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Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system

Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

December 21, 2016
6 min read

‘It changed everything.’ The words of one Shake! participant still ring vividly in my ears. In the campaigning world, I have noticed that people from the ‘Voices that Shake!’ family wear this badge proudly. They always have a knowing twinkle of magic in their eyes, and a few weeks ago I discovered why.

Shake! runs intensive courses aimed at 16 to 25-year-olds, particularly (but not exclusively) black and brown folk. These work to deconstruct oppressive mainstream narratives such as white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormity and capitalism. Putting black and brown voices at the centre of this deconstruction is vital because these communities are disproportionately attacked by the oppressive narratives, both here in the UK and globally.

The most recent Shake! course, ‘Surviving the system: creating economies and ecologies of resistance’, came at a timely moment. In big cities like London we are constantly surrounded by people, yet whispers of loneliness haunt our streets. Seeing friends has been made difficult because of increasing travel costs. Congested trains drain our energy, leaving no room for creativity to flow. Architectural violence continues to consume our community spaces, with youth community centres consistently stripped of funding. The resulting isolation lays fertile ground for a damp depression in young minds.

The education maintenance allowance (EMA) is now a myth to our youngest generation and housing benefits cuts are unashamedly attacking the young. The cogs of commercialisation power the more insidious tentacles of the system that reach into the corners of our minds, and give birth to our insecurities. This culture of consumption is used to create a sense of longing for things we never knew we needed, like the latest phone – the latest portal to isolation.

The systems we live under operate to demoralise us. They rob us of our unique creative identity, while simultaneously isolating us into individualism. How then, are we supposed to navigate surviving this? The most recent Shake! course offered us tools and space to answer exactly this question.

But as Zena Edwards, Shake! artist and facilitator, put it, we must go ‘beyond surviving, to thrive’. This is one of the reasons Shake! focuses on creativity as a way of guiding our political activism. We must flex our creative muscles in order to imagine how we can live differently, and how we will achieve this. This creativity flowed throughout the Shake! week, as we used poetry, film, music and zine‑making to give our imaginations outlets to breathe and grow.

Another essential tool for survival was ‘healing justice’, a concept Farzana Khan, Shake! coordinator, journeyed us through. Her words of self-love and self-care permeated the course, because we cannot survive this system if we do not look after and sustain ourselves. Farzana also explained that, ‘When we rise to become our fullest self, we take everyone else with us.’ This is the core ethos of Shake! – a family where you are surrounded by people who encourage you to be your best self, who inspire and embolden young minds and hearts, and who celebrate your growth and work.


Pushing our creativity

by Khadiza Shahid

Leaning against a plush cushion on a soft woven blanket, I glided a brush saturated in paint on paper. With no pressure to produce a masterpiece, I gave birth to an image depicting my survival needs in a society that confines my mind, body and spirit.

As a returning participant in Shake!’s intensive course ‘Surviving the System’, I thought I would be learning strategies to cope in a capitalistic, individualistic world that evolved on the back of colonialism. To my surprise, it also took me on an unexpected voyage of discovery. Pushing our creativity to its limits, we re-imagined an alternative world based on accountability, care and black love.

The idea of dismantling a failing prison system that disproportionately imprisons people of colour and replacing it with increased opportunities for ethnic minorities and a focus on community service undertaken by offenders as a form of reparations and restorative justice is tempting. In moments like these, it occurred to me that we need to incarcerate the very system that has been incarcerating us.

The potential in art as a powerful, effective tool for advancing social change and challenging the status quo became clear when I joined Shake! in 2013. It was here I stood before the bus memorial to Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Eight, which embodied the solidarity with their efforts to seek justice for oil spills in Ogoniland. It was here, within the theme of ‘Power, Propaganda and Perceptions’, I was inspired to create with other youths a documentary, ‘Reach’, exploring aspirations in the face of sweeping gentrification and the ever growing economic divide in Britain.

While many experimented with poetry and zine-making to address issues of war, racism, gender and sexuality, and much more besides, I continued my film-making journey in this year’s array of workshops. Again, the contagious virus of gentrification in east London did not go unnoticed by the film-making cohort. This area, rich with heritage, is now falling to unaffordable housing and trendy outlets that force many locals out of the city. Through interviews with residents, workers and visitors alike, we all had the opportunity to produce, direct and film. It wasn’t easy: issues of positionality, use of language, and capturing the diversity of people plagued our quest to see how locals survive.

Becoming a collective, with interdependence running through our veins, infused and ignited an attitude of self-care that carried us through. Another Shake! participant, Laura Hackshaw, explains: ‘From the sharing of parts of our stories and personal lives to the zine-making, brainstorming and even the deliciously healthy food prepared for us every lunch-time, it helped me remember who I am and how I really needed that time and space to just be and to let honesty, creativity and friendship blossom.’

Shake! is a project that brings together young people, artists and campaigners to develop creative responses to social injustice www.voicesthatshake.org

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