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Arts & Activism In Action


At Cultural Agency Collective delivering practical and interactive training workshops is at the core of our mission. We’re happy to share the relevant knowledge with the needs of our diverse audience, we’ve hosted workshops for entrepreneur communities, universities, and charities.
Last summer CAC was invited by charity Art Against Knives to meet the young women of Dollis Dolls Nail Bar, a creative community group it started on an estate in Barnet. We led a discussion with the young women exploring their thoughts on of social media, the power of personal branding and activism.

Art Against Knives, founder Katy Dawe recently spoke at the London College of Fashion Better Lives Lecture Series. Here she sat alongside youth facilitators and performance poets, Cecilia Knapp & Malik-Sankara Mfalme.  The panel shared their experiences using the creative arts to engage young people.
Their collective insights revealed the human agency that compels them to do what they do. It made us look at how supported or unsupported young people feel today. What do solutions look like and how can these efforts remain sustainable and impactful moving forward?

But first….how did things get like this?

“35,000 young Londoners are out of work, but not claiming unemployment benefits. They are unlikely to be accessing any support at all.” This statistic comes from Stephanie Taylor, Head of Talent Match London, a partnership of organisations testing innovative youth-led solutions to unemployment and social impact.

Politicians and newspaper headlines brandish a triple whammy of rising youth unemployment, the migration crisis and euro economic crisis as reasons in favour of the UK to leave the EU (read more here).

Truth or media diversion? What really causes a growing generation of disaffected youth? Unfortunately, we’re not short of ideas…

  • University tuition fees at an unprecedented high.
  • Ever increasing cost of living.
  • Government plans to scrap housing benefits for 18-21s.
  • Continued cuts to youth support services previously delivered by local authorities.
  • Automation and outsourcing of entry level jobs.
  • Rising retirement age.

The contributing factors to youth unemployment and apathy seem endless. Without financial & emotional support from parents to see them through, the next generation are having lifelines slowly but surely cut off. Frustration and hopelessness are predictable side effects of the lack of attention and resources they are receiving.

Enter stage left the ‘Apprenticeship’ is the saving grace solution resurrected by Westminster. The current government target for 3 million apprenticeships to be created by 2020 is disturbing. A recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme revealed home truths about the real agenda at play. It reported the shocking realities of low wages and non-existent training. Some apprentices are paid just £3.30 per hour in low skilled, unchallenging roles, often with little guarantee of a secure and better-paid career path thereafter. Today’s reality is a far cry from the vocational electrician or carpentry apprenticeships popular in the 70s. It turns out, despite the current housing crisis, there still remains a shortage of skilled entry-level construction workers because of the intentional misdirection of funding into apprenticeship placements that are quicker, easier and cheaper to fill by training partners managing the process.

Beyond dysfunctional politics, the responsibility of engaging and nurturing the young people from challenging backgrounds is being undertaken by those most closely connected with the repercussions of systemic economic and social neglect.

The Rose That Grew from Concrete – Art Against Knives

On an August summer evening in 2008, a young art student from Central St Martins Oliver Hemsley was walking from his home near Arnold Circus in Shoreditch to meet some friends in the pub. On his way there, he was stabbed in an unprovoked attack by a gang in broad daylight. The incident left an indelible mark on all those affected.

The perpetrators of the attack, one aged just 15, were found and sentenced to prison. Deemed as a ‘good result’ by the lawyers, Hemsley and best friends Katy Dawe and Alice Wilson had unanswered questions about why this had happened; what allowed a climate of such damaging social dysfunction to breed?

After the attack, friends rallied together organizing an exhibition to raise awareness and funds to support Hemsley’s recuperation. They received an overwhelming level of support from influential artists and designers like Antony Gormley, Rankin, Tracy Emin and Banksy.

The weight of these influencers and the press attention their exhibition garnered initiated a critical conversation about how art & creativity can be harnessed to engage deprived communities throughout London’s boroughs. The theoretical questions turned proactive as Dawe personally took time out from her studies to seek out dialogue with young people from deprived estates around London.

