Take a big step back from 2016 and you’ll see that it wasn’t all bad. As is always the case in times of change, this year brought us some of the best examples of everyday people power, you just had to dig a little deeper to find them.
Now, more than ever before, we need to be looking to the people who use creativity, ingenuity and bold ideas to make change, to protect something, to bring people together, or to make our world that little bit better.
Here’s a run-down of some of the best examples of everyday people-power from 2016:
10. Save Our Culture
Following in the footsteps of the Save Southbank campaign, this year brought London a small but significant victory in the form of a campaign to save one of its most important cultural landmarks, Fabric nightclub.
Earmarked for closure after two drug-related deaths and claims by the local council and the police of harbouring a “safe haven for the supply and consumption of illegal drugs”, the world’s music community came out in force to support the nightclub and help keep it open.
The #saveourculture campaign was launched, backed by artists and institutions around the world, calling for people to attend music events, sign a petition and donate towards legal costs. The campaign has raised £333,588 to date and the petition was signed by over 160,000 supporters from around the world. Even at the Royal Albert Hall visitors were encouraged to sign: “We at one London icon are asking you to show your support for another.”
9. Artists changing minds with music
Where 2015 introduced us to a new generation of protest music, 2016 brought with it a wave of artists using their craft to question, challenge and inform.
We had the Swet Shop Boys, made up of British rapper/actor Riz Ahmed and Queens-born rapper Himanshu Suri, who tackle the issues of racial profiling, prejudice and cultural appropriation with clever satire. That and a seriously catchy beat.
Then Vanessa Lucas-Smith, a cellist in London’s Allegri Quartet, who travelled to the Calais Jungle and produced an album, The Calais Sessions, in collaboration with volunteers and migrants from Syria, Sudan and Iraq.
Music producer Anohni, created an album of songs protesting issues such as climate change, government spying, and extrajudicial killings. The first transgender performer nominated for an Oscar for her song “Manta Ray”, she was not invited to perform at the ceremony and so boycotted the event, believing she wasn’t deemed “commercially viable” enough.
As Moutaz Arian, composer of the Refugee Nation anthem at this year’s Rio Olympic Games puts it, “Music is the best language to deliver [our] message to humanity, which is to love each other, and this language does not require a translation”
8. Female skateboarders in Cuba
This year I smiled from ear to ear as I read about a group of girls/women who are pushing the boundaries of gender, sports and culture where no woman has stepped (or wheeled) before. Skate culture is perceived as a male-dominated scene in most countries, but in Cuba, a group of women decided that it was something that should be open to everyone.
Still unrecognised as an official sport in Cuba, skateboarding is very much still seen as a political and artistic statement in the country. These women are facing the same issues as their male counterparts in addition to added pressures of pursuing a non-traditional lifestyle, against family, cultural and community expectations. Regardless, they’re determined to establish the first women’s skate organisation on the island. (Vibe)
Skateboard culture has always been associated with artistic and political activism. As Amberly Alene Ellis, director of the recent documentary Hermanas en Ruedas (Sisters on Wheels) puts it, in Cuba “There’s fear of something that’s new, different and breaks with tradition but it’s also because it’s driven by young people.” (Huck)
7. City of Asylum – Pittsburg
This year I read an excellent piece by James Fallows in The Atlantic about how communities on the ground are “piecing America back together again”. The first entry from this selection comes from the city of Pittsburg, and an extraordinary network of communities whose sole purpose is to protect and celebrate freedom of writing.
City of Asylum is an organisation which provides sanctuary to endangered writers, and offers a broad range of community-based literary programmes to encourage cross-cultural exchange. Initially formed in Europe in 1997 when, under pressure from a group of writers led by Salman Rushdie, European cities provided support for endangered writers in exile, the organisation expanded to three US cities in 2003.
Where most Cities of Asylum are institutionally funded, the Pittsburgh chapter is a grassroots organisation, supported by the generosity of individuals and foundations, and while the physical safety of writers is of course a priority, the secondary mission of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh is to help writers build a new home as part of a creative community.
Fund-raising allowed the organisation to buy a series of rowhouses in the run-down Mexican War Streets district of the city to accommodate writers and artists in residence, and over the past 10 years the programme has housed 250 poets, writers, musicians, and artists from around the world, who have, through the arts, brought a new lease of life to the district, which is now a major destination for local residents as well as tourists.
6. Colin O’Brien
This year we lost the great photographer Colin O’Brien, who dedicated his life to documenting stories of everyday London life.
