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Interview with Dominic Stratton of Award-winning Solas Community Arts

Dominic Stratton is the owner of Solas Community Arts, winner of the ENAR Foundation Award for a racism-free Europe in the category ‘companies’. Solas Community Arts are based in Galway, Ireland, and facilitate creative workshops which explore and tackle themes of social inclusion and human rights, within a community development context.

Tell me a little about yourself and your work please.

In 2000 I studied arts and empowerment - facilitation training (facilitating workshops to empower communities, and also discriminated or disadvantaged groups), and since then I’ve been working with many different groups by using creative facilitation to tackle social issues. More recently, I’ve been working with asylum seekers using creative means in order to get their issues across to people. For example, we had a photo exhibition that was shown all around Galway which made quite a lot of people aware of the difficulties and poor living conditions that asylum seekers have to live with. We were very pleased with the public reaction because we received good feedback and many messages. And this is what it’s all about, getting the message across. We are hoping to achieve this and take the exhibition outside of Galway as well, especially in Dublin where we could connect with more people.

How exactly do you think that these creative facilitation programmes promote social inclusion? What effect do they have on the wider public?

Their main role is to raise awareness and bring to the attention of the public some problems which otherwise would risk going unnoticed. This is what we’ve been reading in our feedback and evaluation forms or directly through comments from visitors: that they would not have been aware of the situations if it weren’t for the exhibitions. For example, the Human Rights School in Galway brought all the American students to see the photography exhibition and in this way they found out about problems they were completely unaware of. So you could say that our purpose is to gradually change attitudes; and you can do that if you visit an exhibition like this, tell your friends about it and become more informed before judging a situation. Being well informed is actually crucial because, for example, there were recently some protests in the asylum centres because of the conditions and a manager was sacked. But some reports of this issue in the local press were flawed, failing to even distinguish between an asylum seeker and a refugee (the latter already has the legal right to stay in the country, while the former has to stay in almost prison-like conditions for 5 or 6 years). Therefore, 50,000 people got the wrong message about the situation through the papers. In this respect, one of the aims of our work is to help people to at least get their facts right.

Is this work recognised and appreciated by the local decision-makers?

I would say the authorities have generally been very supportive. At the moment I am actually preparing an application for the Arts Office in Galway, which has always been a supportive and important partner, just like the local museum and other bodies such as the Migrant Service and the Refugee Support Group. However, there are problems with funding, especially in these times of recession. For example, I am working on a project with the Refugee Support Group, and while in other years you might have been paid to help out, now there is just not enough money.

Is funding the main difficulty you have to face?

Yes, I would say it’s the main problem. Some projects don’t require much funding, like for example the one we are running now with a small creative group in which most participants are women asylum seekers who are stuck most of their time in their rooms with their children. The project just gives them the opportunity to come out and chat, discuss their problems and share experiences. But for other projects we receive funding from various parts, trying to cover our expenses from here and there. Sometimes the money runs out and you work more on a voluntary basis, out of conviction that what you are doing is socially important. You have to keep going and find ways to solve these problems.

Do you think that the prize will make any difference in this respect?

Yes, I believe it will be very helpful because we can use the recognition from ENAR in our applications for funding from many different bodies. We generally get funded by the same institutions and organisations, like the City Hall, the City Partnership and the Refugee Support Group. However, the prize might help us with other agencies, especially in Europe.

What did the prize mean for you personally, how did you feel?

I would have to say it was a pleasant surprise. I was happy because it was unexpected.

What drives you to work in this field?

Well, I’ve been interested in ways to empower people through the arts for a long time, and I liked listening to world music since I was young. I can say I’m a bit of an artist myself, and over the years I got involved in various music projects which celebrated diversity by bringing bands from different cultures to play together. More recently, I studied community development and did a degree in social geography which included a lot of courses on migration, international relations, and I intend to do a master’s degree in human rights to further develop my knowledge. I also got part of my motivation from personal experiences of growing up in Leeds in the north of England. There you could see all the immigrants, West Indians, Bangladeshi, Poles; they were all dumped into an area of poor quality housing and with bad infrastructure - it was like a ghetto. And I could see that people of colour were being discriminated against in my school because of the usual teenage attitudes that few people realised were harmful. I just can’t understand discrimination. I know many people develop attitudes that have been handed down to them from their peers or parents. I sometimes hear people say things which are blatantly racist without realising what they are saying. It’s just the way they were brought up I guess. The only thing that you can do is tell them they are being racist, explain why, and hope they will think about it more next time.

Some would argue that an anti-immigration feeling has been growing in Europe in the past few years, especially since the economic crisis. Do you see this in your work?

Well, Ireland had not seen much immigration until 10-12 years ago, and at the beginning there were some bad attitudes but people eventually got more used to multiculturalism. I arrived in Galway 12-13 years ago and there were only two African families. Soon every town became multicultural, attitudes had changed and racism went down a bit because people became more used to cultural difference. But in the recession lately bad attitudes have gone back up again, especially against Eastern Europeans. People even began to blame the Poles and Latvians for the state of the economy. How can they even think that? A big part of the Irish economy was based on borrowing money from the future for all these crammed building projects that are now empty and derelict. Poles and Latvians came here to work in these projects because they were needed, and they worked hard without getting paid very well (the fat cats were the big winners). I simply don’t understand how some people can blame these workers.

In this respect, based on your work, what message would you send to the wider Irish society?

Well, I would say we all share the same world, the same problems, this is a global recession. Over the years borders around the world have been constructed by politicians, because of things like colonialism, land grabbing and people grabbing. But it’s all one world and we should celebrate the diversity of cultures within it. We should reflect a bit more on our own attitudes and be open to others instead of building walls around us.

What about people who are being discriminated against, what message would you send to them?

I would tell them about our photography exhibition as a creative facilitation project. None of the asylum seekers who participated had cameras or had taken courses in photography, so for them it was a new way of looking at the world. It enabled them to look at their surroundings through their camera lenses and they took many photos that managed to portray their stories in their own way. Using creativity is a great way to help people speak about issues they otherwise would not be able to. It’s a bit of magic in there because creativity opens people’s hearts and minds. Also with the wide access to technology and the internet we have now I would encourage people to get their stories and experiences out in the public domain, whether through documentary photography and film or blogs and social networking sites.

Interview conducted by Victor Popa

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