Creative Climate Coalitions: Playful Activism at UCL

Posted on May 23rd, 2024

Coney Associate Director Toby Peach writes on his time spent exploring Playful Activism with staff and students at University College London.

 

We’ve been using Playful Activism practice for a few years now, in many different forms and in many different spaces. Playful Activism is a specific type of creative activism that uses play as a tool for exploring social change. If activism is the use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a political or social result, Playful Activism infuses this action with play and creativity. Over the past few months, we’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to explore this in a university setting at University College London. 

We’ve been working with Shana Sullivan, an Observatory Technician, PHD student and passionate climate activist, to rethink our Playful Activism model for a university context. This work has taken place with support from UCL’s Performing Planet Activism funding. We were particularly interested in exploring ways to work with students and staff to form a coalition approach to climate activism.

Introducing this practice at UCL has been a really interesting experience, as I’m normally delivering this work with young people. We started by building our understanding of the barriers that prevent students and staff from engaging with climate activism at UCL, and what a coalition could look like. We ran interviews, which highlighted the stress staff are already under, how they struggle to find a focus, and how they can feel vulnerable if called out on their activism. For students, there was an enthusiasm for a coalition and the possibilities of creativity to engage new voices in the movement, as quite often they find the recruitment to the movement challenging.

We then ran our first sessions with each group separately, starting with an Introduction to Playful Activism. This included looking at our making skills; developing a group identity; exploring our level of comfort in action; and Gifting 101. Gifting introduces Coney’s practice of making something for a specific person/group of people to have an intended impact.

It’s been exciting to see how the group took to the exercises offered, and I’ve been so pleased with how the approach has landed.  I really like how one of the participants described the work we were doing together:

We also had some brilliant responses from participants about what they took from that first session:

In session two, we brought the two groups together and began to unpack what a coalition between them could look like. We created our operation codename, Codename: Animal Riders (Coney projects frequently have a ‘front’ name that emerges from something we all have in common in the room – this was a very specific shared experience of all having ridden an animal at some point!) and looked at how we could shift the system at UCL.

Our system modification practice always starts with games-modding, by introducing a game (Roast-the-Potato in this instance) and contemplating the system that makes it play well. We look at what makes up the system of the game (players, space, rules, power) and slowly mod it with an intended impact in mind (we always start by making it more FUN). Our modification took us from Roast-the-Potato to Save-the-Potato, a game about collaboration which reflected how this group liked to play together. 

After modifying the games system, we moved onto the system in play at UCL – but only after we had held a vote on the focus of our action. Our choices were Fossil Free Careers (a movement that is already underway at UCL); shifting to a more ethical bank, which has recently started gaining traction; and NVDA (Non-Violent Direct Action) policies, which Shana brought to the group as an option. We landed on Fossil Free Careers, as there was already a good base of knowledge in the room. We then explored the systems in play UCL, in regards to the chosen focus.

Systems-mapping explored the ‘players’ – i.e., the individuals inhabiting the space (e.g. teachers, students, administration team, cleaners etc.) at UCL that were linked to Fossil Free Careers. Where do they spend their time? Who has power in the system?  We looked at external influences on that system (e.g. political and funding stakeholders) and the objectives for the players as well. All of this was for us to better understand how this system works, and how it can be modified. 

With the system mapped, we discussed the changes we would make to it – the ‘ask’ – and then who could facilitate that change – the ‘target’. This information gave us a clear focus on what we wanted to achieve and who could help us achieve it. The final piece is how you can have a good conversation with them about it.

Session three took us to the next stage; we returned to our Gifting methodology to understand as much as we could about the ‘target’ (or ‘recipient’) so that we could develop a creative intervention to bring about a good conversation with the powerful individual in question. This process brought us to the end of the time we had together, but with it a plan for how the coalition could continue, and playfully take action at UCL. I’m excited to see how their Gift delivery goes in the next few months, but also how the practice has added to their activist toolkits.

Curious about how Playful Activism might work at your university? Say hello at [email protected].

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