Armed with with his first camera, a Box Brownie, as a child he began his photographic career taking pictures of life on the streets Clerkenwell where he lived, then a predominantly working class neighbourhood.
As Colin himself put it “The ordinary is of as much importance as the extraordinary” and he spent the rest of his life documenting his constantly changing city, and the people living there, including a community of Travellers in London Fields in 1987, a body of work which gained him critical acclaim for its honesty and tenderness.
I was fortunate enough to work with Colin soon before his passing, and at his memorial service in September, I met friends and collaborators from all walks of life. As someone currently trying to forge a career in the arts within London’s communities, I was deeply moved by the way in which his work and his personal life were so intertwined. Where many photographers travel far and wide to pursue new stories, O’Brien found his place searching for the stories that were hiding closer to home, in the city he knew and loved so well.
His publisher at Spitalfields Life Books, friend and long-term collaborator, The Gentle Author describes him as “a purist who managed to resist any commercial imperative or editorial intervention … resolutely pursuing his own personal interests”, which is surely something to be celebrated and treasured in today’s cultural and economic climate.
5. Bite the Ballot
Youth. Engagement. Mobility. Advocacy. Citizenship. Changemaking…
9 times out of 10 you’d be right to switch off upon hearing this string of buzzwords. But this year I came across an organisation that takes these words and translates them into actions, actions that any of us can take to make changes within our communities.
Bite the Ballot started as a lunchtime club for the students of founder Mike Sani. By 2012 the group held its first voter registration rally at the Ministry of Sound for the London mayoral elections and it created the UK’s first national voter registration day in 2014.
Three months before the UK general election, almost half a million people registered over the course of a week, the most successful registration drive in any western democracy per capita.
Their methods are simple and effective. They engage young people by talking to them, on their level, in their schools, at their clubs, on their terms, on their social channels, with Campaigns like #TurnUp for the referendum, which inspired over 1.1 million voter registration applications from young people in just over a week of co-ordinated action.
They know that young people can help change the future political landscape, but in order for them to do so, we need to equip them with an understanding of how the current system works, and the real effect it can have on their lives.
4. Mexican Women, performing in protest
In Mexico this year, according to Amnesty International, violence against women and girls remained endemic, including killings, abductions and sexual violence. Nationwide, more than 44,000 women have been murdered over the last three decades, according to data from the government’s official statistics agency, INEGI, and according to a 2009 report from the National Femicide Citizen Observatory, less than 2 percent of suspected perpetrators of femicide in Mexico ever face criminal convictions.
Women’s groups across the country have turned to the arts to raise awareness of, and in some cases, combat the problem of gender-based attacks, and to confront the country’s deep-rooted “machismo” culture.
From the Hijas de Violencia (Daughters of Violence) in Mexico City who shoot street harassers with confetti guns and sing punk anthems about sexual harassment; to Redefem Edomex, a civil organization that aims to make femicides visible through “social, cultural and political actions”; to the Escuelita Feminista in Puebla, a special feminist school which helps women identity violence in their personal relationships; to Luz Reality, a female rapper, who produces songs about her barrio of Ecatepec, the most dangerous municipality in Mexico state… Artists across Mexico are talking about the violence and finding ways to give voice to its victims.
These artists and activists know there is a long way to go before they see a shift in public attitudes and behaviours towards women and feminism. In the meantime, they hope that their efforts are at least bringing light to the crisis, in a way that people might not be able to ignore.
3. Casa Amarela
In the summer of 2008, JR visited the favela of Morro da Providencia in Rio de Janeiro and produced a series of street art interventions as part of his global Women Are Heroes project. The favela received a huge amount of global press coverage, and JR knew that if he collaborated with a community to create his own work, he had to give something back (Phaidon).
Through partnerships with local NGOs and inhabitants, JR and CoFondation acquired the Casa Amarela, a house at the top of the favela, which they now use as a cultural, social and educational centre for the community.
The centre is open every day to the local children, who have access to creative workshops, educational classes and facilities such as a library of donated books and regular open air film screenings. The centre is also a base for regular external art projects organised within the community, for which the children are able to invite their families to take part and help create local installations or performances.
In 2011, as part of favela redevelopment plans, the city tried to seize control of Casa Amarela. But locals protested hard, plastering portraits of residents to the building’s exterior walls, claiming “these pictures represent our lives, which we want to keep, we are not only the number that the Municipal Housing Authority allocated to us.”
