Today it has been wonderful to see the tag #WeShallNotBeRemoved gaining so much traction to champion the voices, the work and the rights of Artists with disabilities at the moment.

The Disability Arts movement has made huge gains in raising the voices of people living with disabilities, as well as using innovative, exciting approaches to art and performance. With the impact of Covid-19 on both the Arts and on people who have health issues, it’s so crucial that these Artists and Arts organisations can continue to thrive.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Fingersmiths, Extant and Deaf Explorer for commissioning me in the past to document some superb work. I’ve learnt a great deal about creativity, communication and accessibility through being part of these projects. We are all enriched through the graft of people who really raise the bar to make art accessible and inclusive. We are so much poorer without these important voices.

I highly recommend streaming Graeae Theatre’s ‘Reasons to Be Cheerful’ for a glimpse into an inclusive world where deaf, visually impaired and disabled performers take centre stage. ‘Crip Camp’, currently streaming on Netflix is also important viewing – it tells the story of America’s Disability Rights Movement and how its leaders were shaped by being in a space which allowed for their creativity and self expression. Now is the time to amplify work of such organisations so that these voices and this talent is not removed. We must make space for people living with disabilities to be seen and heard at a time when so many are in isolation.

In Her Shoes

Needing a boost? So many people are quite understandably feeling frustration, anger and pessimism in the middle of lockdown. This may be a welcome antidote….

Before lockdown I was privileged to take some photos for In Her Shoes. They are a dynamic and extremely talented team of women with a passion for raising up women through the medium of music.

We work with women and girls to share and celebrate our commonalities and differences through participation in music and wellbeing activities.


‘What Community Means to Me’ event brought together women who have seen the darkest of days – be it through homelessness, living in conflict zones or their experiences as refugees. They performed songs written by members of the group during a series of workshops with women linked to ASIRT, Refugee Action West Midlands, The Malachi Trust, George Dixon School, St George’s School in Ladywood, Amal Women’s Group and The Choir with No Name.

When we lift one another up and focus on glimmers of hope we create communities of care and support. More than once during lockdown I’ve thought about, and drawn on, the strength of these remarkable women.

Katy Bennett from In Her Shoes has put together this film using photos I took at the event and one of the many uplifting songs performed on the day.

Jess’ Journey – and a journey of my own

A few weeks ago we premiered ‘Jess’ Journey’, a film I created with women at Elysium Healthcare‘s Arbury Court and Geese Theatre Company.

I laughed so much over the course of the project, shared in the participants’ journeys and I’ve come away with even more determination to make Participatory Arts the force it can be.

I’m emerging from a really beautiful space that was co-created by patients, hospital staff and some highly skilled, talented and experienced facilitators from Geese. A space of trust, care, respect, joy, experimentation, learning and so much more. It’s potent and important.

The project came shortly after a wonderful ‘Gathering’ with ArtWorks Alliance at the Liverpool Philharmonic. I recently joined themas an Associate, and it’s been wonderful to finally find my ‘people’.

We are a group of organisations and individuals with a passion for participatory arts and an understanding that working together to strengthen support for those working in the field will bring benefits for everyone involved.

ArtWorks Alliance mission statement

The Gathering was a welcome space to think about the ingredients needed to make my own practice as participatory and inclusive as it can be. It’s an ongoing journey of learning, experimentation and reflection. It involves making the case for working in a particular way, some risk taking and seeking out opportunities to work collaboratively.

I was also able to combine my trip to the North West with a visit to the People’s History Museum in Manchester. As well as taking in the stories of ‘ideas worth fighting for’ over the past three centuries, I was able to reflect on how the exhibitions had been curated. This will feed into the next phase of the ‘Represent’ project which I am managing. The team will be developing a pop-up, interactive exhibition of our research and artwork created by two community groups with Artists Carolyn Morton and Jo Löki – we’re brimming with ideas!

Next month I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts at an ArtsConnect WM Pecha Kucha event. More reflections and some musings on some recent reading will follow soon as I develop my presentation…

The simplicity of community media

Back in October 2018, I was commissioned by Balsall Heath Forum to look at mapping out services and activities for residents across the neighbourhood. That quickly evolved into the development of ‘Neighbourhood News Online‘, a community website hosting a Directory, an Events Calendar and a variety of news items.

Through the site you can share your organisation’s details, stories, news and events (there are some easy to use online forms on the site), explore what is on across Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook and signpost others to local services and activities. It is designed to be a tool to link people together and tap into the huge amount of positive, community focused work happening in this area.

