Workshop 2, ‘Inclusion’,

posted by Tonya Anisimovich

Our second SHARED workshop on ‘Inclusion’ took place on the 21 February 2023 and aimed to explore Arts and Health models which reach marginalised or at-risk populations. During this workshop our partners shared successful practices and exchanged thoughts on what works and what the challenges are with colleagues from across the globe.

Rosco Kasujja, from Makerere University, Uganda, presented on Community-based Sociotherapy Adapted for Refugees (COSTAR), a project treating depressive symptomatology in Congolese refugees in Uganda and Rwanda. Rosco mentioned the particularly important aspect of focussing on research participants and ‘activating the arts’ in research, listening to the local perspective and prioritising lived experiences, while allowing some space for improvisation and flexibility in arts and humanities research:

I believe that with the arts, you have an opportunity to actually tap into the strength of people to heal hearts and souls because you get to see the masks come off. And that is helping people learn about other people's cultures and take down their guards,  embracing difference. That is so hard to achieve with just theory. In practice, I think action research needs to be enacted by activating the arts.

Becky Duncan talked of the Wellbeing of the Woods (WoW) project which is based in Glasgow and co-created by Becky’s organisation Open Aye together with Scottish Forestry. The project runs wellbeing-enhancing, urban forest-based participatory photography workshops for diverse groups. Three quarters of WoW participants are refugees living in Scotland.  Becky shared some insights on the importance of nature and participatory arts for creating a safe and empowering space for vulnerable and marginalised people. Testimonies from participants highlighted the wellbeing and community-building impact of being in the moment, admiring the woodlands and taking photographs while also making friends and learning about the environment:

I shake a lot. Wellbeing, to me, is to hold my hands without shaking. Here, I concentrate on the view before I took the photo, not shaking. [Workshop participant.]

Donald McCown, Director of Centre for Contemplative Studies at West Chester University talked about integrating reading literature with the practice of mindfulness to address Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for homeless Vietnam war veterans at the Veteran Administration Medical Centre in Philadelphia. ‘Experiential avoidance’ is a key issue for the (mostly male) veterans who have very often become homeless as a result of drug and alcohol dependence. Through shared group reading of fiction and poetry - which elicited emotion without directly ‘hitting it on the nose’ - the veterans were able to talk about their traumatic experiences in a setting they could trust:

What I noticed was that the community built very quickly. They said, ‘We are comrades in arms, we're here for each other.’ And that's why they loved the programme. Because they got to be together. And they felt like they were together, it felt like a safe place.

In the open discussion, participants tackled some challenges of Arts in Health research. Based on his experience with the COSTAR project, Rosco suggested prioritising the local lived experiences and tailoring the research aims and objectives to meet the needs of the participants. Addressing the often thorny issue of capturing and measuring the impact of arts interventions on wellbeing, Becky suggested a possible solution would be using more participatory creative research methods: for example, analysing photographs (and other artistic outputs) to track long-standing wellbeing progress following a programme of arts activity. Another important theme which emerged in the discussion was the disruptive impact of the pandemic on Arts and Health research. The research on veterans shared group readings, for instance, is still on pause due to shortness of staff and funding after the pandemic.

Despite the differences in context and target groups, all presenters were able to find important parallels between their projects. All agreed on the transformative features of arts that cannot only ground participants in the moment, but also help strengthen existing communities and establish new ones. Dr Grazia Imperiale, SHARED Co-Investigator, concluded the workshop by commenting:

I was struck by how the three of you were talking about creating a safe space, or a safe human environment, or how the refugee setting became a place where people got united through making something together. And the sense of agency that seems to be restored when people take part in any kind of different activities that have a common point, whether it is reading literature, whether it is taking photographs, or whether it is dancing, and playing music together. And it was amazing to hear. 

As these projects show, arts approaches can transcend cultural differences and bring together people with different languages, religions, and life stories.

The SHARED team would like to thank all our contributors and participants for such an inspiring and thought-provoking event!