Engage Means to Create

Emer Beamer
Emer Beamer is a social designer and conceptor who founded NairoBits and Butterfly Works together with Hester Ezra and Ineke Aquarius. Her current post is research and development director at Butterfly Works, social design studio, Netherlands.


Thanks to WE for giving us the opportunity and the challenge to talk about the way we Engage individuals, communities and organisations to provide sustainable answers to international social issues. Often we are so deep in doing, that we don’t get around to documenting our approach, so here goes an attempt to do just that.

One of the major challenges the future is bringing us, and indeed a challenge already much present, is underutilisation of the talents of millions of young people on the planet. This is a nice way of saying that there are way too many people living in stark, totally unacceptable, inhumane poverty and that they feel real bad about it.

Butterfly Works is one WE, crafting and recrafting an approach with the aim of developing programs for people to move out of this poverty. Since 2000 the we of Butterfly Works has, with users, co-created some 15 programs, now running or starting up in 25 countries. The work may not appear to have a common approach, including as it does, design education for youth from the slums; national peace campaigns; HIV/aids school programs; tinkering festivals in Africa; artisans product export programs and co-design processes leading to new branded products. There are, however, common ingredients and methods involved, which I aim to unpack here. The term we use is ‘Liberate the Creative’.

Liberate the Creative

What’s that? At Butterfly Works we (as I hope you will be by the end of this piece) are avid believers in the act of creation (making, doing, concepting) to empower and liberate people (including ourselves) in all kinds of circumstances. We also have total faith in the ability of every child and person to create, make, design and conceive, we just need to facilitate opening the door to an individual’s creative talents and abilities. This perhaps naive approach has allowed us to work and make progress in the most unlikely circumstances with all kinds of topics and people, even with those with whom we share no common language.

Liberation is more complicated. Liberation from what? In our case we work with people to help them escape from powerlessness and from poverty, which often go hand in hand. Poverty is a circumstance but it is also a state of mind, a culture, supported by a class system, which oftentimes holds people captive due as much to a set of beliefs about their position in society as to factual reality.
Liberation is only possible when an individual can see and feel an achievable other state of being to the current one. Through doing, making and conceiving, one begins to feel stronger and starts owning the solution, through seeing others who have gone before you who have made a successful choice or lifestyle, one is encouraged that it is possible. Creating these first role models is essential to encourage others to follow.

So what does that mean in practice and how does it work. Here are three examples from very different programs which hopefully illustrate how this can work:

Example 1: NairoBits community

NairoBits, which we founded in 2000 liberates the creative in youths from the slums of Nairobi whereby they get jobs, move themselves and their families out of the slums, inspire others, create cool Websites and set up all kinds of youth initiatives for their peers. These are young people who thought their only option was to become a criminal, a drunk or both. Now they are movers and shakers. NairoBits has since spawned AddisBits in Ethiopia, ZanziBits in Tanzania, Kilimanjaro Film School in Tanzania and currently in the make are KampaBits in Uganda and BeijingBits in China. All these schools are built on the same ethos.

The essence of the program is a one year training in design, personal development and African culture. Working in teams and on individual projects, choosing their own topics to design and create Websites about, each student is challenged to choose, then design and program their ideas. They learn to present and defend their work. All students are selected on the basis of motivation from a group of 30 community based organisations. There is no fee for participation, but a tough selection procedure ensures that only those who are really motivated and genuinely have no other opportunity for further education get the chance.

What’s interesting in this process, which after 10 years can now comfortably be called a movement (with 1000 plus graduates) is that while many, but not all of them become employed as  Webdesigners, they do all carve out their own paths, be it DJ, setting up a youth NGO, teaching, further study at university, setting up their own business, you name it.

The other fascinating part is the sense of community that has arisen amongst students and graduates, young people from different tribes and parts of the city are now united in an informal network which freelances together, shares coding tips, job opportunities and strong friendships. They are bound by the new culture which is not ‘we are poor’ and not ‘we are rich’ but ‘we are creative, we can create what we need’

Example 2: The World starts with Me

The World Starts with Me is an e-learning program on HIV/AIDS prevention and general teenager life skills, developed firstly for Ugandan teenagers and now running Uganda-wide and happily, adapted and implemented in Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. Butterfly Works was asked to develop an approach for HIV/Aids prevention by the World Population Foundation. To do this we formed a diverse group of artists, youths, teachers and topic experts, who together developed the framework and depicted the priorities for the digital curriculum of The World Starts with Me, through a series of brainstorming and co-creation sessions.

