For more than a decade, engaging with communities has been an integral part of my writing practice. I have recently been appointed as writer in residence for a two-year project working with people in Anfield, Liverpool. Anfield is most famous as the home of Liverpool Football Club, a dominating presence that transforms the local streets on match days into a mixture of carnival and litter festival. I live in the neighbouring ward of Tuebrook, where we hear the voices of the Anfield crowd when a game is in progress, the air filled with thousands cheering in unison or voices swooping low in disappointment.
This is the obvious face of Anfield, but it isn’t the one I wish to consider. Rather, I focus on the people who spend their days living there and my job, as a writer, is to encourage them to share their own experiences and stories through written and recorded testimony. I have the good fortune to be working with photographer Emma Case as a partner on this project, so our work will be artistically collaborative as well as being rooted in the community. This new commission has encouraged me to think about my own responsibilities as a writer and to consider why community engagement is an often-ignored aspect of professional practice.
At a recent conference about Literacy and English, I was interested to hear the panel of academics discuss their plans to develop and continue a series of community projects. However, I was disappointed that they did not consider the need to contact writers already working in their local communities. It simply hadn’t occurred to them, and they were surprised when I asked them about it. One panel member said she would make sure it was included in their future considerations. I’m aware that there is potential conflict between knowledge exchange and community outreach plans in academic and art institutions and the work of writers in communities; often university-based writers are focused on their research work and may not consider community-based writers as peers. Or they may simply not be aware that there are writers working in local communities; writers who believe that art is the heritage of every citizen, young or old: it starts where they live, often in half-remembered aspirations for rhyme and lyric, or the deep-rooted need to tell stories of their experiences and histories.
You must have regard for collaboration, building trust, listening and research if you want to use your skills as a writer in the service of any community. You also need to be aware of the political or social issues that might lie behind a commission. You may find yourself in a situation where an art commission has been created as a response to historical issues of social and political neglect. If this is the case, your first duty is to listen and to respond to the needs of your potential participants. What do they want to say? Which stories, if any, do they wish to share? How can this enhance their sense of community? Can it create a legacy that the people involved will be able to build on? In the process of exploration and discussion you also have a chance to establish your own credentials as a writer, so that your new community comes to see you as one of its own, as someone who can share skills that it needs and can use. If you have only a few sessions or workshops make sure you allow time to listen, share ideas, plan outcomes and agree the work you will do together. The process of trust-building is the most important element of your work and cannot be neglected.
In 2012 I facilitated Writing Well – Writing Green, a community project in Anfield delivered under the auspices of North End Writers, a local charity I founded in 2006 that operated in Liverpool until 2020. This was a health and wellbeing project funded by the local Health Authority (then designated as Liverpool Primary Care Trust) that asked commissioned artists to incorporate the ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ principles into their project designs. These evidence-based principles were first promulgated by the New Economics Foundation in 2008 and can be summarised as: Connect, Get Active, Take Notice, Learn, Give: all valuable principles for an artist or writer interested in community engagement. Over the course of six months, I delivered twenty workshops with fifteen participants who had been referred to the project through Mental Health services, or who had self-referred.
During the first few workshops, which were held in the old park lodge in Stanley Park, we explored the ways in which we would work together. We agreed to work on new writing or some other form of making, and decided to produce a community quilt, with each participant making their own square with fabrics and fabric paint. Some people wanted to have regular walks, so we included outdoor sessions in Stanley Park as well as a visit to the historic Anfield Cemetery. Others wanted to have guest speakers and the chance to write about their lives and experiences. We all felt it was important to find natural spaces in the city as a way of thinking and reflecting on our lives, and the group trusted me to choose a project book for us to read and discuss. I chose Alice Oswald’s Woods etc., which became a kind of sacred text for us. Participants decided they wanted to write to this wonderful poet and one of our later workshops was devoted to composing a group letter to her which received a very gracious reply, something we were all delighted to receive. We welcomed guest speakers from the Victorian Society, Liverpool Park Rangers and the Library Service who helped with our research into the origins and history of the park and cemetery. We produced A Walk in the Park, a booklet of original writing, our project quilt (which was shown in a community exhibition at TATE Liverpool) and had a joyful end-of-project celebration of readings. Writing Well – Writing Green won the Liverpool Echo Take Notice of Our World Environmental Award in 2013. It will always be one of my favourite projects because every aspect worked well, which isn’t always the case.
Challenges can include finding your potential audience, recruitment, retention, using appropriate methods of communication and being allowed enough time to develop relationships. Even if local people are interested, they may feel suspicious because they associate the project with outside interests that they feel unsure about. Talking to residents earlier this year about a local mural project, I found they were initially suspicious because it was being funded through a grant linked with a Police Safety initiative. However, they became excited about it once the mural artist started to engage directly with the people who lived in the streets around. One woman, who had previously refused permission for a mural to be painted on her house, completely changed her mind when she witnessed the work the artist was doing and discussed it with her: direct contact, conversation, and understanding about building trust is crucial.
Another potential problem is leaving a project once trust has been established. It is important to be clear about the parameters of a project from the start. Otherwise, people can feel abandoned. This can be managed with an end-of-project celebration. Sometimes the project group continues under its own steam and stays as an active creative presence in the community. The objectives of community engagement through writing can be hard won but they are always worthwhile for the writer, as well as those involved.
The republic of poetry has many mansions, or rather, plenty of room. While community engagement through poetry is the Cinderella of professional practice, it is nevertheless one of the most rewarding and it has enabled me to earn a living. I would like to convince other writers that this is valuable work for poets and storytellers, memoirists, and authors of all stripes. It requires that we act as ambassadors for our craft and gives us a place of trust in the world. It also takes personal skill and knowledge which is often underestimated.
The wider principles of community engagement started to develop in the sixties in a quest to challenge the disregard of government and to strengthen and empower community action, and remains just as – if not more – needed today. As writers we cannot resolve issues of long-term injustice. What we can do is reflect the voices and ideas of our commissioning or chosen community and make sure they are recorded and evidenced. We can also carry the issues we meet into other aspects of our work through articles and research, stories, and our own writing projects. It is always a privilege to meet and work with new people and to share the gift of writing with them.
More writers should do it.