How do I even begin to explain? Honestly.
Last weekend (11-13 January 2019) I officially began my UNION journey. I’ve been looking forward to it starting for ages even though I wasn’t sure to expect in the slightest. The first of five weekend residencies – which are core parts of this year long programme – was held within Seacroft, Leeds and hosted by local community arts organisation, ChapelFM.
In the days running up to the residency I felt super excited but also really anxious – Mostly, because I was due to meet at least 25-30 new people in one fell swoop. I love people, don’t get me wrong, but I’m better in smaller groups!
Where do I start? Let’s do it day by day shall we?
FRIDAY 11 JANUARY 2019
I was at work all day that day – facilitating an art group in the morning and then in the office during the afternoon. I left work to embark the hour and a bit drive to Chapel FM in Seacroft. The drive wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, to be honest (rush hour and all that) but it was a bit monotonous and the SatNav took me to some random residential dead-end… I eventually parked up outside of the ChapelFM building and made my way in.
We had name stickers, two-truths-one-lie post-it notes and general chitchat to begin to get to know one another; everyone was lovely and friendly and inquisitive from the off, which put my anxieties at ease a little. Katy, who works at ChapelFM, was very kind to me and gave me reassurance (she had read my last blog and knew I was feeling antsy) which was appreciated – thank you Katy!
We were called into another room for dinner… and my cute-meter just melted. A group of the most adorable kids had cooked us (with help, of course) a BEAUTIFUL chilli dinner! ChapelFM facilitate groups which helps local kids develop cooking skills and that evening, they cooked en masse for us. What a great idea – If I had that sort of nurturing growing up I might be able to make something more than a badly cooked spag bol now! Oh they were so cute in their little aprons, and such wonderful little hosts too.
Around the dinner tables we also met our hosts. I was staying with Lily and David, active members of the Seacroft community. Lily is the Chair of the Residents Association and is very chatty and warm. David is quieter in comparison, but really funny and cheeky. He’s Labour Councillor for his area and a retired Citizens Advice Bureau manager. And what a lovely couple they are! I felt so much better after meeting them because until that point, I didn’t know where I was sleeping!
Then there was a ukulele night. And omg, I cannot explain how much it inspired me to actually learn the ukulele that I’ve been threatening to buy and play for about two years. It was such a great performance, which was also recorded for the radio (not sure if it was live?) and was so enjoyable to listen and jig along in my seat to. One of my fellow Unionites, Poppy, said it best: “It’s just so joyful”. And it was. Really, really enjoyed it.
I didn’t see the last band, however, as I went back with Lily and David to their beautiful, little 1840s cottage for teacakes and tea. I met Shadow, their really cute but very timid pure black kitten (it was a street cat who has had lots of foster parents) who only came to his forever home ten days ago. He was very suspicious of me so I couldn’t cuddle him but we had great fun with his cat toys (which included a walnut?!).
After chatting for hours with Lily and David about the village green, cats and everything else under the sun, we went to bed. I slept in the little office-come-guest-room with the low ceiling beams upstairs.
I was taken back at the strong sense of community I felt – what with the chef-children, seeing/hearing all the things that go on at ChapelFM (including Community Radio) and learning about Lily and David’s Community-based work… it was nice. The weekend residency was based around the theme of ‘Community’ and I think UNION did a great job of introducing us to the concept before we had even really begun.
SATURDAY 12 JANUARY 2019
I went downstairs on Saturday morning to find this spread that Lily had laid out that would make any B&B proud – pot of tea, croissants, fruit, yoghurts, jams, mini packs of cereal in a bowl… She went above and beyond! No way could I have eaten all that, but it was very kind of her to give me so much choice. She did me some toast and warmed the croissants and we chatted over breakfast, before walking over to ChapelFM together.
After a coffee and a chat in the reception area, we went upstairs and began. We received an intro into the programme, the team members and the building, and we did some ice-breakery activities so we could learn a little about others who were on the programme and on the UNION team. What a great mix of inspiring people – artists, activists, theatremakers, musicians, writers… everyone is a grafter and a ‘do-er’ and I found it so refreshing!
We walked with some local volunteers over to the LS14 Trust, namely the ‘Small Change Café’ (a name I fell in love with) to meet Howard and his team mates. I was very taken by the space conceptually and aesthetically, let alone the atmosphere within it.
