In April 2014 a group of 42 people from around the world came together for a ten-day course in the Art of Changemaking at Knowmads in Amsterdam.
This eclectic group worked with the topic of change on individual and systemic levels and partially co-created the programme, together forming a growing community of international changemakers working in different fields of change around the world.
This year’s programme included workshops in social sculpture, the hero’s journey, ‘knowmadic’ knowledge work, the art of listening, and sessions of individual research and practial implementation of ideas for change – internally, within Knowmads HQ and the surrounding neighbourhoods and within our wider communities.
Here you can see some of the impressions, insights and experiences described by the Art of Changemaking 2014 participants!
The programme was developed with support of Erasmus and through partnership between Cork Institute of Technology- Crawford College of Art and Design, Ireland, Hogeschool Van Amsterdam, Netherlands and Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK. The programme was hosted at Knowmads.
handpicked blog gems from 2014
When I arrived in Amsterdam and got out of central station I instantly new the next 10 days were going to be fun. I got my camera out of my bag and started snapping. When exploring the city I loved discovering the different buildings, streets, shops, sounds, shapes and colours. I took so many photographes and still have 3 rolls of film to get developed which I cant wait to see. I hope to come back to explore and experience more but to also photograph some more!
I found out about the Art of Change-making course in February, when I received an e-mail from Jessica Carson inviting past participants from the Arts, Participation and Development course that she runs to attend.
I immediately texted my friend Claire. We had both completed the course and it has laid the foundations for the work we do now. The Arts, Participation and Development programme teaches how to connect creative methods with social change at a local and global level, and Claire and I now work together facilitating young people in art projects that connect them to the wider community. We had a bit of a laugh when I sent a text telling her about this “awful” course in Amsterdam. She wrote back saying how much she’d hate to go and the correspondence continued in the same vein…all completely insincere of course, we knew the Art of Change-making was for us!
We had about a week to apply and felt, if our application was to be noticed it would have to stand out. We discussed our answers to the three important questions:
What excites you about exploring the Art of Change-making for an extended period of ten days with forty people from around the world in Amsterdam?
What passions, questions and motivations do you bring to the Art of Change-making?
What would help you take forward your visions for change?
Then, we set to creating a stop-motion animation, drawing and writing the details that we wanted to bring to life. We took hundreds of photographs, moving every individual piece slightly with every photograph taken and imported them to iMovie. We had recently discovered the song Bathtime in Clerkenwell (that’s also a great animated video, I’d recommend watching it), which had become the theme tune to our task. It was obvious to us that it should be the soundtrack to our video and we were ecstatic (no exaggeration) when our video stills fitted perfectly in with the song!
We spent about two days creating the animation and uploaded it to YouTube with minuted to go before the application deadline. You can imagine our delight when we got the acceptance email. We were going to Amsterdam!
Here’s the video… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sEY0qj-PZY
Here is a word cloud created with my Art of Change-making notes. The size of the word indicates its prevalence in my journal.
At the beginning of the Art of Change-making, we were given space to consider our questions. Initially, I wasn’t sure. I began to write, “Where do I begin?”. Where indeed. When faced with the daunting issue of change, it’s not easy to know where to start. Change can mean many things and it can happen in many ways. I thought about change-makers who inspire me. What unique qualities do I see that they, as individuals, groups of people or even organisations share? For the most part, they are human, they are ordinary, they could be anybody. But what they do possess is a spark, a certain energy that sets them apart from others and, more importantly, a vision. Those with an understanding of the way things are and a clear idea of the way things could (/should) be are the ones who make things happen. I believe that those who have affected social change in the past, as well as “being the change they want to see in the world”, have the power to see the change they want to be.
The questions I began the course with were a bit all over the place:
How do I choose to live?
How should I live?
How do I want to live?
I asked these questions of all aspects of my life: personal, ethical, moral, active, on the inside and on the outside. I asked myself what were the differences between the answers to those three questions and what changes should I make to move from one towards another, and how? Again, where would I begin? I endeavoured to reflect on these questions over the course of the Art of Change-making and to try to figure out what positive change means to me on a personal level, so that I could carry this into the wider world.
