Mike White

Parliament of Dreams

The most potent contribution that this new field of arts practice can make is the revelation of just how creative community health can be.

Arts Development on Community Health, A Social Tonic, Mike White 2009

Mike White, who died at home yesterday after a long illness, was a pioneer in community-based arts and health. His ideas will continue to influence the field for many years. He was working an as arts officer for Gateshead Council when I met him. His imaginative, creative projects recognised the real difference that participation in the arts could make to people’s lives. Sometimes that was very concrete, as in the campaigns against heart disease, but more typically it was a subtle understanding of how wellbeing affects the experience of life and therefore its outcomes.Later he went on to work at Durham University, where he was central to the establishment of the Centre for Medical Humanities

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Teaching in a Refugee Camp. Part 2

Teaching in a Refugee Camp. Part 2.

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Life Maths

Life Maths.

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Life Maths

It won’t take long for this to become apparent but by way of a disclaimer I will start by pointing out that I am not, and nor do I fancy myself as, a mathematician or a lifestyle guru. I just happen to be enjoying an intensely reflective, taking-stock phase having recently made the risky decision to resign from, what in many ways was my dream, job (and a job I was supposed to be researching as a professional doctorate student).  In the two years I was in post as Orangebox’s founder director we:-

  • Delivered a successful launch weekend
  • Confirmed a constitution for the Youth Board and appointed a Chair and Vice-Chair
  • Appointed independent members to the Steering Group, confirmed the terms of reference and formed effective working groups
  • Welcomed and settled tenants and facilitated monthly Centre User Group meetings
  • Hosted 4 theatre performances, 2 music festivals, 2 enterprise competitions, a silent rave, an open evening, a dance show in the skate park, a digital dance event involving a live-link to Paris, 2 club nights, a roof-top firework display, and the launch of the Piece Hall Trust.
  • Supported 20 young people to achieve an Arts Award (Bronze & Silver levels)
  • Won 2 awards and sponsored a local young people’s award
  • Supported 2 young people to successfully complete Business Administration Apprenticeships
  • Attracted 700 members
  • Worked with partners to offer weekly access to support services
  • Recruited 5 Music Champions to train as studio engineers
  • Established Orangebox as an active member of local, regional and national networks
  • Piloted a commercial approach to running the café with a local  partner organisation
  • Secured 2 two-year Department for Education commissions
  • Appointed and inducted a creative, vibrant team of sessional workers and duty managers
  • Ran a UNITAS summer arts college with Calderdale Youth Offending Team
  • Established a team of volunteers and systems to induct, support and develop this team
  • Secured private sector support from two local companies.
  • Established a system for managing and promoting hires
  • Trialled 3 children’s parties
  • Created a microsite, a strong social media presence and a fully-fledged website.

Furthermore we were starting to develop an interesting organisational culture at Orangebox based on blending the best practice from youth club and cultural venue management.  This was not of course without its tedious tensions especially at times when one practice was perceived to be being emphasised more than the other by some stakeholders.  Ultimately though this was quite a healthy tension as long as I could keep convincing people that Orangebox should be both and more; it could be (and here comes my favorite mathematical/philosophical expression) greater than the sum of its parts! Featured image

Politics aside it was a real honor to work alongside some fantastic young people to get their centre up and running but it has left me utterly exhausted! In order to achieve the activities listed above for me personally it has taken several 12-14hours days per week, rarely having dinner with my partner, missing gatherings with family or friends, ending all my voluntary commitments, irregular exercise, and a desperate attempt to keep on top of my PhD work at weekends. The irony of researching and promoting young people’s wellbeing at the potential expense of my own is not lost on me but if I had to do it all again I am not sure that I would or could have paced myself any differently – any new initiative needs such a huge and disproportionate amount of effort at the outset to get it off the ground.  In short I am really glad that I was able to be involved in the start-up of Orangebox, I had envisaged being there for a lot longer but it will certainly now benefit from some fresh energy to support it through the next phase of development

Featured imageFortunately I currently have enough money in the bank to survive for 4 months without working, so that’s 4 months to solve the problem of how I now earn a living.   So far the concept of time has been at the forefront of my mind in this unfamiliar transition. Initially I have been building a new routine that prioritises exercise, cooking, catching up with friends and family, re-framing my PhD and gearing up to be a useful freelancer to the cultural, public, and charitable sectors[i].

