Collaborative workshops on art and sustainability: engaging and empowering students and staff

Dr. Thomas Henfrey, Jake Elster Jones (A Sustainable Place CIC), Tracy Thompson and Art and Design Faculty Students

1A Sustainable Place CIC, Llysdinam Field Centre, Newbridge On Wye, Llandrindod Wells, Powys, LD1 6NB

2A Sustainable Place CIC, Llysdinam Field Centre, Newbridge On Wye, Llandrindod Wells, Powys, LD1 6NB;,

3University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Dynevor Campus, Swansea, SA1 3EU;;

 23rd March 2016


This paper reports on two workshops held with students and staff in the Art & Design Faculty of UWTSD, which responded to the wishes of students to explore what sustainability means to them and how they can apply their energy and skills to practically engage with sustainability issues.

Drawing on Education for Sustainable Development theory, the workshops eschewed traditional 'stand and deliver' teaching methods in favour of a more organic, interactive approach, designed to empower the learners and build collaborative understanding, knowledge and practical responses. Students, staff and expert facilitators were all seen explicitly as equally important participants, with learning and knowledge about sustainability challenges and potential practical responses co-developed and emergent from the workshop process. The workshops applied a range of simple techniques and methods, drawn from social permaculture, the Transition movement of community-based sustainability initiatives, and the radical pedagogies of Ivan Illich and Paolo Friere.

The facilitators created a safe space for open and honest expression and sharing of feelings and ideas, and held a process that allowed the knowledge and interests of all participants to shape the outcomes. The first day focused on exploring understandings, feelings, concerns and aspirations about sustainability, leading to identification of key aspects of sustainability challenges; key ways in which art and design can contribute to addressing these challenges; and several ideas for possible practical responses. The second day consisted of a design process to support development of student ideas into plans for concrete action. Out of this emerged three defined projects and groups to take them forward: an upcycling initiative that will create useful products from otherwise discarded materials, a plan to employ reverse graffiti and street art as tools for urban regeneration and communication about sustainability, and a group that will hold a space for ongoing discussion, planning and mutual support.

A total of around 50 people attended the workshops, with about half of those present on both days.  The majority were students from a wide range of arts subjects, including illustration, product design and fine art; others included students from the business school, a small number of staff members (including those with roles related to sustainability within the University) and Fern Smith of Emergence (who was invited to contribute additional external expertise and experience).

The workshops succeeded in engaging and empowering a large number of students, revealing the impressive extent of their existing understanding of sustainability and providing them with a space and process where they worked out how to apply their own skills to practically respond to sustainability issues they care about. Reflecting on the two days, participants expressed satisfaction at the outcomes, and above all great pleasure in how the process allowed them to find their voices, feel heard, translate their motivation into positive action, and become part of a dynamic and supportive community of practice.