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Radical acceptance, co-production and cultural democracy: What can the arts teach us about social justice in education?

Jennifer Kitchen, University of Warwick

This autumn, thanks to generous support from BERA’s Early Career Network Event Fund, I attended the Theatre and Performance Research Association’s (TaPRA) annual conference. The purpose of this blog is to discuss a core takeaway from the conference: how it relates to wider changes I am noticing in my work as a theatre education practitioner and academic, and the implications I think this holds for the world of education, particularly for those of us concerned with social justice.

We were welcomed to the conference with the following words from the TaPRA chief executive, Roberta Mock:

‘The TaPRA Executive wants you to feel welcome and valued – and not simply regardless of your nationality, gender, body, sex, race, ethnicity, dis/ability, age … but because of these lived experiences. TaPRA aims to facilitate an environment in which a productive balance of researchers at all career stages are able to work together, supporting and learning from each other … [It] is … important that we practise a form of radical acceptance and solidarity – that we make space, that we respect each other and that we look to common goals and aspirations.’ (Mock, 2019)

This may read to you like so much progressive hot air; or perhaps – like me – it reads like a description of your ideal classroom. Either way, the need to find productive ways to navigate diversity and establish common goals in precarious times is something we must all address as educators and academics. As Mock expressed during the conference, ‘these are no longer optional modules, this is core’.

‘The need to find productive ways to navigate diversity and establish common goals in precarious times is something we must all address as educators and academics.’

This move to the ‘core’ is what continued to strike me in the following weeks as I drew connections with this ethos and that of other events I have attended this year. In June, Manchester Metropolitan University’s Youth Studies Department hosted a conference looking in detail at critical, radical and creative approaches to co-production within youth work. The reoccurring message was that these new co-constructive processes were effecting real change for young people in ways current bureaucratic metrics of ‘progress’ are simply unable to account for. And in October, David Micklem, co-founder of creative consultancy 64 Million Artists, echoed this notion of radically inclusive co-production when he spoke at the Theatres Trust conference of a move away from the ‘democratisation of culture’ – that is, ‘the attempt that has been made by arts and cultural institutions to open up [existing programmes] to the broadest range of audiences and participants’ – towards ‘cultural democracy’ – that is, ‘a culture that is debated, designed, made … by, with and for – everyone’ (Micklem, 2019). This chimes with another strong theme at TaPRA, that recognising a truly democratic culture is by necessity a de-colonising culture – that is, specifically highlighting the need to deconstruct white, western and patriarchal hegemony in the arts.

What emerged from the TaPRA conference and these other events is that there has been a sea-change away from the top-down, the metricised, the divisions across lines of gender, race, class, and nationality, towards not a woolly wash of cohesivity but an actively post-colonial, relational and democratic form of creative culture. Research has already begun to capture this change of ethos and the implications it holds for education, with recent large-scale commissions and policy research demonstrating access to creative education is a social justice issue for young people (Bull, Wilson, & Gross, 2017), and something which is currently deeply unequitable (Neelands et al., 2015). And yet, working in arts education, inclusive and socially just education, or progressive education, can still feel isolating and marginalised – in other words, still feel like a space of defence against the status quo.

But what these events demonstrate to me is the emergence of a cohesive and robust alternative to that status quo. It might be due to critical social theory being increasingly applied to the analysis of these practices, or perhaps it is being spurred on by the growing political, economic and environmental instabilities the world is facing, or even just collective fatigue with the limits of neoliberal logic. David Micklem (2019) describes it as the move from a consumer-based model to a model of active citizenship, and I am deeply excited to see where this turn towards a citizenship model might take us in education. What would curriculums, schools, classrooms built on principles of radical acceptance, co-production and a genuine sense of cultural democracy look like? Let’s continue to find out.


References

Bull, A., Wilson, N., & Gross, J. (2017). Towards cultural democracy. London: King’s College London.

Micklem, D. (2019, October 22). Conference 19 Blog: People-centred design. Retrieved from http://www.theatrestrust.org.uk/latest/news/1055-peoplecentred-design

Mock, R. (2019, September). Chair’s welcome – TaPRA 2019 Conference. Retrieved from https://tapra2019.sched.com/info

Neelands, J., Belfiore, E., Firth, C., Hart, N., Perrin, L., Brock, S., Holdaway, D., Woods, J., & Knell, J. (2015). Enriching Britain: Culture, creativity and growth. Coventry: University of Warwick.

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