Supporting Culture and Wellbeing from the Grassroots

Written by Lewis Hou (Founder and Director, Science Ceilidh)

Harmony Choir joining in a Fun Palaces even in Leith (Chris Scott, 2016)
Harmony Choir joining in a Fun Palaces even in Leith (Chris Scott, 2016)

Culture has an incredible role to play in supporting health and wellbeing so how do we support this on a grassroots level, starting from communities themselves?

I ask this question in response to a provocation that was brought up during a recent Culture Collective meeting I was invited to – “How do we move away from a problem-solving mentality when it comes to working with communities?”

This struck me as a powerful question particularly in the context of health and wellbeing and brought to mind some of the learnings we’ve developed as part of our action research work with the Fun Palaces campaign supporting Cultural Democracy in contrast to the Democratisation of Culture. That is, rather than valuing and making only one type of predefined “culture” more accessible, opening up “what counts” as culture in the first place and challenging a hierarchical and “deficit model” approach – that communities who don’t engage in specific cultural forms are somehow lacking. Instead, how do we support communities as active agents in their own cultural life and wellbeing and recognising their existing assets, knowledge and expertise?

This is one of the core philosophies that motivates our work with Science Ceilidh and something we celebrate during the Fun Palaces weekend of action in October – our shout out of the value of the skills and passions already in all communities and the power this has to challenge social isolation among other wider themes of climate action and inequity.

Another approach we take is breaking down the barriers around understanding (and contributing to) the links between creativity and wellbeing in the first place. We do this on the ground as practitioners through our school and youthwork programmes supporting educators and learners (including with our Youth Music Initiative resources) along with programmes such as supporting singing leader practitioners to do action research together and co-develop toolkits to support inclusive choirs and connecting the links (and appropriate boundaries required) between singing and mental health (our Singing Side By Side project).

Beyond delivery, we also hold space and networks “connecting the connectors” of communities – the trusted intermediaries who have built up meaningful relationships and can themselves advocate and support diverse cultural participation, ownership and wellbeing. This is the aim of the Culture and Wellbeing Community Network Scotland as an informal network with a facebook group, mailing list and discussions sharing ideas on broad themes across sectors – from community anchors like libraries to wider third sector organisations, creative practitioners and individuals and groups who are just curious themselves. For specifically youth workers – a critical bridge to a wide range of young people – we also support the Open Mind Network who meet to share practice and ideas supporting creativity and mental health.

Communities themselves should also be leading the evolving understanding of the role culture and creativity have in wellbeing more widely – and there is an increasing understanding that research must meaningfully incorporate different types of expertise and lived experiences.

What might it look like to be able to support communities to work with researchers to explore mental wellbeing in a way which is genuinely equitable rather than only being researched “on” – at best tokenistically included and at worst, extracted from. This is a question we are working with the British Science Association to understand with The Ideas Fund which is taking a more participatory approach to supporting these types of partnerships with groups in the Highlands and Islands. The first round supported over half a million pounds between 15 groups – many of whom this was their first experience of working with researchers and for some, their first bit of funding. Many of these projects heavily embed artists and arts-based approaches to explore mental wellbeing – from carers working as peer researchers in Moray and families on the Isle of Gigha understanding the role of art and nature, groups in North Uist exploring the role of gaelic heritage and digital approaches, to youth-led projects understanding the wellbeing benefits of blue spaces or glasswork in Caithness.

A sharing ceilidh with New Scots sharing a kurdish dance (Chris Scott, 2019)

Convening the groups and researchers for our regular Community of Practices has provided rich opportunities for both peer-based learning and connections along with wider learning about how these partnerships develop and can be supported – how to balance the push and pulls of having enough structure whilst being responsive to community needs (especially during a pandemic) and how to share power and decision-making in spite of the different pace and administrative requirements of community and academic research.

We have learnt a lot about the process of funding and supporting this work more equitably, and keen to share this to the wider sector (see some early reflections here). This has shaped our currently live Second Round calling for Expressions of Interest to join a funded “incubator” which provides tailored support, matching with researchers, and development time before finalising a project collaboratively between partners and the fund itself.

If you’re a community group in the Highlands and Islands and/or a researcher (including independent researcher) and interested in this process, find out more here. If you’re interested in this grant scheme (or any of our other projects) on a strategic level, we host an active stakeholder network sharing learning and opportunities to connect – please get in touch lewis@scienceceilidh.com

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