Working in the field of public policy can be as diverse as the issues with which you engage – and it needs to be if we are to do it properly. Policy issues need to be characterized by their intimate interconnectedness, and are explicable only by reference to the whole. Thus, approaches to activism and advocacy should create space for interdisciplinary dialogue, including both hard sciences and artistic expression.
In collaboration with the Theatre Company of Kenya, the East African Institute (EAI) is using creative research methods such as drama, storytelling, and interactive theatre performance to investigate the challenges that urban youth in East Africa face and how positive change can be made. In Kenya, urbanization is rapidly increasing and it is estimated that 65% of the population is below the age of 25. The places that Kenyans live, work, and play in have never been more youthful. For the sake of this community – and future generations – we must engage and include youth in shaping the future of urban spaces. Over the last five months, EAI has been engaging in community-based research to develop scenes and stories that reflect and speak to the real experiences of youth in Mombasa. This exploration will finally culminate into the Young Cities Dialogue, where performing artists will share their work and the audience will have the opportunity to engage with the stories they’ve created, discuss key issues for youth in cities, and create and test solutions to these challenges.
In the wake of another attack by Al-Shabaab on the Kenyan military, it is evident that religious tensions in the region are high and in dire need of being addressed. Mombasa is a space where Muslims and Christians coexist; this is currently a source of social strife and will be a focus at the Young Cities Dialogue event. In recognizing and addressing tensions, one of the actors uses his personal experience of growing up with a Muslim father and Christian mother to exemplify the religious cleavage within his community. The actor engages with the audience and explores ways to build peace and understanding within his family, regardless of his own religious ascription.
Being part of this event has forced me to rethink what it means to be a policy actor. Prior to this opportunity, I engaged with policy through academia – research, writing, and formal presentations to affluent and privileged networks of people. And while I still think that these are effective methods to use when shaping policy discourse and promoting change, they can be widely inaccessible and fail to directly engage large portions of the community. By using theatre performances informed by youth experiences in Mombasa, complex issues of religious cleavage, political disenfranchisement, and violent extremism are brought back down to earth. Top-down initiatives are essential, but bottom-up approaches employ a different kind of discourse that is informed by those who are most affected by issues. In using the arts as a platform for policy engagement, accessible discourse is produced. On January 23rd, marginalized perspectives and political elites will come together to interact. Youth will tell their stories through art – and the Governor will be in attendance and listening.