From Toy Story to Treseder: what are we fighting for? Perspectives on Youth Voice

On Tuesday 3 November at 12.15hrs EEST, I’ll be presenting my paper, From Toy Story to Treseder at the International Research Conference “Impacts of Arts and Cultural Education: arguments and evidence. The conference is being promoted by the Latvian Academy of Culture and will be live streamed from 11.00am EEST online on the Academy’s YouTube Channel and Facebook page.

My presentation explores the phenomenon of ventriloquation, hypnotism and impersonation as channelled through Disney’s Toy Story 4 and identifies the challenges to fighting for the creative voice of children and young people. It asks when it comes to your time to hearing the voices of young people, how do you perform? Are you a hypnotist, ventriloquist. Impersonator or something else?

In case you can’t make it, here is my presentation.

And if you prefer to read it, here it is.

Introduction

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Unlike Leonard Sachs in the BBC TV series The Good Old Days, I shall try and avoid any sesquipedalianism (The practice of using long, sometimes obscure words), try hard not to asservate (assert over emphatically) but enjoy the myriad multipotency and polyphony of our session together here in Riga, or where-ever you may be based.

“Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth, and we can be influenced by each other.” (W.E.B. Du Bois)

In accordance with the author and historian, WEB Du Bois, I’d like to start with another piece of art, the film, Toy Story 4. In this clip, Buzz Lightyear is trying to persuade our hero, Woody, to give up his quest to find Bo Peep and go home. Woody refuses so Buzz asks his inner voice what he should do next.

Thanks a lot, inner voice. Something we all might recognise in times of trouble when it comes to listening to what we think our intuition, our gut feeling or what we might think of as our authentic voice is telling us.

Buzz’s awareness that his inner voice has its limits is important in the phenomenon of ‘youth voice’. In this presentation, I’m going to discuss the challenges these limits present, especially in these times when the voices of the people and young people in particular are called upon to inform public cultural policy. I’ll be exploring this by considering the concept of Authentic Voice and how this relates to the concept of Performative Voice; and how voices can inform civic dialogue as part of a wider call for Cultural Democracy.

Youth Voice: the impulse for this paper

You can’t go far these days without hearing about the importance of pupil voice in school improvement, planet climate warnings or, at the older end of the age spectrum, the Brexit referendum, perhaps the biggest pretence at listening to the voices of the British people in recent years.

We’ve learned a lot in the UK from the Brexit referendum about how voices are manipulated, distorted and selectively listened to; and there’s some learning here for when it comes to considering how young people’s voice – or voices – are heard and acted upon. At a macro level, this has been one provoking incident which has led to a consideration of what we mean by public voice and democracy.

 Creative Voices: an organisational perspective – what are we fighting for?

Coming closer to home, as CEO of the charity, The Mighty Creatives, we place great store by our brand strapline, ‘Fighting for the creative voices of children and young people’. It’s an aspiration woven through our organisation since it began and as such it helps mark ourselves out as deserving of special attention in the cultural marketplace: it’s at the heart of our mission statement. My colleague Emily York expresses it thus:

Children and young people are feeling more and more empowered to share their views and to have them valued. It is our duty to listen to them, respond to them and embed their views within our organisation’s practice where appropriate. We cannot authentically provide for children and young people if we do not do so. With this there is an undeniable responsibility, not only to provide children and young people with rich arts and culture opportunities, but to also organically embed youth representation and voice within our infrastructure.

There are several concepts here which I’ll explore through this presentation

Firstly, that of authenticity: the idea that an organisation has to ‘walk the talk’ if it is to be taken seriously by the beneficiaries it claims to be working for. Authenticity suggests a fundamental, state of being which represents the true self of the organisation’s intentions and motivations. Being seen to be authentic can be comforting in that it provides a sense of moral rectitude when the world is replete with fake news, illusion, ambivalence and ambiguity.

Secondly, that of civic duty: by listening to young people and actively taking steps in order to transform organisational policies, practices and structures, we can demonstrate that we are fulfilling a wider civic role, rooted in traditions of participation and democracy.

So the second impulse for this paper has been to stimulate debate with colleagues, both within TMC and externally, about what we really mean by Youth Voice; how and why it should be fought for and what’s at stake for us all: artists, educators and young people themselves.

What we understand by Youth Voice

At its simplest level, youth voice is a term for how children young people are able to express themselves in order to influence the world around them. This is not just about the spoken word but the many different ways we express ourselves: laughing, crying, gazing, pointing and grasping amongst many others.

Youth Voice is central to many engagement and participation strategies and I’m going to reference three of which inform our work at TMC: Hart’s Ladder of Participation, Phil Treseder’s Degrees of Participation model and Lundy’s Model of Child Participation.

