The Magic and the Mayhem: a must listen podcast

| Anna Eaton

If you love working collaboratively with communities or are looking to do so, this podcast is for you. The Communities in the Making series offers a mixture of real stories, practical tips and reflections about community project participation.

The team behind a community research project looking at the Bromley by Bow community model (2016-2018) have produced a podcast reflecting on the project in order to learn from it and share with other practitioners the challenges and the value of doing projects that overlap art, community, research, participation and health and wellbeing.

We were lucky enough to get a sneak peak of the series and the first episode has just been released. Listening is like being invited to an intimate, refreshingly honest conversation about what worked and what didn’t.

Our favourite thing is that it’s based on the real and recent experience of the hosts and guests’ involvement in a community research project so there’s examples to draw on, as well as a wonderful atmosphere of shared history and warmth. The hosts are Becky Seale and Romeo Gongora, the organisers of the community research project and they have conversations with different guests over each episode.

Each episode explores an area of collaborative, participatory project work which will be recognisable to many. The areas are summed up brilliantly in their titles:

  • Episode 1: If we make it will they come? How to attract the local community
  • Episode 2: Are we friends? A focus on the relationships that make the project
  • Episode 3: How to let go of control, without dropping people in it?
  • Episode 4: A never-ending story – is inclusive design possible?
  • Episode 5: Art and Health – a pill for everybody? Who are we doing it for?

It’s the kind of podcast that will have you nodding along and smiling in recognition of the common dilemmas we face around power, letting go and building relationships, providing reassurance to those of us grappling with these issues on a regular basis. Through their conversations they reach out to let you know “you are not alone”. And they take you beyond this by offering ideas of how to address these issues and provide different perspectives to get you thinking by listening to the voices of everyone involved.

The first episode explores how to involve the local community in a participatory art project – from the challenges to the moments where it suddenly felt easy. Guests Maisha, Susie and Azzy who were involved in the Bromley by Bow project and work on similar projects talk through their experience of getting the local community involved. They cover participation fatigue, people wanting to know clearly what they are being asked to take part in and how important childcare, food and fun can be. If you’ve ever struggled with this issue or are interested in how to attract people to get involved in projects, this is a must listen. 

The next four episodes will be released over the coming months and it’s well worth signing up to be notified when the each one is coming out. The second episode is probably our favourite as it explores the complex relationship between organisers themselves, between the organisers and the people coming along, and between the people coming along themselves. They address the questions – what are these relationships? How can they be described? Does it matter? What is “a participant? The hosts are joined by people who may have been labelled participants themselves to delve into this subject full of power dynamics and the blurring of lines.

They unearth nuggets of wisdom we can use to challenge our own language and labelling of people. With one guest, Rev. James saying: “The words matter… with this project, it’s more partnership because the researchers are heading for something, the respondents are there because they want to see a change. It’s beyond being a participant. If it was just participant I would not be seated here today still continuing. A partner is continuous.” 

Similarly, in episode three the conversation centres around finding the balance between providing structure but also letting go with examples given of how to walk this line from the guests involved. Guest Mandy Harrilal reminds us, it’s helpful to always remember: “they [the community] have the answers, not us”. There is encouragement to trust your instincts and those you are working alongside. And something we’ve heard echoed time and time again, but we must all keep saying until it gets through comes from Frank Creber an artist based at Bromley by Bow for 35 years who organises community arts projects: “Spend the beginning of projects just getting to know people, focus on building relationships. Then you can understand people’s internal motivations and what they want to get out of the group.”

In episode four the hosts and their guests Axel Feldman and Sue Adyakwa unpack the concept of inclusion and grassroots with Sue cutting through with this striking comment about power and the dynamic between organisers, institutions and participants:

The big thing is – is the institution learning from what came out of that project? Because that shows the value that’s placed on what the people have produced.”

The fifth and final episode is a juicy one, meeting the issue of funding and hidden goals that can impact a community project head on and how these come to mix with the goals of everyone else taking part.

Needless to say, we’re big fans of this sort of open reflection and have taken away many useful ideas. We think you will too so check out the first episode on Spotify or Apple.

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