Over the course of the Art of Change-making, we broke off into groups, where those of us with common ideals discussed some of our questions and our visions for change. A question that resonated with me at this time was:
Is there a truth in the world related to the truth in ourselves?
I believe, with my whole heart, that there is and I think that it is this truth that we, as humans, must connect with if we are to see a positive future. It is the truth of being, of humanity and of love. How do we connect to that truth? How do we help others to connect to it? These are big questions, but not impossible ones. Truth will always prevail, we just need to help people to see it.
The Art of Change-making was a privileged space in which we were given the freedom to examine our self. Spending a lot of time exploring our own values and reflecting on what is really important to us allowed me to really get in touch with me. The age of communication and entertainment makes for easy distraction and I often feel I have to make an effort to spend time with my own thoughts and feelings, when it should be second nature to do this. It was apparent that self exploration is something I need to do more of. I was beginning to find answers to my first questions!
The course sought to bridge the gap between thoughts and actions. Striking a balance between the two is an important skill as a change-maker, too much of one and not enough of the other can lead to overthinking things and getting nothing done, or leaping blindly into activity without proper consideration of what you are doing. People should strive to deeply understand and develop foresight around their cause if they are to take successful action…they should try to see their vision! By visualising the changes you want to see, it makes accomplishing change that bit easier.
I still carry the questions I began with and try to reflect on them and make changes to my life. Thinking about what my questions are results in me asking even more questions.
Do I have the same questions as others?
How do those of us with similar questions connect with one another in order to answer our questions together?
How will we turn our questions in to actions?
I feel as if the Art of Change-making helped to answer these questions. Many of us have similar goals and objectives. We need to make the effort to connect with one another, through platforms such as the Art of Change-making or contact-making seminars on similar themes. By doing this we can share our motivations, ideas and capacities and develop our collective vision. The Art of Change-making begins with the individual, but it takes the power of connection to really make a difference to the world.
I feel so lucky to have been afforded this time and the opportunity to work with positive, nurturing change-makers (some of those with a clear vision!). The meeting of such diverse people, with many different ideas and approaches to the theme of change, allowed for some really positive connections and exciting collective ideas. My working group had a strong motivation for a common objective and committed to working towards change together, through the Art of Change-making and beyond.
A friend of mine introduced me to The Art of Hosting some years back. She went through many of the concepts but one thing that stayed with me was when she said “some of the best insights come from the conversations at the coffee station when people are taking some time out during a session”. I always thought this was funny. Here we are gathered in a place to discuss some important issues. We are in a structured setting, we are being facilitated, we are being given allotted time to talk, we are listening etc. But the biggest forward leaps happen when I am taking a break and having a chat!
There are a few issues at play here. The first is around creating a space where conversations can happen. We bring people together who have various interests and their experience from their respective fields can help hone and develop another’s. So simply putting people in the same room and giving them a chance to get to know each other can aid the path towards insights and future actions and collaborations.
The second issue I see is focus. I’ve done a few creative writing workshops and one of the best ways of aiding creativity is to take away choices. “Write a poem” is one of the most daunting exercises anyone could hear. However brainstorm 20 words plus around an event that happened in your childhood, now use six of those in a six line poem. Bang – a few minutes later you have poem! Why does that work? “Write a poem” is panoramic – there are endless possibilities. Too many choices and we get overwhelmed. Narrow those down and, paradoxically, there is more freedom for expression. The same is true for creating a space for powerful conversations to happen. Another word for this might be focus. So if we have a clear question, we can have a clear focus. Too wide a parameter and it is daunting.
So to create a space for powerful conversations we need people and a focus. On a practical level it is good to adopt a user-led contract for working practises. And really that is it.
I think for many of us who navigate, and still navigate, traditional education we can get lost in what we think should happen. There should be someone at the top of the room leading. We should all face that way and appear to be listening. Day-dreaming and doodling are bad, that’s what we were told in school anyway. Permission must be sought before we leave the room. Breaks are decided by the teacher.