Phil Treseder’s Degrees of Participation emphasises that there should be no limit to youth participation, with each degree of participation being equally valuable, dependent on the proposed project and the objectives of the participants. These degrees are:

 Assigned by informed;
Consulted and Informed;
Adult-initiated, shared decisions with children;
Child-initiated, shared decisions with adults and
Child-initiated and directed.

Lundy’s Model of Child Participation provides a sense check of whether we are ensuring that every child and young person we engage with, through any degree of participation, has their voice heard and acted on.

Her model provides a way of conceptualising a child’s right to participation, as laid down in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is intended to focus decision-makers on the distinct, albeit interrelated, elements of the provision.

The four elements of the model have a natural and rational order of Space, Voice, Audience and Influence. A safe space and open space must be available for young people to share their views, children and young people must be facilitated well enough to express them correctly, these views, ideas and opinions must be actively listened to and acted on if and where appropriate.

In 2012, Andreas Karsten identified 36 different models of youth and citizen participation in which the importance of youth voice plays various degrees of importance. I’m not going to compare and contrast all those models here but suggest that this proliferation of models is perhaps a sign that trying to define youth voice as a singular entity is a lost cause from the outset.

Rather than trying to define a complex phenomenon under one all encompassing model or metaphor, it might make more sense to see it as a polyphonal phenomenon: multi-faceted, multi-structured, multi-purposed and multi-voiced.

 The mirage of the authentic voice

When in times of ambivalence and complexity, it’s time to turn to art again and I’d like to show you this brief clip to give us another perspective on the challenge of youth voice.

Let me introduce you to Kenny Craig, hypnotist from the BBCTV series Little Britain of a few years ago:

Whilst youth voice has been central to much child centred learning pedagogy across the world, there’s a risk that claiming to privilege children’s voice as the central plank of your cultural policy making can become a tokenistic attempt at democratic education, which can, with a hypnotistic Kenny Craig waving away of the hands – Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, the eyes, the eyes, not around the eyes, don’t look around my eyes, look into my eyes, you’re under – mask several other agendas – pupil compliance, customer satisfaction, and the inexorable marketisation of education – in full flow.

The sight of the young woman not remembering agreeing to go on the date with Kenny reminds me of student subject choices being strangely limited at critical times in their education development. When she’s discouraged against her will to choose the set menu over lobster and water instead of champagne, I ask myself whether this tells us something about how often young people in school can be hypnotised into expressing their school’s desires rather than their own.

When we find ourselves asking ourselves, whose voice are we actually listening to? The voice of the young woman or that of Kenny Craig? Then it’s time to resort to art again – this time in the shape of some more old English Music Hall Tradition – to gain some further insights into the ephemeral concept of youth voice.

It’s always interesting to see the ventriloquist dummy fighting against the will of it’s operator; not least because it’s the operator’s own voice is expressing the revolt, through the voice of the dummy.

Ventriloquation – when a speaker speaks through the voice of another for the purpose of social or interactional positioning (Wertsch, 1991, Bakhtin, 1981) – is not just a spooky music hall act but is brilliantly demonstrated in Toy Story 4, when Woody, on his quest to return the trash toy, Forky, to his owner Bonnie, chances upon a doll called Gabby in an antique store and her slavish ventriloquist’s dummies, the Bensons.

The conflict between Woody and Gabby Gabby is at its heart, a fight for the voice of the child. Gabby Gabby’s voice box has been broken and her desire to replace it leads to her capturing Woody and offering a deal – give me your voice box and I’ll give you back your lost toy, Bo – and by implication his long-lost love.

The Bensons are instrumental in her fight to regain her voice box, and Woody, ever the Tom Hanks hero, obliges. He donates his voice box to her through a surgical procedure; which leads to her eventually gaining the attention of a lost child at the end of the film which ensures both the toy’s and child’s happy ever afterness.

Scratch the surface of Toy Story 4 and there are several other delights in store when it comes to understanding the complexities of youth voices.

Heteroglossia (roughly translated as ‘multi-languagedness’) is described by Bakhtin in his work “Discourse in the Novel.” And refers to the idea that there are several distinct languages within any single (apparently unified) language or text: and that different languages each have a different voice which compete with one another for dominance.

This is exemplified in this clip from Toy Story 4: in his search for Woody, Buzz Lightyear, who all through the film has been advised to listen to his inner voice, struggles to listen to the voice he wants to hear from the button-induced phrases from his own voice box:

“It’s an unchartered mission in unchartered space” doesn’t cut it.
“No time to explain!” isn’t what’s needed.
“To infinity and beyond!” is missing the point.

