Just before the news was really talking about the Covid-19 outbreak in China, and certainly before it had registered the potential threat to the UK, we were celebrating one year of our Gateshead Young Writers’ Programme. In January we held our celebration event, with young people from across the programme standing up, in front of a packed-out room to share their writing; many of them had never done anything like it before. In fact, one young person was so nervous it was touch and go if they would be able to perform, but they did and to great applause.
The theme of the evening was Inside Outside and some of the work they dared to share was personal; what true beauty is, a father-son relationship and what it means to feel safe. I could say I felt like a proud parent. And I did. But the phrase ‘it takes a village (or in this case a town) to raise a child’ feels more fitting. In the room that night, was a whole of host of people who made it happen, and some who did so even before we stepped foot in a classroom. The Kavli Trust who made the project possible, the teachers and schools who believed in the project and continue to work with us as we adapt it to respond to the needs of their young people, the whole New Writing North team, the project producers like myself and our lead writers; each one responsible for a key part of this process. To see the look on the young people’s faces as a room full of people listen to their words and really hear them; makes me realise again why what we do is so important.
Such a vivid image of a busy, lively room, full of chatter and excitement feels stark against where we are today. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried. We’ve made amazing progress, connected with some young people who felt unreachable, given confidence to those who didn’t think ‘they’ could be a writer and become embedded within the school communities. The thought of losing that and having to start again kept me awake at the beginning of lockdown.
And yet, a few weeks in and we’re all adjusting. We’re releasing videos, prompts and worksheets for young people to continue their writing at home. We’ve arranged watch-alongs so that there is a space that we can continue to come together albeit on-line and we’ve had sign-ups for a new programme of digital workshops. As has so often been the case with this project, the young people continue to give to us as much as we do to them, if not more. Their resilience, their creativity and their support for each other is inspiring and has provided me with hope in this uncertain time. Their receptiveness to new ways of engaging highlights a trust in us and the programme, that they value the opportunity to be creative as much as we value them as artists. There is a long way to go. We are only a year into activity for a community that faces multiple barriers (one of the primary schools we work in is in the top 1% of most deprived neighbourhoods. 16% of Gateshead residents live within the most deprived 10% of LSOAs in England).
There is a huge amount of talent sitting alongside a lack of confidence and a previous lack of exposure to high-quality arts activity. But we are making progress and there are successes that have happened already that will remain a highlight for me for a long time to come. From shy smiles of recognition in the new Year 7s to those who start their time with us by saying they ‘can’t write’ and end in one of our after school or weekend clubs. From those who wouldn’t let me even look at their work who eventually stand up and read it out in front of their peers to the young person who handed one of our lead writers, a hand made thank you card. It’s these small steps on this brilliant journey that makes me feel honoured to be a part of it.
We might be apart right now, but the future is bright.
Becci Sharrock, Project Producer for Gateshead Young Writers