Represent

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.

Planning, collaborating, telling stories

Planning, collaborating, telling stories.  All the stuff that I love.  Here’s a bit of an overview of what I’ve been up to so far this year.

I have spent part of this year working part time as a Project Co-ordinator on ‘Living Memory’, a two-year Heritage Lottery supported project that records and celebrates photography collections and life stories from across the Black Country.  It’s been an intense and rewarding role, delving into fascinating stories and stunning images from across the area, as well as making connections with community organisations and projects that I was completely unaware of before.  The project will hardly scrape the surface of the rich narratives there are to uncover, but you can get a flavour of what we have been doing on the project website (where you can also sign up to get occasional updates into your inbox) or by following us on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.  A personal favourite story of mine is John Shrimpton’s – whose efforts contributed to the formation of the Sandwell Valley as a nature reserve and protected it from development.

I’ve continued my longstanding relationship with the Lichfield Festival this year, developing their ‘Hear My Voice’ learning and participation programme, this time with elders across Walsall and Lichfield.  Textile Artist Liz Blades and I have been visiting Dementia Cafés, the weekly ‘Mind Matters’ session in Beechdale and drop ins for over 50s to develop our project on the theme of journeys.  I have been taken aback by how open people have been about discussing their memories – often they touch on personal traumas and tragedies and frequently these experiences have not been shared so candidly before.  Our task will now be to carry this work forward into the next phase.  The textile patchwork quilt which illustrates some of these memories will be on display at the Lichfield Garrick Theatre over the course of the Festival.

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, work has continued on the Birmingham Friends of the Earth Heritage project.  A group of volunteers have been scouring through the archives housed at the Library of Birmingham and have unearthed some fascinating stuff about the 40 year history of The Warehouse, BFoE’s home since 1977.  A few weeks ago I trained up a team of volunteers in a morning to conduct oral history interviews with people who have a connection to the building and to BFoE’s work.  With 17 people to interview over the course of the afternoon it was a hectic day, but so many lovely anecdotes emerged and there was a really strong sense that these people were early pioneers and advocates of many of the actions that we see as positive and important today.  I’m in the process of knitting these stories together.  A short film and accompanying booklet will be ready for the Autumn.

Behind the scenes I’m still plotting and planning other projects, including ongoing collaborations as part of the People’s Heritage Co-operative.  Next week I’m embarking on a new project making a film in a setting for women with mental health needs.  I’m also going to be presenting Women’s History Birmingham‘s work to this year’s Community Archives and Heritage Group conference, which this year focuses on Conflict, Protest and Reconciliation.

Happy Birthday Moseley Road Baths!

A building very close to my heart, Moseley Road Baths, is 110 years old today!  It stands as a testament to the late 19th Century municipal vision of public buildings which could create spaces for self improvement, healthy living and community.  It also stands as a testament to a campaign of community action, lobbying and creativity, which has prevented the doors closing and the building becoming derelict.

When I moved to Birmingham in 2003, I worked on Reception for a few years whilst setting up as a freelance Film Maker. As a result of that, I was able to enjoy the beautiful architecture, swim regularly (sometimes with the pool to myself!) and meet so many people, many of whom are now friends.

When the building was nearing its Centenary year and threatened with closure, a handful of us came together and formed the Friends of Moseley Road Baths. Back then it seemed unlikely we could convince Birmingham City Council to keep it open. Today I went for a lunchtime swim to celebrate all that we have achieved.

In 2010 the Friends of Moseley Road Baths received funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a three year ‘Pool of Memories’ project. I was so lucky to interview people with memories of swimming, bathing, working and socialising in the building. Even better, I ran workshops in local schools where pupils were given opportunity to make their own oral history films. The work from that project can be viewed on the ‘Heritage’ page of the Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ website.

However, there is still so much work to be done. A Community Interest Company is hoping to take on the running of the building from April next year when the Council pull out, but funds are needed to help make that happen. So here are two asks:

Vote for the building for Aviva’s Community Fund (it takes a few minutes) and contribute to the Crowdfunder.

Here are just a handful of comments from supporters explaining why they feel the building is worth saving. I cut this together from interviews with regular Sunday morning swimmers.

For regular updates on the campaign, details of how to get involved and for news on events and activities, subscribe to the Friends of Moseley Road Baths’ mailing list.

Breaking the Silence: The Women of Bosnia

“In all our public appearances, the message to victims is to break the silence and speak out, publicly and loudly about what they survived. Not just for us, but for themselves and for future generations to know, if, god forbid, such evil happens again, how to stand up to it, how to fight for their dignity.”

