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The Power of Art to Bring About Social Justice

11 December 2017 at 8:35 am
Luke Michael
Scott Rankin is the co-founder, CEO and creative director of Big hART, a charity which uses the arts to bring about social justice. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Luke Michael | 11 December 2017 at 8:35 am


The Power of Art to Bring About Social Justice
11 December 2017 at 8:35 am

Scott Rankin is the co-founder, CEO and creative director of Big hART, a charity which uses the arts to bring about social justice. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Motivated by the closure of the Burnie Paper Mill 25 years ago, Rankin wanted to explore new ways of dealing with disadvantage.

So the theatre director and playwright decided to establish Big hART in 1992. The charity has become Australia’s leading arts and social justice organisation.

Rankin leads a passionate team to tell Australia’s most invisible stories, working with more than 50 communities across regional, remote and urban Australia.

These stories touch on Australian society’s most pressing social issues, from domestic violence, to addiction, to homelessness, and intergenerational injustice faced by Indigenous Australians.

Rankin’s work has been featured in a number of major international and national arts festivals and his films have screened on ABC, SBS and at film festivals around Australia.

In recognition of his positive impact on the community, Rankin recently was named Tasmanian of the Year at the Australian of the Year Awards in Hobart.

In this week’s Changemaker, Rankin talks about how art can bring about social justice, why he doesn’t necessarily believe in Big hART getting bigger, and why he thinks millennials are the most exciting generation since the 1960s.

What inspired you to found Big hART and get involved in the charity and not-for-profit sector?

Scott Rankin

Scott Rankin

I was interested in ways of working towards welfare outcomes that concentrated on the strength of communities, rather than on the weakness of them. And I was interested particularly in the way in which creativity and the arts could have strong impacts. In a sense I guess it came from thinking that although we kind of claim that we own the profits of what we’re doing, we’re only ever stewarding them, so we’re all in some form or other involved in the not-for-profit sector. But we either notice that or we don’t, and I guess I noticed that we’re all only on the planet for a minute and we can use the profits of what we do in many beneficial ways.  

So what does your organisation Big hART do?

We are interested in invisible stories out in the community and the way in which that affects people’s wellbeing. So in succinct terms, we’re interested in cultural rights or the rights of everyone to be invited into the culture because when we don’t see people or see groups in the community, we often accidentally hurt them as a society. So our particular approach is to work with individuals and communities to bring their stories to the front, so that the rest of the mainstream of society can respond appropriately to the needs that they might have.

It’s like narrative as a protector, a story act to protect people. If we didn’t know that they were refugees on Manus Island in a terrible situation, we wouldn’t have a lot of lobbying to try and shift that. If we don’t know that almost half of the seafarers on the world’s oceans tonight – who are shipping 99 per cent of everything we buy at Harvey Norman – are working as slaves, then we’ll just perpetuate their misery. Knowledge and narrative and story are great social protectors providing it’s well told. So that’s what we do.

How does your charity use art to bring about social justice?

When most people think about art, they think about the end product. And when we think about art, we think about all the processes that go into making that end product. So there’s the tip of the iceberg but also the iceberg as a whole. In the process of making all that work, there are a whole range of skills from literacy skills, to negotiating skills, to digital literacy, to the capacity to use the media, to work alongside others, leadership skills, life skills etc. They are all in play when you’re involved in the process of making any kind of art – whether it’s film or theatre or visual arts or whatever it might be.

So what we do is use the processes of making art to work in five ways. Number one is to work with individuals who are going through an issue. Number two is working with the community in which they live, so that they see the issues that the individual’s going through. Number three is working with a national audiences, which can be political audiences in Canberra and social policy audiences etc so they can see the issues that these people are facing and make policy changes. Number four is to produce really great art – which is the tip of the iceberg – so that you bring a lot of credibility to the stories of people who might be on the fringes of the community. And the fifth level of it is knowledge transfer or information sharing or teaching, so that we’re not reinventing the wheel about a particular issue every 10 years.

How has Big hART grown in 25 years and what are some of your proudest achievements of the organisation?  

In an overall sense, we’ve raised about $50 million in that time and put all that money and that work into disadvantaged communities. All of that has been project based funding, [which is] very inefficient funding. There’s been no long term transformational funding, which I think is a bit of an issue for the sector. And so one achievement is to get that $50 million to deliver to disadvantaged communities. We’ve had to apply for about $150 million worth of funding, because we were basically successful in a third of our applications, and then we have had to report on each one of those project grants and we have had to equip them.

