Socially engaged processes for systemic change

Immersive installation at Royal Albert Hall, designed by artist Fié Neo, that invites the audience to sit and discuss current socio-political issues. This was back in 2017, in between International Women's March and March Against Racism.

The systemic change that we need on so many levels of social and economic structures require a connection back to basic. Connecting with our feelings and emotions, sensing and feeling the world, learning to listen and learning in processes.

We live in a very data driven world that unfortunately doesn’t have much space for right brain thinking (the intuitive and imaginative dreamers). If we look at indigenous cultures, there’s always a storyteller, a healer, someone who connects the community and hold space to listen and for stories to be told. In change making work, that’s so integral and key to personal transformation. This doesn’t just apply to underprivileged communities, but to everyone who has the potential to connect with a higher purpose and activate themselves towards social transformation.

The socially engaged arts process that we use holds many of these emotional touch points that would inspire personal transformation. The beauty of the arts is that it’s a powerful tool to open up difficult conversations in a subtle way that ushers in a comfortable and safe space to do so without pressuring the individual. When a group way find their emotions together, they become a strong support community. But artists in this space don’t necessarily have the right support to do this work. If funding isn’t received, this work becomes a self-funded passion project that requires the artist to be the project manager, facilitator, comms manager, admin staff and fundraiser all in one, on top of possibly another full time job to pay the bills.

Funding on the other hand, is given based on the agendas of foundations or government entities. If what they are looking for is a well thought out impact evaluation plan, larger organisations with the expertise in funding proposal writing and strong acumen in data driven impact evaluation analysis would be in more advantageous positions to receive the funds. This leaves out individuals working with their local communities who might not have the skills or experience to write the language that funders look for.

But what I’m seeing is that socially engaged skills can transfer to many other different processes. What if artists were hired full time or in fellowship models in companies, governments or social enterprises? Human centred innovation processes and empathy that socially engaged practitioners have are skills that can definitely benefit other structures. When we talk about transformation and systemic change, if our systems are built upon data measured everything (including impact, relationships and all these intrinsic things that are more than numbers on a report), we don’t leave space for emotions or feelings. A system is made up of human beings with complex emotions. The system we built should be serving us but the way we built it is making us serve the system instead.

I believe a part of that systemic transformation will have to be rooted in honouring our human experiences and emotions. When we create organisation structures that don’t hold space for what individuals go through, (i.e processing these emotionally triggering global events like #BLM, asian hate crimes, the climate crisis), there will be resistance, friction and hurt. On a macro level, it's political power vs civic listening. On a more personal level, it's the spaces we hold (or don't) in our work place to support our colleagues in processing these emotions and finding ways in which the organisation can play its part in making themselves more inclusive or socially and environmentally conscious.

My artistic process is very in tune and responsive to social and global events. The question I always ask is "What can I do? How can I play my part?"

What happens if every organisation makes that a part of their process and allow social events to feed back into the work they do? What happens if we change the way we work with one another beyond just working towards our individual or team's KPIs? What happens if these processes of collective emotional processing are facilitated not just in “social projects” for “underprivileged communities”? I don’t think the need for healing excludes people who identify themselves as privileged.

I’m exploring ways in which more organisations or companies would adopt having an artist in residence or hiring an artist full time to experiment a different process of sense making and challenge the old ways of doing things. I think the role of the arts can also play a bigger part in larger cross sector conversations. Perhaps one way of bringing about change is ushering in a different process that honours the human experience and isn’t just KPI driven. When each structure and individual is motivated by solely their own KPIs, larger efforts towards systemic change wouldn’t be a part of people’s priorities if it doesn’t serve their KPIs, which is a very restrictive way of working that doesn’t allow agility to serve the larger interest.

At INSEP (International Network for Socially Engaged Practitioners), we are looking for funders and partners who might be interested in exploring arts adoption in cross sector conversations and collaborations with us. Email us at connect.insep@gmail.com to chat more.

“Art is the language that everybody understands, no matter where they come from. You have to allow for the development of this new lingua franca.”

— AMALIA ZEPOU

Here’s an article by Social Innovation Exchange on the impact of the arts on their work; I recently did an artist residency with them and this article reflects the impact of the artistic process on social innovation.

To learn more about my socially engaged arts journey, check out my recent podcast interview with Creative Generations at the "Why Change?" podcast.

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fié neo

fié neo

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Fié Neo is an interdisciplinary artist and intersectional thinker. Instagram @feeyeh_neo | Podcast: OnionsTalk