Saturday 26 March 2016

CUT OFF: The artist IMPREINT and perceptions of homelessness

The cardboard sign sitting outside of a red telephone box looked curiously lonely.  Where was it's owner?  I searched for him for a few moments, looking for his outline inside the box.  Was he making a call?  Did he choose to go to sleep?  Where was the man who had prepared himself to go out for dinner at an expensive restaurant?  Why did I assume he was a man?  

IMPREINT, the artist behind the signs, in a project called Cut Off, succeeds in making normality strange when he presents us with the image of a homeless person's sign.  This sign refuses us the right to the gaze.  Sometimes we gawp at homeless people, wondering what has happened.  Sometimes we choose to look away.  But the choice is always ours.  I thought about how often I have looked at homeless people, questions in my eyes, but no real words of acknowledgement.  And I thought about how furious or enraged I would be, if the situation was reversed.  

The homeless live amongst us, often cast into shame filled spaces where begging for change comes with an apology.  IMPREINT draws attention to the social norms which cast homeless people into the margins, into shelters, soup kitchens or street corners, but never expensive restaurants.  In a world where we think of work as making a profit, people who are not able to generate income are very often seen as failures, drunks or addicts, deserving only the very least.  We draw on the myth that the poor are lazy in order to lessen our own guilt.  

Are poor people lazy?  Men who work in the hot sun for very little money work hard.  Sometimes, they are unable to make ends meet.  Sometimes work is irregular.  What do we call work anyway?  What do we call failure?  Why should people who have very little be cast into marginalized spaces?  Why should we able to gawp rudely, prejudices written onto our expressions?  

Who is this homeless man?  He is unseen.  Any impression I had of him was created by my own stereotypes and pre - judgements.  IMPREINT brought up the face or the image I gave to 'the homeless' and forced me to confront my own preconceptions.  I questioned what I believed, and why I thought this.  I questioned my right to stare.  All that seemed normal to me, or common sense, came into question.  I questioned my own hypocrisy in deciding what poor people need.  

Finally, I thought about the request for food, and not money.  IMPREINT shakes up our perspective on what a homeless person deserves, but the sign still asks for food.  Money helps when it comes to transport, shelter, health, and the opportunity to wash or shave in order to be treated as fully human.  A homeless person would be far less likely to acquire a good meal if he was unable to wash, after all.  It would be harder still for him to find work.

By throwing all of our assumptions up in the air, and asking us to reflect on our own reactions, IMPREINT asks us to reflect on our prejudices, and to question whether they are really harmless?  Is it okay for me to define my humanity as so different to that of another person's?  Is it okay to look at a set of circumstances (which may happen to anybody, but are more likely to happen to people without social support) and declare somebody else as  'other' or less worthy of a meal?  Is our everyday way of seeing the homeless the only way of seeing?  

IMPREINT showed me that my narrow definitions or ways of seeing were not the only ways.  Perhaps next time I gaze at a homeless person, I will do so differently.  Perhaps, if we learn to see ourselves as interconnected, capable of seeing the world as we wish it to be, and of making an effort to bring this world to life, our gaze will be less harmful.  Perhaps, as Impreint's beggar shows us, the only way of creating a new reality is to imagine a less discriminatory world, and work hard to bring that world into reality.

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Agency and the power of co-creation

Last year, when Rita, one of the teens who takes part in our AoC project spoke to a news reporter on a riverside in Observatory, and explained that she'd learned that "Change starts with you." I was grateful that she got to share her views with a wider community.  It didn't matter what she had chosen to say, but that she got the chance to share what she believed.  And she was taken seriously when she made that choice.

From the perspective that social norms are created through conversations or constantly repeated rituals, every new voice or conversation holds the possibility of adding a clearer picture of what it means to be a human being in this world.  Speaking, sharing and feeling helps us get in touch with our own views or beliefs, and those of 'other' people,  so that we can get a more complete picture of what it means to be a person in the world.  And a greater range of values or beliefs help to give insight.  This perspective shares we are shaped by the social system around us, but every action we take will help to maintain (or add a new voice) into that system.  

