Doing Gender, Arts and International Development in Birmingham

We've all been asked that question: What do you do? And language has a way of confusing matters even more. Specific words and terminology take on a different meaning in different sectors, contexts, and even countries. For example, telling someone I work in arts management can often lead them to think I work with only visual arts, in another country this has been interpreted as only managing artists and their work. Saying I'm passionate about human security can often evoke a frown as one thinks immediately of security guards in shopping malls and tall office building, whereas I'm talking about safeguarding individuals from global vulnerabilities in terms of their safety from violence, climate change and poverty, as opposed to focusing on only the state.

When someone asks me that question "what do you do?," I guess I simply live and breath my passions as I always have done. It's been a little under two months since I moved to Birmingham, and I'm reflecting back on last week and some of the things I got up to.

First meeting for a new project I've started with Arts Works, who essentially connect local people to arts, in a specific area in Birmingham. It's great as I'm now live in this area of the city so I'm excited about getting to know the communities and artists more. Connecting Spaces is a project that involves four community groups working with different artists each to create and enable different creative experiences, in relationship with the mac, an arts centre that is a heart of the cultural life on Birmingham. I will be working with all the groups to creatively document the different projects using photography, leading up to the final sharing event at mac in February. It was great to meet everyone today and start planning. I'm keen to focus on the journey artists and participants will be on and their stories. The community groups range from "Arts All Over the Place" a group of developing arts practitioners with mental health problems, to a group of South Asian women, who have largely migrated to England from Pakistan.

Participation in a "Learning Lab'at The Drum entitled The Value in Making, Crafting, Memory, Migration and Storytelling." This was awesome as it combined the three big themes I'm passion about; gender, arts and international development. It explored the use of crafts by women, with two case studies from Sweden and Birmingham. The latter was presented by Craftspace, with a case study about Shelanu, a social enterprise supported by Craftspace, of migrant and refugee women producing high quality craft objects inspired by their new home, the city of Birmingham. Shelanu enables them to share their experiences, memories, and do something positive and beautiful enhancing their lives. Its wonderful as I end up riding the bus to The Drum to attend this event with one of the women from Shelanu who is from Israel, and she tells me about her experience of living in Birmingham. The demographic picture of my home city has changed (for the better) since I left here in 2008. Its always been a multicultural melting pot, and now even more so and its great. The project called Livstycket from Sweden described by its founder Birgitta Notloff since 1992 has been giving immigrant women the opportunity to learn the Swedish language to have a stronger foot in the community, many who have fled war and conflict and arriving in Sweden illiterate. The project uses functional pedagogy combining theoretical teaching of Swedish with practical artistic activites such as creating with fabrics, embroidery and textile printing. Birgitta Notloff humbly started this venture by selling her car and still has no guarantee she will be able to keep fundraising to cover the costs the following year, but her passion for female empowerment has enabled this project to impact on numerous women, their families and Sweden as a whole, whilst creating beautiful artefacts. These models can and are being replicated across Europe I am sure, and critical more now than ever due to the ongoing migration happening in the world.

I attend my first ever Action Learning workshop facilitated by Jane Ralls Dance, a peer support programme designed for the Creative Industries. This is great and involves a small number of select creatives working in the city, a group of five of us plus Jane. Action Learning is essentially reflective learning done in a group. I have explored mentoring and coaching which generally happens between two people, one would be the mentor, the other the mentee, for example. In this case there is a group of individuals, and one person shares their challenge/problem/idea, to which solutions are found by them, with the assistance of the participants who ask a series of open questions framed in a particular way, to achieve effective results. This is challenging and demonstrates how our listening skills in regular life are not always so helpful and we often suggest solutions that we think are the right thing to do. We have time to explore one problem and leave the workshop feeling enlightened and introduced to a new way of working, that we can take back to our offices or freelance creative lives.

After another long day my treat for today is an evening visit to the Buddhist Centre in Moseley, conveniently not far from my new home and a true delight. My spiritual journey has developed since my recent visit to India to also include meditation and Buddhist philosophy. There are so many books and versions of Buddhism out there, but I am very drawn to this centre as it focuses on the Triratna: the Buddha, his teachings and the community. Essentially this school of thought is a global movement of people engaging with the teachings in the modern world, encouraging meditation, engagement with the arts, supporting each other and engaging with the community. These are all my passions and connect with my interests which all fuse together. I believe that my creative journey is enhanced by my spiritual centre, in fact they are both one and the same.

Today I catch up with a fabulous dancer well loved by Birmingham and we explore ideas, journeys and ways of working together... watch this space for more info coming soon! I spend the evening at the wonderful Impact Hub for a Womens' Networking Hub Event, the screening of a documentary entitled Killing of Farkunda. Not the typical way to spend your Friday night but I'm so glad that I participated. Farkunda was a faithful Muslim, happy daughter, mother and wife from Kabul. She was wrongly accused of burning a Quaran to then be beaten, tortured, stoned and killed in the streets by the male community. I was pleased to see at least five men in the audience, more would have been better. Many of the audience members were either Muslims, activists, academics, charity workers and some creatives. The film followed a discussion with photo-journalist Alison Baskerville, a British journalist who has focused on the impact of conflict on women's lives in numerous countries including Afghanistan, Mali, Israel/Gaza and the Philippines. There is still so much work to be done all over the world on women's rights, and what is apparent to me is that as much as we need to know about these horrific extreme stories happening over there, we must not allow them to overshadow the plight of gender inequalities over here in our laps, in Europe and the rest of the world, existing in both the public and private sphere, fuelled by patriarchy, the media and popular culture.

I participate in a full day Refugee Ideation Workshop at Birmingham City University by Climate KIC. The room is full of people from across Europe and Africa now settled in Birmingham, working in a range of sectors passionate about climate change and the ongoing refugee crisis. Similar workshops are taking place around Europe under the same umbrella organization with findings being fused together. After some excellent presentations about the rise of Fear and White Noise in Britain, and useful facts and figures following a recent research visit to Calais, we work collectively to identify key challenges facing refugees and external agencies, and how we can solve these. Naturally, I include some suggestions of art activism for campaigning and encouraging community cohesion and solidarity. The suffering caused through such crisis is barbaric, and media coverage in dominant print and screen channels disappointing, not giving a true picture of the reality and how the relationships between all states, particularly dominant players, historically cause such alarming events, increasing human insecurity for everyone.

A day of going back to my roots at the huge Sikh Temple on Soho Road for blessings and langar (free kitchen) with my sister, to give thanks and set me up for another busy week doing gender, arts and international development in Birmingham.