Creative Spaces Foster Civic Engagement, Study Finds

November 9, 2015

A new study by Hivos reveals that spaces for cultural and artistic expression increase citizens’ critical consciousness by providing platforms for freedom of expression and debate. The study examines the Book Cafe, Harare’s now defunct premier arts and culture hub and hangout space. Established in 1993, the Book Cafe closed its doors in June due to financial challenges after having played a ground-breaking role in nurturing artistic expression and freedom of expression in Zimbabwe.

The study’s findings reveal that a space such as the Book Cafe empowers marginalised groups, specifically women and youth. As a meeting ground, it helps foster connections and collaborations for activists, artists and organisations nurturing social change-oriented art forms and artists. 

The study titled: “How Creative Spaces Foster Civic Engagement,” used interviews and survey data to investigate the Book Cafe’s role in fostering activism over its 15 years of existence. Hivos commissioned the research to better understand whether and how space for cultural expression increases citizen’s critical consciousness.

“Exposure to art discussions and ideas helps to expand artists’ and activists’ thinking and awareness. Through informal interactions and by experiencing powerful works of art, their sense of isolation is lessened and they find the courage and inspiration to commit to social change. New skills and collaborations also expand their capacity to effect change,” says the study.

Five values were instrumental to deepening the Book Cafe’s stewardship of civic engagement and activism, the study found. These include: cultivating a sense of home for participants; offering an eclectic mix of activities; maintaining a staunch commitment to freedom of expression; demonstrating integrity, persistence and savvy in the face of political repression and striving for relatively autonomous funding streams and spaces.

“The Book Café is a particular model of a creative space which has fostered civic engagement in Zimbabwe, particularly during the last decade or so when legal instruments were put in place to restrict public engagement and association. It was in effect a product of its socio-political environment,” said Tanja Lubbers, Hivos’ Southern Africa Hub Regional Director.

“While the space was primarily intended for artistic creation and performances, it naturally transformed into one of the few “safe” spaces where people from all sections of society (activists and non-activists) could converge and engage on a wide range of socio-political issues bedevilling the country.”   

Since it was founded, the Book Café organised over 7,500 concerts and events, 650 public debates, 70 book presentations and 35 theatre performances, and offered a stage for 150 international touring acts. In 2012, Book Café was awarded the Prince Claus Award established to recognise outstanding cultural accomplishment in African, Asian and Latin American regions.