Art in the Community by Tony Henderson
Rooftop prides itself on its social purpose and puts community at the heart of its work in the housing sector. The Gypsy and Traveller community has, and still is, often the focus of prejudice, with many organisations and individuals not wanting or being willing to work with them. We have been working with Gypsies and Travellers for 20 years now and we’ve just completed a fantastic art project working in association with the Traveller’s Times.
Rooftop’s connection with the Gypsy and Traveller community began in 1999. There was no census data available to assist with housing needs, so Rooftop commissioned an independent report called “Where’s the Choice”. The housing sector hadn’t made much effort to find out what the Gypsy and Traveller community wanted or needed and this report, published in 2000, began to fill the gaps. A follow up report called “The Forgotten Minority Gypsies and Travellers” came out a few years later and Rooftop then pushed to be involved with providing culturally suitable accommodation.
I’ve been working alongside the Gypsy and Traveller community for nearly ten years, since Rooftop took over ownership and management of the Houndsfield Lane Gypsy and Traveller site from Bromsgrove District Council in 2010. I’ve developed a real relationship with the community and am chair of the Worcestershire Gypsy Roma and Traveller Partnership, a member of the National Association of Gypsy Traveller Officers and also sit on the National Advisory Panel, as run by Rooftop’s Chief Executive Boris Worrall. I’m on the ground day in day out building trust with the community, making sure that Rooftop colleagues who visit our tenants, are aware of what’s expected and that they have a culturally sensitive approach.
The Travellers Times Arts Award project came about from a conversation I had with our Chief Executive Boris Worrall, Travellers’ Times Project Manager Julie Colman and Youth programme Leader, Lisa Smith.
We were discussing the lack of educational achievement of young people at Houndsfield Lane, kids not currently in mainstream education, and how we might change that. We were seeking some advice from the Travellers’ Times team, having recently worked with Travellers’ Times editor-at-large Damian Le Bas on a spoken word film. After watching some other short films created by young people as part of the Travellers Times project, a filmmaking project was envisaged. Shortly after the meeting a news article was submitted to Travellers Times about an Arts Award run by a Lincolnshire based Traveller support group and our idea was born.
An Arts Council organisation called Arts Connect were brought on board to support the project and Lisa Smith of the Travellers’ Times went through Arts Award delivery training. Arts Connect also supported us with finances that went towards workbooks and materials. Rooftop gave staff time in the form of outreach for the families and young people and financial support. The Big Lottery Community fund also gave money through the Travellers’ Times.
Early development work started before Christmas with the final project plans coming together in March for an Easter Holiday time creative programme. It wasn’t all an easy ride. To be honest it was a bit of a nightmare to get the kids to engage at first. They’re not used to being in an educational environment, so their attention span was incredibly short. It’s nothing short of amazing that we and they made the project work.
The young people spent 2 weeks exploring different art forms, researching and interviewing Romany Gypsy author and Poet Damian Le Bas, reviewing films and graffiti art, creating some graffiti art of their own, forming a spoken word piece and finally producing their own short, spoken word arts piece, all with a focus on inspiration and aspiration.
The Travellers’s Times team were crucial participants and Project Manager Julie Colman said “we’re going to be challenging the participants to work really hard, but we are confident that these bright young people will produce some amazing work, and achieve a Bronze Arts award and great short film for their CVs”.
The young people certainly did produce some incredible work and I hope they’re proud of themselves. I am certainly proud to be an advocate for the rights of the community on a national stage.
This isn’t the first time I’ve helped with projects for young people in the Gypsy and Traveller community. I helped devise and facilitate an education programme that directly tackled low attendance for children who lived at our Houndsfield Lane site. Children from Romany, Gypsy, and Traveller communities are at most risk of missing out on education opportunities. The project identified children who had fallen below 85% attendance and gave them the chance to be awarded a laptop if they achieved over 90% attendance. 5 Children achieved the goal.
I hope this latest Arts Award will be just one of many successful schemes Rooftop participates in to help young Traveller’s and Gypsies and I’m incredibly grateful to the Traveller’s Times for their support. We both work tirelessly to improve outcomes for, arguably, the most marginalised ethnic minority in the UK