Girls To The Front

Education and Engagement Coordinator Maria Spadafora reflects on the first few months of Many Voices – a community arts project funded by The National Lottery Community Fund and The Community Foundation for Calderdale.

Many Voices focusses on working with women and girls in Calderdale, and is being delivered in partnership by Square Chapel and Verd De Gris Arts, placing us in a great position to work with people from different backgrounds and age ranges across the district. And the focus on women on girls doesn’t mean there’s an exclusion zone, we’ve had quite a lot of boys take part, too! It simply stems from a recognised need that sometimes women and girls need specific spaces, support, encouragement and opportunities.

The project started in May 2018 and will run until 2021, using creative interventions like poetry, spoken word, performance, drama, dance, music and visual arts, to support people to explore some of the issues and experiences they have in their lives. Already we’re finding that those taking part are demonstrating big jumps in confidence, alongside making new friendships and developing new skills.

Verd De Gris has a solid track record in using art to engage and empower participants, and their work during the first year of this project has been a joy to observe, culminating in a performance by One Voice. If you attended ‘A Forgotten Dream’ you’ll understand just how fabulous these local women are, giving a packed out audience cause to laugh, cry and cheer – often at all the same time. For more about their work visit their website.

For Square Chapels’ Engagement Team, we’ve brought in a variety of artists to work with young people at Mixenden Activity Centre and Queens Road Neighbourhood Centre. Creating new projects is always challenging, and trying to encourage young people to mix with people they’ve not met before has its hurdles, yet we’ve been blown away by the resilience and determination of the young people we’ve met. But there is no question that many of them are juggling multiple pressures. They’ve spoken of stress, anxiety, depression, and racism, alongside not feeling listened to because of their youth. And when a visibly worried 11 year old asks you if they’ll be ‘sent away’ after Brexit you know we’re living in uncomfortable times.

Trying new activities and mixing with new people can be daunting, but so far we’ve also had lots of fun. One young participant said: “I feel beautiful and I feel happiness and fun, because when I’m home I feel bored.” And a simple exercise in zine-making brought out so many positive messages – for themselves as well as each other.

After two terms of dance at Mixenden Activity Centre, a posse of nine girls, many of whom had never danced before, have come on leaps and bounds. Lead Artist Anna Holmes (Northern Rascals) commented: “By approaching the sessions in a more relaxed environment, we felt that we got the best out of the girls and could quickly engage with them. They’ve been exposed to a variety of techniques and practices that allowed them to move, express, think and most importantly, have fun.”

Support Artist Raiona Primus notes: “I definitely saw a change to all of the girls confidence! This was really gratifying. They slowly became more confident to create their own dances and work in different groups. They wanted to do my catwalk exercise more often, which I deliberately put in to encourage their confidence and their ability to cheer each other on and make each other feel good.”

And the feeling is mutual, with Alicia – one of the participants – saying: “Anna and Rai are so confident it makes you get up and dance with them because they’re so welcoming! I love them, they’re my favourite. If I got adopted I’d let them two be my Mums.”

That’s high praise, I reckon, and we look forward to the next two years of this project and see what the fabulous women and girls of Calderdale come up with!

In the meantime, watch this lovely short video about our Mixenden girls.

This post was written by Square Chapel.