art of inclusion: Participatory action and communication at eye level in working with refugees and migrants
This blog post was originally published in German by Tino Boubaris.
The following article was written by Anita Liszewska, Anna-Kristin Albrecht and Elisabeth Bichler as part of their Master's degree in Social Work at the Brandenburg Technical University Cottbus-Senftenberg (btu) in spring 2020. The cooperation between the Bildungslabor as coordinator of the Erasmus+ project art of inclusion with the btu made it possible to evaluate the activities of the project during the process. Such a mutually beneficial cooperation can be recommended for all Erasmus+ project promoters. The external monitoring was financed from the Bildungslabor and the btu.
The project partners are very grateful to the evaluation team of the btu for their commitment and expertise, as well as to Prof. Dr. Birgit Behrensen (btu) for her professional support.
When working with refugees and migrants, professional and volunteer helpers often encounter barriers in terms of verbal exchange and language, and need to design ways of exchange in joint projects in a way as to enable active participation for all. Communication and language play a central role. How can spoken language be replaced? How are relationships shaped in terms of exchanging experiences and understanding? What contributes to the success of active exchange and communication, what can be an obstacle? Which "mistakes" can occur and what can be learned from them?
In the framework of the Erasmus+ project "art of Inclusion" we dealt with exactly these questions, documented and evaluated the respective processes and entered into an exchange with all participants in order to receive concrete answers and suggestions resulting from the experiences gained. For the evaluation, qualitative data was collected and analyzed by standardized surveys of the project partners, and content analyses of the project reports were used to create simple categories.
In the following, approaches for successful communication and participation are named, which we were able to identify from the experiences in the project.
Art as an approach to communication and participation
"art of inclusion" is a project funded by the European Union within the Erasmus+ programme (Strategic Partnerships in Adult Education for the Exchange of Good Practice). By developing and implementing local workshops using artistic methods such as play, theatre, music and other creative forms, the project aims to address mainly refugees and migrants and promote their integration into local communities as well as the exchange of positive and negative experiences. The main focus is on the addressed groups themselves, as well as on participatory settings, appreciative communication at eye level and the reduction of hierarchical conditions. Art as a level of understanding and encounter serves to lower language barriers and as a low-threshold offer to provide a value-free expression of experiences and emotions. Both initiators and project participants should experience encounters and enter into verbal or non-verbal exchange.
The project is implemented in five countries in Europe. Coordinated by the association Bildungslabor in Germany, organizations in Austria (uniT, Graz), Northern Macedonia (Eco-Logic, Skopje), Bulgaria (Vox Populi, Sofia), France (L'åge de la tortue, Rennes) are participating. Due to the different focal points of the work (art, culture, education), there was a broad spectrum of different experiences of the participating organizations and actors regarding flight and migration.
As part of their MA studies in social work, students from the Brandenburg University of Technology (btu) Cottbus participated in project meetings and workshops to evaluate the respective local events. They researched aspects of communication at eye level, the importance of spoken language, success and failure, motivation and the question of how to learn from mistakes and strengthen the partner organizations’ activities in this respect. The following summary results from the evaluations during the project.
The design of communication at eye level is a promising approach to enable respectful, open and appreciative interaction. Communication should be consensual, respectful and free of violence and hierarchies. In the activities hosted in the framework of the art of inclusion project. this can be achieved through a conscious handling of own privileges on the part of the hosts and participants in the respective local workshops. In addition, it is important to accept opposing opinions, make joint decisions and provide a safe space for discussion. This does also require time and trust. Should a person wish to leave a setting, this should be made possible. Replacing spoken language completely can prove difficult. It is possible that comprehension problems may arise with regard to artistic expression or certain basic rules, which cannot be easily overcome, also due to language barriers. Translation can be necessary and helpful here, but may also make face-to-face communication more difficult. Art always appears individual and cannot be grasped by interpretations and evaluations. Here the replacement of verbal language by artistic action can be successful, but in our view language cannot be completely replaced.
Success depends on wellbeing
For the success of the art of inclusion project it is of great importance that the participants feel comfortable in the setting of the project. The environment and atmosphere in which the workshops of the project take place have a great influence on the emotional world. This includes especially the premises and the size of the project group. There must always be the possibility for the participants to find enough space and privacy to be able to talk outside the group. In addition, the topic and content of the activities have a great influence on the well-being. This should always be taken into account when planning projects, as the organization plays a major role in creating the atmosphere. Participants must be given enough time to get to know each other and develop a certain basic trust - also towards the hosts. During the activities it is important that enough time and materials are available to be able to cope with the artistic tasks. It is also important that there are enough breaks between the activities to rest, reflect on what you have experienced and talk to each other. Furthermore, it must be taken into account that the situation and the psychological state in which some of the participants are currently in (e.g. due to migration or flight experiences) can have an influence on their wellbeing. It must be ensured that the participants take part in the workshops voluntarily. During the workshops it is also important to ensure that everyone is treated equally in order to maintain the trust of the participants and not only to give them a feeling of belonging but also to perceive them as a natural part of the workshop.
Another aspect to be considered for success is the motivation of the participants. If this is not given, a successful implementation is not possible. The atmosphere also plays an important part in this. It must be ensured that it is as relaxed and trusting as possible. Workshop hosts and participants must treat each other with sensitivity and respect. They must give each other enough freedom to act out their needs, but also have the opportunity to engage in mutual conversation. In addition, motivation as well as well-being is influenced by the situation and psychological state of the participants. Here, too, care must be taken to ensure that participation is voluntary and that the participants are prepared to make new experiences. They must see a meaning in the project and have the feeling that they can benefit from the workshops without being criticized in their own actions.
It would be helpful for the planning and implementation if the hosts have already had experience from previous workshops in order to be able to consider the needs of the participants and the necessary resources. In addition, all important information should be passed on to the participants before the workshops in order to create the necessary transparency.
Gaining knowledge through open reflection
The art of inclusion project is based on the principle of "giving and taking" between all participants. It is important to create a balance in order to enable the participants to gain something in equal measure. Everyone should be able to take at least one gain in knowledge or understanding from the workshops. By designing processes that are as natural and casual as possible, the participants' willingness to contribute to the topic, ask questions and initiate discussions is encouraged. The situation of refugees and migrants as well as their physical and psychological condition must be treated sensitively at all times and, if necessary, interruptions must be allowed during the programme to allow room for emotions and thoughts. A conscious consideration of group dynamic processes must always be guaranteed.
In the course of the project meetings all participants gained the insight that learning in projects is best achieved when an exchange with all senses takes place. In addition, feedback on the respective workshops and offers is a relevant tool for the further development of both the project and the participants. By openly reflecting on what they have experienced and critically questioning the situations that have arisen, the participants are able to understand complications in retrospect and at the same time formulate suggestions for improvement.
An example from project practice makes it clear how open reflection can lead to a gain in knowledge for all: One of the workshops was initially considered a failure, as many of the parameters mentioned above (motivation, atmosphere, transparency) could not be guaranteed to a sufficient degree. However, in the course of the joint review process, the project participants no longer regarded this as a failed attempt in the sense of a failure, but as a stumbling block with learning potential. An unexpected stumble can help to change perspectives and interrupt the routine in the project. This challenged the project partners to be more attentive and empathetic.
In retrospect, especially the observation and evaluation of "failure" in the project emphasized the importance of preparing for projects with vulnerable and marginalized groups. Important skills at this point are flexibility and the own willingness to adapt. These skills offer the participating organizations and actors the opportunity to leave their own comfort zones and thus to develop further.
The art of inclusion project started in November 2018 and will end after a final workshop in Germany in June 2021 . The project was funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.