Two years ago I was preparing for the first of my Clore Leadership Programme residencies, supported by Creative Scotland. I was about to embark on a year-long Leadership Fellowship, with 24 other cultural leaders from the U.K and across the world. When I left to start the residential in Oxford at the end of September 2017 I had been busy working with my co-founder on the Rural Touring Agency which was increasingly busy while working out how to progress Play Pieces Arts in the face of another unsuccessful funding application. It was a time of transition but one I was ready for.
Now, two years on, I find myself preparing for another residential later this month, although this time it is in Lampedusa, a small island off the coast of Sicily and I’ll be there with 500 young people from across Europe. How I found myself here has been a challenge, with pain, hurt and a journey of self-realisation. Without the opportunity 2 years ago to take the much-needed time to reflect on my work, my life and how I want to support the cultural sector, without the Clore Fellowship, I wouldn’t be doing what I am now.
My current role is with Highland One World, a Development Education Centre based in Inverness. As the Global Youth Officer, I am responsible for developing 9 creative youth activist groups in the North of Scotland, from the Highlands, across to Moray and through to Aberdeen. I meet inspiring creative young people who are passionate about making a positive impact on the world around them both locally and globally. My work, as I see it, is to support them to explore how you create empathy through creativity, to raise awareness of the issues of migration and the sustainable development goals in a meaningful way. I love my job. Sometimes the fact that this is what I do makes me stop and catch my breath because had it not been for my secondment opportunity, provided by the Clore Fellowship, I wouldn’t have realised how much this matters to me.
The secondment is a core part of the Fellowship and there was much excitement when the list of secondment opportunities arrived in our inboxes. At the time I felt I had to select a position in Scotland but I was encouraged by the Fellowship manager Sharon Armstrong-Williams to think one-step-beyond my comfort zone. She was right and a very astute person. She was also the person who handed me the much-needed tissues during my appalling interview. I knew I could trust Sharon. Yes I could travel to Edinburgh or Glasgow in 3 and a half hours but where else could I get to from Inverness in that time? London, Manchester and Bristol are the answers. I asked if I could work with Bristol Old Vic - I thought the experience of working at the oldest continuous working theatre in the English-speaking world would really stretch me, when I’d been used to putting on theatre in a pub or village hall. What I learned rather quickly that despite the heritage and brilliant work it is exactly like any other theatre, it’s just a question of scale. I loved working on the Ferment project, digging deep into the history and impact the wonderful initiative has created for theatre-makers in the South West of England, seeing many parallels with what is needed in Scotland to redistribute creativity across the regions. I was enjoying the work and yet I wasn’t sure what I wanted to take away from the experience of my time in Bristol.
The answer came when I went to Mayfest, and saw “Now in the Time to Say Nothing”. This has quite simply had the most profound effect on me, more than any other piece of theatre I’ve seen. The immersive experience of seeing the war in Syria through the eyes of a young woman, moving into the middle of the floor with the strangers in the audience to simulate cross the ocean in a dinghy to T.V screens and headsets which keep us at an uncomfortable distance from what is happening. I left the Arnolfini knowing that I wanted to do something creative and something meaningful next.
The opportunity to have mentor support is another gift of the Clore Fellowship and my mighty mentor Orla O'Loughlin helped me understand so much about how to progress. During a conversation I used the tired cliché of pushing on doors to find which one was meant to open. She asked me "have you ever thought about just sitting in the room for a while?". It became my new mantra, just sit in the room for while.
The Fellowship came to an official end in June 2018 and the next few months were the most challenging of my life. Confusion, exhaustion and a feeling of tremendous pressure. Another reason the Clore Fellowship was so significant at this time was the support of a coach. Some of the Fellows had coaches throughout the year and someone had recommended to me that I save my time for after the Fellowship and the transition beyond. What a blessing this advice was. During the weeks and months to follow I acknowledged that the confusion, exhaustion and pressure were having a negative impact on my mental health. I was struggling and accepted I couldn’t go on like this. I was confused because I didn’t know where to put my ideas any more. I was exhausted because I had been doing too much work during a year which was meant to be reflective and the pressure was something I was putting on myself because I didn’t want to let people down.
I got help and it has been the best step I could take. If I’m honest with myself, I should have asked for help 5 years ago but however long it takes you, it’s the best step you can make.
A few months later I’m happily working my way through my AHRC research project, another aspect of my life I am now grateful to Clore for the opportunity. I was feeling passionate about the sector again, I no longer wanted to run and hide, I wanted to put my energy to work.
One thing we heard a lot during the Clore Fellowship was people being told that a job was opening up and that it was “their job” and they got it and that was that. The cynic in me thought some narrative must be missing from these tales. However, one evening my friend sent me a link to a job with Highland One World and said “this is your job.” She was right - it was a job that was meaningful and creative. I wanted it. A role I’d never heard of with an organisation I’d never heard of but it was exactly what I was seeking. The Chair of Clore during our Fellowship was Sandy Nairne who shared with us that we should never apply for a job we don’t want to do. Now, that sounds simple enough but the reality is you need to know what job you want to do because then your passion will shine through when you apply. As Paulo Ceolho says in The Alchemist, a book which helped me during this challenging time; “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
So in a couple of weeks, I’ll be in Lampedusa with creative youth activists from all over Europe, understanding what it means to be on the front line of the Mediterranean Sea, where migrants arrive and seek help. To understand what that means for communities and what that means for our understanding as compassionate people. The group of Change-Makers I support will take their learning back to Scotland and share it with their peers, and then together they will create a piece of work which will be meaningful, create empathy and inspire action.
I am beyond grateful for the opportunity the Clore Fellowship gave me. The space to explore and overcome the struggles over the last two years because I realise now how each step was moving towards this role, this work which brings me so much joy and I believe so much in. I can’t not wait to share with you the further work of these young creative activists.
Columns published here are the authors own opinions.