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How an artist-academic collaboration worked to amplify migrant women’s voices

Artists and researchers collaborated with migrant families to address complex, politically and emotionally challenging issues in a nuanced way

Erene Kaptani Tracey Reynolds Maggie O’Neill Umut Erel
13 April 2018
 Marcia Candra

The ‘walking with mothers’ group captures the neighbourhood from different angles. Image: Marcia Candra

As home secretary, Theresa May set out to create a hostile environment for people from other countries, to make life unwelcoming for those deemed to not rightfully belong. The effects of this are increasingly felt by migrant families. Yet migrant families, through their everyday lives and social and political actions, create their own sense of belonging and contribute to changing meanings of citizenship.

As part of a project called Participation Arts and Social Action in Research, we used participatory theatre and walking to better understand how migrant families in London create such a sense of belonging and participate in their communities. Artists and researchers collaborated to gain a multi-layered understanding. The strength of this collaboration was its potential to address complex, politically and emotionally challenging issues in a nuanced way, allowing different and at times contradictory voices and experiences to be heard and reflected on.

To do so, we worked with three groups. One comprised migrant mothers of primary schoolchildren in north London, some of whom did not speak English very well. They shared their experiences of racism, the effects of gentrification on their neighbourhoods and the sense of gendered and racialised insecurity. All had stories to share about feeling scared or intimidated when out at night; they can be heard in the video Walking with Mothers: Arsenal Stadium.

All had stories to share about feeling scared or intimidated when out at night

We also worked with a group of 13-year-old girls from migrant backgrounds, and heard their stories about being stereotyped as potential shoplifters or troublemakers when in public. The third group were Black mothers who were subjected to the government’s ‘no recourse to public funds’ rules, which prevent people who are “subject to immigration control” from receiving income support, housing support or child benefits. Even though all these women were well established in the UK and in their communities—they had all been in the country for more than ten years, and had a firm sense of belonging established through their workplaces, neighbourhoods, church groups and family networks—when they experienced a personal crisis such as illness, unemployment or homelessness, they were not entitled to state support for themselves, but only for their children. The available support is often set at a level far below the needs of a family—one single mother and her daughter in our study received just £25 per week—it was very difficult for the women to get access to even this. However, alongside these structural and policy obstacles, we also explored the sense of belonging that the migrant mothers and girls created within their everyday lives.

 Marcia Candra

A walk with a mother affected by ‘no recourse to public funds’. Image: Marcia Candra

The creative methods of participatory theatre and walking that we used were key in allowing us to better understand both aspects of their belonging, as a lot of the experiences they shared went beyond verbal expression. Some of the young girls and mothers did not have the words to express their experiences, sometimes because they did not feel confident in their English language skills or because addressing researchers in an interview can be intimidating. However, another important problem was that naming and discussing experiences of racism and sexism is often taboo when talking with researchers and therefore they found it very difficult to talk about these things.

That is where the collaboration between research and arts was able to contribute new layers and ways of understanding through images, characters and embodiment. Our research team consisted of: Umut Erel, a sociologist; Maggie O’Neill, a criminologist and long-time practitioner of ‘participatory action research’ and creative walking methods; Tracey Reynolds, a social policy scholar; and Erene Kaptani, a research fellow who is an anthropologist, drama therapist and theatre practitioner. We worked in partnership with Counterpoints Arts and film-maker Marcia Chandra.  

She had insisted on wishing a good morning... as a challenge to both racist exclusion and lack of social connection

The theatre and walking methods in the project built on Kaptani’s participatory performance practice, physical theatre and psychosocial arts-based exercises and O’Neill’s research into walking as a participatory arts-based and biographical method.  

Our team addressed issues of collaboration across arts, group work and research from the beginning, allowing us to integrate the research questions with the arts methods and vice versa. For example, we asked the mothers of primary schoolchildren to share with us what it means to be a migrant mother in their everyday life; this was then recreated by a group of actors using the technique of playback theatre. The images, physical theatre exercises, movements and gestures prompted reflection on how they are seen in public spaces and how they in turn also contribute to making new communities and create new ways of socialising in a multicultural context.

One participant shared a story of social isolation and how she had challenged it against the backdrop of racism. She had insisted on wishing a good morning to her neighbours and to other parents she encountered at school or in the playground, as a challenge to both racist exclusion and lack of social connection. Defiantly greeting her neighbours was also a way of creating a sense of belonging and community for herself, her family and the neighbours. This story is recorded in the video Good Morning!  

