Creativity as consultation

by Helena Puig Larrauri and Michaela Ledesma

In a hot, crowded, somewhat chaotic classroom in Bria, Central African Republic, a teenager sits deep in concentration writing in large letters:

I am for peace, but when I speak it comes out for war.

When he first walked in to the classroom, he had asked us what we wanted him to draw. We explained that we were running an open creative space where he could use the available materials to draw, write, make music or otherwise create anything he wanted. We were particularly interested in his experience and perspectives about peace and security, but everything and anything was allowed.

Like many other participants in the creative spaces we ran in the Central African Republic, he was perplexed and took a while to understand we were serious about this open approach.

Consultation as a two-way process

In the course of our work in Bria, Bouar, Bégoua and Kaga Bandoro, we found that artistic practices and communication channels have been instrumentalized by national and international actors for sensitization around peace and social cohesion. Participatory methods are not familiar to implementers or community members. This ‘on-demand’ dynamic of typical UN / INGO / NGO community arts and communications activities poses a challenge to meaningful content-creation linked to any consultation: people can easily express standard messages of peace and coexistence, but they don’t feel authorised or compelled to go deeper into their own narratives and experiences.

To their credit, the United States Institute of Peace (who contracted us for this project) recognised the challenge of gathering meaningful community views. In December 2015, USIP began a year-long project to support the political transition in the Central African Republic, and specifically the implementation of the Bangui Forum outcomes. Over the course of one year, USIP convened a national-level Consultation Advisory Committee to gather community views on security sector reform (SSR) and the disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration and repatriation (DDRR) process, and debate adequate policy responses. USIP organized local community dialogues and carried out key informant interviews to provide inputs to the Committee.

In the project planning stages, USIP staff recognised that traditional forms of consultation often have trouble reaching certain groups — including women, youth and children, and individuals affected by violence and trauma. With this in mind, USIP contracted Build Up to design and facilitate a community-based art methodology that would serve as both a form of qualitative research and a more inclusive method for participating citizens to share their perspectives with national leaders.

Participation through creativity

In response to this request, we ran open creative spaces to provide an opportunity for people to bring out their perspectives and experience. The creative spaces offered opportunities for participants to write, draw, tell stories, film and direct videos, and more. This was a very simple approach; it wasn’t sophisticated! But it was implemented in a way we thought was important: participatory. We invited anybody to come, and invite themselves to art — really holding strongly to this approach. We were absolutely non-directive about what people created in the space, and therefore what “data” was collected. Careful facilitation of the spaces, with the support of local art instructors, helped to bring out diverse viewpoints.

We also tested and iterated our methodology. Day-long pilot creative spaces in each of the four locations gave us a sense of what worked well and didn’t, as a starting point for longer time in each community. The video below shows a little of the magic that happened during this scoping phase.

When we returned to Bangui a few weeks later, we showed this video to the Consultation Advisory Committee and asked them to produce (and record on film) questions they were interested in hearing community views on. We used these questions as prompts for reflection particularly by the participatory video groups (more on this below!), whilst making it clear throughout all our community-based art activities that we were interested in any and all views community members wanted to share.

Over the course of 4 weeks, 3200 people participated in the creative spaces we facilitated in Bouar, Bégoua, Bria and Kaga Bandoro. The creative spaces happened in neutral, public spaces with support of local authorities, and were facilitated by a team comprising one Build Up staff, one InsightShare staff, and three local peacebuilders. We gathered 585 pieces of content (song, theatre, drawings, paintings, embroidery, interviews), which expressed the views of the community on the consequences of the conflict, what is needed for peace, and what peace looks like.

Technology as a hook

Our experiences across multiple contexts, now including the Central African Republic, underscore the special draw that technology tools including video and photo cameras possess and that can be leveraged to reach out to and empower different groups. Young people respond particularly well to technology-enabled consultations or dialogue activities: the technology tool acts as a hook that elicits more enthusiastic and often genuine engagement than would otherwise be possible.

So we partnered with InsightShare to run participatory video and photography workshops within the creative spaces. In all locations, these workshops drew more participants than we could accommodate with the time and resources available. We selected four groups of participants to represent a diverse cross-section of their community, and supported them to produce four films on topics relevant to their community; you can watch them on our YouTube channel.

Closing the loop: the exhibitions

Later this week, the Alliance Française in Bangui will host an exhibition of visual media produced at the creative spaces.

One of the exhibition banners summarising content produced in the creative spaces.

We’ve curated photographs, videos and artworks into themes that reflect community views and match the interests of policy makers and civil society leaders. The exhibition will also include a panel discussion about the main topics and provide an opportunity for visitors to make art themselves. The intention is to grab the attention of the Bangui elite. We hope to elicit responses, record them, and take them back to Bouar, Bégoua, Bria and Kaga Bandoro, along with a mobile version of the exhibition — thus closing the communication loop with communities who shared their perspectives through artmaking.

The experience of peace

It’s much too early for us to assess what kind of impact these community-based arts activities might have had — whether the content will influence policy discussions on DDRR, whether participants will feel more empowered to speak to their leaders. We’re not sure we’ll ever be able to answer these questions.

What we do know is that people felt free to express themselves. People of all ages and backgrounds, ex-combatants, traumatized, Christian, Muslim, victims — felt welcomed and safe. As we heard over and over again in each location, the creative spaces gave them the opportunity to experience peaceful co-existence, not just be talked at about it. For Central Africans who have, and continue to face so many challenges, we believe this even brief lived experience of peace is just as valuable as the rich and insightful consultation outputs it produced.