Arts Connect Thrive Bursary

I have been selected as one of the recipients of the Arts Connect WM 2020 ‘Thrive Bursary’ to research and develop a digital tool as part of my own work in heritage and learning.

In light of the growing movements around social justice, young people are raising questions around their Rights as citizens.  There is a real need to understand the link between how individuals experience Rights, where those Rights are enshrined in law, and the movements that brought those changes about.  How can we make this subject less abstract? How can we link it to social justice struggles today? Can we learn anything from previous struggles?

I have been working with historians and community groups to explore the history of political representation and rights in Birmingham through managing a Community Heritage project, Represent, for the People’s Heritage Co-operative.  Through working with two Artists, we have considered the relevance of these stories today and created a number of textile works which interpret these stories for others.  As the project comes to an end, I have been considering how this research can be brought to new audiences, to engage young people creatively in this important topic.

Following attendance at a number of Arts Connect WM’s Digital Pick and Mix events, I have been considering how John Sear’s approach to utilising digital narrative games could be used to bring themes around democracy and rights to life.  Allowing players to inhabit a role within a game could transform an abstract topic into something real and relevant.

Here’s what I will be exploring over the coming months:

How can digital tools develop and support an understanding of the link between real people’s stories, their Rights and how those Rights came about?

This will involve:

  • Development of an Interactive Digital Game to help young people in schools and other settings understand the history of British democracy and movements for Equal Rights.
  • Personal development through learning from John Sear how to employ digital tools to curate stories and engage new audiences.
  • Building on research from The People’s History Co-operative’s ‘Represent’ community heritage project.
  • Linking with South Birmingham Woodcraft Folk’s ‘Venturers’ group (aged 9+) to develop and test the tool – from initial research, to testing and developing the game and gaining feedback for evaluation.
  • Presenting the findings to Birmingham Cultural Education Partnership to further a conversation as to how we can utilise Interactive Games within the area’s museums and develop digital practice in community heritage projects which work with young people.

If you work in education or with young people and have an interest in this topic, do get in touch – I’d love to hear your thoughts and learn more about what you are already doing to navigate this topic!

Title image: Piece from ‘Represent’ project banner, created by participants at Edgbaston Community Group, led by Artist Carolyn Morton.

Creative Communities Fellowship

I am thrilled to finally be able to share that I have been accepted onto the Creative Communities Fellowship. Over the next year I will be joining 24 others in Yorkshire, then the USA(!!!?) to develop some ideas I’ve been plotting and planning!

I am one of 25 creative entrepreneurs working to drive transformational change in their communities through the power of arts and culture. From Edinburgh to Brighton, Fellows were selected amongst communities throughout the UK to explore proven tools and frameworks with faculty and form a community of practise, enriching projects that advance a more equitable world.

The programme includes online learning modules in addition to two in-person convenings; one at an incubator-like environment in Yorkshire and one at a summit of arts and culture leaders in the United States.

UK Creative Community Fellows programme fees are underwritten thanks to generous funding through Arts Council England Transforming Leadership Programme and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch).

I’m so excited to meet the rest of the cohort!

#UKCCF #NASCCF

Full press release here: https://www.derbymuseums.org/news/25-arts-culture-entrepreneurs-selected-for-uk-creative-community-fellows

#WeShallNotBeRemoved

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.

In Her SHOES

‘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.

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.