a young mermaid's guide to planet earth
arts, health and community cultural development with young people
by Emma Webb
A Young Mermaid's Guide to Planet Earth (Mermaids ) is a program that combines community cultural development and community arts processes with peer education, to work in partnership with young people around significant social health issues connected to violence and mental health. The program has three major partners – Women's Health Statewide, Vitalstatistix National Women's Theatre and Adelaide Central Community Health Service. Since its beginnings in 1998, the program has grown to work across metropolitan Adelaide as well as regional South Australia. Mermaids engages in three key areas of work – its own major project work, collaborative work with other youth, arts and health projects, and the provision of training and development to the youth and community health sector in the areas of youth participation, community arts and community cultural development.
Mermaids has developed innovative community arts and peer education projects with young people for over six years, based at Dale Street Women's Health Centre (DSWHC) in the north-western region of Adelaide, before re-launching as a statewide collaborative program in 2004. The program has been highly successful in its health promotion and community activist work with young people who have experienced violence and mental health issues. Mermaids uses a unique combination of community arts/community cultural development processes alongside of two key youth participation strategies -peer education and Youth Partnership Accountability. A common thread of all of these approaches is seeing young people as having expertise, resourcefulness and creativity rather than seeing them as problems.
Peer education is based on the idea that a person's life experience can offer them unique insights and skills that professionals or experts may not necessarily have. Peer education also attempts to challenge traditional power relations between ‘teacher' and ‘learner', instead encouraging collaborative and action-based learning. Youth Partnership Accountability (YPA) is a model of working with young people that emphasises the accountability of workers to the young people they are working with, in order to create partnerships that are genuine and equitable. YPA asks workers (both artists and health workers) to be aware of their power and to act in ways that enable young people to hold decision-making control. These ways of working have enabled the young people involved in Mermaids as peer educators/performers to have significant and meaningful control over the direction and content of each project and have allowed Mermaids to address issues of power and expertise, and genuinely acknowledge and incorporate young people's experiences, skills and cultures.
The use of community arts and community cultural development has been central to Mermaids' work. Mermaids has been a multi art-form program, using theatre, song and sound, visual art and design, movement, creative writing and journal making. The program has worked collaboratively with over 20 community artists over its life.
Mermaids has used a model of theatre called Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) or Forum Theatre in much of its theatre work with young people. Developed by Brazilian theatre worker Augusto Boal, TO is a renowned interactive theatre tool used internationally by artists, teachers, development workers, health workers, activists and many others to engage with and empower communities.
Launching A Young Mermaid's Guide to Planet Earth, 1998
TO fits extremely well with the principles of peer education because audience and performers are peers, and the process stresses discussion, mutual story telling and a non-expert approach to the issues.
Forum Theatre and other Boal techniques come under a broader area of cultural action – using culture to take action and taking action to change cultures. Cultural action, whether it involves theatre, visual art or other mediums, can facilitate processes where people are able to create their own representations of themselves and their world, which are often very different from dominant images and representations.
For young people who often haven't experienced being listened to or taken seriously community arts and cultural action offer powerful mediums for presenting stories and ideas that challenge dominant perceptions about young people and their lives. In its health promoting work with young people, especially young people who have experienced violence and abuse in their lives, Mermaids' experience has been that community arts and cultural action provide extremely effective forums for young people to tell life experience and stories, illustrate their expertise, use their skills, talk with peers about complex problems and issues without being didactic or judgmental, and advocate for change.
the story of Mermaids…
The idea for the project was developed in 1997 from discussions between workers from DSWHC and young women accessing the centre around the need for a resource that could contribute to the health and well being of young women living in the north-western region of Adelaide. A decision was made to use a peer education model that could enable a group of young women to consult with their peers and come up with what they thought would be most effective. The young women who became involved made a decision to produce a journal using a community arts-based process. After beginning work with community artists, they consulted widely with other young women using cartooning and theatre. The group then collaborated with visual arts honours students to produce the journal using the words, poetry, opinions and art of young women gathered during the consultation process. Named A Young Mermaid's Guide to Planet Earth, the journal was launched in October 1998.