The website sits along two copies of a local print newsletter, edited by the wonderful Elisabeth Charis. We have also offered Social Media Surgeries, in partnership with Pauline from RnR Organisation and with some support from The Active Wellbeing Society, for local organisations to learn more about sharing their content and communicating what they do to new and existing audiences.

Since October of this year, I have been working with Ageing Better in Sparkbrook, specifically to support local organisations across Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook who deliver services and activities to people over 50 years of age. The output will be a series of short films where people who currently use services can gently encourage others to access some of the many things on offer in the area.

If you live or work across Balsall Heath or Sparkbrook, do have a look at the website and share what you are doing with the world. This is a smashing community and the website is a wonderful snapshot of how much is happening. Simply sharing and celebrating what happens here is so important.

Empower My Community

During 2019, Black Country Dance Hub have been working with a group of young people with additional learning needs.  They have been using the Arts, especially movement and dance as a vehicle to increase their confidence, self esteem and develop important life skills for the workplace and beyond.

Supporting one another through physical movement.

In this film you will hear from those participants, staff from Walsall Adult Education College and from staff at Black Country Dance Hub, as they share what the project has involved and the impact of ‘Empower My Community’.

Rob performs his story

Home: The Way I See It

They are powerful things, stories. Sometimes when I speak about my work, it feels a bit contrived. Do stories really deserve so much reverence? This storytelling project and performance by Extant Theatre at Theatr Clwyd in Mold went right back to basics – and has given me a renewed appreciation of how vital it is to share our memories and ideas with one another.

The set up was simple. Support a group of Blind Veterans to share their childhood memories. Develop their skills and confidence. Share their stories through performance.

Sylvia has shared memories of growing up in the Welsh Valleys.
Sylvia has shared memories of growing up in the Welsh Valleys.

However, Extant always bring a bit of magic to projects, particularly when Theatre Director Elizabeth Wainwright is involved. The telling and retelling of stories, supported by someone who is so passionate, dynamic and responsive has created something really special.

A group of storytellers, made up of Blind Veterans and friends have worked together for 10 weeks. They have learnt to tell as story from their childhood; to move you, make you laugh and prompt you to think about your own life and if it were you, what you might tell others. It’s an intimate portrait of how we can gather, despite differences, to share a piece of our history. And you’re invited.

text From the film ‘Home: The WAY I SEE IT’

Judge for yourselves – the film is now available to view on Vimeo. Thanks as always to Project Manager Jodie Stus for inviting me to get involved in another Extant project!


I’ve been having so much fun with the Represent project for The People’s Heritage Co-operative, I’ve not had opportunity to share what I’ve been up to! Represent is a National Lottery Heritage Fund and The Active Wellbeing Society supported project, exploring the impact of gaining the vote on the lives of Birmingham’s people.

Represent is a project with a real focus on reflective practice and co-learning. As well as delving into some really fascinating areas of history, we are curious as to how we can work together with participants to develop a high quality community heritage project which has relevance to us as actors in the world today. As such we have been keeping a Journal to share our thinking and track the development of our project. Here are a selection of entries which explore some of the different aspects of our work and our learning….

We have been exploring the early years of women gaining the vote with Saheli Hub‘s Handsworth group. Screening the wonderful Fight for the Right film, produced by Sima Gonsai really helped set the scene and fuelled some great discussions about voting today:

Archival research has been a really important part of our project – we’re passionate about opening up the space to new audiences. We’ve had great fun taking groups to Birmingham Archives – nothing really beats seeing these materials up close:

We’re firm believers that connecting with heritage is good for us. So we’ve been working with The Active Wellbeing Society putting it to the test using #5StepstoWellbeing as a framework for our sessions: 

Do take a look at the Represent website to discover more about the history of the period, the archives we have uncovered and our plans for the next part of the project. You can also keep up to date with the work of the People’s Heritage Co-operative through subscribing to our occasional Mailing List.

Creating (and defending) Civic Space

As Secretary of the People’s Heritage Co-operative I’m really keen to look at how we can develop the ‘community heritage’ sector to move beyond what are often short term, siloed projects into something which is more collaborative, sustainable and ambitious. We recently held a ‘Heritage Meet’ with members and other heritage professionals to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities as we see them. Here is the text of a blogpost I recently wrote for the People’s Heritage Co-operative – I would really welcome any thoughts you have after reading!

We’re a slightly obsessive bunch, those of us with an interest in heritage. Excited by old photos, eager to decipher old maps, poring over minutes from long forgotten meetings, probing people for their memories – audio recorder in hand… what motivates us to keep digging?

