Transcript: Articulate: adapting to the Coronavirus pandemic

An interview with Eona Craig, Chief Executive of Articulate Cultural Trust.

Podcast Episode: Articulate: adapting to the Coronavirus pandemic



What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

MD - Michelle Drumm
EC - Eona Craig

On the 27th of March 2020 Iriss spoke to Eona Craig, Chief Executive of Articulate Cultural Trust, about its work to support care experienced young people and how they’ve managed to continue to deliver services in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Articulate works with often socially isolated care experienced young people in Scotland, challenging loneliness, supporting connectivity and promoting physical and mental wellbeing.

MD Thanks Eona for speaking to me today. Can you just tell me a little bit about then the work that Articulate does?

EC Yes, I can. I started Articulate just over three years ago to use my lived experience of being in care and also my kind of thirty years knowledge of working in the creative industries to create an organisation that is about access, participation and empowerment of care experienced young people using arts, using creativity and using cultural process really to unlock the potential that I could see at the time in the care experienced young people that I was coming across in my job, which was as a head of department of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I headed up there with an access team and yeah, so we had a project called “Transitions”. The Conservatoire still does have a project called “Transitions”, which helps young people broker that journey between deciding that they want to go and try for training in the creative industries, and actually getting into a training that could be very competitive. So it was a kind of brokering role that we had there, but I kept coming across care experienced young people who I could see were having very different kinds of challenges and barriers to reaching their potential and I got really, really interested in that work and set up Articulate to just take that interest a little bit further. So what we do is really specialist. It’s really niche. We work with tiny numbers of young people but people who we can see as fun and motivated and very creative and really interested how the arts and cultural processes can help them get on in life but also in their learning, and also helping support them as they make their journey towards the world of work.

MD Yeah. Are they only care experienced young people that you support?

EC The majority of the young people that we work with are care experienced young people, just ‘cause I think they’ve got a very different set of circumstances and we were aware when we first started Articulate that we weren’t a traditional arts organisation and we certainly weren’t social workers, so we had to find a way through the middles of that in order that young people could feel the flex in an organisation like us, but that we were going to take good care of them and be in that relationship with them for the long term. So we worked out that stickability was really important, that being fluid and flexible and how trusted relationships are fundamentally important to making a success of this kind of thing. So yeah, I don’t think we sit naturally in any kind of one category and we realised that quite early on we were doing something that was a little bit non-traditional. So we stayed in touch with quite a number of researchers, which is why I’m a big fan of Iriss ‘cause you like evidence and you like to know what works. So do we. So we are often working with researchers in and around evaluation of why a particular thing works or why it doesn’t indeed, especially ‘cause the young people that we work with have often got very chaotic and confusing contradictory things going on in their lives. So yeah, we have to tread a very fine line. So we kind of describe ourselves as working at the crossroads between creativity and care. We don’t really know what that means yet.

MD Right, okay. Can you tell me what are the kinds of activities then that you do?

EC Well we work with lots of different ages and stages. The youngest person that we work with is 7 and the oldest person that we work with is 26.

MD Right.

EC All ages and stages really. We work right across the sixteen art forms that we would consider to be part of the creative and cultural industries. So we’ve done projects that have used architecture, gaming, marketing, museums, as well as music and dance and visual arts. So quite a lot of the work that we do as I say is very individualised. It can be quite bespoke, and so we often kind of go on a journey with a young person who’s got a really specific interest. So for example, we’ve got one young man that we work with just now who we helped to get into Duncan of Jordanstone, and he’s just moving on to do his degree in animation now. So we’ve been working with that young man for, well this will be year four, and so as I say staying with our young people is really important. So we do one-to-one work. We do group work. So we’ve run partnership work with Breakthrough in Dundee and with Staff and with Youth Justice. We’ve done partnership projects with the universities in terms of their widening access teams. So it’s all very co-designed, either with the partners or the participants I guess. We try not to go, “This is how you do it”, ‘cause we don’t really know, but what we do buy into is finding out how to do things with people, and that’s a lot of fun and it means there’s learning going on for absolutely everybody in the team.

MD Yeah. It’s kind of tailored to what the young person is sort of drawn to as well?

