Building Social Capital for Collective Change: A Creative and Culturally Sensitive Approach

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By Tonderai Chiyindiko, Kelly Storom & Caryn Green, 6 December 2023

This article is the fifth in a series of blogs and opinion pieces, providing a context for and presenting research findings from Sibikwa Arts Centre’s Urban Culture, Democracy and Governance Labs. Supported by the Commonwealth Foundation, this Urban Labs initiative is a pilot programme exploring cultural and creative approaches for pragmatic public participation in local policy development and implementation – actioning democracy in local communities across the City of Ekurhuleni.

Sibikwa Arts Centre’s Urban Culture, Democracy and Governance Labs’ (Urban Labs) unique selling point is its insistence on developing a methodology that is culturally sensitive, as a key point of departure from Western and European models of cultural governance and urban development.

Theoretical Underpinning: Theatre of the Oppressed

What is key in this culturally-sensitive participatory governance framework being developed, is how it draws on creative and artistic forms of expression that enable value-based critical reflexivity and strategic design thinking to achieve action-focused and inclusive local development processes. This use of creative tools underpinned by Augusto Boal’s Theatre for the Oppressed philosophy and methods – that strive to inspire social change, address social inequity, community development, conflict resolution, and to advocate for legal change in institutional and grassroots contexts – ensures a principled approach to building collective agency and responsibility for effective public participation, policy and governance. Through such public participation, the Urban Labs envision and facilitate the building of social capital as a critical component to collective and sustainable change. 

Theoretical Underpinning: Social Capital

The theory of social capital, written about extensively by sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, is primarily concerned with the concept of social relationships, networks and commonalities as assets to strengthen the position of the community within the dynamics of power in society. Framed within this theory, the Urban Labs seek to enable and build social capital through the deliberate and well-considered use of specific artistic methodologies informed by contextual factors unique to each of the communities in which the Urban Labs are hosted. 

Arts-Based Tools for Strengthening Social Capital

The specific applied arts methods include Image Theatre, Forum Theatre, Newspaper Theatre and Legislative Theatre, along with role-play, storytelling, and arts-based mapping, all of which aim to assist community members and local government authorities to imagine alternative, context-specific, and sustainable interventions when it comes to matters of good governance, public participation, and urban development. Through these arts-based methodologies and techniques, supplemented by facilitated reflection and dialogue, a non-hierarchical and inclusive space is created for robust engagement; overcoming the power dynamics and general mistrust of such public processes. 

The approaches and methods used in each Urban Lab are designed to facilitate ‘rehearsals’ of change agency and action that is community driven; promoting collaboration and plurality in finding solutions to local challenges. These methods and approaches bring to the forefront valuable knowledge, skill, and cultural values both personal and shared that can be mechanised for collective action, while highlighting what needs to be prioritized. 

Sibikwa’s Urbans Labs as a Model for Collective Change

The Urban Labs’ use of Applied Drama for community development, supports an embodied understanding of complex legislation, which is imperative for effective citizen-led change action. Sibikwa’s Urban Labs thus present a model for how civil society, local government and other stakeholders can engage and achieve replicable and sustainable interventions to deal with the myriad of issues bedevilling communities and local entities across the country. Overall, the Urban Labs have been able to effectively and successfully explore cultural and creative approaches for pragmatic public participation in local policy development and implementation, thereby inculcating a greater sense of active citizenship through open and democratic public participation processes, which place culture, community and creativity at the core.