When it doesn’t work

Community Engagement:

The top 5 ickiest tools of the trade

1. “Giving voice”

Everyone’s got a voice. It’s just that for various complicated reasons, some people are better at shouting louder than others. If you wish to offer your time, skills or networks towards helping others to get their great idea off the ground, do so in a way that doesn’t make you the hero of the story.


See JR’s Women Are Heroes project for how, even with a high public profile, you can very simply support people who want to tell their own stories; in a way that doesn’t distract from their individualities and experiences. In 2013 JR launched the global Inside Out Project, which, through offering free printing and logistical support, provides communities with handy tools for elevating their own protest, campaign or creative project. Inside Out has become a growing network of individuals, communities and organisations, and the core team continue to promote and support communities after their activity is completed. The repetitive use of plastered black and white portraits means that Inside Out‘s creative input never overshadows the role of those taking part in the project.

2. Murals

No one needs a mural. Yet murals have become a short-hand for community-led art; with councils, planners and artists often commissioning murals for areas of regeneration or redevelopment; driven by the belief that they can help build a sense of local pride or ‘place-making’. The art world in particular often refers to historic murals of the past, telling people they too could have their own iconic piece (in a specifically chosen location). No one seems to be addressing the fact that so often, the murals we know, love and celebrate are a creative response to some sort of oppression, discrimination or marginalisation.


Check out the Wall of Respect, Smokehouse Associates, Free Derry Corner or the Cable Street Mural for well-known and loved examples of walls with great stories behind them. Murals are of course beautiful, but lets not blur the lines between activist and public art. People can decide for themselves if they want/need a mural.

3. Pointless panels

Organising a seminar, conference or series or talks on a subject like the housing crisis, diversity, sustainability, social mobility or community activism? Be damn sure that *AT LEAST* half your booked speakers come to the table with some real world (not one-off) experience of said societal issue. You’d be better off giving the hundreds of pounds worth of speakers fees to a community group to run their own event and actually let people have their say on an issue. Or better yet, put some of the money towards catering and childcare to ensure that the people you’re talking about can actually attend your event.


This year the UK Women’s Strike Assembly organised an excellent series of meetings in the lead up to the International Women’s Strike, raising awareness of the strike and the various international groups taking part. Each event consisted of a series of talks followed by group workshop activities in response to the issues discussed, often tackling logistical aspects to the strike itself. The speakers included activists, front-line service providers and community organisers from a really diverse range of backgrounds and locations; and each event was held in a community space relevant to the focus of the talks; with childcare and catering provided by volunteers from Plan C throughout.

4. An industry fuelled by jargon [and info-graphics]

These days more and more arts institutions, charities, think-tanks and even corporate businesses are seeing the benefits of trying to improve their social, cultural or environmental impact. They’ve developed loads of slick jargon to describe the good work they do, the impact they (claim to) make, and the jobs they’ve created for delivering this good work… For example:

  • CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is when a business sets aside some of their profit for supporting (and heavily marketing their support for) a particular cause. They often get a nice big tax break for doing so.
  • Community Engagement has become a short hand for collaborating with, inviting, or delivering projects for the benefit of a particular community.
  • Creative Learning. In the arts this refers to when institutions or organisations deliver (usually) free educational activities (often for people who would otherwise have limited access to their cultural programming).
  • Info-graphics are a way of applying graphic design to story-telling. In the world of big-budget community engagement (because no truly community-led / grassroots organisations have the time or money to even consider beautifully presenting their reporting), info-graphics are a method of “demonstrating your impact” i.e. an attractive way of presenting an organisation’s “results” as data, proving their benefit to society.

If you’re fluent in jargon you can convince the world that you’re doing some seriously amazing, world changing good. Which is so dangerous in times of austerity; when public money and trust is lavished on to organisations and individuals claiming to be capable of lightening the load for our struggling public services.


Bite the Ballot is an organisation that aims to get young people involved in politics. While their website recently underwent a thorough polishing, the work they do with members of the public breaks down the jargon and makes themes around politics relevant and, most notably, appealing to a youth audience. They started out campaigning on the ground, always hosting events in spaces such as youth centres; spaces where young people were more likely to feel comfortable expressing themselves or meeting new people.

A much more Lo-Fi attempt to do the same but for an art world audience comes from Keep It Complex. This small but mighty collective dissects British politics and the systems it upholds by always focusing on moving forwards: proposing alternatives and asking how we all can help make politics work better for as many of us as possible.

Grassroots orgs have it covered. But it’s really hard to find institutions, think-tanks and organisations doing socially engaged work without the jargon. If you know of a great example, I’d love to salute them. Get in touch.

5. The art of worthy curating and programming

A big part of community engagement is to partner up with exciting activists, inventors, organisations or artists who will inspire people to be creative or to start something for themselves. It’s hugely important to celebrate the work done by those who help change the world for the better. For example: a well programmed festival on sustainability can inspire thousands of people to change their attitudes and behaviours towards climate change.

But programmers and curators are nothing without the relentless energy, sacrifices, creativity and leadership of the artists, activists and grassroots movements they champion. Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power was a superb exhibition, but it wasn’t even close to being the first exhibition of its kind (see The Freedom Principle at the MCA Chicago just two years before in 2015, or ANYTHING at the Studio Museum in Harlem). The thing that makes these social themes compelling again and again is the subject matter and the energy and power of the work on display; not the timing or venue of their showcasing.


There are so many independent festivals, publishers, cultural venues, organisations and grassroots projects championing GREAT work in sustainability, the arts, education, equality and brave new industries (etc) without the big bucks marketing budgets. There’s no need to list them here, I’ll be bigging them up on the ACTIONS page as I find them. If you’re after some pointers keep checking back…