The Monthly interviews Charo Lanao – Project Co-Ordinator for the PICAS Project

What is your academic background?

I studied sociology and from there moved towards social anthropology  and social psychology because I always wanted to understand why people behave in particular ways and how we relate with each other in various and varied social and cultural contexts.

I came to Northern Ireland in 1983 and it was an especially important trip for me because I found that I could not understand the conflict here. I could not understand why the conflict was so intense, especially given how welcome I felt when I was here, and why people were unable to live together without such intense hostility. I found it hard to come to terms with the level of dissonance in Northern Irish society.

Intellectually, I wanted to look at ideas regarding transformation. I asked myself what is it that happens when two people looking at the same event or situation, come up with two different narratives. What is it which makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, for people to work together?

I began to look at developing processes which could facilitate different individuals, people with different cultural backgrounds, working together without losing their identity but learning from each other and affecting each other. I was asking how was it possible to build bridges for people to cross over and once people were engaging with each other how then, could a new environment be created. It was at this point I encountered writings on Interculturalism.

How did you come to the PICAS project?

I worked at the Centre for Global Education in Belfast coordinating the Making Connections Programme.  The work was to provide training for active citizens to become global educators. I had the opportunity to use various perspectives which would facilitate societal change. I was researching the facilitation of active citizenship and I found that the question which really interested me was how do you collaborate in situations of diversity? How can people with different cultural backgrounds, different approaches, different ways of thinking work together, learn from each other, influence each other?

It was at this point that I found that creativity, the arts, was an extremely relevant tool to allow people to engage with other, particularly with the complexities of intercultural activities. Engagement through the arts allowed the ideas regarding Interculturalism to come alive. What I learned was that if we only work on the conceptual plain, leaving everything at the level of ideas, people don’t embed the ideas anywhere near as effectively as when we use creative activities.

From there I became involved in various ethnic minority organisations and projects. As a Peruvian living in Northern Ireland I am part of the ethnic minority population, I’m not separate from it.

My work at the Centre for Global Education was to support people from a Black and Ethnic Minority background getting involved in global education. I met many of the BME artists through that pathway. I was involved in the first conversations to establish support for the ethnic minority artist’s network.

Eventually that lead to me applying for a position with Community Arts Partnership when the PICAS programme started.

 

What are the key elements in the PICAS programme?

PICAS is the practical application of the Arts Council’s Interculltural Arts Strategy.

In the initial stages the project was designed to support artists from a Black and Minority Ethnic background.

This involved helping with funding applications, with finding projects to work on, education regarding rights, and providing a point of liaison between ethnic minority artists and other organisations. We did a lot of work signposting ethnic minority artists to organisations which provided additional support.

But this approach raised a number of questions. Intercultural work requires thought, intellectual rigour and training, it doesn’t just happen. So we started to ask ourselves questions;

What is intercultural arts?

What is the role of the arts in intercultural work?

What discussions do we need to have?

What conversations need to be established?

As I’ve mentioned, Intercultural work is complex; we as individuals work on so any levels, we have so many elements regarding our personalities and our ways of working, that we decided that just being a support network for practical activities, as important as that was, wasn’t enough.

We developed a training programme which facilitates intercultural approaches to arts activities.

 

 

So PICAS developed over the life of the project?

There was a challenge. People would ask, “What is intercultural arts?” What is it that we are supposed to be doing which will bring about this transformative process which Community Arts Partnership advocates with regards the Arts.

This was a huge shift because many BME artists were looking for work. We couldn’t promise work but we could offer support by way of signposting and we did that but there was much more that needed to be done.  There were also many local artists who wanted to use an intercultural approach.

We needed to provide a process which could allow reflection on intercultural arts practice, and out of that reflection, develop ideas which could be transmitted generally to allow for learning to take place.

I was very surprised that very few artists were asking themselves, “How does the work that I do, that I am part of, bring about transformation?” It was almost as if this conversation was not being had at all. And to me it was an important conversation if we were serious about the role of the arts in transformation.

The training programme focused on these vital questions.

What then are the key elements of the training programme?

I doubt we could cover all the elements of the training programme in a short interview but if we condense the key elements to a few concepts, these might be characterised as: self-examination and reflection, bridge crossing and co-creation.

Participants are asked to reflect on their own biases, ideas, activities and practices. Then there is the process of crossing a bridge to work with others who might have different orientations, biases, practises from the ones we are used to but we are open to learning from connections with those people and finally we might enter the arena of co-creation. Then we are entering the unknown, the potential to establish a new way of thinking and working.

 

Could you describe the processes used in your work?

In some ways intercultural arts is like Jazz. Jazz is a combination of order and chaos and what we are aiming to do is offer training which will allow people, intercultural arts practitioners, to walk comfortably in a diverse society, a society riven with both order and chaos, the known and the unknown.

Our approach to this was to say, “what is it that we want?”. If the answer is, an intercultural society, then let’s work towards bringing about what we want.

Let’s focus on what we are trying to achieve and within that we are focusing on walking towards something that is unknown, i.e. jazz.

People are often afraid of the unknown for example, having a conversation with someone that appears different because of their beliefs or look different because of their skin colour.

We want to build confidence and curiosity, perhaps even enthusiasm, for people to approach that situation. We are talking about people co-creating the future.

So, to repeat the key concepts, these are, self-examination, bridge crossing, co-creation, fusion and hybridity.

What about tackling racism?

Intercultural Arts is no substitute for anti-racist work; tackling racism wherever it emerges, combatting racist arguments.

We know that there has been a lot of racist activity in Northern Ireland, so we make arguments, condemn attacks, campaign with others to encourage people to oppose racism. Intercultural work is not a substitute for that kind of work nor is it meant to replace that work.

Intercultural arts activities are about providing an arena where we can start the process of looking at the world in a different way, to reflect that our “normal”, whatever that is, is not the only way to do things. Simply, it is common to us. And what is common to us is not necessarily the only way to do things, there are other ways to perceive the world, other ways to work towards transforming society, and we need to reflect on how we as intercultural arts practitioners can play a role in that transformation.

How is that process transmitted from the small numbers who participate in the PICAS project to larger numbers, i.e. How is the process mainstreamed?

For me, I very much support the ripple effect. The people we work with, the training they participate in, the experiences they have through the PICAS project, allows them to comprehend the key elements of working with Intercultural Arts Practice. They then transmit that information through their own activities and practices.

We already have some successes with artists who have undertaken our training going on to establish Intercultural arts programmes.

 

Tell us a little about the “Use it” Project?

“Use it” is what comes after the theoretical base has been laid. We have discussed the theory, people have been through the training, and now the Belfast City Council has funded CAP to work with groups and artists, to put the training into practice.

We have artists working with groups who would be considered marginalised, older people (the youngest person in the group is 75 years old), a group with differing abilities and a group of young people.

We are working at the periphery of our society and we believe if we can successfully work apply our training with groups on the periphery then we should be able to do that with people far less marginalised, people who might be closer to the core of society.

The “Use It” project also includes our artists working with mentees who will be shadowing the artists, learning about intercultural arts practice.

You’ve also carried out research looking at knowledge of Interculturalism within local councils and local arts organisations. Could you tell us a bit about the findings?

We sent out questionnaires to local councils and to arts organisations. We are still sifting through all the information but in a nutshell, local councils have intercultural policies and are looking for practical ideas to implement projects.

Arts organisations are implementing projects but probably need to look at policy development and the development of a clear strategy with regards influencing policy.

The work we are carrying out in the general PICAS project and the Use it project will aid in putting forward proposals to local councils and arts organisations.

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.