They gave us a tour of the building (including a great little balcony garden with a pizza oven and sensory planter and everything) and served us lunch (that soup and crusty bread was proper nice – thank you very much!). Howard was very engaging and a pleasure to listen to as he spoke to us collectively about the purpose of the Trust, how it works and the impact it has had/is having on the community. I learnt so much and things I thought I knew about were challenged, all in the space of about 20 minutes. I have pages and pages of notes and thoughts. I’d be here all day if I tried to explain everything that was discussed, how it developed my thinking and my ensuing reflections as a result. In short, however, know this; asset-based community development and cross partnership working is the shizzle, community work is ‘slow cooking’ (which ended up being the phrase of the weekend), drink lots of tea with people and that I like the transformational index and values that LS14 work to. That statement is a gross understatement of how much my understanding of things developed/solidified and almost an insult to boil Howards inspiring words down to that, but there we go 😀
My head was swimming with possibility when I did an interview (which will potentially go on the radio) back at ChapelFM. I don’t even remember what I said to be honest – think I was busy digesting information and concepts to give a reasonable interview haha.
The afternoon involved a presentation by Adrian, Co-Director of ChapelFM and UNION team leader, citing examples of and exploring community engagement, and the role of the artist-activist. I found this really interesting and helpful, although I still can’t necessarily pinpoint why. We then divvied ourselves into smaller groups to work on developing an idea that we would implement in the Seacroft community over a ten year period (more on that later).
We were given sketchbooks to use as reflective journals for the duration of the programme. Chris (weekend residency leader) asked us to spend some time reflecting on the following questions…
- Who Am I?
- What were my concerns? And how did they pan out?
- What do I want out of Union? And what do I plan to put in?
…but to be honest most of us spent the time decorating our sketchbooks. I know I did – I needed something hands-on to do that didn’t require my already saturated brain!
Dinner soon rolled around (a delicious but spicy curry dish – it was beautiful – thanks!) and we were joined by our hosts (to be fair, I think Lily and David were the only hosts there?) for conversation and good food.
I think a lot of the others went to this bar/music venue(?) for a pint afterwards, which would have been really nice, but I went back with my hosts. They were quite taken with Steve from Beats Bus, a fellow Unionite, so we watched clips of him on Youtube before sitting down to watch The Voice over a cuppa. I played loads with Shadow and I wrote in my reflective journal whilst thoughts were still fresh in my head. My mind was still buzzing when I went to bed so I continued writing for a few more hours.
Thoughts included, in no particular order;
- the importance of identifying area needs (walking around, talking to people) before solving those issues creatively -using your own skills?
- reflecting on my own existing criticisms of co-production
- talking to people external to the community you’re trying to support to identify outsider perceptions of it
- how am I supposed to articulate my experiences and thoughts in a reflective journal and a blog? Which thoughts best belong where?
- about Third Space theory and spaces in between
- that I’m really (positively) overwhelmed by how much I’m enjoying the company of the people I’m with and the things that I’m doing
- about what it is I want to do with my skills? In the community
- about power and powerplays, however subtle they might be, and how that really does affect everything you do or try to do
- Why Shadow the kitten loves walnuts so much? Do I get my cat one?
- little avenues of thought based off snippets of the days conversations
- that I really need to read around a bit more
- that there’s still a few Unionites that I haven’t had the chance to really speak to about anything substantial yet, or yet at all
- about what such an amazing job the UNION team are doing
- wondering what the following day will ensue
So not a lot, then.
SUNDAY 13 JANUARY 2019
Got up, packed, wrote a secret thank you note for my hosts to find after I’ve gone which I left in my room (I wonder if they’ve found it yet?), and went downstairs for breakfast. David was up, Lily joined us soon after. I had croissants and toast again with a fresh pot of tea. When it was time I gave my thanks to them and said my goodbyes before heading over to ChapelFM.
We spent most of the morning collaboratively working out Ground Rules and the expectations we have of one another within the UNION programme. I found that to be a really good process, to be honest – we had time to go around to UNION team leaders and make suggestions for each of the five main programme ‘headings’ [Weekend Residencies, Coaching, Support, Learning Culture, and Journals] which we would then whittle down to the main/encompassing points. We all didn’t get around to all of the points, but the fact we all trusted one another to get it right between us says something, doesn’t it?