In a room full of people who are attracted to something like The Art of Change-making there is no need for control. These are all people working at the forefront of their field, trying their hardest to improve the lives of others, the environment, to bring awareness issues important to them, to fight to have quieter voices heard. They don’t need to be controlled and told how to comport themselves. They just need a space and a focus.
And if we create a space where people must behave like children in a school then those wonderful conversations at the coffee station wont happen. Why do we think we need to control outcomes? We are conditioned that way by most institutions we come into contact with. Control and Fear are two sides of the same coin. We control because we are afraid.
I see this in my dealings with educational institutions and their lecturers/teachers. During my time in UCC we used a system called “Blackboard”. It was away for lecturers to communicate with their classes about lectures and assignments. One suggestions was that the lecture notes should go up before a lecture. That way we could read the lecture notes before, do any pre-reading that might help, and then spend the lecture time in conversation around the topics. Most lecturers refused to do this. Their argument “If you had the lecture notes why would you come to class?” Intrinsic in this is the fear that they would be come redundant, that no one would turn up. What we wanted was to have a richer educational life, not furiously taking notes about a brand new subject we had never met before. We wanted to have conversations, to be able to ask informed questions based on our research and fill the gaps in our knowledge. We wanted and education and the lecturers, for the most part, were afraid they would make themselves redundant by informing us about what would be coming up.
My experience over the last few years
I have had a tendency to do everything to be polite, to not hurt others. I think about their needs, how will this effect them? And then because I am so worried about how what I feel might effect someone else I take NO action. I am virtually paralysed by my worries for others. Now this is very noble – that I care so much. But it is leaving a big and important part out of the equation. – My voice and my action.
An Indian friend of mine listened to my travails over the last few years. He put it simply to me in terms he understood and explained it to me.
Orla you are too obsessed with Karma – with the consequences of your actions. The other side of the coin to Karma is Dharma. One interpretation of Dharma is “Right Action” If you act from right intention, good Karma will follow.
And that is why it is so important for people like me to speak and to take action. I believe that every community has the answer to its own challenges within it. We don’t need NGOs, banks or politicians to come in and tell us how to fix things. We have the knowledge in our community. And that is why I think we need dissent as much as agreement. This is why I think we need to hear objections first and not a round of bobbing heads agreeing. It can be so easy to get carried away by an interesting proposal, yet the dissenter can have an insight or re-shape the proposal that will help us all to make better decisions.
My experience in Amsterdam
One thing that happened for me in Amsterdam was finding the courage in me to speak up. That was a sweaty palmed, beating heart, trembling voiced, teary-eyed affair! I had clarity, I did not want any more of what had gone before.
I went to talk to Floris. I asked him how I can be a better leader? He said, “You take the first steps towards leadership when you say how you feel, like you did the other day”. Leadership isn’t about dictatorship, we just think it is because its how we see it in the world most commonly. It’s about saying how you feel. It’s about saying “I am not comfortable with X.”
When you say how you feel, its leadership. When I don’t say how I feel, we miss out on valid voices. The very voices that might hold the key to a challenge we face. We don’t need to apologise for feeling, we don’t need to premised everything with “Now this is only my opinion, but…”. Everything that anyone says is a feeling or an opinion. It’s not sacrosanct.
The second thing Floris said to me about leadership was “Propose an alternative”. In that moment I realised I had totally understood the concept of walk out but had totally missed the walking on bit. I find it hard enough to speak my truth (what ever I see that to be in any given moment) never mind to offer an alternative!
So what am I saying here? When I speak from the heart and from the position of Dharma, (right action)I am showing leadership. I can let Karma take care of itself. If your opinion and someone else’s are in conflict, that doesn’t mean that you are in conflict personally, you just have a difference of opinion. And we need that. Or else we end up in big stadiums cheering on dictators! (Okay maybe not straight away, but fascism can creep in if we don’t hear other voices)
Leading through vulnerability
I hide. I am sick a lot so not only do I hide but my body makes it hard for me to be visible. But I also hide away for fear of what people will think of me if they see me when I am not well. I met up with a friend when I was sick two weeks ago. This quite an achievement for me as normally I just stay away from others. A week later we met again. The conversation went something like this;
I wasn’t feeling so good last week.
