Amid all the attention that is given to measuring the impact of the arts, Nick Pollard argues that its possible to overlook the simple pleasure of participation.
Participating in the voluntary arts benefits people in many ways so many ways, in fact, that evaluative terms such as educational benchmarking and social regeneration are often unable to convey the wealth of what is really going on. More often, the best way to discover the good that the voluntary arts are doing in communities is through the stories that emerge from the participants themselves.
For thirty years, the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers (The Fed) has been a network of groups who are interested in setting down the narratives of their experiences and the communities to which they belong. These narratives are not only a celebration of day-to-day experiences although they do offer the real experience of large areas of culture that exist beyond the narrow representation of ordinary people given to us by the popular media. Significantly, they also represent and celebrate the authentic voice that members of these communities use to express them.
Authenticity is important, for this is a truth told by those who have experienced it a peoples history that has been refined over the years in the face of many attempts by others to redefine it and hand it back in a reinterpreted, but not original form. Many of the narratives of this history are not immediately visible or expressed as clear-cut stories, but emerge slowly through almost invisible forms of local language. Stories are nurtured in the features of gardens, whether they are well-tended or not, in the shopping trolley, on the way home from school, and in the graffiti on walls and buses. They are often told, but not always written down. To fail to listen carefully to the truths that emerge from these stories regardless of whether they are complete is to overlook the most significant benefits of the voluntary arts to those who participate in them.
Identifying and measuring the benefits of this activity isnt always an easy task for academics and arts administrators. Their attempts to organise it from outside the group often flounder when this undermines peoples enthusiasm, enjoyment and motivation to work in their own way. Imposing regimes of reading and responding to the classics, for example, leaves readers nonplussed: the sources people use for their writing consist of more than just important books. It does not exclude them, but it is not restricted by other peoples definition of culture. In addition, writing and community publishing resists being pigeonholed under a single genre. It extends far beyond the printed work to performance, comedy and dance. Thus, in The Feds annual celebratory reading, a little local history might well be followed by a song, or a sketch.
And the challenges for outsiders approaching these activities run even deeper. Many groups are content to meet in the same community centre for years. They may not seem to do much, but, in their own subtle way, are enabling people to pursue their own creative ends, to learn, grow and develop as individuals. Thus, it might only be regular attendees who would notice that a person who writes poems about dogs for several months suddenly changes the subject to her husbands protracted illness. Or that the young man beside her comes one week and, instead of reading out the interminable science fiction story he has been writing instead of listening to others, tries a poem, and feels the joy of connecting with an audience for the first time. Another person might just give some constructive feedback without ever setting pen to paper themselves.
For a lot of people it is really important to find a story that other people want to listen to, to string words together in that order for the first time, to be heard, and perhaps to see them set down in print for others to read even if they have not yet learnt to read them themselves. These are all personally significant, potentially life-changing experiences.
While policy makers often seize upon the instrumental benefits (community development, economic regeneration, employment, etc.), they are less likely to focus on the intrinsic benefits (personal development, enjoyment, a sense of belonging and ownership and so on) of participation. And yet it is the intrinsic benefits that transform what would otherwise be a worthwhile social practice into a potentially transformative activity for the individuals and communities involved.
As is often the case with these things, a more sophisticated and subtle approach is required one that approaches the voluntary arts on their own terms, and is not afraid to truly engage with the stories of those who take part in them: personal stories that need only pen, paper and somewhere to meet each week.
Nick Pollard is Editor of Federation magazine. More information about the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers can be found at http://www.thefwwcp.org.uk.