The girls’ group showed us their experiences of belonging and un-belonging through images of what they termed ‘friendly’ and ‘scary’ neighbourhoods. They reflected on the ways in which a park, for instance, can be both a friendly area where they meet friends and enjoy family time, and also a risky place of potential violence by older boys, as shown in the video Girls’ Neighbourhoods.

In both these groups we quickly learned the power of theatre and walking methods to address challenging issues and facilitate reflection, and to allow for the articulation of collective knowledge. We found that these creative methods allowed a sharing of experiences across ethnic, social, generational and political differences. Participants could value their own experiences by creating performances for each other. The group work created a sense of conviviality which contrasted with the devaluation of migrant families as potential obstacles to social cohesion. Going beyond verbal expression was also helpful in uncovering the many ways in which migrant mothers, even where their English language skills are limited, are making important social and cultural contributions by bringing up their children and enacting a sense of multi-ethnic belonging, citizenship and conviviality in their neighbourhoods.   

The work with mothers subjected to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ policy was challenging, as most of our participants were experiencing acute crises. As a result we worked closely with our partner organisations Praxis, who provided practical support and advice, and Runnymede Trust, who ensured that the research would reach practitioners and policy-makers.  

Here, the collaboration across arts and research was helpful, to overcome the isolation, shame and sense of not belonging that ‘no recourse to public funds’ had imposed on many participants. The arts methods allowed participants to share very painful and difficult experiences with each other and the research team. Over four months, the participatory arts process, led by the drama therapist, created a space where these experiences could be held and contained and shared within the group.  

One such experience was that of becoming homeless and having to stay in friends’ houses. This was even more difficult for a participant whose son is autistic, with behaviour that was at times challenging for their hosts. While having to explain and justify herself to her hosts, the mother also felt torn as she could not explain to her son why they had to move so frequently, or why they had to share a bedroom when the boy realised he needed his own space to feel calm and well. This story is told in the video Moving Around with an Autistic Son .  

Sharing these extremely painful experiences through arts-based methods opened the way for the group to challenge how the ‘no recourse to public funds’ policy builds on discourses that blame them as mothers and as migrants. Indeed, the women highlighted the significance of colonial and post-colonial ties to the UK to challenge the ways in which immigration policy considered them as outsiders who do not belong and are not entitled to  welfare.  

Families affected by ‘no recourse to public funds’ discussing with practitioners and policy-makers, February 2017.

Families affected by ‘no recourse to public funds’ discussing with practitioners and policy-makers, February 2017. Image: Marcia Candra

The arts-based methods allowed us to explore a range of sites where this policy created a sense of non-belonging, such as the workplace and immigration reporting centres, as well as social services. Being able to show these experiences through a short theatre play—Performance by the Mothers with No Recourse to Public Funds Group—helped the group to take their stories to practitioners and policy-makers, followed by discussions and workshops.  

The play was first shown at a policy day in February 2017 and then at different policy, practice and academic events. It resulted in an invitation to show the group’s work at the House of Commons, sponsored by Kate Green MP as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration in December 2017. In the work with this group on a concrete, urgent policy issue, we found that collaborations across academia, art, policy and practice can create not only new knowledge, but also become part of an intervention into policy on who should and who should not have the right to belong and bring up their family with dignity.  

Collaborating across arts and research also contains tensions, of course, between the requirements of group work, research rigour and artistic integrity. For example, the group work required us to focus on group processes, which can be long and slow, particularly when working with participants in crisis. Yet this is necessary for creating an environment where all participants feel welcome and able to contribute. On the other hand, artistic considerations can pull the project to optimise the aesthetic and dramatic side of the work, especially when it will be shown to audiences outside the research workshops, while researchers need to focus on the questions they set out with.

However, collaborations can generate more nuanced and multi-layered understanding, as different partners bring their own expertise and lenses and are a rich source of learning and insight. The strength of collaboration between arts and research lay in the depth of engagement between researchers, participants and groups of practitioners. This collaboration also became a way of enacting citizenship, as it allowed us to go beyond roles as researchers, artists or participants to create not only new ways of knowing, but also new political interventions. This enabled us to bring a complex policy issue—that of families subjected to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rules—to a wider audience and ensured that those affected had an opportunity to share their views and experiences. 

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