Each lesson begins with two virtual peer educators who discuss themes such as ‘friendship’. Each participant then draws a map of their friends, revealing the closeness, level of support and type of influence each one has on their lives. This exercise gets people beyond talking and into reflective space through doing. (By the way, it’s also fun to do this exercise as an adult and can be quite revealing.)
The curriculum then takes the individual on a journey of self discovery, encouraging them all the time to get the facts and then make their own informed choices for their lives on topics such as identity, society, gender roles, human rights, sexuality, sexual abuse and HIV/aids. A four year study has shown positive impact on participants and the program has been earmarked as best practice at the World Aids conference in Mexico and by UNESCO.

On a more individual level what we have seen is young people making sometimes very difficult choices, such as stepping forward for help with cases of abuse at home, girls demanding to be allowed to continue school despite being pregnant (usually one is expelled), boys re-assessing their role in sexual relationships, young people setting up groups to advocate for their rights. It seems through creating and practicing solutions to the problems in their lives young people believe in their right to choose what’s good for them.

Example 3: Return to Sender

‘Return to Sender’ selects manufacturers in developing countries, and in co-operation with the HEMA, a large department store in the Netherlands ensures a market for their products. The resulting profits  are channeled back to the region of origin through projects designed to improve the local economy.‘Return to Sender’ is also a television program presented by Katja Schuurman, the founder and well known actress, which gives a window to viewers on the story behind these special products.

In the start-up two years Butterfly Works was responsible for selecting the participating countries and producing partners and managing both profit expenditure and the follow-up for those involved locally.

Sourcing these small local makers with potential was an exhilarating challenge and a risky business, they had to be small enough to know you were really helping a small producer to grow and take people out of poverty yet they also had to be able to rise to the demand of delivering large quantities of quality goods to satisfy the needs of a large store chain (350 outlets) in Europe. We were also looking for products that cherished some local culture or technic without being stereotypically ethnic looking.
The producers in Brazil, for example, didn’t have a shared working space, they all worked from home making these beautiful felt and embroidered items. They have since gone on to form a co-operative, rent a decent working space and deliver two collections of Christmas tree decorations using their original craftwork. Everyone of the ladies and their families in the co-operative has benefited greatly. Similarly the program imports goods from weavers in Guatemala, cotton producers in Madagascar,    ceramic makers in Thailand and toy makers in Sri Lanka. The for-profit HEMA has committed itself to long-term commercial relations with a number of the producers groups with a percentage of the profits continually flowing back to the communities.

As much as the importance this program has had for individual producers, the fact that it has been possible to turn a profit with goods produced by such small groups while honoring each contributor in the value chain, is, we hope, a source of inspiration that social business models can work.
Needless to say, we are not the only organisation that sees and facilitates the creative resources of younger and older people. Groups such as PENYA who facilitate budding music artists, Hot Sun Films, who work with young film makers, Caramundo, One Minute Films, KNN Kids news network, Young designers and Industry, Voices of Africa, Kwani?, Storymoja, Creative Cambodia, Theater Embassy, Music Mayday do too and these are just the ones I can name off the top of my head.
In fact I would be willing to bet that there is a whole new tide of social entrepreneurs out there who are seeing the creative potential in people and adding some resources to the mix contributing to a bubbling movement of ‘creativity out of poverty’ programs.

And yes, this is all only a drop in the ocean of what’s needed, a drop how-ever that means a huge amount to each of the individuals involved plus there’s a method here that could apply to every human being. When we tap into the creative resources of people, you never know where it will lead.

p.s Warning: it involves hard work and plenty of moral dilemmas and a continual reconsideration of the chosen path.

p.p.s we deeply co-create all the activities with the end users.

p.p.p.s This is rather urgent, there are millions of young people out there, full of energy, revved up to go, yet stuck in poverty. Every individual who ‘gives up’ who bows their head or turns to destructive measures given the lack of possibility to forward themselves in life, is a huge loss to all of us. WE, the big WE – that is  everyone on the planet and indeed the planet itself – all miss out on the unique creative contribution they could have made.

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