Last month, members of PHC gathered together with friends and colleagues for a ‘Heritage Meet’. It was an opportunity to explore the challenges and opportunities of working in community heritage. To find common ground and to find ways to collaborate and support one another.

We had a wide ranging and fruitful discussion thanks to everyone’s generous contributions. We discussed ‘lost projects’ – bodies of work from past projects disappearing; bringing work to parts of Birmingham which are overlooked in heritage work; how to explore challenging or contentious histories as well as some of the finer details of applying for funding and managing community heritage projects.

What pulled everything together was our driving ambition to explore the relevance of heritage to understanding and acting in our world today.

Matt Hinks and Richard Holmes from Big Brum Theatre spoke about their National Lottery Heritage Fund supported project, ‘The Threshold of Home: 1918’. It delves deep into the realities of working class life in Birmingham from 1914-19 and asks children to reflect on the impact of living through periods of social and political change – both for those on the frontline of change, and its resonance through the generations. It’s a child led project, using historical fiction as a stimulus for enquiry about what it means to be a citizen and a human. People’s Heritage Co-operative will be supporting the project through contributing research and co-delivering workshops.

Using maps, historical artefacts and imagined stories, ‘Worlds Apart Together’ draws on a range of sources to help children make sense of their world.

Joe Peacock from CASBA has been working with adults and children with a learning disability to explore the history of Special Education in Birmingham – and goodness don’t we need to hear those voices when SEND provision is being cut to the bone as a result of school funding cuts? Education is Special brings together current and former pupils at the schools to record their experiences of what it’s like to go to a special school, interviewing teachers and parents and highlighting changes in legislation.

Up until the end of the 1960s, if a child was assessed to have an IQ of under 50, their family could receive a devastating letter from the Local Education Authority. This would state that they were officially classified as ‘ineducable’, and had no entitlement to a state education.

Irene de Boos is working on the James Watt 2019 Bicentennial programme, ‘Watt in the World’. As well as highlighting his many achievements in the fields of Science and Engineering, the project also explores the legacy of his work and his thinking. You can head along to the project’s exhibition at the Library of Birmingham from now until 2nd November this year.

Irene is also co-ordinating activities during Birmingham Heritage Week which runs from 12th-22nd September. With the tagline ‘Your Stories. Your Heritage. Your City.’ it is less about being a spectator to History as giving people opportunities to connect with their own Heritage. Keep your eyes peeled for some events that we will be hosting ourselves!

Our colleague Moya Lloyd shared some of her experience on a variety of Arts and Heritage projects. She has been supporting our ‘Represent‘ project through observing sessions and helping us to evaluate our work.

We also heard from Josh Allen, a freelance Heritage practitioner, researcher and journalist, Rachel MacGregor, Chair of the Friends of Birmingham Archives and Heritage and Paul Long from the Birmingham Centre for Cultural and Media Research, all of whom are involved in devising, developing and promoting community heritage projects.

What pulls all of this together is what Richard referred to as our desire to ‘create civic space’. Through exploring history we can create the space for important conversations which are informed by the past. It is a learning and reflective process and increasingly important given the extent to which public space and public discourse has become dominated by private and corporate interests. Sometimes it involves physically occupying and reclaiming a space for civic purposes, even if it is for a small period. Often it is about interrupting and challenging other discourse.

The fact that we hosted the event in The Warehouse was particularly apt. Last year PHC members were involved in helping to tell the story of the building through the ‘Birmingham Friends of the Earth, Then and Now: 40 Years at the Warehouse’ project. Developed by Friends of the Earth and other like-minded groups over the past 40 years as a space where people can come to debate, learn and act on important issues relating to environmental and social justice, it is in itself an important space for promoting civic space and discourse as we navigate the many challenges of our age.

We are eager to take these discussions forward – to look at creating opportunities for us to engage people meaningfully with the past and present, to find ways to collaborate and learn from one another and to negotiate the many challenges of making high quality projects happen.

So here is an invitation...

As we develop ideas for our next ‘Heritage Meet’, we want to know what would be useful in taking our networking forward. You may want more opportunities to learn about other projects locally; it could be practical support with applying for funding, managing or evaluating a project; a skillshare session or a chance to hear from someone whose work you are interested in. Or perhaps you have skills, approaches and ideas that you would like to share with others? How do we develop and nurture a community of practitioners and what support should be out there?

Please send through your ideas and reflections to rachel@peoplesheritagecoop.uk. We will be taking forward your ideas to create an itinerary for the next ‘Heritage Meet’ this coming Autumn.

