Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Social Transformers: Bernadette Vallely & the ‘Save The World Club’

Trying to understand how to deal with graffiti and the kids responsible for it in Kingston-upon-Thames, has led Bernadette Valleley and the Save The World Club to produce, with the help of hundreds of local kids, beautiful community mosaics, that have transformed graffiti-stained walls and made Kingston proud of its new position as mosaic capital of the world.

Grand government strategies for social transformation look good in Powerpoint at Prime Ministerial briefings but are frustrated by the difficulties of implementing them effectively in the real world.

A more powerful model of social transformation, according to Charlotte Young, chair of the School for Social Entrepeneurs, is centred around: ‘the entrepreneurial individual, the community activist, the visionary who is prepared to act for the benefit of others. These individuals do not slot easily into the world of policy making a bureaucracy. They are not particularly compliant, nor do they find general rules helpful. They are instead driven by powerfully held values, often arising from their own grim experiences.’ [See: Think Thank Extra’ (Society Guardian. 15.6.05)]

Bernadette Vallely certainly is a shining example of this. Her work has already been recognised with UN Global 500 Laureate for establishing the Women’s Environmental Network. She has more than 22 years experience working with young people, is a best-selling author, and an important activist on social and environmental issues.

In recent years, she has been working with the Save the World Club, a local environmental charity in Kingston-upon-Thames as its Development Officer.

You might have recently met some of its members, as they organised the ‘Green Police’ at this year’s Glastonbury Festival. Their main aims: to stop people pissing in the water or the hedgerows and to encourage litter picking, recycling and better waste management

Founded by Des Kay (aka Professor Kayos), SWC has been working over the last 16 years with hundreds of children in the area. They began by using kinetic sculptures and found materials to explore environmental messages with the kids. Their work has now developed into huge community art programmes – to deal with the problems of graffiti and replace them with community mosaics.

Kingston, like most towns and cities, was plagued with graffiti. Through her work with the children, Bernadette has come to understand in a very deep way, exactly the age and kind of children who get involved first in tagging and then more elaborate graffiti and has worked closely with the local Youth Offending Team.

Her report ‘Denconstructing Graffiti’ should be widely read and understood. It begins: ‘If you want to change society, society itself must ask difficult questions. a tricky but pertinent social question being asked by community leaders, police, councillors and residents in every neighbourhood of Britain is: ‘Who is responsible for graffiti and why do they do it.’

It seems, from reading the report, that Bernadette has a better grasp on the answer than the government. Not all kids who graffiti are youths in hoods. Tagging starts with kids as young as 7 or 8, a clear signal to her that they are in deep social distress. At present it seems we are just criminalising young people with ASBOs and the like, rather than recognising that most of them are vulnerable children in great social need.

Bernadette believes we must understand the psyche of the graffiti offender if we are to have any hope of ‘halting the visual destruction, social disempowerment and decline of our urban areas’.

In the process of investigating graffiti, Bernadette began getting kids involved in making mosaics. She chose a badly graffitied wall in one of the poorest and most troublesome areas and started going round asking the mums and the kids to get involved in making a beautiful mosaic to cover it up. The kids drew the shapes and forms and all had great fun making the pieces of mosaic.

They have specifically targeted and supported those children responsible for civic destruction using a wide range of other activities including creating urban gardens, community murals, festivals, carnivals, workshops and more.

So successful has this community mosaic-making been that now Kingston is becoming the mosaic capital of the world. (One of the great advantages of mosaics is that graffiti can be cleaned from them much more easily).

They have already produced a 42sq metre one in the Kingston Station underpass which involved 800 people. An even bigger one at the Elm Road Recreation Ground (48 sq m) was created by 604 children.
Last October 2nd, they unveiled a new mosaic in Castle Street, Kingston celebrating the work of photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge who grew up in the town and returned later in life, to live out his final years there.

A new mosaic is being unveiled shortly in Canbury Passage. It is inspired by, and a homage to, the great Austrian artist Hundertwasser. It is the UK’s Longest Community Mosaic, made by 1,800 members of the local community.

The huge success of these projects is attracting interest from around the country – with good reason.

Grand Opening of 'A Study of Hundertwasser'.
Saturday 9th July 2005. 1-4pm.
Canbury Passage & Skerne Rd,

‘Deconstructing Graffiti’ can be obtained from the Save The World Club, The Beacon, 42B Richmond Road, Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey KT2 5EE

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