Yeah, you didn’t seem yourself
No that was me – just a version of myself I don’t let people see very much
I know exactly what you mean
So this is me. I am in pain a lot. When I am in a lot of pain I don’t want to go on living. I comfort myself by repeating the mantra “It will get better” I have to go through horrible procedures. I have difficulty getting out of bed some days due to physical and mental health reasons. I usually get out of bed. Some days I can’t dress myself or do any of the basic tasks that most people take for granted. Some days I do a dance class. Yes, you might find that weird but you know what? That is your shit, not mine. This is my reality, some days are bad, some days are great. I cry a lot. People want to comfort me. Again that is their shit. They don’t ask why, they assume it is because I am sad. It is often because I am really fucking grateful just to be in the room. I am happy – I am so happy I cry.
My challenges for the future
- To work from the heart and listen for when it whispers “Something isn’t cool, Orla”
- Lead through vulnerability. Show up and let people see other versions of myself
- Believe in my voice and its validity
- To propose alternatives
- To help others to express their voice
- To challenge ideas and stigma around disability
- To remember what is my shit – and what is someone else’s “Not my monkey, Not my circus”
- Question everything
- Be irreverent
“Troublemakers make the world go round”
On the wall at Knowmads Business School, Amsterdam
I am afraid of experts. Gurus, leaders, people in white coats, specialists, doctors, directors, teachers. Hold on a second. I am not afraid of experts. As I type those words I realise I am not afraid of those people. I am afraid of me and you. I am afraid of the power we give to experts. I am afraid of our listening without questioning.
Some years ago when I was entering adulthood I attended a counsellor. I went because a guy in a white coat told me that he had “3 year olds who could handle their diagnosis better” than me. I thought if this doctor is telling me I am at fault then I must be. I went to a counsellor. She spent our sessions telling me how great I was and I spent 70 euro an hour to hear this. Well one thing (maybe the only thing) I took from this was one piece of advice she gave me. “Take two people you trust and ask them for advice.”
Well now this worked to a certain extent. I was entering adulthood and I felt dragged and pulled by every wave of advice, not knowing where to go and not knowing what I wanted. This advice gave me the agency to not listen. To say “thank you for your advice” and then to completely disregard it.
However even at that young age I knew there was something wrong with the advice. So I added my own clause. Take two people you trust and ask them for advice, and always trust them to be themselves. Now what do I mean by that?
Well I’ll give my sister Aisling as an example. Aisling is my older sister by five years. We were never that close as children but as we became adults we have grown to respect each other and our differences. She is one of my go-to people. If I want some straight-up, honest to goodness advice she is there. I talk to her and then she tells me what she thinks, a rare attribute.
Do I then listen and act as she would advise? Hell no! I listen but with the knowledge of her frame of reference. She is trained as an accountant, she is a good bit more conservative than me and she is a mother. And these are just three of the many frames that she sees the world through. I listen to get another perspective than mine. Sometimes I take on what she says, sometimes I don’t. But understanding her frames of reference helps me to make choices about what I do take on board.
So what’s the point? Blind faith terrifies me. The unquestioning belief in any process or person terrifies me.
I’ve had an amazing journey this last year on “Arts, Participation & Development” in C.I.T. One of the key parts to this course was working on critical thinking skills. There are so many good arguments out there for one thing or another it can be easy to get swept away. But we need to stop and ask ourselves a few questions
- What frame of reference is this opinion/argument coming from?
- What shapes this person’s world view?
- Why do they want me to believe what they believe?
- Who benefits from me changing my beliefs?
Oh there are probably tonnes more questions I should ask when I’m faced with polemic or propaganda but this is where I start.
What happens when we don’t ask questions? Here is a few trends I have noticed happening.