But finally, the inner voice phrase “The slingshot manoeuvre!” does the trick and Buzz is off to save the day again, reminding us in the process that the ‘inner voice’ is also, far more complex, more heteroglossic, than we might imagine.

Toy Story 4 also shows how children’s voices are constructed through acts of impersonation.

In one of the final chase sequences through the carnival at the end of the film, one of the toy gang, Trixie, impersonates the family car’s GPS system and the toys manipulate the controls, so taking control of the car.

Also worth a listen to how Buzz responds to Rex the Dinosaur when asked what he’s doing as he presses his voice box buttons.

So, bearing in mind the hypnotists, ventriloquists and impersonators which construct our inner voices, we can conclude that always in transition, voice is not a fixed entity. We do not speak consistently for long. We are always learning; and always listening to new voices which we try to ignore, assimilate, pass off as our own or wrestle into a completely different form.

Our authentic voice can never be completely pinned down or determined because our lives depend on flux and flow, confluence and influence.

Listen to your inner voice says Buzz Lightyear throughout the film. But which one, we might ask ourselves?

So, is the search for authenticity a false one, given the heteroglossic, provisional and fluid nature of voice? And if so, then what hope is there for organisations like ourselves, and at a macro level, policy makers who great place value on the need to hear the voices of young people and the wider community at large?

The hope lies in the very plurality that the word ’voices’ suggests and the recognition that voice is dynamically constructed and reconstructed, shaped by many different, counter or affirmative voices. To channel the voice of Judith Butler and her work on identity: we do not have a voice, we perform multiple voices. Voice is a performative act, not a state of authentic, inviolable being.

Policy perspectives: How plurality supports cultural democracy

Bearing this in mind, what are the implications for policy makers and practitioners who genuinely want to ensure that the influence and agency of young people can felt in their organisations and practice? How does policy contend with ambiguity, ambivalence and multiplicity of voices and views?

The Mighty Creatives and many other cultural organisations are not alone in wanting to hear from the voices of our beneficiaries. This desire stems from the recognition that arts have a critical role in the civic life of nations: and for this role to play out to its full effect, listening and acting upon the voices of citizens is critical.

The study undertaken by Kings College London for the Gulbenkian Foundation in 2016 makes the case for the civic role of the arts in the following ways:

The inherent argument: Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes ‘a right to participate in the cultural life of the community’ and that it is in the duty of every arts organisation to reach out and be an active part of their communities, especially if they receive public funding or protection.

The social justice argument: We live in unequal and divided societies and arts organisations are well placed to articulate this disparity and (furthermore) enable social action by, with and for the disadvantaged to ameliorate the situation.

The intrinsic argument: Arts organisations are uniquely placed to engage in civic matters since they are seen as neutral or third spaces and that people respond to the material of the arts using different values and faculties from those they apply to explicitly political media.

The dutiful argument: In a society in which trust, engagement and investment in traditional civic organisations (such as churches, political parties, etc.) is seemingly declining, arts and cultural organisations represent a last resort (or perhaps preferred agency) through which to mobilise and animate citizens in democratic processes.

The Kings College study highlights the work of Bacon and Korza (1999) and their argument that it’s the very presence of the multiplicity of voices which leads to civic dialogue and democracy.

Their emphasis on dialogue between multiple voices can direct us to how we might better develop our intentions to listen to and act upon the voices of young people.

They argue, in their publication, Animating Democracy: the Artistic Imagination as a Force in Civic Dialogue, that cultural organisations play a key role as catalysts, conveners, or forums for civic dialogue, beyond their basic role of producer, presenter, or exhibitor.

By offering space, organisational and interpretive capacity, cultural organisations can build local relationships to encourage various publics to engage in civic dialogue and participatory democracy:

“civic dialogue plays an essential role in the workings of democracy, giving voice to multiple perspectives on challenging issues; enabling people to develop more multifaceted, humane, and realistic views of issues and each other; and helping diverse groups find common ground.

Dialogue can help diverse groups find common ground on a particular issue. Face-to- face exchange prompts people to develop a more multifaceted, human, realistic picture of their fellow citizens and of an issue, in the absence of which there is a tendency to stereotype opponents and reduce issues to extremes.”

This leads me to three final questions. If we could recognise our own multiple voices of ourselves, might this lead to the democratisation of ourselves, and an acceptance of our differences to ourselves first of all, from which acceptance of The Other might follow?

Could recognising the hypnotists, ventriloquists in our own lives somehow lead to greater tolerance of the multiplicity of the voices of The Other and lead to societies which are more at ease with themselves?

And finally, when it comes to your time to hearing the voices of young people, how do you perform? Are you a hypnotist, ventriloquist. Impersonator or something else?

I’ve leave this with you for our Q and A session, but in the meantime would like to end with a return to art.

