Dr Anna-Louise Milne, director of graduate studies and research at University of London Institute in Paris, provides some insights into her public engagement work with refugees and migrants in Paris, and her work with the School of Advanced Study’s Being Human festival of the humanities.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your research?
In recent years, my worked has focused on migrant and expatriate communities in Paris, during the interwar years when Paris was the hub of Western avant-garde and also in the post-war era and the 21st century when immigration has been more marked by colonial and post-colonial dynamics, bringing world music and Francophone literatures and cinema to Paris.
Tell us a bit about your Being Human project. What subject areas did you cover and what did you want to achieve?
My projects over the past two Being Human festivals have focused on people living in forced displacement, often in situations of extreme uncertainty and without access to basic services, or to legal representation, and often with great difficulty in managing the most rudimentary linguistic interactions. We’ve been running what we call ‘multidirectional translation laboratories’. We aim to go beyond providing basic language instruction to explore how we make meaning together using poetic and visual means to tease out the extraordinary and vital expressions that can tell us how lived experiences in the city and the maps used to navigate it are changing around us.
How did you go about promoting your event to your intended audience?
I built my participant base from a network of refugee care organisations in Paris and by working with local municipal libraries. Our closed-group workshops ran over several weeks and I posted occasional blog pieces on my university website, and used a public workshop to share and extend the work. For 2017, we did a lot of direct mailing to relevant refugee-studies groups and support organisations, as well as posting details on Twitter and our institute’s website.
How did the events go? How many people did you reach and what sort of reaction did you get?
Our final public event in 2017 was a fantastic success, in terms of both numbers and the range of audience. We ran a couple of our mapping workshops in a secondary school and some of those who took part came to the public event with their parents, even though it was on the other side of town. We also had refugee participants, researchers in refugee studies, and members of the public. They were moved to come after seeing information about the event on one of the listings and find out more about how people who don’t speak anything more than the very basic rudiments of a European language manage life on the streets of a major capital city. We hear about the migrant crisis all the time on the news, but having a chance to interact directly with the lived experience of this crisis is difficult and it was very heartening to me that so many saw the importance of doing that.
What worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your event? What, if anything, would you do differently next time?
I think our use of direct testimony from the workshops in the form of brief citations, or images, was effective. It was important to make the sort of work we wanted to do concrete, particularly as people can feel very overwhelmed by the trauma of migration, both the trauma of the victims and that of the ‘host’ countries. Our aim was to engage with what one participant defined as the ‘step-by-step’ realities of migration, and the building a new life in what is often a hostile environment. And we wanted all our participants to feel that they too could take a step with this material and these realities.
I’d like to take the process of documenting and providing concrete, accessible means into the material further. We used lots of paper and printed photos, as well as cardboard and chalk. The directness of these processes is very useful for unblocking expression and exchange, but then we have to find ways of making that directness accessible to broader audiences, via virtual means primarily. That is still a work in progress for me.
What were the main outcomes for you? Has this led to any further projects or new directions in your research?
There have been all sorts of direct and very rewarding outcomes for me. Unquestionably, we reached audiences for our work that we wouldn’t have reached otherwise. Whether it be to practitioners in the field of refugee care, or to refugees themselves, as well as scholars around the world, this work has travelled. I have engaged in a number of partnerships with public outreach projects as a result of getting involved in Being Human, with Tate Exchange most recently when we showed the work in a week-long programme dedicated to ‘Producing memory: maps, materials, belongings’. We’ve also developed our workshops with Phakama, an arts based initiative working with young people in the UK. In France, my work has enabled me to build connections with Good Chance Theatre, and with the PEROU network, both fascinating organisations that are reshaping the forms of social activism.
The Being Human projects have also led to developments in my own research, prompting real interest from colleagues who come at similar questions from their own backgrounds in social geography, anthropology or political science. I’ve been invited to join panels, contribute to books, and even to write what I hope will be a major contribution to the changing shape of political activism in Europe…
What three top tips would you give to anyone contemplating or running a similar event or events in the future?
- Be prepared to embrace unexpected outcomes!
- Make sure you have a supportive team of people to help with the delivery of the event(s). Being Human is an opportunity to work more transversally, which is great, but it’s important in the demanding environment of the contemporary university for everyone to understand the interest in doing that.
- Keep the concept clear and direct. I’ve learnt a lot about what diverse audiences take and make their own from developing these projects for the Being Human festival. It has helped me approach dissemination of my own research and more broadly that of the University of London Institute in Paris much more effectively, I think.
Dr Anna-Louise Milne is director of graduate study and research at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP). She convenes ULIP’s one-year MA in Paris Studies programme, which uniquely takes a hands-on approach to explore the many facets of the city. Her research interests extend from cultural translation to urban sociology.