To keep up to date with our plans and current projects, don’t forget to sign up to our occasional mailing list: http://peoplesheritagecoop.uk/join-our-mailing-list/.

Marching forward

The Winter Solstice has become a point in the year for me to reflect on my work and learning journey on this little blog. Before I switch off my laptop until January, here are a few musings. Grab a cuppa and enjoy!

My work this year has had an almost exclusive focus on local heritage. 2018 marked the Centenary of the Armistice and the passing of the Representation of the People Act, so there has been plenty happening to mark both.

In February I was part of organising a commemorative event with the People’s Heritage Co-operative, The Active Wellbeing Society and Birmingham City Council. The 1918 legislation extended the franchise to thousands of working class men – and for the first time a significant proportion of women. I was invited to ask a question (effectively making a statement) to a full meeting of Birmingham City Council. The significance of standing in the Council Chamber only a stone’s throw away from where my Great Grandmother lived in 1918 wasn’t lost on me.

Speaking from the Gallery of the Council Chamber on 6th February 2018, 100 years since the passing of the Representation of the People Act.

My Great Grandmother wasn’t able to vote in 1928. Like so many other working class women she wasn’t recognised as a citizen until 1928. She spent a significant part of her married life raising eight children in poor housing in Hockley. I’m adamant that we shouldn’t be too self-congratulatory as a society when it comes to social progress and so I’ve spent much of this year pulling together a project to ask what happened beyond 1918.

‘Represent’ has been granted £36,100 by the Heritage Lottery Fund and I’m very pleased to share that I will be working as the Project Manager over the next 18 months. We will be working to explore Birmingham’s politics in the period following WW1 and the passing of the Representation of the People Act. We’re focusing on activism in relation to women as activists and housing campaigns. I’m really privileged to be working alongside a fantastic team of researchers and historians and we’ll be recruiting new members of the team in the new year – if you are a designer, evaluator or artist then keep a lookout! You can read more over on the People’s Heritage Co-operative website where you can also sign up to our mailing list for occasional updates. We really don’t know what we will uncover in the archives at this stage, so it’s all very exciting!

Other heritage projects this year have included some Project Co-ordination and delivery of creative workshops with people experiencing dementia for Living Memory; creating a film for Birmingham Friends of the Earth to mark their 40th Anniversary using archive images and oral histories; an ongoing memories project with elders for The Lichfield Festival and work with pupils at Paganel Primary School for Fields of Remembrance to examine how WW1 impacted on their neighbourhood.

Exploring important journeys for The Lichfield Festival

I’ve been continuing my learning journey this year through attending a variety of ArtsConnectWM events and courses, including ‘Preparing for Work in Formal Education’ and the always inspiring Digital Pick and Mix event. I’ve also been exploring Podcasting with an online MOOC, considering curation with Friction Arts, learning about the ‘StoryLab’ work happening at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and getting involved in a new heritage focused Research Cluster at Birmingham City University.

A real highlight has been working with the absolutely wonderful team at Geese Theatre to bring creative film making into two different secure mental health hospitals. Geese marked their 30th Anniversary this year and the years of experience are really evident in their practice. I’ve learnt so much from Geese and from participants who have thrown themselves into projects. We’ve created some fantastic work which is now being enjoyed by participants and being used as a resource by staff throughout Elysium Healthcare.

A screenshot from ‘Let the Light Show’, produced with Geese Theatre.

In 2019 things will continue to take a dramatic turn with another film planned with Geese Theatre and some work with Big Brum Theatre.

Over the past month I have been working in role as a ‘Community Knowledge Officer’ for Balsall Heath, helping Balsall Heath Forum to create an online directory and events listing site to be used as a community resource by local organisations and residents. I’ve been getting lost in WordPress plugins, themes and widgets (quite a nice place to be!), but eventually it’s taking shape. I will be employed until April, liaising with local partners to develop the resource further. Do add any news, events or organisation details to the site if you have details to add – you can view the site at www.neighbourhoodnewsonline.com.

The Neighbourhood News Online site for Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook

I’ve ended the year on a real high. Last night I came together with my wonderful coworkers from The Transfer co-working space for a few pre-Christmas drinks. It’s a lovely community of people who support one another through the trials and tribulations of freelance work and remote working. The board of Trustees from the Old Print Works work so hard to make the space cosy and welcoming and I’m so grateful for the shared lunches and camaraderie.

I wanted to end this post with an image from the ‘March of the Women’ event that I documented a few weeks ago. Balsall Heath and Moseley Women’s Institute wanted to mark the Centenary of the first women casting their votes in a General Election. They came together to sing a song written by a Suffragette alongside a series of songs written by the group and by women migrants.