As the 2016 Olympics approached, the Casa Amarela was in need of essential upgrades, so JR returned with a new team of volunteer artists and builders to redevelop the centre, the way the residents wanted. Throughout the Games the centre was buzzing with activity, with tourists and visiting artists dropping by to take part in performances and workshops.
Yet again, Morro da Providencia and its residents were placed in the limelight, but this time, 7 years later, the story was driven by the families and volunteers at Casa Amarela, not by outsiders.
2. San Bernadino Generation Now
Following shocking news of the city of San Bernadino’s declaration of bankruptcy in 2013, a group made up of young adult volunteers, community leaders and local students joined together to form a movement, the aim of which was to use their skills, talents, and self interests “to better the city through a complete culture and life-style change”.
In light of the City’s economic failings and with voter turnout at a record low of 13%, San Bernadino Generation Now (SBGN) first set out to tackle the issue of voter engagement, particularly in the poor and heavily Latino precincts where turnout rates were lowest. One simple way they did this was for volunteers to personally invite their neighbours to show up for civic sessions with them.
Elsewhere, some members, frustrated by the lack of usable public space in the city, organised park-cleanup days, removing needles and rubbish, and replanting greenery. It wasn’t long before local children were following these clean-up sessions and joining in.
Local resident and retired ex General Dynamics manager Bill Clarke set up a non-profit technical school for unskilled locals, and provided training programs for students, who were taught to use and repair modern machinery, which earned them national-level certification. Clarke claims that since 2010 more than 400 students had moved from the school “right into the high-tech manufacturing world.”
From empowering local people with employable skills, to painting murals on foreclosed homes, the residents from San Bernadino are a perfect example of how easy it can be to create a sense of community and improve your city when it looks as though no one else will. At a time when many of us are seeing the USA as a worrying symbol of decline and division, we’d do well to look a little closer and learn from the people on the ground who are paving the way for future movements towards unity and cohesion.
1. The Refugee Nation Olympic team
The number 1 slot this year doesn’t go to a grass-roots movement or community success story, instead I’d like to celebrate an idea, the idea that was The Refugee Nation team at this year’s Rio Olympics.
Say what you will about the West’s handling (if any) of the current global refugee crisis, in my opinion, there was a fleeting moment this summer when the whole world in unison saw these millions of displaced people as more than just victims.
At a time when 59.5million (now 65 million) people were being forced to flee their homes to escape conflict and persecution, the team made up of two Syrian swimmers, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a marathoner from Ethiopia and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan made history when they stepped out and joined the procession of nations at the opening ceremony in Rio on Friday 5th August.
The team competed as a symbolic nation, represented by “multiple stories and a common flag”. The striking flag of the Refugee Nation was designed by the artist Yara Said, a Syrian refugee who found asylum in Amsterdam, the orange and black representing the life vests worn by so many refugees who tried to cross seas looking for safety and a new start.
As the UN Refugee Agency stated, the squad representing refugees in Rio hoped to give the world a glimpse of their resilience, in some context other than that of conflict. Amnesty International made a statement in August, claiming that “By rallying behind the refugee athletes competing in the Olympics, we are telling refugees around the world that they are welcome and they are not alone”.
We can’t speak for the pride or hope this may have brought to the competing athletes, their families and other displaced people around the world. But in my personal opinion, this project was less about our efforts (or lack thereof) to show solidarity with refugees, and more a potentially radical exercise in challenge how we identify ourselves and our world neighbours.
When that team of 10 people from four different countries stepped out in the Maracanã Stadium, and when they competed in their individual events, the world was forced to start looking at them as part of a global sporting community, brought together by shared passions and stories, not by borders or nationalities.
If this approach is adopted more often, perhaps we will start to develop a better understanding of how these global crises came about in the first place, and what, if anything, we can actually do to help solve them.
2016 was a difficult year for this idea to surface, but with any luck we’ll have learnt something from the success of The Refugee Nation team and the support it generated around the world, however temporary it may have been. It may have only been a moment in time, but it was one shared by millions across the world. Surely that counts for something?
Follow them on social media: The Refugee Nation (not to be confused with the Refugee Nation petition to the UNCHR), Save Our Culture, Bite the Ballot, Casa Amarela, Anohni, The Calais Sessions and The Swet Shop Boys‘ Riz Ahmed
For a far better articulated and more thoroughly researched report on some further inspirational examples of community action, please please read the James Fallows article in The Atlantic entitled How America Is Putting Itself Back Together Again.
See the 2014 and 2015 When it Works “Awards” pages for more stories like these.