When it Works: The top 10 of 2017

While most of us talk about how to solve the world’s problems, plenty of people are already out there doing it. Here are just some of 2017’s best examples of creative people power.

They’re using creativity, ingenuity and great ideas to make change, protect something or just bring people closer together….

Aaron P. Bernstein, Getty Images

10. The Pussy Hat Project

In the year that saw Time Magazine awarding Person of the Year to the people, mainly women, who kick-started a movement to end the silence over sexual harassment… I’ve chosen to open the biddings with a hat-tip to those who took to the streets for what became the largest single day protest in American History, the Women’s March on 21st January.  One of my favourite images will forever be that of the thousands of people marching down The Mall in Washington DC, and the sea of bright pink, knitted hats.

The Pussy Hat Project mobilised fast, and has since grown into a platform for women around the world to “make, give, wear and share” together. While the hats have become an icon for feminism, my favourite thing about them is the way they cleverly ensure that photos of the Women’s March can never be used to represent anything other than collective action against Trump, for equal human rights. (i.e. not to be mixed up with photos of the considerably smaller crowds attending the inauguration the day before).


9. Keep it complex – Make it clear!

In January I was lucky enough to attend an event called Unite Against Dividers, organised by the collective Keep It Complex. They use art to “have conversations with people you don’t usually talk to”. The discussions are accessible, fun, (often funny), but they don’t ever simplify or trivialise an issue.

In June 2016 we learned that we live in a far more divided country than we might ever have imaged. The crowdfunded Unite Against Dividers event in January was a weekend of workshops, debates and activities, which looked at how artists can work with others to bridge these divides. We took over a whole floor of empty office space in Canary Wharf to eat, talk, read, make, play and plot activities for the year ahead. The event was attended by people from all walks of life, of all ages, genders and backgrounds; there was even a creche service on offer for those who needed it.

In the last 12 months, the group have been testing out the ideas that were hashed out at the event; communal Digesting Politics meals, political role plays and campaign strategies have been tested, in collaboration with various community groups and organisations around the UK. This relatively small, grassroots movement could teach our institutions, policy-makers and think-tanks a thing or two about talking with people, rather than to them.

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Image from Crew Peligrosos, via The Guardian

8. 4Elementos Skuela, Medellin

A great story I read about in a Guardian article from Ollie Gordon… This one comes from Medellin in Colombia: Once notorious as the world’s murder capital – in 1991 there were 6,349 killings, a homicide rate of 380 per 100,000 citizens – it now attracts international tourism and last year won the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew world city prize.

Some credit for this should go to “a nascent generation of hip-hop collectives who didn’t just denounce drugs and violence, but started social-development initiatives: street-art projects, arts festivals and educational programmes for children”. The Guardian article tells of 4 Elementos Skuela, a school which every night is taken over by one of Colombia’s best known hip-hop groups, Crew Peligrosos. They offer underprivileged children and young people the chance to learn the four elements of hip-hop – breakdance, DJing, rap and graffiti.

To date, more than 4,000 young people have attended, some coming every day. “Many young people in the city’s most troubled neighbourhoods found in music, dance or graffiti a way of living outside the circles of violence and poverty to which they were destined” says Lina Botero, Medellín’s secretary of culture.


CJ Jones and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver

7. Disability in the arts

There are 13 million disabled people living in the UK, roughly 20% of the population. Yet this large minority is so often not targeted by the media as a valued audience (The Guardian). David Proud, a disabled actor, writer and producer, claims that it is the job of the arts to highlight and change perceptions. This year we saw a few great examples of how this can be done…

In March my heart skipped a beat when I read that the Sesame Street family would be joined by Julia, a girl with autism. Sesame Workshop talked to more than 250 organisations and experts over a five-year period, in the hope of addressing autism for children both with and without the condition.

In June, a group of poets hosted the UK’s first ever BSL poetry slam, in an effort to raise awareness of BSL and provide a platform for those using the language as their main means of communication to express themselves. “It’s depressing to see such a rich language and culture so marginalised” (Founder Pazbi Zavatzki, Young Poets network).

THE film of the summer was Baby Driver, directed by Edgar Wright and starring Ansel Elgort alongside deaf actor CJ Jones. Jones played Baby’s deaf foster father and they communicate through ASL in some of the most important sequences in the film, which are both funny and genuinely touching, without ever drifting into comedic caricature.

As Adam Membrey of Birth Moves Death puts it, while there’s a way to go before these kinds of cultural shifts are the norm, “in a world that embraces … movies like Black Panther, a TV show like ABC’s Speechless, and can have a Dancing with the Stars contestant in Nyle DiMarco – anything is possible”.


Build a Fire workshop, image via The Clearing website

6. The Clearing

In 2017 my friends and family put up with me incessantly banging on about this next project. Created by artists Tom James and Alex Hartley, The Clearing is a geodesic dome on the grounds of Compton Verney, which houses workshops on essential future survival skills; “a living, breathing encampment” where people can come together to learn how to live in “the world affected by the social and climate change that’s coming our way”.