We then got back into our Seacroft Project teams to continue developing an idea. On the Saturday, our team came up with The Factory, an idea which channels antisocial and destructive behaviours into the acts of creation and skill swapping/development. It’s a winner, I must say; we called ourselves Team Smash, because our mutual confidence in the concept made us feel like we’ve ‘smashed it’. We already had the idea from yesterday so we spent the time today just fleshing the idea out and working out the process of how we would implement it over ten years considering purpose, finance, engagement, the principles of asset-based community development and community ownership.
We had lunch (beautiful, again! Thanks to all those who contributed with the making of it), returning to present our ideas to the others. Some had really good presentations (news reports and raps and all sorts) about good ideas (shipping containers and community markets) but my group despite having smashed the concept, made the mistake of getting me to lead the presentation haha. Nah, I’m being too harsh, our presentation was good – between us we got the point across and I think the written flipchart sheet explained points relatively well? Personally, however, I can find it difficult to explain complex ideas that I’m excited about at the best of times (can’t get it out quick enough), let alone to a massive group! We shared reflections and feedback on one another’s ideas and Adrian raised some great points about failure (that it’s ok), the voice of the community and the need for breathing/learning/development space.
Without going into too much detail here, this collaborative task made me think a fair bit about both my strengths and the areas that I could develop in both practical and interpersonal realms.
Speaking of reflective journals, the questions Chris offered were:
- What was my experience of collaborating? What worked? What didn’t work? What was my role? How did I feel?
- What questions are dogging me? Are there any unanswered big questions?
We did an awesomely cheesy group shot (good shout Ross!) after we all generally expressed how ‘gooey’ and ‘squishy’ and ‘optimistic’ we felt.
Steve came back in the car to Hull with me, and we had a good chat about his work with the kids and his music for almost the whole way home. Steve suggested the 4 Hully gullys maintain regular contact and go for a coffee or something in between the residencies, which I’d really like. The group are already sharing resources and reading lists and things on Basecamp, which is fantastic and is something I find myself already appreciating.
The other half and the cat were pleased to have me home, and it wasn’t long before I passed out on the sofa.
I’ve had a lot to think about, and it’s all noted down in my reflective journal.
Some of the things I’ve found myself thinking include:
- where do I want to be in a years time? What do I want from Union?
- if I’m pigeonholing myself a bit? Or if others pigeonhole me? I feel the ‘mental health’ thing is a bit pigeonholey sometimes
- that I need to explore where the phrase ‘pigeonholing’ originates
- I wonder how my need for constant stimulation would work in practice with the ‘slow-cooking’ nature of long-term community engagement?
- my relationship with community arts and the ways in which to implement effective change, including within my NHS dayjob
- the roles I tend to take in group tasks, what I’m good at and what I need to improve on
- that there’s an interesting tension between allowing space and freedom within a project/proposal for growth, contingency and direction from the community AND the need for clear aims and objectives and outcomes required from funders
- that I want to read more around art, activism, politics, social change, socialism, Third Space Theory…
- I still didn’t get around to really talking properly to everyone – it’s just an observation, but it appeared as if most stuck with the same people throughout the weekend (anxieties? alliances? who they first sat with on the first night?) and I feel we need to engage in some more deliberate mixing!
- that there’s this conflict I’m noticing as I find myself working out my direction, mainly between the art I’d like to make and the contentious topics I’d maybe like to explore more, with the age-old business advice of staying politically neutral as not to alienate potential clients/patrons/buyers/galleries etc…
- wondering how I can implement some of what I’ve learnt into the development of The Critical Fish, especially during Phase 2
I’ve had a blast of a weekend, and I’m still honoured to have been picked to share this adventure with 19 other wonderful people and UNION leaders Adrian, Linda, Chris, Sara and Vickie (although I’ve not met her yet) and all the others I’ve met so far on this journey like Katy and Lily and David and everyone else. I’m looking forward to meeting up with my fellow Hullians at some point soon, engaging with my first coaching session from Vickie and following up on the intellectual and conceptual leads that have been presented to me in Seacroft… all before the next weekend residency in April!
What a year this is going to be.