Although originally Mermaids was to end with the completion of the journal, the success of the project and the commitment of the peer educators encouraged DSWHC seeking further funding for the project. In 1999 a new group of young women worked with three community artists to develop a Forum Theatre performance, along with a song, that reflected some of the issues the group saw as affecting young women's mental health – in particular domestic violence, body image and homophobia. The interactive performance was then presented at local high schools, Port Youth Theatre Workshop, and at several conferences.
In 2000, a new Mermaids project developed a Forum Theatre performance called Felicity's Party, which followed the stories of three young women and their friends before, during and after a party. It addressed issues
identified as important by young women during the 1999 project – body image, abuse, pregnancy and sexual health, alcohol and other drugs and depression and suicide. During the second half of the year, Felicity's Party was re-developed and performed by a new group of peer educators at local schools and publicly. The performance was also presented at several conferences throughout the year.
Also over 2000 the project developed a proposal and sought funding for a new and significantly bigger project in 2001. A successful application to the Australia Council for the Arts Community Cultural Development Board enabled Mermaids to develop an interactive performance project called Blue Skye Falling in 2001.
Blue Skye Falling was a 50-minute performance following the stories of a group of young people dealing with violence in their lives. Narrated by the character Skye, the story begins and ends in the some place, with Skye packing ‘emotional baggage' and preparing to go away.
Skye's story and those of her friends are woven together as she reflects on their struggles with issues such as relationship violence, self-harm, suicide, body image, sexual assault and abuse, homophobia, bullying, and substance abuse. The performance was a multi media production with strong use of live and pre-recorded video. It also included a live, improvised sound-scape created by a percussionist and violinist, and the painting of a backdrop mural throughout the show by a visual artist. Blue Skye Falling was performed by 12 peer educators/performers – 8 young women and 4 young men – who devised the performance in collaboration with a team of community arts-workers and health workers.
In addition to the performance other resources helped facilitate education around violence and mental health. A zine was created by the peer educators and given to all audience members. As well as being a program for the show the zine included information about some of the issues covered in the performance and a directory of health and youth services. A Front of House display was created including a display of artwork created by young women from a local school and the community. Other health information was also available, as well as a Domestic Violence Action Group visual display created by peer educators, and resources and merchandise created by Mermaids , including journals, CD ROM's and T-shirts.
Blue Skye Falling was the first time that Mermaids had involved young men. The project's focus on addressing violence led young women and workers to make the decision to open the project up to young people who were committed to peer educating with other young men around issues such as sexual assault, relationship violence and homophobia.
After the success of Blue Skye Falling, the young people involved thought it would be useful to use the ideas, stories and characters from the performance to develop a printed resource. Over most of 2002 a team of nine peer educators worked in collaboration with community cultural development workers and students from the University of South Australia's School of Art to create Enter/Exit, a unique resource for and by young people.
Enter/Exit iis a 160 page book that uses the stories of fictional young people along with young people's original art and design, to explore issues including relationship violence, sexual assault and abuse, depression, suicide, self-harm, body image, substance use/abuse, sexuality, homophobia, and sexual health, and to give young people ideas on how they can support their friends through difficult times. In October 2002, in recognition of this project and Mermaids' history of creative work in partnership with young people, the program won a Certificate of Merit and prize money from the Australian Crime and Violence Prevention Awards.
The Enter/Exit project also involved the organising of a large youth arts event to launch the journal. This event was organised by the peer educators involved with suppot from artists and health workers. The event included an art exhibition, over 10 bands and dj's, theatre performances, and a wide range of information and stalls. It was attended by over 300 people and became a focus for advocating for the survival of Mermaids in the face of insecure funding. The event was held on December 10, International Human Rights Day.
2004 and beyond…
From 1998 – 2002 Mermaids had survived and grown as an arts and health program, securing one-off funding on a project by project basis. However its growth, its sustainability (the fact that it was not a new or one-off program), and its focus on multiple issues had made it increasingly hard for Mermaids to successfully apply for one-off grants. 2003 became a year for focusing on the sustainability of the program. A reference committee of community organisations and young people was formed to look at ways that Mermaids could secure ongoing funding and stability. It was felt that to do so Mermaids needed to make a leap from being based in the north-western region of Adelaide to becoming statewide. In doing so it also needed to become a collaborative project shared by significant statewide health and art organisations.