The workshops initially focused on skills such as building a fire, keeping chickens, making medicine and harnessing the wind. However as the project developed, the sessions took on more complicated issues, such as producing the printed word, rebuilding democracy, trading commodities and, my personal favourite, ‘How to Die in the Future’.

Each workshop was led by people who are already challenging how society currently operates: for example Kate Rich from Feral Trade, “a live shipping database for a freight network”, an alternative way of distributing everyday commodities like coffee and cola; and members of BrumYODO, a community collective, which encourages and supports the people of Birmingham to have open and honest conversations about death, dying and mortality, before it’s too late.

The project ran for 9 months, and grew into a community of volunteers, participants, artists, caretakers and families. At a time when “the collapse of society as we know it” may not be as abstract an idea as we’d like to admit, this project is a glimmer of optimism; a glimpse of another, more sustainable way of living our lives. So pay attention.

Oh, and come see me about how to die in the future.


Squash Nutrition in Toxteth, image via Twitter @squashnutrition

5. Community Businesses

… While we wait for the (zombie) apocalypse to kick in, as The Clearing showed us, there are already organisations working on a grassroots level to help solve some of society’s biggest problems: housing, cultural and political divisions, health and wellbeing.

This year I was lucky enough to work with a group of community business leaders from around the country. According to Power to Change (the charitable trust which supports the sector) “Community businesses are organisations rooted in a local area, run by and answerable to members of the community, and which make a trading profit to re-invest in doing more social good”.

But what does this look like, and does it really work?

While this definition sounds buzzwordy, these businesses are often providing “a service previously run by the local council, like a leisure centre or library” (Josie Warden, The RSA).

Take The Bevy, on the Moulsecoomb and Bevendean estates in Brighton, serving around 18,000 people, last year alone 70 different community groups used the pub, including tenants’ associations and school reading groups. Or Squash Nutrition, a Toxteth-based social enterprise, working within communities to share employable skills and promote food health, working with people who may have been socially or culturally marginalised from access to good food. There’s The Big Lemon, an affordable community transport service provider in Brighton, with bus fuel sourced locally from waste restaurant cooking oil. And SoCo Music Project in Southampton, working in partnership with support agencies to deliver programmes such as urban music production courses with young offenders.

Jokes about the zombie apocalypse aside… With poor economic conditions deepening “thanks” to austerity measures, and further uncertainty ahead in our business markets “thanks” to Brexit; community businesses are agile, light-footed, adaptable and locally-rooted. Now may be the time to look to this sector for guidance, not just inspiration.


The creators of the I-Cut app, via

4. The Kenyan girls taking the tech world by storm

Five teenage girls, aged 15 to 17 were the only Africans selected to take part in this year’s international Technovation Challenge, which invites girls from around the world to come up with technology-based solutions to end problems in their communities.

The group of Kenyan students, Stacy Owino, Cynthia Otieno, Purity Achieng, Mascrine Atieno and Ivy Akinyi, have come up with ‘I-cut’; an app which connects girls at risk of FGM with rescue centres. Even though the procedure is illegal in Kenya, one in four women and girls have undergone FGM (Reuters).  The app is simple and easy to use, and gives legal and medical support to those who have been cut, or are worried they might be.

I love what a strong message this app and these young girls will give to the world’s health and political communities. “It is a conversation starter and that shows anyone can be involved in the fight against FGM” says Dorcas Adhiambo Owino, the group’s mentor and Kenya’s Technovation program lead (CNN).

Here are 5 other female led startups, closing the tech gender gap and attempting to solve some big problems of their own.


Khadija Saye photographs from ‘Dwelling: In this space we breathe‘ series

3. The Diaspora Pavilion

In 2016 the International Curators Forum, led by curators David A. Bailey and Jessica Taylor, in partnership with University of the Arts London, put out an open call for young and emerging British artists of diverse backgrounds to be included in an exhibition at the Venice Biennale of 2017.

The Diaspora Pavilion project was conceived to challenge the notions of nationality which inform the traditional format of an international Biennale (i.e. a pavilion for every nation). Selected artists exhibited at the Venice Biennale pavilion and are taking part in a 2 year collaborative mentoring programme, both of which intend to improve the visibility of British BAME artists and curators.

The collective of 19 artists incorporates a wide range of visual arts practices: Barby Asante, who contributed performance, installation and a film, about important figures in her life, including the image of a Ghanaian woman standing in for the grandmother she never knew; Joy Gregory’s work listed figures who played a role in her life – including the late MP Jo Cox;  there were a group of dark, tintype photographs by Khadija Saye, self-portraits in which the artist is pictured with objects that formed part of her Gambian mother’s daily rituals (Caroline Douglas Contemporary Art Society).

The pavilion was an exciting and progressive development for representation in the arts, however one criticism from artist Barby Asante was that it was potentially seen as a high profile ‘diversity’ project rather than as was intended: a critique, challenging our notions of diaspora. “Visibility is not enough: structures need to change. And I think we’re a really long way away from this” (Asante, via a-n).