- Putting people on pedestals
- Black and White Thinking (or the absence of subtlety)
- Herd behaviour
- “Yes men” or women
- A lack of dissent
- Less voices being heard
The best teachers I have had have always made the point of saying that I should not take them too seriously. That they are fallible like I am. They have been open to learning and don’t believe they possess all the answers. They welcome questions and welcome being questioned on their practises. They don’t expect blind faith or ask me to trust in a process they wont explain. They don’t claim to be alchemists.
Why do we follow without questioning? I have a few ideas: It’s attractive to feel like we are on a mission, that we share a common goal or adversary. There is a sense of belonging, of community. Most importantly though, it’s easier. It’s just so much easier to hand our agency over to others, to let them decide. “They are the expert” after all and they know best.
But by following without question, we create monsters. Yes we, the followers, create monsters.
The other quality I think we need a bit more of in the world is irreverence. If anyone takes themselves too seriously we need to knock them down from their pedestal. If they are asking you to believe or to trust in the process without question, give them the finger. Shout “Boobies” at the top of your voice while all around people are shouting in unison. Press the red button. Piss on the sacred fire! And at any point if you take your role too seriously take joy when someone pisses on your sacred fire.
I’ve noticed that for those of us who did not start out acting at an earlier age seem to struggle more to learn lines. Its like our brains are not as elastic as those who start out as young adults. No actor I know enjoys the process of learning lines – its a means to an end.
One weekend I was visiting a friend and whilst I was there I spent time going over my lines for an up-coming show I was in. He spotted me a few times mumbling words, uncovering the page I was working on and cursing slightly. He watched me do this over and over again until I got the line. Then I started onto the next.
From somewhere outside my line learning misery I heard his voice, “You know if actors put as much work into medicine or engineering as they do into learning lines, they could be really good at engineering, or medicine. Think of how many of the world’s problems could be solved it they put their energy into something like that!”
I stopped. I looked up. I asked him, “What do you do in the evening when you finish work?” He started on with activities like opening the door, having dinner. I cut him off, “I know what you do. You watch movies. You watch television programmes. At the weekend you go the cinema with friends.”
So? “And what do all those things have in common? Actors. And if they didn’t act? What if they didn’t put in the years of study? What if they didn’t do the hard grind of learning lines? What if they all decided to put their energy into medicine or engineering? What would you be doing in the evening?”
He kind of got my point. Kind of.
Anyway there was a subtext to what he was saying. I’ll take his above sentence “Think of how many of the world’s problems could be solved it they put their energy into something like that!” and re-word it.
Think of how useful they could be if they put their energy into something worthwhile!
I could argue that this is an isolated incident. But its not. I come up against this attitude from people all the time. My father regularly asks me “Will you be able to become a teacher with that?” You see there it is. Will you be able to something more worthwhile than what you are doing now? And the crux of that is that doing Art is not worthwhile.
And why? Because the worth from doing art is not as measurable as when you get paid by the hour or by salary. Here are a few more examples. A man at a Cirque du Soleil show remarking on how great the performers were “and all for a hobby”. A mother of a young girl at a workshop telling me she discourages her daughter from following her dream of a becoming a writer “Sure you can’t make a living from that”.
And we don’t help ourselves either. One of the problems is that we don’t value ourselves as artist. When someone gets a job in another sector we say things like “Oh you got a real job” Like what we are doing is not real? And what about what we do is not real? We create real objects, put on real shows, compose real songs, write real stories.
I’ve come on this journey over the last few years. I’ve finally come to a place where I can call myself an artist but it was, and is, a huge struggle. Not only do I have to do battle with “The enemies at the gates of the mind” I have to do battle with friends, family and society. I have to say to them, I do not have to justify my arts practise by doing something more useful, in your eyes.
So here are a few points I’d like to make about artists.
Artists are Entrepreneurs
Yes that is right entrepreneurs. No they don’t create tech start-ups – they work in a much higher risk area than that! They set up music bands, theatre companies, festivals. They put on plays and events that they have no guarantee anyone will like or come to!
