The Walking Neighbourhood hosted by children: Bella’s Liberation walk
by Louise G. Phillips
Children are corralled everywhere, often in cars, screened off from public spaces.
The Walking Neighbourhood hosted by children seeks to challenge controlled childhoods by offering the opportunity to cultivate children’s independent mobilities and for children and adults to negotiate co-existence in public spaces with reciprocity and insight. It is a relational arts project that involves arts workers guiding school-aged children to select and curate a neighbourhood walk that is performed with a live public audience. To assist your imaginings of what can be shared on a young person’s walk, the following provides a retelling of a Bella’s walk performed for the Australian Performing Arts Market in Brisbane 2014.
Bella (aged 13) had a very precise political agenda for her curated walk. She constructed a highly affective living text, which I attempt to convey to readers through words and still images. Bella led a group of seven adults and began on the noisy Brunswick Street footpath, saying to her audience:
“Hello, I’m Bella, I’m 13 years old and I’ll be your guide for today. When I moved to Australia in June of 2011, Mum bought us baby chickens from my brother’s day care. I raised the four chickens from chicks to hens and roosters and I told them everything that was happening in my life. They were like my best friends.” With a slightly embarrassed grimace she offered: “Well I was only in fifth grade. Then one night a fox slaughtered the chickens. It was so-o-o horrible.
In memory of the hens, I bought a necklace and had their names carved on it. Then we started fostering ex-battery hens, to get them ready for ‘forever homes’. With fostering we were able to help a lot of chickens instead of just a few. We did this for nearly two years.”
By now Bella had led her audience left into Robertson Street, entering a cleared gravelled parking area at the back of a row of run-down, two-storey residences. Bella led us into a small cramped space under a stairwell that had dirt, sticks, leaves, rubbish – even semi-decayed chicken bones – on the concrete floor. It was an unpleasant space, one that you might be prepared to pass through but are prickled with discomfort when led to stand there in close proximity to unknown others.
Bella then proceeded: “Three to four battery hens are crammed into a cage with floor space for each hen the size of an A4-piece of paper with only wiring underfoot so their toes get caught and injured and all their faeces falls through the wire and it is not cleared for a year.”
A man in her audience shakes his head, verifying: “Did you say a year?”
“Yes a year, the odour is re-e-ally pungent. The guy who rescues them told me it makes him wretch. When the females are a few weeks old they get their beaks chopped off (to stop them pecking each other) with a sharp blade without anaesthesia. It is like chopping a finger off a baby. When we fostered ex-battery hens they had grey eyes from lack of sunlight, cut-off beaks so they have a lot of trouble eating as beaks don’t grow back, and they don’t have any feathers from stress, heat and fights from other hens.”
Interspersed through Bella’s verbal descriptions of the treatment of battery hens, she flashed A4 printed images of featherless battery hens, beakless battery hens, chickens crammed in boxes cage-upon-cage-upon-cage in rows-upon-rows stacked six cages high.
The audience stood silent.
Bella then led her audience to a wire-mesh fence where there were cardboard letters that spelt “liberation”, and invited us to write a single word/symbol in response to what she had shared.
The different audiences (across multiple experiences of Bella’s walks) wrote: “stressed”, “unfair”, “sad”, “trapped”, “guilty”, “dirty”, “greed”, “outraged”, “brutal”, “confused”, “perplexed”, “condemned”, “impudent”, and “shocked”. One questioned:
“Where is our empathy?” And another declared: “Chickens have souls too.”
Following this personal reflective moment, in an effort to lift the melancholic mood that hung over the audience, Bella offered boiled free-range eggs all round.
As the group walked back up to Brunswick Street, Bella shared: “If there’s anything I want you to take back, it’s to buy free-range eggs, because it’s only an extra two dollars and it’s worth it for the wellbeing of these wonderful animals. Believe me, I know it first-hand.” The audience nodded and relayed their lived experiences with chickens.
This text is an excerpt from Phillips, L. G., & Willis, L.D. (2014). Walking and talking with living texts: Breathing life against static standardisation. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 13(1), 76-94.
Louise G Phillips won a Walking Visionary Prize with the project “Walking Neighborhood by Children“.