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On a Saturday morning, on a miserable day in the middle of February, I found myself driving up the A19 to Gateshead. It’s a pretty familiar journey for me. I live in North Yorkshire, but most of my work is in Teesside and the wider North East region. But it was a very different session I was heading to. Arriving at the glorious building that is Bensham Grove Community Centre (I was in absolute heaven, as a fan of the Arts and Crafts Movement), I saw the faces of the rest of the wonderful Blue Cabin Team – Associate Artists, Directors and Board Members. I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation – we were there for a self-care session, with a therapist. I didn’t quite know what to expect.
For any of you who know Jenny, the Director of Blue Cabin, you’ll know how kind she is.
Kind: adjective. Meaning generous, helpful, and thinking about other people’s feelings, according to Cambridge Dictionary, and I think that sums Jenny up pretty well.
So, when the partnership developed with South Tyneside Council, with Blue Cabin delivering Creative Life Story Work, Jenny, along with Board Member and Director Dawn, put things in place to support the associate artists who would be delivering on the project. She recognised that doing this work could be challenging. That everyone would respond and react differently to what they heard, saw and experienced through this work, and that there needed to be support in place for reflections, sharing, and additional support where needed. The artists, and all the team, who work with Blue Cabin (and in our experience, most people working within participatory or community arts) do it because they care. You are invested in the children, young people and families. You want to make a difference.
One of the support elements Blue Cabin has put in place has been group self-care sessions, facilitated by Jenny and Dawn, as a regular chance to get together. Another is that a number of therapists are contracted to offer direct support to anyone wanting to access it. This can be done anonymously, and Blue Cabin are billed for the work direct from the therapist; a model inspired by Tin Art’s Clown Doctors programme. For the February session, one of the therapists agreed to facilitate it. And so it was that I met the very wonderful Matt Stalker.
Matt instantly put us at ease, and promised he wasn’t there to psychoanalyse us. *Cue a collective huge sigh of relief* He explained that he would go through some theory, but it was also very much about us talking, trying things out and looking at what we wanted to take forward. Through the work Blue Cabin had done early on in this process, we had all taken part in some attachment training with the wonderful force of nature who is Richard Rose, of Child Trauma Intervention Services. It was so useful to revisit. Watching the Still Face Experiment will always get me. Every. Single. Time.
I’m not going to give a whole run down of what we did throughout the day (and you can catch up with Matt’s brilliant blog here), but one of the phrases from the day leapt out in screaming, stark, neon flashing lights: EMOTIONAL LABOUR. In twelve years of managing arts projects with children who have experienced trauma, I’d never been able to name it with such clarity. Those of you who know me, know I am often to be found as a proud, but emotional wreck, at celebration events. As a project manager though, I’m generally not doing the direct work. I meet the children and young people, and always want to dip into sessions where it’s appropriate to do so, but I’m often event managing, darting here and there to make sure everything is running well, and that everyone is OK. This isn’t the same for the artists, who are working alongside the children and young people, building those relationships week by week. I also think it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re doing something as intensive and focused as life story work – the fact that you’re creating work together, interacting and building those relationships means you hear, and think, about their lives. It’s one reason why we place great importance on the role of the Pastoral Support Workers. This role is often fulfilled by a Local Authority member of staff (such as a Family Worker), and they work alongside an artist, leading on safeguarding as well as the pastoral needs of everyone in the room. It is emotional labour. And it is there for the project managers, the Directors, the ‘arts organisers’ too. How we think about the children and young people beforehand, the research and preparation we do before we approach potential partners, how they are developed, thought about, budgeted and scheduled, delivered and evaluated. It is emotional labour.
I think we all, collectively, need to recognise what we ask of ourselves, and others. There are always ethical questions we should ask about the work we do. Another, fundamental question, for cultural organisations should be: What are we putting in place to support wellbeing, how are we taking account of emotional labour, and how can we be kind?
Blue Cabin Associate