Community producer Natalie Songer‘s first year of co-designing projects in King’s Lynn is drawing to a close. She’s been fortunate enough to meet some amazing people, do some wonderful things and learn a lot about engagement in arts and culture. She looks back at an interesting 12 months, and what the next year will bring.
I began the year by finding out as much as I possibly could about this fascinating and individual town. I walked around, observing what was happening on the streets, talking to people and getting to know reference points and history.
I made it my mission to meet as many people working in King’s Lynn as I possibly could in my first three months. From local councillors and museum curators to businesspeople and arts leaders. Each person that I met with, I asked them to recommend to me three more people they thought I should meet.
When you have worked in an industry for such a long time, but you are gifted with an opportunity to try a new way of thinking, sometimes your learned behaviours can take unpicking. Particularly how we think about hierarchies in the communities we serve.
Co-design is by its nature impossible to achieve with a hierarchical structure. Now that I have broken out of that way of thinking, I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to go back!
It seemed like there was a never-ending spread of opportunities for this work. You could spend months toying with different ideas, but I needed to just start somewhere and see what happened.
The three projects that have fallen into place in year one have been the Community Ambassador Programme (CAP) at King’s Lynn Academy, a co-design project at the Purfleet Trust with a group of adults at risk of homelessness, and a collaboration with Vision Norfolk.
It’s a youth-led social action program which encourages and inspires young people to take action in their communities which lead to positive change.
From March to July I worked with a wonderful group of young people to decide on an issue they wanted to take action on. They chose climate change, with a specific focus on biodiversity.
In a short space of time, they have created designs for a nature garden on the school site. They’ve pitched these to senior management, who selected the winning idea. They also made bird feeders, planters and bird baths out of recycled materials and hosted a community gardening session. Some have also achieved an Explore-level Arts Award.
It was wonderful to see the young people’s confidence and sense of autonomy increase so massively over such a short space of time. And to see them form their own social groups outside of the club. We have been successful for a second year of funding from Clarion, so we are excited to see what we can achieve.
I went to the Purfleet Trust for the first time in January 2022. I was blown away by the kindness, openness and enthusiasm of the clients there. On my first visit and every subsequent visit, I have learned and heard stories that challenge all of your preconceived notions about homelessness and who is affected by it.
The need they chose to address within their community was mental health and wellbeing. To begin investigating this, we set up a quiet and mindful space at the Wellbeing Centre for some adult colouring sessions, providing a gentle introduction to creative activity.
We are now halfway through a series of taster sessions which saw groups take part in drama, creative writing and visual art every Wednesday in August. The idea is to choose which art forms were was most enjoyable and best addressed the need to improve mental health and wellbeing, and continue those in a more intensive way next year.
Vision Norfolk is a charity for people with sight loss or visual impairment. This project has been the last of the year to get off the ground, but is leaping ahead very quickly.
The co-designers have decided to set up a choir for service users and their partners, friends and family, beginning in early 2023. The need they identified, again, was mental wellbeing and social isolation. The first step will be to try a number of different choir leaders to decide what kind of music we’d like to approach. I’m really excited to discover where this one goes.
In the arts and charity sector we can spend a lot of time agonising over community engagement. How best to do it. How to approach people. What to offer them.
The main takeaway from my first year as a community co-designer is that, in reality, it is very simple. Approach people with no preconceptions and no artifice. Give them the tools to make things happen, and support them in that journey. Then watch it fly.
I’m so excited to see what year two brings.
Meanwhile, Natalie is performing her show Satellites at The Garage in Norwich on Saturday, 1 October. Over the past four years she has travelled America, Holland and Germany, piecing together the jigsaw of her Dutch history.
It’s a bittersweet story of heritage, disappearance and space travel written between Europe and America, asking questions about who and what we leave behind, and how we begin to measure the immeasurable.