My name is Ed, and I teach about politics, religion and philosophy, and one of the other things I do is volunteer at PLATFORM. For most of the past few weeks I’ve been enjoying the privilege of summer holidays, but this week I’m participating in an experiment. It’s a course for young people called SHAKE!. Conceived by PLATFORM, it is an attempt to bring together this dizzying collection of elements: the stories of Stephen Lawrence and Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa; the vast range of themes and issues that spring from those stories; the role of art-forms in bringing about social change; and the technical crafts of spoken word, DJ-ing, and film-making. It’s an experiment for the seven facilitators – who are campaigners, educators and artists – in working together in such a diverse format. It’s an experiment for me, as I find myself blending many roles – volunteer, facilitator, observer and, to be sure, teacher – some of my students of A level Government and Politics have gamely made the hike from Barnet to Lewisham every day this week (here’s hoping they’ll do it for the last two days!), and struggle occasionally to avoid calling me ‘sir’! And it’s also an experiment for the participants – things like this aren’t exactly ten-a-penny.
SHAKE! reflects the distinctive approach of PLATFORM, which attracted me to them in the first place: challenging the misdeeds of the largest centres of power in the world – corporations and banks as vast as Shell, BP and RBS – using, in part, the resources of creativity and art. One example is standing outside the Stephen Lawrence Centre right now – the Living Memorial to Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his fellow activists, executed for their role in the non-violent resistance to Shell’s abuse of the land and people of Ogoniland in the Niger Delta. A sculpture in the form of a Nigerian bus, it’s just one of the many creative interventions made by PLATFORM in pursuit of social and environmental justice.
So I was naturally excited about the opportunity to get involved with bringing these elements to the sorts of people – indeed, as mentioned, some of the very people – that I work with on a daily basis. And, of course, I was excited about doing it in the Stephen Lawrence Centre, another memorial, this one to the British teenager whose murder was subject to an investigation that led to the Metropolitan Police being condemned as ‘institutionally racist’. The SLC is certainly a living memorial, and I see it as an act of hopeful defiance in the face of hatred, injustice and cynicism.
The bulk of the work done at SHAKE! has been creative. Having been introduced to the stories of Ken Saro-Wiwa and Stephen Lawrence, and having been fortunate enough to meet in person Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother, the participants have responded both personally and analytically, and used these responses to form the basis of what they have produced. There have been three groups – music, video and spoken word, which are beginning to work together. Poems have been spoken over African beats; a roving film-crew is interviewing hopeful DJs. We haven’t reached the end of the course yet, where things will all tie together, but I just spoke to one of the participants. He told me that he didn’t know what to expect, but he’s found an outlet to express himself where there are no holds barred. He has other outlets – sometimes he boxes – but he’s enjoyed a different kind of outlet, one that ‘feels gentle’. The discussions about ways people have challenged injustice led him to tell me that ‘knowing that there are ways of making a difference inspires you’.
I’ve also been touched. Seeing young people feel moved by injustice, and feel grasped by a commitment to act against it, is affecting. We are already talking amongst ourselves about how to continue our connection with the participants, to create an ongoing exploration of all that’s been raised here. I guess this is another way of saying – it’s been a good week so far! But there isn’t a lot more time for all this reflection – there’s work to be done…