Featured image

I have also had a good long holiday, during which I came to quantify time entirely differently – in Spain 7.5 hours (the equivalent of the supposed average working day) can simply = 2 swims, 2 snoozy sunbathes, 2 meals and a couple of chapters (or a snooze) with no internet or social media to fill the gaps.

Featured imageIn stark contrast it scares me how much I expect to attempt to cram into exactly the same time-frame on a working day. When you have the luxury of some time it is not long before your musings on how short a day actually is turn to the brevity of a lifetime itself! As such I find myself overwhelmed by just how much human beings achieve.  Given my heightened awareness of time I am now more convinced than ever that human achievements are rarely made by any sole individual, rather it is collective effort that shifts and changes and progresses (or regresses) things. It’s back to my favorite mathematical / philosophical concept – greater than the sum of its parts!

Of course neoliberal champions don’t want us thinking these sort of thoughts. They want us to celebrate the power of the autonomous self, they want us to believe we have all we need in ourselves; that we can be our own mini-enterprises and (conveniently) solve all our own problems. Neoliberalism celebrates a heroic model of leadership rather than a distributed or facilitative approach and reduces the concept of anything public to an ugly and bureaucratic idea rather than one associated with togetherness and support. I can just about see how some uber busy, seemingly self-sufficient people might unwittingly buy into this but when you properly stop for a moment you really do sense the infrastructures that support our eating, heating, transportation, education, health, security, communication and realize the true extent of our interdependency (and incidentally that is why I think all of the above need to remain public matters and public systems). The structures that support social and relational aspects of life are equally hidden and undercelebrated at the moment but essentially the staff and volunteers of our charities, schools, cultural venues, and youth clubs are channeling their physical and mental effort on a daily basis to sustain and promote our interdependence.

And for those of you more scientifically orientated let me remind you that the latest developments in the world of nutrition revolve around the notion that even biologically we are not wholly independent. “Contrary to what most of us have grown up believing”, writes Raphael Kellman (author of the popular new Microbiome Diet), “ we are not autonomous, independent, self-regulating beings, free of dependence from any outside systems or organisms. Instead we are interdependent ecologies responsible for safeguarding the extraordinary world that lives within us.” And that is where I shall leave my ode to our interdependence; our shared humanity, because if you have found my maths shaky then you really don’t want to know about my science!

[i] I am currently available to support with creative and charitable endeavors!  I have particular expertise in creative and cultural education, applied theatre, change management, partnership working, action research, and young people’s participation.  I bring 14 years of professional experience in community arts as the Founding Director of Orangebox Young People’s Centre in Halifax (2012-2014), Development Director at CapeUK (2010-2012), Director of Creative Partnerships West Yorkshire (2004-2010), and Community Director at Interplay Theatre (2000-2004), I am a former board member and chair of the arts development committee at The West Yorkshire Playhouse (2010-2013), Chair of Chol Theatre (2008-2012), Governor at Guiseley Secondary School (2007-2011), and Trustee for the Manav Kalyan supporting a special school in Gujarat, India (2006-2012). I am currently undertaking a part-time PhD at the University of Manchester researching applied theatre and young people’s spiritual wellbeing.

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Every Day is Fieldwork

Hello and longtime no blog…. well in September we launched Orangebox (please visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CE9oWHg5xQ) and since then we have been open 7 days a week, welcomed our tenants, established a hires service, and offered 28 hours of Members Only access to Orangebox every week (we now have 400 members -young people of Calderdale aged 13-19). It’s been all the things associated with a start-up: hello 13 hour days; endless snagging lists; steep income generation targets; constitutions; policy formation; non-stop flitting from outright fear to elation; and goodbye: friends; family; voluntary commitments; domestic duties; the gym; healthy eating; and (in my case) enough academic reading! But as my supervisors keep telling me “every day is fieldwork” so this blog brings you a quick flavor of my field!

Fortunately the reminder of my PhD commitment is enabling me to stay reflective in the busiest and most professionally challenging period of my life to date (which is just as well because despite the world class facility mantle and the £3.5million capital investment we still face the familiar stresses and strains of any community organisation – everyone needs to muck in to keep on top of the cleaning, mending the printer and maintaining toilet-roll stock alongside doing the day job).  It also helps me to see that the pressures I experience in attempting to produce a space that focuses on young people’s well-being in this particularly precarious economic and policy climate are reflective of bigger questions about the relationship between culture, global economics and local practices.

