Guest Post: Artful Conferences by Lucy Maina — Education initiative uses social practice art to innovate.

How do you inspire innovation? The Regional Education Learning Initiative (RELI) had the daunting task of encouraging innovation among 160 educators from five countries in East Africa at the last RELI convening. To meet the challenge they solicited the help of the culture consultants at limeSHIFT. limeSHIFT works with communities – public and private – to make them their most productive, purposeful and creative.

When asked what culture RELI wished to inspire, the strategic team spoke of two things; the first was to build long lasting relationships of trust and collaboration, and the second was to leverage those relationships to innovate.

limeSHIFT had only a three-day convening of the 160 educators in order to accomplish this cultural shift but the effervescent Yazmany Arboleda and Well Made Strategy’s Nabila Alibhai had us thinking differently from the word Go.

This is how they did it:

1. Identifying the aspirational culture with RELI’s strategic team.
2. Designing an experience with an artist and community builder in order to meet these objectives.
3. Guiding participants through an applied process that allowed them to practice the values.
4. Culminating the process by completing an art piece created by applying skills required to collectively innovate.
5. Celebrating the visual moment (the art piece) of the experience and RELI’s commitment moving forward.

The limeSHIFT experience at the RELI convening was kicked off with a prompt to participants before we even arrived. We were all asked to pick a RELI value that we felt particularly connected to and think of a story from our lives that reflects on that value. We were also asked to bring a piece of fabric that reminded us of that value and would serve as our first contribution towards an art piece tapestry that would over three days be woven together with our 160 colleagues.

On the first day there was an innovation session that connected personal motivation with collective aspiration and kick started a process for making the art piece together. There were some surprised looks from the assembled educators as we were encouraged to get on the floor and sew but by the end of the session we were feverishly joining material together in our small groups – some people holding the material while others sewed. Already we felt like a team – and we had only just started. As the convening continued, whenever we flagged Yazamany was there to inspire us. What transpired could not have been imagined beforehand. We participants were stretched beyond our comfort zones but we all came together to create a massive tapestry of our collective possibility.

Art needs to be brought into business and social enterprise more says limeSHIFT’s Nabila Alibhai:

“The imagination and imagining with others, is really the necessary component of changing and innovating in any way. Artist Yazmany Arboleda refers to art not as a noun but as a verb. Being an artist is having the capacity to engage, process, reinvent and reframe. In redefining art in this way, it makes it possible for everyone to be an artist. This capacity is relevant to every aspect of our lives. And the process of art making, that is to reconsider our place in the world, to improvise, to entice others into a creative experience of our own making – is to participate in the design of how we relate.”

Each night we met with Yazmany in the business lounge and sewed together as we discussed the events of the day and the values that we were weaving into the tapestry – collaboration, evidence, trust, honesty, learning and respect. When sewing we were all partners – donors and educators, academics and policymakers. And my were we all proud when in the final session Yazmany and his ambassadors carried the great flag we had created into the room and showed it to the convening.

The physical flag has been passed to Uganda for the next convening in 2019 but the mental flag – the values it represents – waves strongly in all our hearts. What an amazing experience it was.

For more on art and cultural change, listen to this podcast:

Lucy Maina is a programme manager at ziziAfrique

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