Extraordinary Change; What Kind of Change Do We Want? Why thinking internationally and acting locally matters for artists and educators.

Liz Ellis has 25 years’ experience of working in wide-ranging contexts of gallery learning, community and adult education. ‘Extraordinary change’ is currently experienced by Liz in her management of strong collaborative partnerships; including NHS Trusts, mental health organisations and with artists as part of her Community Learning Curator role at Tate Modern, London. Her practice as a visual artist is informed by a commitment to social justice. Recent projects include a public series of events in 2012–13; ‘The Honesty Table’, developed in response to the UK riots in August 2011.

Three international encounters with lifelong learning in 2013

January 2013: Experiencing the Java Café gallery space in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and finding an elegant exhibition by a young female photographer, Neak Sophal. In a country of emerging wealth and complex political corruption, this series of photographic portraits ‘Behind’  depicts contemporary Khmer citizens with their backs turned to the viewer, avoiding identification while they continue in their daily lives as a manual worker, a parent, a nun, a barber. While these individuals are temporarily silenced through political censorship, Sophal’s photographic portraits of everyday strength and resistance to unequal political and economic structures educate the viewer.

As an artist I ask what kind of cultural, social, political and economic changes do we want?

July 2013 : The global news channels are full of Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai as she addresses  the UN, using her own experience of brutality by the Taliban to campaign for a broader universal commitment to education, especially the right to educational access for girls and women.

As an educator I ask what kind of cultural, social, political and economic changes do we want?

August 2013: Westminster Council in London cuts all arts funding in 2013 by 100% and all adult education services to hundreds of homeless adults, despite growing evidence of the increase and severity of existing mental health problems in the UK. (an example is this article in the Telegraph.) These cuts include the destruction of education provision for Seymour Arts Collective, an artist-led collective of adults experiencing housing crisis and ill health.Westminster is one of the most starkly unequal areas of the UK, being simultaneously one of the richest and most deprived London boroughs in terms of access to education, health and employment.

As a citizen I ask what kind of cultural, social, political and economic changes do we want?

Why social change matters for artists and educationalists

These three examples point to the necessity of critical thinking and sharing global good practice in effecting positive social change. The young Khmer artist, Neak Sophal, has the professional development needs of any artist and produces work with the support of a peer group of other artists and the context of older mentors, including Cambodian artists and international arts organisations. In Cambodia, the legacy of genocide in the 1970s has left the higher education system in ruins. Strong collaborations between artists and Java Café, the NGO Romeet and Cambodian Living Arts enable curators, gallery owners and other NGOs to rebuild an arts infrastructure. This creative energy was seen before in Cambodia during the 1960s, when the country was internationally famous for a wide-ranging contemporary culture including pop music, architecture and visual arts.

Malala Yousafzai, as a young global campaigner, points us to the universal human right to education and, in particular, the significant gender gap of provision for young girls and women. Her courage and intelligent use of international media networks have successfully raised the global profile of the vital role of equal education for girls and women. Thousands of human rights activists have ensured that she is seen as a campaigner within a global context, not sentimentalised as an isolated victim of Taliban violence.

Here in the UK, the Equality Trust website and the book ‘The Spirit Level’ demonstrate through an extensive research base that structural inequalities disadvantage everyone, rich as well as poor.1 Through the use of longitudinal data sets and analysis of international research, the Equality Trust clearly shows that pursuing economic growth only benefits an increasingly small minority at the overall cost of shared social and public good. These researchers point out that human well–being can only be sustained through more equal opportunities for good quality education and lifelong learning. These rights are shown repeatedly to be core aspects of a shared social and public good, whether locally, nationally or internationally.

Research by the New Economics Foundation points to extensive emerging evidence of the close link between activity, social contact and opportunities for learning and personal well-being. NIACE (National Institute of Adult and Community Education) has made policy recommendations to the UK Coalition Government in August 2013 to recognise the health benefits of lifelong learning and has called for funding for adult lifelong learning to be integrated within the public health agenda. In doing this, NIACE draws attention to the links between social inclusion, positive mental health and fairly paid employment for adults participating in lifelong learning.

This research matters for artists and educationalists wherever we are in the world, whether working in arts centres, galleries or further and higher education, in order that we connect local campaigns for the role and value of the arts in everyday life to larger, more international social justice agendas. Globalisation has always brought benefits as well as challenges. Now digital networks enable us to share practice and campaigns in a broader, more sophisticated movement for justice and equality. Collaborating with each other to achieve equality has never mattered more.