Civic Activism Projects Get Underway
Back in 2014 Trust published its Civic Activism Toolkit – a directory of innovative approaches to engaging people in decision-making processes which, for the most part, haven’t been tried in NI before.
We then launched the Civic Activism Programme to give Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) organisations an opportunity to experiment with one or more of these tools – essentially the chance to take a risk and try something new.
To support organisations through what could be a daunting process, we commissioned Involve and the Democratic Society – two of the UK’s leading democratic engagement support organisations – to help facilitate learning partnerships between awardees and as well as with organisations outside Northern Ireland.
In May, eight awards were approved – projects ranging from 9 to 18 months duration, spanning 15 different tools from participatory card games, to digital fact-checking to forum theatre and covering issues including integrated education, community planning, youth unemployment, renewable energy, public transport and welfare reform.
On Tuesday 15th September 2015, the eight projects came together for the first time – the purpose being to get to know one another’s projects and identify ways they can work together.
They also identified joint objectives for how they can collectively influence, not only the issues their projects are tackling directly but also the culture of public engagement in NI which can tend to be shallow, tick-box, inaccessible and even disempowering for citizens.
The workshop was ably facilitated by a team from Involve and the Democratic Society but it was a ‘powerpoint-free zone’ with participants spending virtually the whole day in conversation with one another.
The day kicked off with the participants challenged to come up with a creative one minute presentation of their project – highlights included a short skit on the lack of community voice in education planning from the Integrated Education Fund, some wheelie bins from Corrymeela to illustrate the main thing that connects most NI citizens to their local council and a few snazzy infographics.
Projects were then paired up and asked to explain their plans in more detail to one another as well as to work together on their vision, outcomes and outputs for their respective projects.
This provided an opportunity for constructive feedback and the opportunity to tweak their project design.
After lunch this process of exchange continued with a ‘speed-dating’ exercise which made sure that everyone had the opportunity to hear directly and ask questions about one another’s projects.
This had the added advantage of enabling people to sharpen their ‘project pitch’ with many finding it useful to practice verbalising the essence of their project and in so doing identify challenges they hadn’t previously thought about.
The third, and final, session focused on identifying ways the projects could work together and be ‘more than the sum of their parts’.
Lots of potential synergies were identified, for example several projects thought they might be able to link with NI Foundation’s digital fact-checking platform - @FactCheckNI - to propose topics and boost the availability of non-biased information on contentious issues.
Others made connections around Forum Theatre and arts-based approaches to engaging citizens this being a feature of both Corrymeela’s and Cedar Foundation’s projects.
Participants also brainstormed ideas for collective events, possibly using public-facing opportunities such as Festivals to engage with a broader audience, give profile to their work and provide an opportunity for people to experience creative, fun approaches to engaging in debates on key societal issues.
All the projects went away engerised, eager to get stuck into their own work but with a strong sense of collective purpose and a desire to develop connections with the other projects.
In the meantime Involve and Democratic Society are identifying learning partners for each project from outside NI and will be bringing all the participants together again in a few months.