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What does it take to increase participation of marginalised people in community events? At the well-attended 1 March Chalk Fest event in Hamilton, New Zealand, we interviewed some of the artists that had made a personal effort to bring others who previously may have felt marginalised.

Note: the below is a screenshot. To view the interview published on March 1 2014 on our CNN page.

Steve, a graffiti artist explains that the reason why he loves the Hip Hop culture is because it is rooted in participation and collaboration: “I take on at-risk youth as my apprentices and show them how to harness their creative potential to become recognised for what they can offer.”

This is the type of energy that the ARTS2GETHER project is looking for. The project seeks to change attitudes and behaviours of people, both disabled and mainstream, through ‘participatory’ art: Artists of varied backgrounds gather to create together and in these encounters, new experiences of togetherness foster community integration. Such profound attitude change, however, needs to happen both with mainstream and marginalised artists - each side tackling their own stereotypes, assumptions and fears. "Creating societal change is complex, but we are determined to add value and facilitate some change processes" comments Dr. Annick Janson, the applied Social Science researcher who heads the ARTS2GETHER project. “Beyond impacting on the participants themselves, the ARTS2GETHER project seeks to create a ripple effect that transcends these encounters and generates knowledge to build change capacity for the long term.”

Change professional and service practices
The changes we are tackling concern a full continuum of participation. On the mainstream society side, the ARTS2GETHER team will assess the extent to which community event organisers publicise their events beyond the ‘usual’ channels and the extent to which marginalised groups feel welcome and invited. On the other side of the continuum, it is the actions – not words – from the disability sector that need to be scrutinised. The websites of disability service and mental health providers have carefully formulated mission statements that talk about community participation. In reality there are massive differences in how they implement their vision to create authentic community participation - as opposed to token participation. We have to tackle the difficult issues: “Does driving a person to the public pool, waiting on the sideline for them to finish their swim and driving them back home constitute community participation - get real!!”

Build inclusive environments
One of our partners is an organisation that provides support for clients of the mental health system. A number of their clients are artists who report varying degrees of isolation. Some of this isolation is self-imposed as they battle with social phobia and communication challenges - however in discussion with them, their support worker understood that joining an artist group with the right support would make a significant contribution towards their goal of participation... except there is no artist network in our region. We are working with Creative Waikato (http://creativewaikato.co.nz) to effectively kickstart this artist network. A group of differently-abled artists joined in to help gather names and information about local artists, collate contact details from various sources in the community and planning the first sessions.

We collect data that points to unintended change throughout the project: at first, some of our community partners thought that because we are working with differently-abled artists, our focus is on disability - they asked "what will the next meetings focus on?"... This was a great opportunity to clarify that - ahem... we are working to build an artist network with the help of all artists... nope - we are not focused on disability but on topics that are at the core of professional art practice - like getting your work in the best galleries and exhibitions!!!!

Challenge entrenched social and cultural norms
Working side by side on creative projects, people will experience first hand the value of human nature – in getting to know each other better, we will reduce negativity, fear and the negative attitudes that go with prejudice as well as provide marginalised people with healing and participative experiences.

Our research will document the thoughts, attitudes and behaviours that accompany such a collaborative experience. We will collect the data that shows what the success elements are enable this to happen - or what barriers prevent this 'rapprochement' from occurring. We believe that some of these changes occur in ‘micro-interactions’, that is the fine details buried in human encounters – so we’ll analyse the verbal and non-verbal data recorded during these encounters to describe them.

We will test how both parties can start closing the attitude gap. It is a movement that involves parties on either side to engage on the bridge and move towards each other. Steve is the father of an artist who once was marginalised: “We must look for solutions that do more than ‘bridge the gap’ but strive to create an overlap so that no one falls behind”.

Mobilise partners
Our community partners are enthused! The work produced by ARTS2GETHER encounters will provide the backdrop for a National Community gathering (a ‘hui’ in Maori language) focused on using creativity as a Community Development channel!! Our artists' works have secured a home and will represent a cause!

Those disability service providers that 'get it' welcome collaboration with our project - we have a common goal! To be followed!

The Ministry of Social Development Think Differently Campaign funds social change projects to ‘Make a Difference’ for the disabled people in their communities.