The East Midlands has a long history of welcoming and integrating immigrant communities, giving the region a diverse multi-cultural population.
With the Home Office?s current Dispersal Programme the region has recently seen an influx of people, many in exile, which, combined with the radical shifting demography of the existing communities, continues this long tradition.
Since June of this year the East Midlands has been host to The Long Journey Home Festival. The Festival was set up to provide people, both host and immigrant communities, with an opportunity to share their knowledge, skills and experiences, and to demonstrate how the arts can be instrumental in opening a dialogue towards mutual understanding. This year co-ordinated by Bea Tobolewska, Beth Noble and Jenny Rainforth, the Festival evolved through seven core areas of activity: theatre in education, participatory workshops, subsidised music gigs, a grants programme, a conference, a commissioned artwork and training. It explored a variety of artforms including film seasons, drama, oral histories, and community-led activities, to name but a few, reaching around 14,000 people who either took part in or were witness to the 170 different events.
One of the key successes of the Festival was the Small Grants Programme, which awarded, across the entire region, 13 community-based organisations and individual artists money to get their projects off the ground. The grants ranged from £200-£2,000, enabling groups to determine and establish areas they wished to explore and develop. As a consequence to this notional starter grant, many of the projects received additional funding from other sources to continue and expand the work started by the Festival. Small project awardees included; a Kurdish Drama Group in Leicester, an oral history project working with the remaining first generation Lithuanian community across the region, an Iranian Film Festival instigated by Broadway Cinema in Nottingham and Derby?s ?Tea Set? Project, where Chinese artist, Lisa Cheunge worked with members of the public to design a unique porcelain service.
The Festival commissioned ?Let your Left Hand Sing?, a dramatic poem written and performed by Kevin Fegan. By entwining his own story as a second generation Irishman with stories from people who have migrated to the East Midlands from all corners of the world, he created a powerful and moving narrative exploring the heterogeneity of the regions? people.
Towards the end of the Festival, in November, a conference was held providing a focal point and time for reflection on some of issues that it set out to address and ones that became apparent during its roll out. Aimed at arts development officers, artists, and practitioners it was an opportunity to gain an insight into and engage with a selection of projects that have taken place, not only as part of the Festival but countrywide, and to look at ways of working and best practice in the field. Broadcaster and journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown gave the keynote speech in which she outlined the UK?s social history in relation to its response to refugees and asylum seekers and comparing this to her own experience as a Ugandan Asian refugee in the 1970s. A delegate at the conference commented ?I have been bored to tears before at an arts conference but never moved to tears as I have been twice today.?
The Long Journey Home was not just about one-off events. It always intended to leave a legacy. Already the legacy has begun with Northfields Refugee & Asylum Seeker Support Group in Leicester collaborating with the Local Health Development Worker on an arts project as a means of consultation, to encourage people to have an input into the services they want to see provided. Grantham Museums Service, as a direct consequence of the Festival, and with a desire to take a more proactive approach in reaching a diverse audience, has appointed a Keeper of Social Inclusion.
One of the aims of the Festival was to encourage organisations, venues, and other established festivals to incorporate the range of culturally diverse artwork into their future programmes, reflecting the characteristics of the region. The full extent of the Festival?s success will not be known for some time, but with discussions in the pipeline by the key funders there appears to be real support for this type of work to continue long into the future.
Despite the negative media coverage of asylum seekers, the Festival received nothing but encouragement and support from funders, participants and audiences. A refugee participant said ?It helps anti- racism for example if I show you my traditions I take a step closer to you? this is about communication and culture?.
Bea Tobolewska and Beth Noble work for City Arts in Nottingham, and co-ordinated the Long Journey Home Festival. Jenny Rainforth is a freelance arts marketer
The Long Journey Home Festival was funded by The Commonwealth Games ?Spirit of Friendship?, East Midlands Arts and local authorities across the region.