EC Definitely, and I think there’s something about working with teenagers that makes that essential. I mean there is no point in asking them to take part in something that they have no interest in. So we work out from what their interests are, what their curiosities are, what their motivations are. So yeah, the other thing is they often commit to something that they really love doing in contemporary culture. So we usually work out from there, both in terms of the one-to-one tailored work but also in terms of the group work. So we tend not to go in with a project plan. We tend to go in with a toolkit and some very skilled artists and we kind of go, “Well what are we going to do with this time and space together? Where are we going?”, and that’s brilliant. That’s great fun. It’s quite risky sometimes and we ask the young people to be terribly brave and open and sharing and trusting, but it often means that they stay with things ‘cause they become really very invested in it, and we try to work quite a lot in a reciprocal basis where we’ve kind of gone, “We’re expecting you to do stuff and here’s our stuff in return”, and yeah, the relationships in the middle of that become really fundamental to the young people. So we choose our artists very carefully and we train them quite deeply, and as I say we have quite a small pool of people that we know and trust to do this work and to do it well.

MD Excellent, and I imagine a lot of the work will generally be face-to-face work and as you say kind of relationship building?

EC Mmmhmm.

MD The current situation poses quite a lot of challenges to that. So how has that affected your work and what are you doing?

EC Well it’s been interesting. We run about eight or ten different projects other than the individual work, which is just ongoing and the young people come and go as they need us. We had about ten projects I think that were live as of week ending Friday the 20th of March.

MD Right, okay.

EC I don’t know what date today is, a week later. We’ve got four of those now remodelled and online and either still face-to-face, quite a lot of them, just digitally. Some of them are virtual and some of them we’re just working with the young people to find out how they want to engage, what’s safe for them, what kit and resources they’ve got. So we’ve got our weekly check-in tonight. We’ve got a young photographer coming to speak to the young people via Instagram about photographing the everyday and coming up with a portfolio that’s in and around that. So that’s with our artist in residence, John Morrison. So some of that was all ready to go. We just thought, “Well now is the time, let’s just do that.”

MD Yeah.

EC Last Friday night we had 7 young aspiring photographers join our artists in residence, and they’re going to come back and join a young photographer tonight on InstaTV to talk about that project, which is called “Dialogues”.

MD Are they kind of a series of live chats that you’re having?

EC Yeah, and the young people will bring their own work and they will discuss. So we do kind of what a university would call critical and contextual studies, but the young people are just engaging with someone who does this because they love it, because they do it professionally, and also they bring their own work and they chat about that in a really kind of constructive and positive environment. So it’s lovely. So that project will continue where we introduce a stimulus or a motivation and then we bring in the artist to help just curate that conversation if you like. I mean it is just a conversation.

MD Sure.

EC So we’ve managed with half of our projects to move them online or to move them digitally. There’s so much amazing stuff coming out from all over the world in terms of livestreaming. So our culture club project will move to us all starting to watch some livestream at the same time and then all checking in by Zoom afterwards and enjoying a takeaway together apart.

MD And what is the culture club exactly?

EC Oh culture club is essentially just taking young people to go and see things. So we’ve taken them to everything from the Irn-Bru Carnival to the Dark Carnival, from Bjork, and we usually meet up, we usually do a workshop or a meet the cast or whatever, we go see a show and then we do a bit of debriefing at the end, but the debriefing usually takes place around food ‘cause we try to encourage good physical and mental wellbeing for young people as much as we can, as well as broadening their cultural horizon. So we’ve just moved culture club online and so that’s going to be good fun because everyone will be sitting in their sofas in their houses checking in that way, and we’ve also created some new work, but some of the projects that have been face-to-face we’re obviously having to think about postal delivery for some of the resources and materials that we get out to young people.

MD Alright.

EC Well “Start with Art”, which is a project that has taken place in the residential units in Glasgow usually at the kitchen table, we bring in materials and artists and we just sit and we do two or three hours and then the artist in residence will go away. So we’ve started to move that online but we’ve got boxes of materials being packaged up and ready to go today so that the young people aren’t feeling that they’re starved of material. So we’re working with the residential units in Glasgow to just circumnavigate some of that and make sure that where different kinds of kit or resources are needed, that we’re creating that kind of rescue package.

MD Yeah, sure.

EC Or such a thing, but quite a lot of the stuff that we do with our young people is around staying positive, challenging the isolation that they feel.

MD Do you use WhatsApp as well?

EC We have a WhatsApp group for the young people who are particularly isolated but also particularly close to each other. So yeah, and we set daily tasks in there. They don’t sound like tasks, they’re great fun.

MD Yeah.

EC And they’re a really good laugh. So yesterday the young people were doodling and then turning them into 3D sculptures and we were all sharing that on WhatsApp, and just amazing things that people are coming up with and of course there’s some amazing campaigns like the “Rainbow” campaign in people’s windows. That’s really beautiful and thoughtful. So we try to create as many daily creative challenges as we can and make sure that people’s hands and minds and bodies are busy.

MD Sure. Sure, and how are the younger people reacting at the moment to this change of delivery?