Bakira Hasečić – Bosnian Women’s Activist and Rape Survivor

In 1995, at the height of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serb Nationalist forces conducted a campaign of rape, sexual abuse and torture against Bosnian Muslim women as part of a policy of ethnic cleansing.  It is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped, many of them in ‘rape camps’ where they were forcibly detained to prevent them terminating unwanted pregnancies as a result of the attacks.

The genocidal campaign also resulted in the deaths of more than 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica and the surrounding forests.  Some men and boys managed to find their way home years later from internment camps and centres in neighbouring countries, others will never be found, so we will never know the true number of victims.

How does a society even begin to process such brutality?  How can the survivors begin to rebuild their lives as single parents in a war savaged society?  How can we find the language to speak of these atrocities to ensure that they are never repeated?  When I started film making, it was to try and redress the balance in media – to amplify voices of people who are rarely heard.  In places of conflict, the need to hear other narratives is even more important, to foster understanding between people and create conditions for peace and reconciliation.

It has therefore been a privilege and a challenge to play a part in sharing the testimonies of survivors of genocidal rape for Remembering Srebrenica.  The Charity is encouraging the public to ‘Break the Silence’ on violence against women and girls, and has used these powerful stories to highlight just how important it is to speak out against such extreme violence and hatred.

A Bosnian film crew interviewed a number of women, who recounted their horrendous experiences.  Unbelievably, many people deny that the genocide took place and many women live alongside the perpetrators of these crimes, who continue to walk freely.  Speaking out is a brave and radical act, which risks repercussions.

It has been my job to edit these interviews together into two films, alongside archive footage from the conflict.  The films are available to view on Remembering Srebrenica’s website and Social Media accounts – to date they have had almost 80,000 views between them.  The longer, seven minute film, was screened in May at the Scottish Parliament at a special event hosted by MSPs Ruth Davidson and Johann Lamont.  Scottish Labour Party leader, Kezia Dugdale has since been out to Bosnia to learn more.

Tomorrow I am attending a very special event at London’s Guildhall for Srebrenica Memorial Day.  In attendance will be some Bosnian women who have been active and vocal in ensuring that such atrocities are never repeated.  They have dedicated their lives to seeking justice in their communities and in the courts.  Politicians from across the political spectrum will also be there and will watch the film.

We all have a role to play in challenging the bigotry, intolerance and hatred which create the conditions for these horrors to occur.  That such events happened so recently and so close to home should act as a warning to us all that dehumanising groups of people and creating a climate of fear and paranoia can have real and devastating consequences.

Both films contain graphic accounts of sexual violence.

Anyone for tea and cake?

On Thursday I will be representing the People’s Heritage Co-operative at Arts Connect’s Artist and Teachers Tea Party.  It’s an chance for teachers to explore opportunities for commissioning creative projects in schools which can enhance the school curriculum.  I’ve blogged about some of the projects I’ll be showcasing over on the People’s Heritage Co-operative blog, including giving a sneak peek of the Women’s History Birmingham project pictured above (more on that soon!).

If you are in any doubt as to how important the arts are to education then it’s well worth 20 minutes of your time to watch Ken Robinson’s TED talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity?  In his talk he outlines the importance of encouraging young people to access creative learning opportunities.

If you are a teacher and are interested then book online.  The event runs from 3:00pm-5:30pm at mac Birmingham.  Come and say hi – there will be cake aplenty!

Feasting on Brain Food

Freelancers may recognise the conundrum.  We get to pick and choose projects, working nomadically, taking inspiration from those we work with, learning new skills and forging new relationships.  But getting tantalising tastes of what others are doing and not having our own roots can be a frustrating experience.

Over a decade into working in this way, I’m seeking a way to develop projects with more depth, more impact and longer term relationships and collaborations.  That means standing back and asking some important questions.  How can I be braver in using film and media (or another medium altogether?) to tell stories that matter?  How can I find co-conspirators and collaborators to develop projects which are genuinely participatory and have a positive impact on people’s lives?  What is it that I do well and what is unique about what I do?  What skills am I lacking?  How do I define what I do when my interests seem so broad and hard to pin down?

Lately I’ve been investing some time in trying to find answers to some of these big questions.  The first step was actually articulating some of this to people around me.  It turns out I have some very wise and inspiring friends who were able to see a perspective on my work and career that has eluded me whilst in the midst of raising two little ones.  Special thanks goes to Jane Ralls for her excellent coaching session, Sandra and Lee at Friction Arts for insisting on making space for me to get curious and Aimee Green Bourne for prodding me to play.  Note to self: meet up with friends more.

