Yesterday was day 2 of the summer school, which focused on environmental questions that ranged from urban stress in cities, to engaging with invasive species, and from industrial pollution to anti-microbial resistance. This was the day that I was co-organising, along with Lynne Pettinger & Gregory Hollin. Although there’s always a concern about whether events you facilitate will go ‘well’, our hope was that by inviting some amazing people to speak and/or facilitate workshops that we’d maximize the possibility of things going to plan… and we felt that this strategy worked!! I certainly had a really stimulating and thought-provoking day, where I was impressed both by the ideas people came up with in the workshop and by the issues introduced by our four evening panelists.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the day was split into two halves, a ‘world cafe’ workshop in the afternoon and panel presentations, followed by public dialogue, in the evening. It’s a bit tricky to explain what a world cafe is (for further info see here), but essentially it’s a method of creating discussion in large groups that tries to break down boundaries between ‘experts’ and ‘participants’ and aims to create space for everyone to speak (if they want to!).
How it worked in our case, was that people were divided into small groups each of whom was given a task, based on one of our four themes: Urban stress, invasive species, toxic toys and conservation dilemmas. For instance, one of our facilitators – Rebecca Beinart – made ‘top trump’ style cards that depicted some of the species characterised as the most ‘invasive’ in the UK and got people to rank them in different ways, based on criteria such as ‘usefulness’, ‘beauty’ etc, in order to provoke debates about how we categorize species. Des Fitzgerald, in contrast, asked people to describe an urban scene which could generate stress, and linked these accounts to political questions about the design of urban space.
People didn’t stay in one group the whole time, however, as the whole point of a world cafe is to ‘knowledge swap’! After 20 minutes the majority of people had to move groups (and aim to mix with people they hadn’t met before, rather than a whole group just moving to another table), but a couple of people remained to explain – in their own words – what had happened. The new people then discussed how this linked to ideas that had been generated in their previous groups. Although this sounds complicated, it was designed to allow people to collaboratively develop knowledge and generate ideas.
After each knowledge swap we did slightly different tasks; for instance, after the first swap facilitators provided short textual extracts that related to the theme of their tables, which encouraged people to link ideas (that they’d generated together) to more theoretical understandings of issues. My group, for instance, had drawn ‘charismatic’ animals then discussed what factors make some animals seem more ‘charismatic’ than others (which was informed by Jamie Lorimer’s discussion of non-human charisma and how we define wild spaces – for a video-discussion of the latter see here). This was then linked to actual conservation practices, which had been documented through some fascinating ethnographic work by Jonathan L. Clark, which illustrated how conservation itself (especially how we deal with ‘invasive’ species) could be shaped by our perceptions of animal charisma. Lynne’s group, in contrast, drew on Mel Chen‘s work on toxic toys, which analysed media narratives about a recent scare that lead paint was being used on children’s toys (including Thomas the Tank Engine!). Paralleling the – sometimes disturbing – language used when discussing ‘invasive species’, Chen shows how toxic toys are often framed as a problem caused by ‘other countries’, without actually reflecting on the relationship between consumerism and production methods or indeed the rights of the workers producing the toys. Again, this topic prompted a huge amount of discussion about how certain forms of toxicity are made visible – and the subject of media narratives – and others are made invisible.
The final two group swaps saw participants elaborating on problems/barriers to intervening in the contexts we were discussing, before suggesting potential solutions or new ways of re-framing these issues. Despite the often saddening or contentious nature of the issues we were discussing, people really threw themselves into discussing alternative ways of intervening in toxic environments and new ways of understanding issues. I hadn’t tried to use the world cafe framework before, but I genuinely found it a really exciting way of generating knowledge, which encouraged people to share some really different perspectives and viewpoints about pressing political issues.
At the end of the session, people also developed questions to be brought forward to the evening panel, which was kicked off by Pawas. That deserves a post of it’s own though…
[All photos by Nottingham Contemporary]