Towards the end of 2003 Mermaids was successful in establishing a partnership between Women's Health Statewide, Vitalstatistix National Women's Theatre and Adelaide Central Community Health Service (of which Dale Street Women's Health Centre, its previous host, is a unit of). This partnership was successful in gaining funding from Arts SA's inaugural Partnership for Healthier Communities program to re-launch Mermaids as a statewide collaborative program that that uses, advocates for and provides leadership in the application of community arts, peer education and accountable partnerships within health promotion work with young people.
The program will be engaging in three areas of work. Firstly it will develop and run its own community arts/community cultural development projects. Secondly it will collaborate with the youth and community health sectors to support the development of other new community arts and youth participation programs with young people. Thirdly, the program will provide training and professional development to youth and community health organisations around community arts and youth participation strategies for health promotion work with young people.
The three key aims of the new Mermaids statewide collaborative program are to:
1. Facilitate innovative arts and peer education projects with young people aged 13 – 26 years, who have direct experience of issues of violence and mental health affecting their lives, engaging them as the key directors of the program, and increasing their coping capacities, support networks, skills development, access to appropriate support and general well-being;
Images from Enter/Exit, 2002
2. Through these projects create arts-based, peer education resources (including performances, arts workshops, youth arts events and visual/text based printed resources), for large, statewide audiences of young people, that build young people's capacity to challenge violence and stigma, engage in self-care, access support and help their friends;
3. Provide leadership, advocacy, advice, training and support to youth/health agencies around the value and use of arts/health, peer education and accountable partnership approaches to working with young people, in order to develop new and existing work, extend the capacity of agencies to carry out this work, and facilitate changes in youth service and participation practices.
Mermaids has several projects planned for 2004/2005. The program will collaborate with Riverland Youth Theatre and Vitalstatistix National Women's Theatre to support a new theatre project with young mothers in the Riverland region of South Australia. This project incorporates significant involvement from health and community services in the Riverland, and will work towards developing a performance for the Come Out Festival in 2005. Mermaids will work with the project by supporting and mentoring the process of health services working with a youth theatre company, developing training for health workers around arts/health work with young women, running consultation workshops with young women in the first stages of the project, and helping facilitate the development of themes for the performance piece with young women. Young people who have previously been involved with Mermaids as peer educators/performers will be significantly involved in supporting this project, offering their expertise and sharing their experiences with other young people.
Mermaids is also currently developing a major performance project that will explore gender, identity and well-being. Called agender, the project will involve explore and represent the influence that gender has in young people's lives using interactive theatre and other performance art, combined with peer education.
agender will involve seven separate groups of young people of diverse experiences and identities, from across metropolitan Adelaide. The groups will work separately and together to create a rich picture of young people's cultural and personal experiences of gender, health and well-being. The creative process of each group, and the final performance and peer education events that are created as part of the project, will investigate a range of interconnected issues and experiences including gender stereotypes, violence and abuse, mental health, homophobia, family, sexuality, and identity. agender continues Mermaids involvement of both young women and men. It will involve young people who are same-sex attracted, transgender and intersex young people, young people who have experienced family or relationship violence, young people who have experienced mental health issues, young parents, and young people who are newly arrived or from migrant communities. agender has grown from six years of work that Mermaids has done on issues that are affected by gender.
Theagender performance and peer education events will provide a forum to advocate for non-violence and diversity, to challenge stereotypes around gender and identity, and to support young people to support their friends. Young people who participate in the audiences will see other young people's stories creatively told, will be offered new ways of understanding gender through performance art, and will be invited to interact with and change theatrical stories using the techniques of Forum Theatre. They will be offered advice, strategies and insight from the performers and peer educators, who will be young people aged around 15 – 25 years. The final performances will incorporate interactive Forum Theatre as well as other theatrical work, including spoken work, sound, movement and clowning, which will be created and performed by young people. The agender performance and peer education events will be presented for schools and the general public in August 2005.
“It has changed my life dramatically. I have gained so much confidence to be myself and to express myself freely without barriers. I am really happy with the person I am at the moment, which is strange – I have never felt like that. Thanks guys”
I loved the acting – it's such a rush. I loved the forum too - it was fun. Also the fact that it made me really think about personal issues and reassesses things in my own mind. I feel a lot more confidence than I did before. We rocked!!”
“I think its great that young people have come together to produce this performance. I liked the part where we could jump in and change the situation to something positive.”
Female, 15 years