The next step has been to enrol in some more formal learning around leadership, participatory arts practice and facilitation.  I am on the cusp of completing Arts Connect WM’s ‘Arts Leadership Development Programme’.  Learning about the journeys of other ‘Leaders’ in the Arts and Cultural sector has been really inspiring – I guess that’s why I’m determined to share my own thoughts, to throw open the conversation a bit more.  There is so much to learn from others in the arts, yet we usually just see the finished product, rather than the journey that people have made.  That’s the bit I want to learn more about, warts and all, and I hope to interrogate people a lot more in the near future!

I have some rough ideas of next steps that I’m not quite ready to share – there are a few more courses and conversations planned in the near future which will help me decide on what happens next.

I’m curious as to whether any of this resonates with anyone else reading this.  Where are you on the journey, what have you learnt along the way and is there value in sharing your own journey with others?  I’ll be sharing updates from time to time, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

If I Could Reach Home

If I Could Reach Home‘ is a project which brings together Bharatanatyam and Kathak dance with exploring themes of home and belonging.  Devised by the very talented Magdalen Gorringe, both professional and non-professional dancers have been choreographing their own works to perform at mac Birmingham and Rowheath Pavillion.  Both performances feature BBC Young Dancer Category Finalist Vidya Patel.

14650350_639046379602380_1254002525419318708_nBharatanatyam is a traditional Indian dance form which is set to classical poetry, but Magdalen wanted to play with the discipline and incorporate other voices into the piece.  The two performances will feature poetry created by female asylum seekers and two community groups from Kings Heath and Bournville.

I have been documenting some of the project to date, and it has been inspiring to observe how the easily dance has developed alongside a narrative – even for people who may not regard themselves as dancers.  I have one more rehearsal session to film before I film the final performance at Rowheath Pavillion.  Tickets are sold out at mac, but do try and nab a ticket for Rowheath.  And if you REALLY can’t make it, then I will be sharing the work online in the next few months.

mac Birmingham – 20th November – 4pm.  SOLD OUT

Rowheath Pavillion – Friday 2nd December – 8pm.  Tickets available online or by ringing 0121 458 1711.

Confessions of a lazy blogger

Hum – so it’s been a while since I’m blogged anything I notice.  I’ve not gone away.  Or at least I did go away, had a baby (yes, another one!) then got back to the business of making more lovely films, albeit on a part time basis.  Fellow travellers in the world of creative and freelance work will know that time is precious when small people enter the equation, so I’ve been head down in work when I’ve not had small children tugging at my legs (and sometimes even when they have been tugging at my legs!).  Sorry for the silence!

So, what to update you with?  Here are a few projects I’ve worked on to give you a flavour…

I’ve been so lucky to work yet again with the fabulous team at DanceXchange who as ever are doing pioneering work in bringing Dance to new audiences.  This time I documented ‘Strive’, a training scheme devised to support Dance Artists in their work with vulnerable and marginalised groups.  The rigor and thought that went into the scheme was fantastic, with plenty for me to take away and use in my own practice.

There have been some really powerful stories that I have been privileged enough to share over the past couple of years.  A series of short films for Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Trust focused on the stories of patients and carers to try to unpick what ‘care’ means to them.  From a mother of a terminally ill child to a nurse with an unapologetically forthright approach to delivering care, the films really showed how complex a subject it can be.  The films are now part of a package of training materials shown to medical students prior to placements.

Another project in Rowley Regis brought to the screen some research done by a group of adults with learning disabilities. They wanted to share their experiences and frustrations as they navigate their way through the many challenges they face in the day to day – including paying bills and filling in forms, finding work, doing shopping and paying for the Bedroom Tax.

On a much more lighthearted note, I continued my longstanding relationship with The Lichfield Festival by helping a group of young people film a series of shorts, all filmed at Chasewater Light Railway.  The filming was silly amounts of fun and hopefully that’s reflected in the finished films!

I have also been collaborating with other Film Makers – the very talented Sam Lockyer and James Watson of Iconic Productions.  We worked together throughout last Summer to film twelves short films for Nottinghamshire County Council, focusing on The Care Act and the range of services being delivered throughout the County.  You may recognise the voice on some of the voiceovers!

Right – back to it with an edit. And this time I will be sharing it widely when it’s done!