It was such an uplifting event and a reminder of the dynamism and optimism in my neighbourhood. When we lift one another up then fantastic things can happen. More of that in 2019 please – the world can’t get enough of it.

Enjoying the obstacle course

I’ve just read yet another article describing the hand-wringing over school leavers not being equipped with the skills or proficiencies needed to succeed in ‘the workplace’.  Meanwhile, as a parent and creative practitioner I’m surrounded by people who see play, experimentation and creative thinking as fundamental to creating rounded, happy children.  We point to the huge evidence base that play and creativity aid problem solving, encourage the brain to make links between different areas of learning and give important space for children to learn through making mistakes.  Kids become more resilient, discover new interests and take an interest in their own learning journeys.  Why are we making kids jump through hoops when they could enjoy the whole damn obstacle course?

Students from Swanshurst School documented their learning journey into treatment of war casualties using film.

It’s unfortunately unsurprising that the joys of arts, creativity and culture are slipping off the curriculum.  Just weeks into entering office in 2010, the Conservative / LibDem Coalition decided to trash the ‘Creative Partnerships’ programme which involved strategic, high quality arts and culture provision in schools.  Subsequent educational reforms have squeezed music, drama and art out of the curriculum at the same time as funding cuts have hammered schools’ ability to provide extra curricular activities.  With OFSTED inspections deciding the fate of schools and widespread pressure for local authority schools to transfer to academy status, staff can be forgiven for focusing on getting the ‘basics’ right at the expense of a more holistic school experience.  The result is a two tier system where only children from families with the resources and capacity to support creative activities outside of school come into contact with experiences which were commonplace a generation ago.

With this in mind, I’ve been considering how my own practice can develop to meet this challenge.  Work in schools has always formed a strong strand of my work – film lends itself so well to exploring narrative, unpicking topics in the curriculum, developing literacy and presentation skills and sharing ideas with others.  It also involves technical skills and teamwork which create new and often surprising new dynamics in the classroom.  ‘Help for Hedgehogs’, ‘Monoxide Mole’ and ‘Untold Stories: Birmingham’s Wounded Soldiers from WW1’ all involved pupils in using film to share ideas and information with a wider audience.  Moreover, we had a lot of fun in making them!

Key Stage 2 pupils learning technical film making skills in preparation for making their film ‘Help for Hedgehogs’

Last week I started the first step on ArtsConnectWM’s ‘Planning for Work with Formal Education’ course.  It aims to bridge the maddening divide between schools who want to develop a broader, more creative curriculum and the talented, passionate individuals and organisations who are champing at the bit to bring their work to children and young people.

We heard from Sarah Worth of Highly Sprung who have been doing some really interesting and innovative work to co-deliver key learning in schools through the medium of physical theatre.  I documented a similar project five years ago when DanceXchange and Dance 4 piloted ‘Discover Dance’ to explore how dance and movement could help enrich and embed learning.

Discover Dance from Rachel Gillies on Vimeo.

Sarah discussed was how this type of work can continue in today’s climate.  Excitingly, Highly Sprung have been collaborating with academics to bring their research into schools.  So what a microbiologist in a university laboratory is viewing under a microscope can be enacted physically in a school hall.  They are also clear about the benefits of long term, strategic partnerships with schools.  It’s inspiring stuff.

My particular passion is for finding ways to bring local history into the classroom to develop pupils’ interest in their own heritage.  For me, knowing my own family’s story and understanding the development of the area where I live has helped me to feel grounded and settled in who I am and where I have made my home.  It also reminds me that people like me can have agency in shaping the world around me and make a difference.  It’s about citizenship, it’s about making connections with elders in our communities, it’s about standing on the shoulders of giants as we forge our paths.

I’ll be using this blog to share some of my ideas and reflections as I develop my strategy for working in schools.  I am keen to explore more collaborations with artists and arts organisations as I go.  There are a few things on the horizon which I hope to get my teeth stuck into, so come back to check in if you are interested!

In the meantime, do get in touch if you have experience of arts and cultural education in schools.  If you are a teacher then what are you currently engaged in?  What works well?  What isn’t working?  What is preventing you from doing what you would like to do?  For the creative practitioners amongst you, how have you ended up working in education?  What does high quality provision look like?  What are the factors influencing your ability to provide the kind of sessions you want to?  Who are you partnering with?  And how is work funded?  Are we dependent on NPOs with salaried employees and funded educational programmes to deliver school projects or are individual artists in a unique position to shape the agenda?

I’ll leave you with an inspiring short film which recently featured on the BBC.