EC They’re good. They’re good. I mean I think the thing that shocks me a little is how unsatisfactory most of their kit is and how the infrastructure isn’t really there to support them, and how vulnerable they genuinely are at a time like this and how alone and frightened some of them are, and that’s been a real wakeup call for me, that actually they consider us to be some kind of emergency service ‘cause we’ve been there for them pretty much all day every day in their WhatsApp groups if they’ve needed us, and answering questions that families would normally be answering. So that’s been really interesting to see how close we are and how important that relationship is.

MD I suppose some of these care experienced young people will live alone?

EC Yes, they do. Certainly that’s true of the older teenagers, yeah.

MD Yeah.

EC And the group that we’re working with particularly through WhatsApp are all on their own and you can see how fragile the environment that they live in and how lonely they are, how genuinely lonely they are. So as I say keeping their minds and their hands and their bodies active and positive has been a challenge for us over the last week, but as I say most things that we do are fun and engaging and so it feels pretty natural to us. I just think we’ve had to be a bit more intensive about it and also we’re beginning to have to think differently about how we take care of our staff as well, and about safeguarding and risk and managing and mitigating.

MD Mmmhmm. What are some of the things that are coming up there around protection of staff, ‘cause that would be probably quite useful to people listening as well? There’s other services like yourselves who are trying to deliver services in a different way.

EC Just how intensive it is. So it’s tiring knowing where boundaries should be so that they or you can switch off and they realise that we’re not an emergency service, that we’re there for a particular task and a particular signposting of the right to support for the right things that are coming up in conversations, but certainly for staff I can see how easy it would be to get sucked into this 24/7, and setting the boundaries and being careful and gentle and kind around encouraging people to not be on screens all the time, says the mother of a 15-year-old, but actually to make sure that they’re getting fresh air and that we’re taking that advice ourselves and making sure that we’re detoxing digitally, because there is a chance that we are all just going to have brain drain at the end of it, and that’s a little bit of worry but as an organisation we do supervision with our staff anyway. We do peer reviewing and then we’ve also got support of a psychology team who once a quarter we’ll do a session either individually or as a group just so we’re making sure that we’re picking up any worries or concerns or things that we should be sharing that we might not have thought about until that moment. So and as I say again I think that’s why as an arts organisation we feel a wee bit different ‘cause quite a lot of the young people are dealing, especially the teenagers, when they’re using their artistry or creativity they’re thinking and acting in an autobiographical way. So managing any anxiety that goes around sharing traumatic stories can be quite overwhelming for everybody and we have to take care of everybody when that’s happening.

MD And you’ve got groups of, is it young researchers and advisors with the service as well? I’m really interested to hear more about how that came about and how that functions and is still something that is ongoing at the moment.

EC I think it was always part of my interest in this area in that there’s very little of it happens. So there’s very little evidence that says, “This is how you do this and this is how it works and this is what quality it is.” So I thought the best way for us to understand that was to create an organisation that can be guided by our young people and their lived experience and what the challenges and barriers and the joys are of being this kind of different. So research became a part of that really early on and we buddied up with Abertay University. I mean the research question was if the World Economic Forum are telling us that creativity is the third most valuable attribute in a child’s toolkit right now, then how are care experienced young people being advantaged or disadvantaged with that knowledge in mind, and we recruited 5 care experienced young people to go on the learning journey with us. So we went all over. We did some training with them and then we went all over the UK looking at what we considered to be examples of very good or very poor practice and then we brought all that together, and over a series of workshops and events we agreed what we thought was great and what we thought was a bit rubbish and how we’d want to formulate an organisation around that. So as a result of working very closely with those care experienced young people as I say we went to Bristol, London, York, Leeds, Newcastle, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh. We came up with 4 or 5 things that we kind of realised that we had to structure the organisation around, and that meant that we had the perspective of the young person as well as the perspective of the professional adults going into the mix of this organisation, and our professional adults found or were very clear that one of the biggest things that hold care experienced young people back is positive mental health. So that’s an aspect of Articulate’s mix, our 5-year plan that we’ve just finished, but for the young people the most important thing that they saw and that they loved across the UK were places and spaces to be, to be creative, to be cared for, and so we’ve started, well, we’re quite near the end of a process to take over a building that will become a kind of creative home for the young people that we represent and that we work with. So yeah, the young researchers and the young advisors are absolutely pivotal to who and what we are and also who and what we become, because I hope that they’ll run the organisation. I hope that they kind of go, “Well we don’t need you. You’re ancient”, and move over what we’re doing now, and so yeah, that’s the dream really, is that these young artivists we call them, they care about using their artistry to make positive changes in the lives of, well, their own lives, but in the lives of others. They’re very generous and very humanitarian, and I love that about them. So yeah, that’s the plan, is that they really don’t need us anymore.

