This article featured in the UK’s participatory arts publication, Mailout Magazine, March/April 2011

How do we create a new world, a world where acceptance, respect and collaboration are the underlying values that cross geographic and ideological boundaries? It’s a big question, one that informs much of the work that we do as facilitators, activists, artists, managers, artsworkers and a whole host of other professions in the participatory arts movement.

Social change and the way it comes about is well documented throughout history as a series of ideological battles, between opposing viewpoints and constructions of the world around us. It can be seen as a means of humanity’s evolution, even though change in itself is an ambiguous term, failing to clarify whose interests arise from the outcomes.

While the concept of social justice attempts to convey more of a desired endpoint, by alluding to the pursuit of equity and fairness, what do these terms actually mean, within different contexts, to different people? Depending on political persuasion and beliefs about economic and social ideologies, these concepts of equity and fairness may contrast enormously between people of different cultures, geographies, wealth status, gender or spiritual beliefs.

The way in which we, as a fluid conglomeration of communities within a global network, some more plugged in than others, some more internally connected than others, understand each others values and connect this to a collaborative mindset is my principle interest through this work, and in life more generally. Collaboration, to me, should be as easy and instinctive as waking in the morning (or afternoon, depending on your inclination) and must underpin the way we grow and change. Idealistic as that may seem, society’s built on collaboration and participation have been theorised greatly and practiced rarely, so the evidence against its practical implementation is offered from the same source of belief that installs competition as the ultimate basis for societal development.

Community festivals are, mostly, an inspiring or at least illuminating experience for all involved, although perhaps ‘grueling’ could be an accompanying descriptor used by the production team involved.  These, generally, smaller scale events are immersed in the local community in which they take place, include local people in their design and production, and showcase the talents, skills and resources that exist in the locality. They are a well documented means of showcasing the identity of a place and how this identity relates to the outside world. They are indeed powerful creations and, for me, an excellent means of propagating the concept of collaboration in a tangible way.

Celebration spaces, like festivals, are an ideal opportunity for discussing and sharing ideas for a new world. However, while there is a relatively wide body of research looking at the use of the festival to facilitate social change discussion and action, there seems a scarcity of practical resources to specifically assist in joining the dots between theory and practice.

Gaps between ideas and their application are well documented in many fields and specific areas of work. Creating practical resources based on sound research was the original motivation in 2009 for imagining this research project. One year later, I found myself aboard a motorcycle, purchased in London and freshly matt-blacked, making my way through dozens of cities from Leeds to Casablanca and then over to Sri Lanka, through twelve countries across four continents (including the journey’s origins in Australia). During these adventures, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet with festival producers and directors, cultural facilitators, artists, enterprise facilitators, and community arts managers who have been willing to share their stories about their work, philosophy and visions for a more participatory future.

Assembling the review of published and online material and meetings into something tangible is a complex task and one that I am keen to see produce multiple outcomes. Initially, I am working on an honours thesis, the findings of which will inform the design of creative resources to support festival producers, artsworkers, change agents, community organisers and government agencies. Most of the interviews have also been filmed and/or audio recorded, so a further stage will be to edit these interviews into themed film and audio materials, as well as creating a festivals for social change website to feature this content and interview transcriptions, together with promoting the wider body of research and practice as well as relevant discussions. Part of the development of this website will also be to formalise an international network of community festivals interested in social change, to share ideas and the results of our practice.

While I am still in the grips of analysing the mountains of data I now have [some say I bite off more than I can chew, but I just know I’m a fast chewer…], there are some clear findings emerging.

> Festivals can act as autonomous spaces, imaginary zones conceptually removed from the limitations of everyday thinking. This frees people to be able to vision effectively, to share their vision for new futures, enter into discussions they might not usually engage in and generally engage in behaviour new to them.

> Social change is not just about dealing directly with issues. It’s much more than that, and includes a community’s ability to understand multiple contexts and the skills, resources, needs and opportunities available to engage with them. Through meaningful, active participation, festivals support people to network, learn and share skills, and can assist those involved to learn processes integral to the betterment of their community including facilitating discussion, encouraging expression and planning action. Festivals, where facilitated with this in mind, help communities become more resilient.

> Often, particularly in the area of participatory arts and community organising, government is unaware or at least not as proactive as could be in working with creative approaches to gain public input to their decision making. Cultural means of empowering local communities sometimes do not fit as neatly into the compartmentalised chambers of government, where each department often tends to conduct its own formal engagement to source community perspectives and ideas toward making political decisions. Members of the production team can greatly enhance opportunities for influencing formal decision making processes by maintaining both an understanding of and connection to government planning and policy processes and by designing processes at the festival to feed directly into this decision making, where that’s appropriate. The outcomes of this, often more importantly, can actively support local grass roots community organising.  Collaborating with someone from the community who is abreast of formal planning processes and contextual information assists in not overloading the production team.

> Community festivals work best when they are a result of a series of culturally based practices and decisions. Trying to turn a festival into a workshop, by incorporating inappropriate or excessively formal activities that feed into local decision making or community organising needs will, most likely, only decrease patronage and support, particularly for those already on the fringe of participating in participatory processes (like young people). Festivals need to be fun, and work best where people can learn to instinctively and naturally share and express, rather than feeling cajoled through a process. There is also much richness in just creating a space for dialogue between community members, even where capturing the outcomes of such interaction can be difficult or impossible.

> Maximising local financial support, through fundraising, local business and other creative means, increases the way the festival becomes something distinctly local, and the way people become involved and attached to its concept, meaning and importance.  It provides an accountable basis for ensuring that the festival not only remains about that community, but also urges producers to facilitate dialogue with local people about its purposes and desired outcomes. Local fundraising also acts as an additional means of promotion.

Thanks for taking the time to read about this very preliminary stage of this project. Please email me at if you are interested in receiving the final outcomes of the research, being part of an international network, or have any questions or suggestions.

Steph Vajda is a self described cultural empowerment facilitator, with 15 years experience in program and project design and management, community arts facilitation, event and festival production, public participation facilitation and community activism. He’s also an artist and a musician, in his spare time, and has co-authored three books. He spends spare time playing pickup basketball and plotting the downfall of neoliberalism and capitalism, sometimes simultaneously.