What do you do when there is no space to work? What do you do when there is no space to be creative in your community? How can having a physical space to create transform a community?

Through the work of In Place of War I’ve had the opportunity to see the impact of alternative working and creating spaces in some of the most challenging settings and I’ve seen the ability these places have to transform entire communities.

Grassroots initiatives across the world have been innovating architecture, developing programmes, and connecting young people to communities – these places provide safe spaces for people to express themselves through the arts. There is huge potential for safe, creativity fostering, shared spaces for young people in this increasingly globalised world as a way to look outside for ideas and inspiration in terms of culture and sound. 

The mainstream currently offers limited choices to consume diverse cultural expressions, yet people are increasingly craving new cultural experiences. Humans need to feel, experience, to be stimulated and to reflect, and this drives the rejection of a packaged ‘one size fits all’ culture.  

However, globalisation, and its effects on culture, is not entirely negative and hip-hop is an important example of this. From Colombia to Serbia, to Zimbabwe to Korea, hip-hop has a global reach with a local sound. It is appropriated by local communities, manifesting across the world in diverse ways to reflect the realities that it represents – hip-hop is powerful.  

The mainstream currently offers limited choices to consume diverse cultural expressions, yet people are increasingly craving new cultural experiences

The first time I saw the value of space as a means to change an entire community was when I visited Caracas, Venezuela. Housed in recycled shipping containers, situated between a military compound and a violent barrio, Tiuna El Fuerte provides a neutral space for the local community to experience a range of art practices from theatre to street dance. For Tiuna El Fuerte this intervention is both political and cultural, for them art is a form of individual and community expression that provides a cultural and educational role in the lives of some of the poorest people on Earth. The space has expanded over the years, from a handful of shipping containers to around 30. The containers house theatre, orchestra, music studio, dance and library spaces and engage over five hundred young people every week.

PAWA254 is an activism hub in Nairobi, Kenya, which houses some of Nairobi’s most creative photographers, graphic artists, journalists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, designers and poets.

PAWA254 is an alternative work-space that offers workshops, training, forums and events for all artists who are creating social impact. The first of its kind in an African country, PAWA254 empowers young professionals and disadvantaged youth to effect social change through new innovative projects. It was founded and inspired by the work of Boniface Mwangi through his award-winning photography of the 2007-2008 post-election violence, subsequently published in Kenya Burning. The acronym “PAWA” is Swahili for corruption of ‘power,’ while ‘254’ is Kenya’s international telephone code.

I remember vividly the words a MC in Colombia once said to me about the importance of safe cultural spaces: “If it wasn’t for hip-hop I would be dead, hip-hop gave me another option in life and I am truly thankful for that.”

The first of its kind in an African country, PAWA254 empowers young professionals and disadvantaged youth to effect social change through new innovative projects. 

Medellin, Colombia, has suffered consequences of conflict, arising from a cocktail of violent actors, drug gangs, paramilitary groups and militia and until 2012 it was the world leading producer of cocaine. At the height of violence the late 80s–early 90s, disadvantaged young men grew up believing that they were ‘born to die in Medellin’. Since 1987 over 40,000 people, mostly young men aged between 14 and 24 have been murdered in turf wars and nacro violence.

Inspired by the politicised hip-hop movement in New York in the 1970s, young people in Medellin decided to make their own alternative to their daily reality of violence and death. Using cardboard boxes to practice breakdancing moves, young people began to transform streets consumed with violence.

They started making and producing hip-hop across the different neighbourhoods, enabling them to have a clear alternative to being in drug cartels. Hip-hop became so popular that there are hip-hop spaces in almost every neighborhood across Medellin where children and young people can learn the five elements of hip-hop. This has significantly impacted the lives of those young people, providing an alternative to drug gangs and violence. The result is that now there are 2,500 hip-hop artists in the city. Hip-hop has become a way of life – it is all consuming and has become part of the fabric of communities in Medellin.

Seeing these exceptional examples of what a space can do to transform a community has inspired me to share these ideas across the world with communities looking to create their own spaces. Presently In Place of War are in the process of co-creating new cultural spaces in West Bank, Palestine; Bukavu, DR Congo and The Makokoba Township in Bulawayo.

We can all learn from those who innovate because they have to, because they have limited resources, because they suffer oppression or conflict and because they don’t want the next generation to go through what they went through.

The people I have met over the past 10 years – often born into a neo-liberal individualist consumerist societies where value and success is narrowly defined in monetary terms – have completely changed my vision of the world and my understanding of the capacity of ordinary people to make change.

​– This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Ruth Daniel and Teresa Bean researched and wrote this article.  

 

 

 

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