MD Fantastic. Do you think then the arts will become increasingly or less important given the current circumstances at the moment, and how will the arts come out of this crisis? What will be the perceptions of it do you think?

EC I don’t know. I mean we have a kind of statement that we use, and say, “This is fundamental, it’s not ornamental.” Every single teenager that we work with relates to the arts on a daily basis and their contemporary culture. How they get access to that and participate in that and engage with that is their right. It is a convention and actually it’s all of our jobs as staff, as corporate parents, as individual parents, is it’s our young people’s right to engage in this way. Articulate just happens to exist to support care experienced young people to get over the complex and multiple barriers that they have to do that, but I don’t know. I think that as a planet we’ll have understood how important time was and time to do what you choose to do, and that doing time for us as artists and creatives is always to do with mostly making the world a better place, and I think the young people that we work with know that. They just need some people to help enable that.

MD Sure. And do you think any of your services will change, so maybe things that you’re doing right now in this interim period? Do you think that maybe you’ll keep some of those things going, so maybe some of the online workshops or activities?

EC Yeah. I think they will, partly because we’re small. In terms of the physical landscape we can only stretch ourselves so thin. The minute that you put everything on the internet then the world is your oyster. So even though we’re thinking local you’ve got the potential to act global, and I think that that’s a really interesting thought for us and that we’ve engaged in the last week with young people that we’ve never heard of before, and they didn’t know about us and they’ve kind of stumbled into us because this thing has happened. So how we react to that in the longer term is going to be really interesting, how we take the responsibility of stickability and long termism will be an interesting thing for us to consider as an organisation, but they’ll help us find the answer. Of that I’ve no doubt. So yes, I think we’ll change. I don’t know if we’ll change fundamentally. I think we’ll just have two different personas going on.

MD Yep. Yep, and has Articulate been involved in the care review and what are I suppose the implications of the current situation for that?

EC Yes. I was invited to be part of the “Stop Go” group for the last phase. So I spent a year working with some amazing people from local authorities, from third sector organisations, young people themselves, exploring that territory a little bit further. It was very harrowing at some points ‘cause obviously I’m quite fresh into this landscape and I found it really unsettling and mostly very unsatisfactory what I was consuming, but it really made me certainly more passionate about what Articulate is supposed to be doing. I think the other thing that’s interesting for us as an organisation is that the care review report has come out at the same time as Scotland’s first national cultural strategy. So I’ve now got to take a moment to look at the care review report, look at the cultural report, and also look at our new 5-year plan and go, “Where do we best sit right now with all of this amazing new world of information and ambitions? How do we use what our resources are to make the changes that we can make? What’s our agency in this moment? What can we do better and different that will help accelerate what’s going on or what’s possible to go on?”

MD And I guess there’s a bit of a collective effort of that as well, is there?

EC Oh yeah. I mean as I say although I found it quite a harrowing experience I met some extraordinary professionals and some extraordinary young people through the care review, and I hope never to lose touch with them in that I think it is a mission. I think this feels a bit more like a movement than a review and I hope that Scotland’s young people all benefit from that, but obviously in particular our care experienced people.

MD Oh yeah, and there was just one other thing I had. Is it your hashtag, that creativity knows no quarantine?

EC Yeah.

MD But did you create that and you’re using it on Twitter?

EC We’ve been using it. We got it from some young people who were creating in Hungary. It had come out of a school in Hungary and we’d started a wee chat with them and then we just decided we would adopt that as well. So yeah, but I think that’s been the other thing, is that I don’t spend very much time on social media but actually this week I’ve been on social media all the time.

MD Yeah.

EC So in terms of my own learning I think I’ll become a guru by the end of this, how to post and hashtag. I’m all over that.

MD Same with the Zoom and Skype and all these technologies as well. We’re all just using them every day. I hadn’t ever used Zoom before but now it’s becoming a normal thing.

EC Yeah. It’s interesting ‘cause I love Zoom ‘cause it’s actually a really good platform, but interestingly our young people had never met it until Friday night, last night, when we started the “Dialogues” project, and they thought it was great fun. So it’s brilliant. It’s a good solid platform and as I say it makes us think differently about how we share and platform opportunity. So yeah, it’s great. It’s good fun.

MD Absolutely. Well Eona, I really appreciate the time you’ve given me today to talk about your organisation and the work you do, and I just want to wish you all the best over the coming months.

EC You take care Michelle, and remember and wash your hands!

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