This doesn't mean subscribing to the very individualist world view that each person is responsible for his or her circumstances, that poor people are lazy, or that people are to blame for social conditions.  Quite the opposite.  Recognising the social world around us, the conversations or beliefs which maintain it, and the limits or restrictions it may place upon people means acknowledging social injustice.  It also means recognising those actions or beliefs which maintain the system, and using our own internal sense of justice or morality in order to respond.  We may not be able to change those embodied characteristics which create social divides.  But we can change the way we perceive people (or ourselves), the limits we place upon them, and the language we use to explain the world.

This ability to respond, to work towards a more just system, is known as agency.
I have had my own experiences of viewing the incredible dignity and generosity people have brought to life after experiencing social difficulties.  As a person who worked in a police station and listened to survivors of (often violent) crime, I saw women express their desires to walk others home through dark pathways, so that other women would not experience assault.  Over and over again, people spoke about their own, and others, right to dignity and the need for a full and respected humanity, no matter how dignity was threatened or affronted from every side.  

This has been the reason that grassroots work has always moved me so deeply.  Working without hierarchy, where the voices of the people who share with you are considered equal, means that people get to explore their own beliefs and experience their own agency.  Before exploring diversity studies, I'd wanted to become a clinical psychologist.  But the questions belonging to critical theory, those questions which focused on identity and the struggles people are born into were the ones which interested me most.  Critical theory, and the views of liberation psychology helped me to recognise how important those questions were.  And they also helped me to explore the importance of ensuring that each person has a voice.

After I graduated, I wanted to carry on working in a way which would respect (and learn from) those voices.  A letter to a left leaning NGO titled "We are poor, but we are not stupid."  as discussed by Richard Ptihouse, explained the importance of talking to people, rather than at, about or for them.  Richard Pithouse, in his discussion on shack dwellers, spatial social injustices and effective liberation group Abahlali, explains that very often NGO's:

'when they do engage with some of the actual people organising the actual protests they usually do so, like the state, via workshops in which they presume to tell people what they should be struggling for and how they should be doing it.'
He shares that:
The assumption that the capacity for thought is a function of class is adhered to rigorously and so the elite discourse rolls on relentlessly and blindly as academic or NGO 'experts' are called upon to explain the 'mysterious' politics of the poor.

And that:

'It is clear that citizenship is widely understood to refer to the material benefits of full social inclusion in the material and spatial senses as well the right to be taken seriously when thinking and speaking through community organisations.'
(This work can be found here)

My own experiences with listening and exploring new voices has enabled me to use my own agency to explore, listen, write and contribute to a different society.  But I enjoy this most when I work in collaboration with others.  Henry Giroux (30 June 2015) explained that by forming groups who speak, share and explore together what it means to live in a world where environmental crisis exists, and linking this crisis to conditions such as racism or poverty, asking critical questions and searching for ways of making normality strange, we are able to create new pockets of democracy within an unequal world.

Giroux, H. (2015, June 30). Henry A. Giroux | Orwell, Huxley and the Scourge of the Surveillance State. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from http://www.truth- state
"we are poor, not stupid."  Learning from Autonomous Grassroots Social Movements in South Africa.  (

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Re-membering the world around us

In 2014, I was lucky enough to attend a heritage day assembly at Rondebosch East Primary School in Cape Town.  I originally went to this school because the Agents of Change Project was donating a tree.  While I was there, the principal gave a speech where he spoke about the need to re-member the past alongside the need to look after the world we live in, in order to create a better world for those who come after us.

This connection between past, present and future, alongside the recognition of our heritage, shared humanity and the world around us, was very motivating for me.  It helped me to see the importance of working towards social and environmental justice for the children present in that assembly, so that their voices and their humanity would one day be given free expression, within a world which would safe, and offer them dignity and compassion.

Since then, REPS has given their learners the opportunity to explore their own agency, as Agents of Change interested in working towards a more sustainable world.  Some of the insights the children have shared have been very insightful.

As one child explained:

It's not just the professionals that make a difference.  Your voice does too.  If you going to change, change for the better...your voice counts. #World Peace.  ( Aleker)

The opportunity to listen to, and share with, these children has been a privilege, and it has taught me the power of opening up to all voices, no matter how young.

Listening to children always brings home the importance of freedom, dignity and respect.  Exploring the wonder of the world alongside them, the landscapes of conversation, meaning and emerging awareness, helps me to see how valuable each child is, the uniqueness within each one, and the inhumanity which emerged when human beings were placed on a hierarchy.

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