Stella Duffy: ‘Here’s why we need to stop ’empowering’ people’

Fun Palaces: Dance, talk or be lifted up

Stella Duffy is the co-director of Fun Palaces which works with local communities to create projects. Fun Palace weekend is 5-6 October. Here she writes for Visionary Arts about how everyone is creative, and the words that we use that sometimes get in the way of that creativity.

Let’s stop empowering people. Stop enabling. Don’t give people agency and don’t work with the hard-to-reach. There are no cultural cold spots and the public do not need engaging. What we need is connection. Connection is the core of our work in Fun Palaces, supporting groups and individuals to create the local cultural events they want to create, led by, for and with their own community.

The connection in the work we call culture is usually an us-to-them event. We collate certain works of art and write pieces to tell our visitors what we believe they need to know. Or we bring them in long after we have finished rehearsing, allowing them to experience the final moments of a long process of creation. We share the copyedited, proof-read version of the manuscript. This is our standard cultural sharing – culture as product rather than process.

The work we usually call ‘community engagement’ or ‘participation’ is supposed to be different. We bring them in to work with us, we reach out, we engage. Yet these terms all imply a doing-to that is just as lacking in inclusion as bringing an audience in at the end of a process and telling them they’re part of the whole. If I enable you, I give you ability. If I empower you, I grant you power. If I give you agency, that implies you don’t already have it. If I decide you live in a ‘cold spot for culture’, I am imposing my view of culture on where you live. If I say you are hard-to-reach, I suggest both that I am easy-to-reach and that where I am, where I ‘reach’ from, is the best place to judge. Every time I am putting me at the centre and you outside.

We all have power. It is the system that denies some of us use of it. We already have ability, it is our society that decrees some abilities are more valuable than others – the ability to market money is currently more valuable than the ability to heal a sick person. Our agency may be held back by bigotry or poverty, but it is innate, it is not to be given. No one is ‘hard-to-reach’ if we are them. There are no cultural cold spots if we value the culture every community creates, if we believe everyone is creative.

We need better words. Words that are with not to. Words that stress it is connection that does the work, connection that is process that is the only product that matters. Getting our words clear is useful, reminding us of the intent behind our actions.

So here are my starter words that are more accurate if we genuinely want to work together. Instead of enabling, we can conable. Instead of empowering, let’s compower. Conable, compower. Compound words with a different prefix. The prefixes en- and em- mean ‘to cause a person or thing to be in’. Con- and com- simply mean ‘with’. It’s right there in community.

And while we’re changing words, can I make a plea for the revival of amateur instead of volunteer? Yes, amateur has been used to mean less proficient, less skilled, but look at the source. Volunteer comes from conscripts, from the military. Amateur is from amare, to love, it literally has heart at its centre.

We’re told our society is divided. Yet I see people compowering with their neighbours to create hundreds of local Fun Palaces across the UK and beyond. We’re told our culture is cynical, yet thousands of people are conabling celebrations of their own community, town, street, estate in Fun Palaces, using the culture they care about as a way to connect with each other. Not to, but with. The majority of them are doing it as amateurs and their Fun Palaces are small and local acts of radical love.

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