We made a playpen! New directions for art and artists

Tuesday was interesting. After a positive day at the Institute for Social Leadership (ISL) i felt hopeful. I was encouraged coming out of a very difficult weekend watching the children interact and worrying about the different issues that were emerging, thinking that  this was too much for us to do with so little resources. Really feeling that our intention was good but that the reality of the situation would prevent us from continuing. But Monday worked out to be very different from the weekend. The children were playing and doing drama with Umoja, theatre practioner from Umoja Productions and art with Njari founder of Ethnicity Beauty concepts. I believe in the idea of community and i felt community on Monday. On Tuesday i was reflecting on the importance of playing to children’s learning or how we could teach children through allowing them to play.  A few hours later in the day someone called to share with me that they didn’t think that the idea of the ISL as they had seen it yesterday couldn’t. That what it really was, was a playpen and that in terms of how i spent my time or the work i was doing the “playpen” couldn’t do anything for me.  I stopped breathing to allow the critique and naming of the space as a “playpen” to kill my earlier enthusiasm over the value of a space to play.

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Di Institute for Social Leadership

Di Institute for Social Leadership was started in December 2013. We rented a small space for J$17,000 in a Plaza at the bottom of Marescaux Road just next to Heroes Circle and the Ministry of Education. Marescaux Road is in between Cross Roads and Down Town Kingston, the neighbouring communities maybe described as volatile; prone to upsurge in gang violence and often the site of indiscriminate police killings. Marescaux Road is also the home to one of the oldest Teachers colleges in Jamaica, and several government Ministries. There is still a lot of history in this area that is to be explored


The initial vision for Di Institute was a space that would provide learning opportunities for youth and adults as well as social support services. This vision was inspired by work with with the Jamaican Foundation for Life Long Learning(a government adult literacy organization). I had promised myself never to forget the young men and women i had met and the way i felt this organization neglected or was unable to respond to their needs.  I thought I would be able to generate a modest profit from offering adults an opportunity to learn interesting things, recognizing that education in Jamaica was focused on skills training for the job market .  The best hope might be to do something you are really interested in at the University of the West Indies, or the University of Technology but even then the objective here is still career focused. I was excited about creating and extension of the SO((U))L HQ something we had started earlier that was more focused on building community and social responsibility through global music art and culture. I saw the creation of a learning space as a natural evolution of what we were talking about and thinking, primarily because we had an opportunity to put the things we believed in and the hope we had for Jamaicans into practice.  We called it Di Institute for Social Leadership because we found that leadership was going to be important for our future and that the social leader would be the one or ones who would always be proactive in creating institutions or communities or opportunities that would be fair,just and equal. The social leader would be concerned with the condition of the community and not only their own well-being.  We said Di using patois instead of The ( English ) because we wanted to declare that the idea belonged to Africa and to the Jamaicans who were ignored as critical thinkers because of the language they spoke.

Arte Util (Useful art) as an approach to a vision

I operate as creative director for both projects Di Institute and the HQ. This means that i am primarily responsible for the shape of the space.  In a conversation with Nicole Smythe Johnson art writer for ARC magazine she mentioned an artist named Tania Bruguera and her practice called “arte util”or useful art. She said what i was describing as the Vision of the Institute sounded similar to Tania’s work.  Once i researched “arte util”  it immediately resonated with me. I saw that there was value in approaching the creation of a space as an artist.  i saw several ways that we could learn from “arte util” and create better institutions and spaces that would serve the real needs of people. I saw that art could help us to understand what we were doing in such a fundamental way, it would teach us. Art/ creativity would always be reflected in the spirit of the space.  The beginnings of the ISL was slow and maybe confusing ( to a great extent it still is) but i thought shaping the space through art would allow us to learn the most and that perhaps we could also look at creating others spaces and institutions using this method.  For me Art as an approach to creating spaces means you are more open to experimenting to understanding the needs where you are located you want them to emerge and you are also looking for the best way to respond to them while pursuing your original vision. but it is a creative dance. It means a firm commitment to exploring alternative systems and structures and testing and rediscovering what ideas like education and learning mean. It is active.

Art as an approach is important because the structure that we learn and adopt as standard in shaping our institutions and how they function in our lives were not necessarily grounded in an understanding of “us” (this i believe is the case in colonized spaces).  The education system works for some but it is broken, The Justice system works for some but it is broken, The economy benefits some but it is broken. Essentially i was coming to terms with the fact that the process is fundamentally important, as important as the product. As a colony we know very well how ideas from the mother country have damaged and undermined our capacity to create systems, policies or  institutions which reflect or acknowledge local knowledge intellect or thinking.

Di “Play Pens”

Playpens are for kids. Mostly babies. It is were we put them to play. The use in Jamaica is both positive and negative. Babies must play because they cannot do anything else but older children hardly belong in a playpen. If a place is described as playpen, it is being suggested that it is a space where time is being wasted.

After not having major regular programming from 2 months the children from the community started to come one Saturday. It has been 2 weeks now since they have been coming. We hadn’t really been advertising but one day a girl stopped by and brought the entire community of children with her to the ISL. They have been coming ever since. They come after school. To date the programme really involves allowing them some time to play but also providing them with different activities/classes facilitated by persons such as Adziko, UMoja and Naj. We have put out a call to the “community” to come and share with the children we are slowly creating a programme to engage them after school from Monday to Saturday. A big part of their activities will include play. After watching them on Monday i noted the following in my journal:

The importance of play to a child’s learning

How students at the ISL respond to play activities with Umoja.

Umoja was able to

  • help them naturally develop structure ( we prefer to talk about riddim)
  • Allow for leaders to naturally emerge from the group
  • Observe the natural skills and talents of the children
  • Allow them to teach themselves/remind themselves of important life principles
  • Allow them to work together and build respect for each other while working together

If we were to create a guiding principle for our school i think we would use play. We would build social leaders through play. Children need spaces to play and play is important for learning because it is natural, it allows them to be themselves or the best version of themselves.   Through art we have found that the Playpen is just what we need.







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