by one asylum seeker as “the fireside gathering we had where I was brought up”.  Another said:  “These conversation have helped me understand why people can be insensitive – it’s not always deliberate, but often happens because they don’t know anything about me and what makes me who I am.  It’s made me feel stronger and more confident to speak up when things happen that make me uncomfortable.”  A member of the host community said “I’ve learned from asylum seekers how I can best intervene if they are disrespected or abused”.

Being there

For us, the key to social cohesion is meeting and sharing. Patrick Meleady, from Pitsmoor Adventure Playground has the last word:

“One example is our organising Street Briefs- Out and About, walking the patch – where Politicians and Officers go around estates with local people and advocates to engage face-to-face with people and hear and see from the horse’s mouth what is happening, ideas and suggestions. We also put on cultural sharing activities, In My Shoes Events, Cultural Food, Faith and Traditions sharing, Poetry, Spoken Word Events across and in-between communities, bringing children from different backgrounds together to learn and share about each other, creating books and art exhibition of community and individual journeys, from making and public showing of films on community and social cohesion.”

Our work is about making things happen, and telling stories that can engage with other people’s stories and worlds.

Kate Pahl

Kate Pahl works at the School of Education, University of Sheffield where she does engaged projects with communities. She is the PI of the ‘Imagine’ project ( Her work is concerned with communities, culture and civic engagement.

Zanib Roosil

Zanib Rasool, MBE has worked in the voluntary and community sector for 30 years. Her work has been around the capacity building and voice of women and young people, and developing community cohesion projects and partnership work. She is doctoral student with the University of Sheffield.

Patrick Meleady
Patrick Meleady has worked in the voluntary and community sector in both Manchester and Sheffield, working in very disadvantaged estates, following which he worked in children and family services, and took over leading Pitsmoor Adventure Playground in the early 1990’s. He has been a lead in statutory services, delivering multi-agency approaches to addressing community safety, encompassing serious organised youth crime, guns and gangs, youth opportunities and positive activities.

Mike Fitter

Mike Fitter
is the Buddhist member of Sheffield Faiths Together executive group and co-chair the Sheffield Cohesion Advisory Group. This has been working determinedly over the last two years to develop a new Cohesion Strategic Framework for Sheffield – this has been a co-production with Sheffield City Council.   The team are now beginning the implementation phase which involves encouraging and supporting services, organisations and groups in all sectors across the city to develop their own cohesion action plans guided by the framework.

 Steve Pool

Steve Pool is a visual artist who works in different places with people to try and realise ideas. He is committed to the part art and culture can play in helping to imagine and build better futures.