We are now a staff team of five; myself, Centre Manager, Programme Producer, and two Business Administration Apprentices (aged 17 and 18), well supported by Square Chapel Centre for the Arts, Calderdale Council, Voluntary Action Calderdale, a Youth Board, and an independent Steering Group. We share the building with Youth Works and Project Challenge (statutory and voluntary youth organisations supporting young people not in education, employment, or training),The Cooking School (who support young people to run our café and catering facilities), and Calderdale Theatre School (a Youth Theatre active since1968).  We have just appointed a sessional team comprising people with backgrounds in climbing, skating, teaching and the arts. This team will staff the centre and facilitate activities during the weekend when we operate Members Only access to the facilities for £1 per week. At present we have an extremely limited budget for programming structured activity but we are of course working on that!  So we find ourselves in the unusual position of being engaged on a daily basis with lots of young people who would certainly fall into the infamous category of ‘hard to reach’ (I prefer hardly reached) before we have a programme.  For me this is of course the right way round; we can work with these young people to shape the programme they want rather than spend years pushing a programme at them. Furthermore it is these young people who are becoming actively involved in the day-to-day management of the centre – staffing reception, helping with hires, designing promotional materials, and supporting with recruitment.

Our Programme Producer is about to launch The 12 Membership Days of Christmas to offer a range of taster sessions and inspire the formation of a Programming Team (influenced by Signal, a Young People’s Arts Centre in Melbourne, Australia). Initially though our Members Only programme has been a somewhat scanty offer – access to the skate park, music rehearsal rooms, chill-out, and open-mic in our main atrium space. However this period has served as a striking reminder of the need to not over-programme and of our innate ability to play and make something out of very little.  In the Orangebox context offering open-mic to teenagers is almost the equivalent of giving a cardboard box to a toddler – I have watched our members spend hours together creating their own entertainment be it role-playing Jeremy Kyle shows, running pass-the-mic joke telling competitions or, of course, hosting karaoke! I also see signs that we are achieving a sense of sanctuary that the young people want to extend to others – earlier this week some young girls who regularly attend the drop-in came rushing in to ask if they could bring in a very old man they had come across in town who was desperate to use an accessible toilet! Being in a town centre certainly helps to create a cohesive space, it being a more neutral location than a housing estate (where many of the other myplace centres have been built) and attracts a broad range of interests.  As such I have led tours of the building for very varied groups of people, the best example to date being a tour with the borough’s school nursing team and some local young men searching for a space in which they could run their fantasy gaming club! Before the end of the tour both parties had found lots of common ground discussing how the painting of fantasy figurines is good for developing fine motor skills and how being in a space like Orangebox might support increased social confidence amongst the group of male gamers – our ability as human beings to find connections never ceases to amaze me!

I don’t want to create too glossy a picture here, it is without doubt risky, messy, scary, and exhausting but by clinging on to my commitment to reflexivity I can still make leadership decisions that are best suited to our ultimate aim.  So I will leave you with the argument that even at our busiest,  reflective practice is just as vital as the next fundraising application – discuss……

The Orangebox Atrium - where teenagers play

The Orangebox Atrium – where teenagers play

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Spoken word poets I have seen at TED – #SarahKay #ShaneKoyczan

Especially beautiful Sarah Kay’s If I Had A Daughter

Marcus Romer's Blog

So – trawling through the archives of this blog I came across these two brilliant talks I saw at TED back in 2011 – with Sarah Kay and this year 2013 with Shane Koyczan. They are both amazing and worth your time.

enjoy…Sarah Kay – If I had a daughter…

and Shane Koyczan – for all of you out there

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Three Dirty Words

photoAs a form of therapy I highly recommend blogging to all PhD researchers. As opposed to academic writing, in a blog: I don’t need to unpack terms all the time – I can just say stuff that I think or feel without citing who might have thought similar things or influenced my thinking- I can reference non-academic texts that won’t make it into my thesis; and most importantly I can make connections between my research and my life.  When you also have a full-time job a lot of general life stuff gets squeezed and at times sacrificed for PhD activity hence the desire to explain my research to friends, family, and colleagues without giving them my thesis to read!