Artists are Risk-takers
They invest time and energy into something that they have no guarantee that they will ever see returns from.
Artists are Speculators
Artists often have to invest in materials etc months or years in advance. One friend of mine who is a potter will often have bought the clay for a finished item 18 months in advance of the item even appearing in a shop. (Don’t get me started on the sale or return policy of shops or their 100% mark-up!)
Artists are Philanthropists
Artists spend their time doing a lot of free stuff. For community groups, for their friends and for other artists. And they don’t expect to get anything in return. I cannot count how many times other artists have shared their knowledge and experience with me with no absolutely no financial gain for themselves.
And yes artist’s cannot live on air. We need money to survive like everyone else. My own experience is one of living a different life, of spending less money on things I don’t need. I don’t have a car. I don’t own a house. I don’t buy clothes if I can help it. I don’t dye my hair and I don’t keep up with fashions. This is more philosophical and values-based than simple frugality. I can’t stand to see the waste and damage done by our current linear economic model. Its the same reason I take huge pleasure in composting, seed and plant sharing and re-using items that would otherwise have been land-filled.
The world sends me a message that I can choose to listen to or not. It says if there is not a financial reward for an action than it is not worthwhile. “Time is Money”. Whilst over at The Art of Change-making one of the Knowmads was exploring the idea that “Time is Heart”. I’ve only got one go around on this planet and I don’t want to spend my time justifying my existence to anyone. “Time is Heart” resonates with me and my mission is to live as whole-heartedly as I can.
He who works with his hands is a labourer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.
- St Francis of Assisi
The craft of questions, the craft of stories, the craft of the hands
- all these are the making of something, and that something is soul.
Any time we feed soul, it guarantees increase.
- Clarissa Pinkola Estés
What questions did you start with?
It was very difficult from the outset to accurately predict what direction I would take within the Art of Change-making process. For several years I have carried with me the question of how does Art and change-making interrelate; Where does this relationship exist? And how do I take a greater influence upon creative change?
At the beginning of the Art of Change-making my questions were more pointed. I wondered how I would fit into the group dynamic, I was anxious about my ability to offer creativity as much as would extract, I envisaged a physical outcome yet couldn’t predict how it would come about and would it really make a difference for the better.
What questions did you leave with?
I left the Art of Change-making with many of my questions answered and having created some new ones.
My journey through the Art of Change-making was mostly one of self-reflection, therefore a lot of my new questions directly relate to me and to my awareness on small and big change in my life.
I question the practicalities of how to achieve my goals whilst existing with reasonable comfort.
I question whether I have the courage of my convictions to pursue my investigations into creativity and change.
I question as always what motivates people to change and how to engage collectively and actively to take positive change
What questions do you have now?
The questions I have now remain the same as when I left. One thing I am pretty sure about is that change requires patience and resilience. Sometimes allowing the smaller changes you make to take effect and guide change at a larger level.
What were your key insights about change?
I believe I now have a better personal grasp on how change occurs. It’s now my opinion that big change occurs conditionally, based on an amount of smaller strategic changes that are sometimes very difficult to observe or plan. These smaller changes are sometimes what make it difficult to direct change and vice versa. It is important to be conscious of subconscious change and to acknowledge it.
From a practice-based reflection, I believe the Art of Change-making has opened new doors of opportunity for me to revisit my interpretation of the role of creative change-makers and new ways in which to apply this within my professional life.
What was useful for you within the Art of Change-making process in your growth as an agent of change?
I earned considerably from the process of reflective communication. I felt that as equal participants we had a considerable amount of experience to offer one another. Each process, exercise or activity from personal development to group brainstorming made its real impact on me as I reflected on it with other participants. These interactions with the other participants allowed me to digest the material and to reframe it in a context that was useful to me.
Where is it taking you?
Now that I am facing inevitable routine again, I can see that the insights I developed in the Art of Change-making clearly mapped through my previous journeys. I can now apply the laws of this map to my future journeys and give myself a positive framework to create the change I see necessary in my personal and professional life.