In 2019, The Mighty Creatives promoted a conference entitled Creating the Future: Challenging Perspectives and Broadening Horizons for Children and Young People. Designed, developed and delivered by 5 young people, the conference produced many challenging conversations about how young voices could inform their futures.

We asked the poet, writer and creative producer Charley Genever, to capture the day’s conversations and happenings, of which she crafted into ‘Notes for Change’ which I shall finish my presentation with. The last note provides a partial answer to the question I have just posed.

SLIDE NOTES FOR CHANGE by Charley Genever

1. We all know how the world is, we feel it in our fists, the evidence is there, we’re failing at least two million of our kids and not one of them deserves it.

2. A shut door is a barrier. A bus ticket is a barrier. Education is a barrier. Your 35+ staff team with the same average age is a barrier.

3. The system is an ancient ocean and provision comes in paddling pools. The figures go over our heads to the ebb of rich, white hands. Look at them wave, floating their tick boxes and funding loops to our shoreline for us to ascribe our lives to.

4. This is not how it should be. Kids do not come culture free and every turned cheek becomes a disaffected memory.

5. Imagine how fresh democracy would be if we showed every child, they’re worthy of creativity.

6. There’s so much noise when you’re young. Layers and layers of it. A slow story, a clock for a tongue, all the words come out wrong. Shame slots in-between, breeding on the lack of opportunity.

7. Jargon is only good for lingo bingo. It’s condescending. Get it off your posters.

8. Art is the business of people, the right for everyone to belong, for new minds to find their tribes, to create thriving humans.

9. If you don’t wear this sentiment across your chest, you’re not a youth engagement officer, you’re a security guard.

10. Are you being honest with yourself? Are you riding your high horse to the estates, the academies, the prisons, or are you watching the horizon shrink from your office?

11. LISTEN. The youth will speak. GIVE SPACE. The youth will fill it.

12. In the right light even dust will ignite. Sparks in school visits, in workshops with guest artists, in museum trips and paid internships. Don’t tell me you can’t evaluate a twinkle. You are asking the wrong questions.

13. Remember when you were first gifted the power to make the ground sound magical? Turn tarmac to fairy-tale. Open the curtains and let the whole street in.

14. There is no alternative to hope. It’s all we’ve got.

15. There is no alternative to hope. It’s all we’ve got.

END

The full conference schedule is here Konferences programma_15.10_ENG-2.

Bibliography

Arts Council England (2015) Building a Creative Nation: Putting Skills to Work, Creative & Cultural Skills.

Arts Council England (2018) The Conversation, A report by Britain Thinks.

Bianchi, L.L. (1999). Finding a voice: Poetry and performance with first graders. PhD thesis. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire.

Bond, K. & Stinson, S. (2007). It‘s work, work, work, work ‘: Young people ‘s experiences of effort and engagement in dance, Research in Dance Education. 8, 2, 155-183.

Butler, J., (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge.

Fishkin, James S. The Voice of the People: Public Opinion and Democracy, New Haven, Conn.:Yale University Press, 1995.

Hart, R., (1992) Children’s Participation: from Tokenism to Citizenship, UNICEF International Child Development Centre.

Ivey, B. (2009) Expressive lives and the public interest, Expressive Lives, Samuel Jones Demos.

Kerbela, L. (2012). Swimming in the shallow end: Opportunities for girls in youth drama, focusing on the quantity and quality of roles available to them. Tonic Theatre: http://www.tonictheatre.co.uk/wp-content/

Lundy, L. (2007) “Voice” is not enough: conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”, British Educational Research Journal, 33:6, 927-942, available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01411920701657033

Mathews, Andrea. (2007). Restoring My Soul: A Workbook for Finding and Living the Authentic Self, Bloomington, IN:Universe.

Schaffer Bacon, B. and Korza, P. (1999) Animating Democracy. The Artistic Imagination as a Force in Civic Dialogue, Washington DC: Americans for the Arts.

Stinson, S.W. (1997). A question of fun: Adolescent engagement in dance education, Dance Research Journal. 29, 2, 49-69.

Stinson, S. W. & Bond, K. E. (2001) I feel like I ‘m going to take off: ‘Young people ‘s experiences of the superordinary in dance, Dance Research Journal. 32, 2, 52-87.

Rhodes, Ni. (1990) 21 Voices:The Art of Presenting the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.: Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

Treseder, P. and Fajerman, L. (1997) Empowering Children and Young People: Promoting Involvement in Decision- Making, Swansea: Save the Children.

Wilensky, L.M. (2013) The Proof is in the Poetry: Generating student voice in a collaborative writing group approach to teaching and learning in ninth grade English, MA dissertation. San Diego: University of California, San Diego.

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