What makes Art Against Knives different?

“When you’re doing someone’s nails they’re essentially trapped because they have to dry. You have their attention. Doing an elaborate manicure pattern is even better. It gives you another 15 minutes at least!” 

Katy Dawe, has a captive audience in the LCF lecture theatre full of academics, youth workers and students. She is evidently warm and personable as she jokingly relays her first experience of engaging with the young girls from the challenging Dollis Valley estate in Barnet. When originally invited by a male youth worker to serve as ‘positive role model’ for young women in his community, ego did not stop her forging relationships regardless of their initial disinterest in her and whatever she was meant to be about.

They weren’t ready to sit down and listen to her. So Katy got up, wandered around the estate and struck up conversation by offering to paint one of the young women’s nails.

The beginning of any good relationship starts with communication. Effective communicators are always the best listeners. When seeking to understand Art Against Knives started with listening first. From this innocuous gesture, without a premeditated agenda, Katy could engage in conversation, she could learn about the girls, their lives, their challenges and their needs.

Sensitive to the reality all young people are individuals first; Art Against Knives’s approach is non-prescriptive. The various creative activations they now facilitate in different communities across London are designed by young people; for young people.

After weeks of relationship building, turning up to the Dollis Valley estate with her nail polishes and gaining trust, one of the girls suggested that they should set up a nail bar. Katy listened and worked with the community & girls to set up Dollis Dolls Nail Bar.

Sounds great, but does any of this really work?

On our first visit to Dollis Dolls Club we were greeted by 16-year-old Ramisa. More than just giving an expert manicure, Ramisa was effortlessly articulate, disarming and open to sharing her story, ambitions and comparing cultural differences. She was far from the stereotype of how the media and TV portray young women from estates. More than anything, she was evidence what happens when young people have an environment and support system that allows them to come into full bloom.

The benefits experienced by the young women that commune each week at Dollis Dolls are multifaceted and innumerable.

Those interested are given nail technician training and can work towards certification, but the girls who attend Dollis Dolls Nail Bar are under no obligation to paint nails or give manicures.

There is a range of practical skills to engage with like; writing for the Dollis Dolls blog, promoting their activities via social media and taking photographs to document their work and shared experience.

Other intangible benefits include the social and emotional development of building new relationships with different people within the community. Educational and mentoring support is offered by volunteers and the Art Against Knives team. Each week the girls have the opportunity to experiment and practice with their own creative self-expression, develop resilience built by overcoming challenges, cooperate in teamwork by organising and maintaining their nail bar.
Not to mention the mental health and wellbeing benefits of physical & verbal connection that come from giving and receiving hand massages and nail care.

Sustainability – what does the future look like?

Renowned youth charity Kids Company closed abruptly in July 2015 amidst controversy about its financial management and reliance on government funding. Its closure left 6,000 of London’s most vulnerable young people unsupported financially and emotionally with local authorities unable to bear the overwhelming demand for support. Sensitive to the pitfalls of government funding, Art Against Knives has successfully set up a trading arm, selling art pieces to corporate and private buyers and reinvesting profits back into its youth engagement projects.

The funny thing is, its overall approach is not necessarily innovative or groundbreaking. Put simply, it treats young people like individual human beings, Katy and her team listen before taking action. They are dedicated to empowering the young people they work with.

Sustainability is fundamental to achieving its core goals of building a sense of community amongst young people from challenging backgrounds; giving them a voice and means of expression through the creative arts, developing education and career options.

The Dollis Dolls Nail Bar is now open every Tuesday, independently run by the young women and girls from the Dollis Valley community.

Art Against Knives is not prescribing art as a pill to temporarily divert or entertain. In the absence of answers to solve the issues society faces today, it is providing a vehicle for young people to gain awareness of their options and take ownership of designing the lives they want to live in the future.

Find out more about Art Against Knives & Dollis Dolls Nail Bar.

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