In this blog, Jade Anderson reflects on being part of CULTIVATE and the importance of meaningful connection in community engagement. This blog was originally published by Creative Dundee.
CULTIVATE is a regional leadership programme for Creative Practitioners and local communities to collaboratively explore new ways of embedding creativity at the core of grassroots collective action for climate justice, across the Tay region.
Having completed her project in collaboration with Gate Church Carbon Saving Project (now Transition Dundee), Jade Anderson reflects on six months of working towards the Wee Wardrobe—her week-long event that brought together stories and insights on clothing and the climate crisis from communities around Dundee.
Am I doing too much? Do people think I don’t know what I’m doing? Am I being too overambitious? Will people hate the workshops? Will people hate me? Do I have Covid? Am I going to have a break down? Do people think I’m stupid? Am I going to fail? Am I boring them? Seriously though, am I having a breakdown? More seriously, though, do I have Covid? Do they hate me? Have I made a mistake? Should I scrap it all and start again?
In short, the answer to all of these questions was: no.
I feel part of me was always certain that the answer to all of these questions was no. That didn’t stop the voice of self doubt from repeating them over and over again as the project advanced, which was challenging, but I managed to keep them at bay until other people started asking those questions. Then it was like that voice was SUPER amplified. Mr Doubt felt vindicated and he was not going to shut up about it.
Usually when this happens, I would start to really second guess all of my decisions and probably start making changes that I really had no time to implement, which would result in me working constantly, ignoring friends and family and sleeping very little which would then ultimately diminish my love for the project. Luckily for me, I wasn’t alone. I had made so many new wonderful and supportive connections throughout the early stages of CULTIVATE, all of whom always reacted so positively to my plans, and on MANY occasions suggested ways I could make them even better. I felt untouchable. It was as if I was walking around in armour that deflected any external doubt. That voice of self doubt was still there but it was now very, very quiet.
I think that’s when my main goal for CULTIVATE changed for me. Before, it was about climate change and the problems caused by the language we use when talking about it. Now, it was about CONNECTION.
Connection, even small moments of it, gives you strength. It makes you feel supported, as if you are part of something which makes tackling big topics like climate change more manageable. Without connection you can feel isolated, incapable; the problem can seem too big and the self doubt too loud.
It also became really clear that without connection, nothing can progress. If people aren’t connected then they aren’t engaged. This was proved to me when working with one of the local community groups. I had visited them a few times by this point, but no-one really seemed overly interested. They wanted to do their own thing and weren’t all that interested in my silly little stories. I voiced my concern with the group leader and they suggested that because the majority of the group like colouring in, maybe I could do something with that instead. So I went home and made a huge colouring in sheet and brought it back. It worked perfectly. EVERYONE wanted to be involved and it was such a delight to see how quickly the energy in the room changed. Everyone was talking and sharing pens and ideas, smiles and laughter—all because they felt connected to the activity, and through the activity they were connected to each other, and knowing that the finished piece was going to be displayed prominently at the Wee Wardrobe event helped them all FINALLY feel connected to the project.
There were a number of stressful moments as I was nearing the end of the project. I was supposed to have finished with my workshops before Christmas and instead brought two other groups into the project in January and February (the event was due to open on 19 February). As a result, the editing and subtitling of films—one of the longest jobs I had to do throughout the entire project—also wound up being one of the last jobs I did.
Not being able to drive was another stress. I was running around all over town grabbing refreshments, getting a projector, collecting bunting and huge bags of fabric before carting it all home on the bus in time to do a radio interview, pack up everything in the house, and get it to the venue. In the middle of all this I received an email to say the person who was due to be in the venue that morning to make a beautiful partition for the event was sick and wouldn’t be there. Not great news, but not the end of the world either. I then contacted the person in charge of the space to see if anyone else would be in that morning so I could drop off the projector and tea urn and bags and bags of stuff, and then discovered that they had been snowed in. I had wished for snow for weeks and that wish was finally granted at the worst possible time. I started to panic a little bit then. But then something clicked and I just realised I didn’t have the time to panic, so I had to reel it in and power through and believe it would all be alright in the end.
And it was. We left that night having pretty much set up everything. Our partition did end up getting made (and it was beautiful). I managed to reschedule the radio interview. The caterers from Serendipities dropped off the food the next morning, we had loads of people though the doors, participants coming with friends and family to show off their work, passers by stopping in for a cuppa and a chat, people taking part in the workshops and little ones coming along for story time. Folk added to our community bunting and our story wall, dropped off donations at the pop-up Community Wardrobe and also took new items away with them. It was great, and the best parts were the CONNECTIONS.
During our first Wreath Making Workshop, the discussion had organically found its way onto the topic of climate justice. A group of people—most of whom didn’t know each other, and that were a mix of children and adults—were all talking together about such a massive topic. Sitting together doing such a simple task (that just so happened to be stopping fabric going to waste) made it easier for them to talk about challenging issues. One parent said they should do the same activities in schools to help young people talk about things.
The above example was such a perfect moment that really just ticked all the boxes of what I’d set out to achieve in the beginning. I am delighted it happened, but the moments that wound up being the most important were the ones when people were drawn in by the free tea and biscuits OR just needed to rest somewhere out of the cold OR mistook us for another project entirely. We were able to offer a seat, a hot drink and a friendly ear to a lot of people, some of whom would return again and again to let us know how they had got on the day before. They were so open. They would sit and tell us all about their lives, their passions and their struggles and we looked forward to seeing them each day. Some would even take part in the crafts or workshops or find something new in the wardrobe. It was wonderful. But then one day one of our regulars was telling us she was so grateful that we were there and that she would return again and again and that’s when we had to break it to her that it was our last day. It hurt to tell her that. She didn’t take it badly but I realised I had inadvertently done something I’d always swore I wouldn’t.
You see, in the past I have always been annoyed whenever a creative practitioner from outside of the city would breeze in, offer a short project for local communities, and then breeze right back out again, leaving that community with a taste of what they could be doing but with no means to actually do it themselves. All the way through this project I made it clear to all of the groups that I’m here to stay, and my own future projects will all contain a community-focused element that I’d be delighted for them to be involved in, and that I am happy to return to help in any way in-between, for I wasn’t just breezing in and breezing out, you know! … and yet I created a space for people to rest, warm up, have a wee drink and a biscuit and CONNECT, and the people came and they did just that, and then I left… without implementing any way of continuing the thing they had come to depend on. So, if there is one thing I wish I could change about the project, it would be that.
Despite that painful realisation, the project was overall a success. We had managed to promote Transition Dundee (formerly the Gate Church Carbon Saving Project) and their new store. Teach people loads of new skills. Raise awareness of climate justice, highlighting and celebrating the ways in which we all help the planet, entertained loads of wee ones so parents could have a rest, created and shared many, many stories, served loads of tea and biscuits, spent hours blethering, and even had someone sign-up for one of our ten Wee Wardrobe Starter Packs all while doing the most importing thing of all…