This is a guest blog from Karen Wilson, someone I know purely from social media, who knows some people I know, and with whom I’ve had various really interesting conversations around Fun Palaces, what we’re trying to do in terms of community-relevant, locally-led work, what other people are already trying to do. Karen here writes about a project that has been huge for her, in her life and in her work. A project that has now lost the funding that helped it make a difference, not least because of the way we ask people to ‘prove’ they are making a difference.
This matter of ‘proof’ is huge for me – so often as artists, as makers, as people working in community, we are asked to count heads, count costs, count figures. We are not asked about personal effects, about anecdotal ‘evidence’, about the STORY we are making. And yet, time and again, we know what we see – we know that we see what we are doing (together) makes a difference.
With Fun Palaces we’re investigating different kinds of evaluation. Of course we want to be accountable for our use of public (ACE) funding. And we also want to be accountable for the story we are making together. The work Karen describes below, the work we’re trying to do with Fun Palaces, this kind of work does not have a finite time scale. It does not have easily quantified ‘results’. So yes, we (the makers) need to get better at telling these stories – but perhaps those who need us (rightly) to account for our work might also need to get better at hearing them, at understanding that the story of change is as valuable as the head count.
One Last OurSpace
On Monday I will be out in one of the most beautiful landscapes the Yorkshire dales has to offer, watching a bus load of excitable 10 year olds come out from Leeds and Knaresborough for a two day summer residential. OurSpace was a project for children growing up in communities in Yorkshire who rarely meet. Kashmiri Muslim communities, 4th generation farming communities, refugee asylum seeker communities and commuter belt to Harrogate communities. Right now it plays in my mind like a beautifully crafted movie to the perfect score – because it’s the last one. After nearly six years, over 1000 children in mixed groups of 30 or so, this is the last time. Our charity is disbanded, the website expired and the funding reserves dried up.
Surrounded by a history of EDL marches, one riot that took the headlines (2001) and so many myths and stereotypes, their parents had little reason to want to venture into each others worlds. But they dared to send their kids. So on Monday, two primary schools, one rural, the other inner Leeds, one all white, the other, proud of its 36 different languages spoken, brave wonderful kids will arrive looking nervous and apprehensive but also curious and willing to try. They always meet each other face to face and they always transcend it. We do drama, cooking, talking, walking – skimming stones. By the end of day 1 the children tell each other how they felt when they first met, they become real for each other and it’s very moving.
This will be the last event of 40 odd over 5 1/2 years. The project is now finishing because it couldn’t attract major funding due to lack of impact evidence. We were funded by many adventurous small charities but even though the big ones put us through hoops, they couldn’t measure the success of making friends on a less racist future. We couldn’t measure how quickly children find their own way to articulate and work through superficial labels and meet each other life to life, when given the chance.
This has always seemed a particular kind of madness for me as the evidence was there every time we ran it. I couldn’t bring myself to number crunch even for the sake of continuing and I couldn’t count every smile of recognition, because to me if I lost being in the moment, with them face to face I would have lost the whole point of being there, seeing each child as themselves – not a means to an end or of any relative value. In my movie trailer, I remember one child perched on the table of a picnic bench laughing at a joke and asking, are you actually English then? Her new friend grins back and says yeah! What did you think!?
In 2010 the EDL came back to north Bradford but no one will remember that because nothing happened. No fights broke out, no reports were commissioned. While the march took place, workshops, gatherings and events were scheduled. Insignificant small groups got together to provide a different way of responding to unquestioning blame. I can’t prove what one small project contributed to that day as we were one of many. But I’m pretty sure that between us we make more difference than all the top down policy shifts Trevor Phillips called ‘the old failed tunes’ in 2001.
Our team is moving on – and building on what we did in different ways, I move on to research what happened and look for a way to present it as credible. But in the light of the fear generated by the Birmingham schools recently, it seems ridiculous that we were dismissed as un-proveable, it seems we have a great deal more faith in our children’s narrow mindedness than in their natural humanity.
Karen Wilson, OurSpace