So there’s a tremendous amount of marathon, inefficient admin and it sounds like a negative thing but in a way, surviving that is a great achievement. And then recently, the Namatjira family just got their copyright back in Albert Namatjira’s artwork. And that was an eight year campaign for us, using a whole range of different media and working with the Namatjira family. So that’s kind of a sweet one because it just happened.

What are your goals for Big hART going forward and do you think the organisation will continue to grow in the years to come?

Contrary to some of the myths in the sector, we don’t necessarily believe in getting bigger and bigger and turning into an elite charity, because elite charities tend to have a pear shape where there’s a lot of middle management and they can struggle to get really good delivery on the ground. And secondly, there is an assumption often made that sustainability is the only good thing. But in actual fact if we all thought about it, we don’t want everything to last forever and be sustained forever.

We didn’t expect to necessarily do 25 years work. It’s been fantastic. We are looking ahead to the next decade, but we don’t want to perpetuate the vision of the previous success, because that would be the same as going backwards. What we’re interested in now, is that we’re incredibly talented and incredibly expert at what we do, we have very strong data and evaluations. What we want to make sure we’re doing is standing beside some transformational, super smart forward-thinking funders, in long-term relationships where we can really leverage the knowledge base that we have to achieve even stronger impact. That’s kind of where we’re going for the next decade.

And for you personally, are you committed to staying involved at Big hART in whatever shape it takes going forward? Or do you have an end date for yourself?

I’m not sure. I’m not really thinking in those terms. There are benefits from shifting CEOs every three years or every five years. But there’s also a bit of an addiction to shifting those kinds of positions. And I think in Australia we do that too quickly, with a loss of corporate memory on some occasions. So there is something to be said in the contradiction of making room now for the millennials – which I think is the most exciting generation since the 60s – because they’re value based, they’re interested in supply chains, they’re thinking in bigger terms, they’re interested in the experiential world and people mistake that often as a sort of selfishness. I think it’s actually the opposite, they’re just not sucked in by the drone like behaviour of previous generations.

And so making room for change making in that generation [is important]. But at the same time holding in contradiction, there’s wisdom that comes with age and working for a long time. So I’m interested in Big hART pursuing those two things: bringing specifically older women into positions of authority on the board etc and that’s happening, and then also making a lot of room quickly and saving the youngest generation a lot of time, by not just bailing and jumping ship, but by creating environments for work.

You have been involved in this kind of work for more than 25 years trying to tackle disadvantage. Do you think things are getting better with this new generation of millennials, in that the tide is turning towards a more just society?

What I will say is that human history is a story that is continually in transition, with chapter after chapter, and each generation always thinks that it’s happening around them and that things are static but that’s not the case. So within the ever changing world of our futures, as we narrate it through actions in the present, what I think is true is that the urgencies of the 21st century have much higher implications than the equivalent urgencies of the 19th and 20th centuries.

So that can be climate change, the incredibly important issue of the gap between the wealthy and those that don’t have access to wealth, the reinforcement of dynasties etc. There’s a whole range of issues in the 21st century that are more urgent than they were 100 years ago and at the same time there is a misplaced approach being taken by the for-profit sector and the not-for-profit sector and especially the government at the moment, that complex problems should be able to be solved by simplistic and binary solutions. It’s never going to happen and as things are more urgent and complex, the brains that are involved in our sector have to be smarter and smarter and I don’t think we’re seeing that. What it needs is, a really forward thinking philanthropist to drive opportunities and to think around these urgencies in much more creative ways.

What do you like to do in your spare time to get away from it all?

I live in a tiny part of Tasmania and I travel a lot. I live very close to an airport but a long way from anywhere. I can get to Melbourne in 50 minutes and so when I’m relaxing, it means there’s no one around and I usually go sailing on Bass Strait with the whales and just try and make my boat go faster.

Do you have a favourite saying that inspires the work that you do?

Well there are two sayings. One is: “It’s harder to hurt someone if you know their story.” And I think that works individually, it works in communities and it works nationally. In the White House at the moment, we’ve got a very good, but very negative storyteller and that’s going to change the world. Story is super important, so we use that phrase all the time that humanity is basically good, but it’s very easy to hurt someone if you don’t see them or if you don’t know their story. So we use that phrase and I also really like the Martin Luther King quote that: “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice”.

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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