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The first Mossley Light Festival may have transformed the northern town for just one night, but the change in the community will be much more long term. Leon Patel explains how it empowered local people. 

Photo of man with giant dragon lantern

Mossley Light Festival last November: five artists’ commissions, a visual art exhibition in train stations and a market ground community celebration alongside a 600-strong carnival-inspired lantern parade with whirling Trinidadian devils and animatronic peacocks, all illuminated by over 6,000 individual light bulbs.

Practical hands-on sessions in everything from outdoor events management, health and safety, event stewarding and fundraising happened alongside inspiring talks

The festival celebrated northern heritage and global carnival culture. UK artists, together with visiting artists from Brazil, China and Venezuela, offered shadowing experiences and masterclasses. We estimate that 40% of Mossley (with a population of just under 11,000) got involved, either as participants, sponsors or audience members. But, as is the tradition of carnival, it was about much more than what happened on one winter night.

The carnival process

Carnival is all about process. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s about the incredible spectacle of sound, movement, colour, costume and smiles, but that is simply the creative outcome. The process – 12 months of a community coming together to plan, make, discuss, invent, innovate, learn, laugh and cry – is what makes carnival so important and it’s why the tradition has continued to thrive on every continent.

The process leading up to a carnival has a place for everyone, whether it’s a builder constructing the base of a float, or an accountant making sure the budget stretches to free juice and apples for the little ones. The year-round rewards of the process are why people continue to invest so much time, blood, sweat and tears in an annual celebration, that from the audience point of view lasts but an hour or so.

The volunteers who spend hours sewing costumes and banging drums, and the hundreds of people working on fundraising and administration, are not just working to build a parade: they are working to make their community a happier, healthier and more prosperous place to live in.

The Mossley Light Festival was the output of a community coming together, sharing resources and exploring their place and role in their town. And it was a platform to develop and discuss what a new cultural and economic strategy for the Greater Manchester town might look like.

Taking ownership

At its heart was the idea that we needed to skill up the community to take ownership of future cultural celebrations. This needed to happen if they were to have any hope of sustaining the events now that state-funding has all but disappeared.

Local government cuts in Tameside for the period 2015-18 run at up to £92m, putting the borough in the top 20 most vulnerable councils nationally (according to the Local Government Association). Add to this picture the decision that was recently made to stop housing new refugees and asylum seekers in the town due to racial abuse.

Mossley used to have a carnival: a traditionally northern affair with brass bands and decorated carnival kings and queens. This was 25 years ago, and in the intervening years there has been limited joined-up and strategic thinking around the arts. Resources and ambition have been held within small pockets of culture that are terrified to raise their heads above the parapet and collaborate in case they lose their last pockets of funding.

The festival was developed in response to this: to explore a structure in which everyone could work together, share skills and develop the capacity for the community to take control, develop and lead their own cultural events.

Hands-on training

The festival offered training and development to members of the local community. We explored the logistics of events management and arts and culture in their widest sense. Practical hands-on sessions in everything from outdoor events management, health and safety, event stewarding and fundraising happened alongside inspiring talks from cultural leaders and professional artists.

In the end, 652 people accessed our training and events programmes, from school students to retired people, local councillors to community leaders and artists. The parade stewards on the night were all graduates of our training, as was the crew responsible for the health and safety of the market ground, parade and stages.

We are now in the process of putting together a core team of 10 to 15 volunteers to lead on future events. A summer festival is in the early planning stages and the project lead is a 16-year-old from the local Mossley Hollins High School, one of the stars from our training sessions.

Community engagement campaign

The festival came at the end of a four-year campaign of community engagement. We reached out to people in every way we could. We targeted different parts of our audience through film showings at our social enterprise model arts centre The Vale. We built up a roster of event partners from both the public and private sectors who all helped to spread the word. We made sure to piggyback on other local events and we painstakingly contacted every local business, mining them for both expertise and funding.

New partnerships and resourcing models were forged between community groups, local businesses, schools and arts organisations. We are now exploring a social enterprise model to help large-scale outdoor events in Mossley become sustainable while at the same time boosting the local economy.

Positive change

The people who took part in the process of Mossley Light Festival have now taken the first steps in taking back ownership of their event. This renewed energy, joined-up thinking and increased resource is simply contagious and will now spread through our town and beyond.

We felt a responsibility to make positive change, develop the necessary skills and leave a legacy of high-quality arts, culture and community programmes. And to explore where the cultural leadership will come from in the future and how Mossley can be put back on the map as a visitor destination.

I think we did much more than that. We made carnival live and breathe within the heart of our community. And to those naysayers I simply ask: “Are you convinced yet?”

Leon Patel is CEO of Global Grooves.

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Photo of Leon Patel