So if this is therapy, I can be personal.  Frankly my PhD research question could quite easily be translated in to what do I have to offer the world or what do I now know that’s useful? If this seems indulgent then don’t worry I’m not sponsored by anyone, I pay my own fees and use my own time.   Over the last twenty years or so I have developed three core life interests that I mainly keep on the down-low because I know how easily they can be misconstrued or perhaps even perceived as the type of interests in which only someone who has not experienced any hardship could afford to indulge.  Well regardless, it’s time to come out – I’m obsessed with: –

– theatre

– research

– spiritual well-being

I keep these interests under wraps because as explicit, stand alone terms they can easily be associated with elite or wafty experiences, concepts, and places and I am actually interested in how they can be incorporated into the everyday – i.e. theatre doesn’t have to happen in a dedicated theatre building, research in a university, or the spiritual in a place of worship.  Professionally I have mainly worked outside of such institutions because I think it is important to find useful ways of incorporating knowledge developed within theatre, research, and spiritual wellbeing in broader human development practice such as formal and informal education and community development. In my view it’s everybody’s right to have access to processes that could support their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Well if this was an academic piece of writing I would probably now need to turn to someone like Pierre Bourdieu to demonstrate that I understand how my interests could be explained by reference to constructs such as habitus and cultural capital and that as a child growing up around parents immersed in education I was privy to the code of academia thereby explaining my interest in research.  But this is a blog so I’m not going to go there! I will say that to a certain extent, Bourdieu has a point although I was arguably just as influenced by family members who had not accessed extensive formal education but conducted what could be classed as their own everyday research projects- I’m thinking of my Great Uncle Harry who meticulously documented the Redcar tides, weather, and daily observations not for a readership or a qualification but for the personal value of taking stock, reflecting, capturing and documenting.

Even though my current professional practice would probably be best classified as ‘management‘ I privately still think of myself as a theatre person. I don’t make plays or work in a theatre now but my management approach is influenced by what experience of theatre work has taught me about effective team work, empathy, perspective, problem solving and generally making things happen.  I am not interested in classic literary texts or imposing buildings but the transformative potential of theatre processes.  I think processes such as rehearsal and theatre games take us as near as a human being can get to “the sort of self knowledge that you can only get from experience[i] without having actually had that experience. As a theatre researcher I need to understand this better; whilst others are looking towards neurobiology I am interested in frameworks and theories that help us understand how involvement in these processes might enable a connection with a sense of a bigger picture; with self transcendence (and the key to spiritual wellbeing in logotherapy terms).

I was first able to articulate an interest in spiritual well-being having read Man’s Search For Meaning which a colleague gave to me whilst I was trying to cope with supporting my partner through cancer treatment.  In Man’s Search For Meaning Viktor Frankl lays out the fundamentals of logotherapy and describes how  “even in the degradation of Dachau Concentration camp he retained the belief that the most important freedom of all is the freedom to determine one’s own spiritual well-being.”[ii]   I now find myself undertaking a PhD project that revolves around Frankl’s definition of spiritual wellbeing.

Part of me is clearly caught up in concerns that by declaring an interest in spiritual well-being I will be perceived as a new-age fanatic, in theatre a cultural elitist, and in research a lofty academic. So where might my concerns about the associations these interests generate come from? Well Viktor Frankl would tell me that these sorts of worries come from the automatic self rather than the authentic self. By thinking about a human being as having three dimensions- the physical, psychic and the spiritual – Frankl helps us to understand that our worries and emotional responses do not come from a deep sense of self but from the psyche (automatic self).  To achieve a greater sense of spiritual well-being we need to put aside or go beyond these sensations to connect with our spiritual realm (authentic self), our true core, which is concerned with making meaning by acting for the sake of values or others beyond the self.  We really need to find more every day ways of exploring and expressing this side of ourselves through nonreligious (as well as religious) frameworks.

To a certain extent this is what I am personally trying to do by fusing my interests in a research project.  PhD study is proving highly effective as a process because you have to work really hard to name what you know deep down – first you have to understand what has already been said and how you are developing, extending or contradicting it (you can’t just say what you think or feel) – research is a highly technical and specialist discipline which does eventually pull out and give you confidence in all your hunches, intuition, and instinctual knowledge.  In turn this is developing my leadership capabilities and enabling me to make decisions that will ensure Orangebox offers a healthy environment for young people, so hopefully not too long now until the building is handed over….

That then concludes this month’s ‘therapy’, it has certainly helped me work through a few issues and I really hope it will be of some value to those of you who take the time to read this – thank you!


[ii] Frankl Viktor, The Doctor And The Soul, Souvenir Press, London 2004

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