Tragically, one of the brilliant young artists featured in the Diaspora Pavilion, Khadija Saye, died with her mother in the Grenfell Tragedy in June. You can see her work ‘Sothiou’ – a silk-screen print of one of her photographs from the ‘Dwellings: In this space we breathe’ series at the Tate Britain, and her work will also feature in the show ‘Actions. The image of the world can be different’ at the Kettle’s Yard Gallery in Cambridge from 10 February 2018.


Mauricio Lim Miller, Image via New York Times

2. The Family Independence Initiative

(IMHO) This was the best story of creative problem solving from 2017. I love this entry for its audacity and the challenge it poses to western norms when it comes to tackling sensitive, structural, societal problems.

In August a friend shared with me a New York Times article entitled ‘When Families Lead Themselves Out of Poverty’ by David Bornstein. The piece tells the story of Mauricio Lim Miller, a first generation immigrant who has spent decades working in community development and social services. He became frustrated with the sector and what he saw as a lack of effectiveness in helping families out of poverty, so embarked on a long period of observing and documenting the lives of low-income families.

He found that the biggest barriers to social and economic mobility were not the families and the situations they were in, but the assumptions made about them. Assumptions leading to them bring treated by society as victims in need of professional intervention. A “paternalistic conceit” as Lim Miller defines it (NYT).

He set up the Family Independence Initiative (F.I.I.) in 2001. F.I.I. offers no direct services or advice. Instead they share their research, feeding the data about low income families back to the people they work with, encouraging them to use the information as they choose.

F.I.I. have observed that given the opportunity to strengthen their own social structures and networks, armed with the right information, families can discover what works best for themselves and their peers.

To date, the initiative has worked with more than 2,000 families in 10 cities across the US — and have advanced homegrown solutions for child care, transportation, nutrition and entertainment, and assistance for seniors, housing and education (New York Times).

The F.I.I.’s methods challenge decades of charitable and social sector methodologies. They tell families: “Our role is not to help you. You’re the experts of your own lives”. In taking a step back and not prescribing any specific services, the F.I.I. are empowering people to have a say in how to lead themselves out of poverty.

#24Hearts Grenfell Tribute

Grenfell tribute by Kids on the Green, image Orlando Gili

1. The Grenfell community

Unfortunately some of the most inspirational movements emerge on a grassroots level from some of the worst cases of suffering or social injustice.

I hate that this is an entry.

But in a run down of the year’s most resilient communities, it would be wrong not to mention the strength, collaboration and unity seen in West London in the wake of the Grenfell fire on June 14th 2017.

I won’t for a second claim to relate to the experiences of the residents of the Lancaster West Estate and surrounding areas, but as a born and bred Londoner with friends who are active members of the community affected, I was overwhelmed by the whole series of events and surrounding coverage since.

We all heard about the incredible actions of the emergency services, but also of nearby residents, churches and community centres in providing emergency shelter and supplies for the victims of the fire. However the local support didn’t end there.

Situated in the corner of a car park a short walk from the tower, residents and volunteers have been running a round-the-clock community project: By day, volunteers collect and sort through donations while affected residents drop by for a cup of tea or to talk to someone in private about their experience; after school it’s a family centre; by night it’s a social club, serving up donated food and drinks, staging arts performances and providing support services to traumatised residents (Lydia Morrish, Wikitribune).

Similarly, the nearby, the Maxilla Social Club, a community centre which had been the venue of many Grenfell residents’ meetings, was a key refuge on the night of the fire, and has been home to many of the local volunteer-run support activities these last few months.

A story which touched many people, particularly in the art world, was the loss of young artist Khadija Saye; her work was on display in the British Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennial at the time of the fire. Two different memorial funds have been set up in her memory, including a Creative Access fund for internships to encourage young BAME people from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue a career in the arts. (a-n)

An experience I personally will never forget was attending Notting Hill Carnival, in particular when all sound systems switched off (on both days) to observe a minute’s silence in memory of the people known to have died. The organisers encouraged attendees to “wear green for Grenfell”, an idea which began in local schools shortly after the fire. Along the route we saw green hearts made by the children of Kids On The Green, a makeshift therapeutic play centre set up by local youth worker Zoe LeVack after the fire (Juliet Rix, Vice).

The mood at Carnival this year was undeniably respectful and celebratory. Sonny Blacks, who served on the original Carnival committee commented “In the face of everything it was great to see that it was all about respect. With Carnival being demonised in the lead- up to the weekend, it was beautiful that the splendour that is Carnival marked a sort of remembrance” (Evening Standard).

The memorial service for the victims of the Grenfell fire at St Paul’s Cathedral, attended by “probably the most diverse congregation ever seen at St Paul’s”, was screened at al-Manaar mosque and at St Clement’s church in North Kensington.

The community reaction to the disaster can be summarised beautifully in the words of the bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin: “an extraordinary grassroots response” which was “a glimpse of what our society could be like; a place where we were, for a brief moment, more concerned about our neighbour’s wellbeing than we were about our own” (Harriet Sherwood, Guardian).



I’ve cited anything I’ve lifted from other writers, but for reference / great additional reading:

…and check out these killer links: