I’ve never met a young person who liked being called ‘a young person’ 

ETHER Blog Post – December 2020

I’ve never met a young person who liked being called ‘a young person’ by Kate Fellows

We talk a lot in the arts and cultural sector about ‘communities’. One small word embodies so much and comes with a lot of baggage. We use it as sector specific shorthand for ‘traditionally non-visiting or diverse audiences’. It’s perceived as ‘fluffier’ and ‘nicer’, a euphemism for harsh political or socio economic demographic terms. We think we are being nice, but are we part of the othering problem? And how can we find a resolution about that?

I am writing this from my dining room in north Leeds. I am a 39 year old woman with a career in museum learning. I’m a wife, a mother and a friend. I like to bake cakes in my spare time. I had avocado on toast for lunch. I tweet. I regularly wear fuchsia pink tights. On reading each one of those statements, you, dear reader, will have made a judgement about me. You will have put me in boxes in your head, either consciously or unconsciously. It’s a natural human thing to do. You will make assumptions about the communities to which I identify, or belong, from the information I have volunteered. You will have decided, based on that, whether you think we would get on if we went for a coffee. And, I’m ok with that. Most of the time.

The bit of the time I’m not ok with that comes from the negative side of the process of othering. Othering is recognising, and often labelling, someone as different to you. It can have really positive effects of shared learning and empathy, or it can have negative ones of assumptions, misunderstandings and, at an extreme, hatred. The otherness labels we give people often stay with them throughout their lives, and they may not be happy or comfortable with assumptions and labels that other make. There are many labels in the world, but I’ve never met a young person who liked being called ‘a young person’. It’s more cultural sector shorthand. ‘Young people’ would rather be Alex, Catherine or Michael, met as individuals rather than an label representing whole group of people with whom they may not self-identify and which is given to them, by definition, by ‘older people’.

So, how do we create a space where we can meet people as individuals? How do we create a comfortability factor where we can recognise and celebrate difference for shared learning? Those are ethical aspects that museums and cultural spaces have been wrestling with over the last few years. There is no easy, one size fits all answer. At Leeds Museums and Galleries we are experimenting with an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach. The approach starts from the assumption that a geographically local community usually has all the assets (knowledge, understanding and information) to help itself, and just needs support, rather than direction, from formal agencies, such as Leeds City Council. Being geographically based, it means that support can come from unexpected places and that otherness is cherished and fostered, rather than used negatively. We are trying to work out what this looks like for a museum service. At the moment, we work with partners and friends to co-create events, exhibitions and projects. Co-creating enables us to go beyond ‘communities’ or demographic information to meet people as individuals, and appreciate the otherness people bring to the table. ABCD approaches go beyond that, to unpick our unconscious bias around ‘those people who aren’t like me’ to discover ‘I can learn and share things’ and ‘working with people who are different to me is good for my wellbeing’.

What does this look like practice? Leeds Art Gallery have been working with an early years children’s centre in an ABCD area for a number of years. In 2019, the centre wanted to ‘to engage boys and male carers in collaborative learning experiences and… support boys’ attainment especially in writing where this is low’, so they worked with the Gallery to employ an artist who could work collaboratively with centre staff, parents and children to foster enjoyment in mark-making as a precursor to writing. Academically, the programme achieved its aims, but the more meaningful and longer term aim was that the community identified a need that could be fulfilled by visual art, and worked with partners to make this happen. That’s one small example of the experimentation and approaches we are testing.

We’re still at the start of this journey, and we’re not sure where it will take us. Do you want to come along too? We could start with that coffee…