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

About madiirwin

Madeleine Irwin is a PhD researcher in the Drama Department at The University of Manchester. Madeleine is also an independent consultant specialising in creative education, applied theatre, partnership working, action research, and young people's participation http://uk.linkedin.com/in/madeleineirwin
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