Guest blog for The Sheila McKechnie Foundation, published December 2017

Over the past year, I’ve been researching how popular culture can be a driver for social change in the UK. Ever since I started working on this subject there have been endless questions buzzing around my head: How do cultural movements come about? Who shapes our pop culture in the UK? How can we connect with the people who influence our culture? And how do you even define ‘pop culture’ anyway?!

It was great to discuss these questions, and many more, at a recent Social Change Project event, run by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation. The project has the ambitious goal of exploring how civil society can truly create social change in the UK. The focus for the event was on the role of culture and creativity in provoking social change. We heard about the life-changing and influential work of Cardboard Citizens and the conversations were deep and wide-ranging, from the powerful resonance of Cathy Come Home to the more recent influence of campaigns like Grime4Corbyn and SheVotes. There was a broad consensus within the group that cultural change is a necessary precursor to political change. This necessitates greater focus from progressive campaigners on the powerful influence of arts and culture.

The notion that culture and stories have a central role to play in creating social change aligns with our view that pop culture is a powerful vehicle for social change in the UK. Our findings are set out in our recent report, supported by Unbound Philanthropy: Riding the Waves: How pop culture has the potential to catalyse social change in the UK. Indeed, the report begins with a quote from The Culture Group: ‘Until progressives make culture an integral and intentional part of their theory of change, they will not be able to compete effectively against conservatives.’

The Riding the Waves report explores six key thematic areas: Representation – promoting diversity in our popular culture both on and off-screen; Authenticity – boosting the profile of credible, authentic voices; Normalisation – embedding messages in our social spheres over time; Narratives – acknowledging how messaging can educate and empathise; Novelty – appealing to trendsetters and tapping into the zeitgeist; and Relationships – building networks across and between sectors. There are many examples and case studies in our report where ripples of social change have come about as a result of cultural interventions and cross-sector networks being forged.

The Social Change Project is initiating new collaborations and connecting up people working across different industries. I look forward to reading its interim report in 2018, which I hope will provoke fresh ideas about ways of working together and campaigning for social justice, with a particular focus on creativity and cultural change. As Socrates stated: ‘The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.’