At CoActive we have a goal for our work to be led by our members. The People’s Health Trust funds our work and as a partner in addressing health inequalities, putting our members in charge is a shared goal for our project. NOVA also funds a weekly afternoon session which compliments the morning session with skills development.
With such a lot of members, it is impossible to address everybody’s preferences. There will always be a fair amount of compromise. Doing this well is easier said than done. Within CoActive membership there is a prevalence of people who are happy to please and go along with things, and others who like to assert themselves, but are seen as difficult or unreasonable. Both characteristics can end up with people missing out on influencing the direction of travel. To be honest it is easy to dress up the quality of our work in this regard, so this blog post aims to take an honest look at our recent work.
Our core group of members meet on a Wednesday afternoon to, among other things, engage with the politics and decision-making within CoActive. During one meeting recently, in order to evaluate the degree of self-determination within our group we spent some time breaking down the decision-making process. We looked at 5 stages:
1. The question?
What should we do next in our sessions?
What about providing soup for everyone at lunch-time?
Do we take on this invitation to perform at an event?
It is important to look at who sets the agenda. For us, usually the agenda and questions flow from what has gone before. Occasionally, random suggestions from members take root and become future direction, but usually future direction comes out of evaluation of what has happened and so forms a journey that we are part of together. Sometimes the agenda is set from opportunities that arise. For example Wakefield Council set up an event called, ‘The Museum of the Moon,’ and we were invited to make proposals to be involved. So Wakefield Council kind of set the agenda in this instance.
2. The ideas and options around the questions
This is a strength with our group. Generating expansive, multiple ideas and options around a question is the easy bit it seems for us. In fact generating so many different ideas makes the decisions harder. This is maybe a symptom of being a bunch of creatives, facilitated by artists. The role of our facilitating artists includes introducing new approaches, techniques and possibilities. We give our artists license to inject ideas and so they do influence the process here. We have been good at making time to dream together.
3. Weighing it up.
Even though most of our members have cognitive difficulties and/or communication difficulties, together we have considered really complex factors. This includes costs, and time constraints. We have looked at the benefits of taking on an ambitious performance piece, which sets us in a channel of hard work versus the benefits of less ambitious and being able to respond more to members needs and wishes week by week in a more fluid way. For us it goes in seasons. We have considered how tired we have felt and the fact that some of us are getting older. We bear in mind that some factors are more weighty than others. Creating it visually with pictures helps everyone. It takes the thinking out of our heads and makes it physical. If someone in the room struggles to understand and process the factors, the fact that they are there means that the others consider their needs as well.
4. The decision
The decision usually follows on easily when a lot has been put into the previous steps. Sometimes it is a season to go easy for example, and so necessary to help the group reflect on the big picture, that next time maybe a different matter. We seek consensus, finding out what is troubling to people about a decision and modifying things to try and suit. The capacity (time mainly) of facilitating artists to enable the needs and wishes of the group is a massive constraint, which inevitably puts a lot of power in their hands of the artists and unfortunately often puts them in the position of final decision maker based on this. Our response to this so far has been to employ a Development Worker to try and address unmet requests, and also to build capacity with members to take on more responsibility and do more for themselves.
5. Feeling part of it
More than ever we are seeing that holding responsibilities and having simple jobs within the group, helps us to feel part of it, because we genuinely are. During our evaluation of self-determination holding a place and doing a job led to members feeling that they had a strong voice within CoActive. I am still trying to understand this fully, but I think it may be that having control over small areas, even if it is keeping up with the vacuuming and being an important cog in the whole workings is empowering, even if influence over strategy and the overarching decisions has appeared minimal. A lot of people are happy to go with the flow, but want to be there for the discussion and be part of the story. Thank goodness that not everyone needs to assert themselves all the time. Following through and being part of the implementation soon gives rise to feedback. Even if that person cannot verbally express issues, people around will soon realise when that person isn’t fitting in well and remedies often follow quite naturally and this influences direction.
Our Art Exhibition in The Museum of The Moon gave us fantastic exposure, with very large attendance. On reflection, although all the artwork was very much from group members, the curation and set up of the space was all done by me for the group. Within the group we decide to work towards another Art Exhibition for the next Art Walk. Artists can develop the work better and be involved in the planning and curation of the exhibition. Rebecca gives us the contact details for Lucy from The Art House who is coordinating Wakefield Artwalk. She offers us a space at The Ridings for the November Art Walk. Later than what we first intended, but we decide to go for it. Lucy takes on board and supports the idea of the group being involved in the whole process of planning and curating the exhibition, by hosting a meeting at the Art House for the whole group (11 of us that day), to discuss and plan. During this meeting we have a piece of paper for each week leading up to the exhibition and write down the tasks that need to be done. We follow this up with another meeting the following week at the unit in The Ridings where our exhibition is to be. Group Members measure the space and take photos.
Our morning session leading up to the exhibition we work on our Art Work, and in the afternoon we work on the planning and prep around putting on the exhibition. One afternoon session is particularly memorable, some are writing a letter to plan the exhibition day and communicate arrangements clearly and with individual’s carers. A couple of members take a tablet and hunt down some lanyards for sale, because we understand we will be present to host the exhibition. Artists are helped to write some information about their Art Work to display alongside the Art. We get to mount some of the Artwork on mountboard together, but then a lot of it is left to me to do. Not too bad though, and at least I get to discuss mounting preferences with all the artists.
The exhibition space has a slat wall system. I order a box of hooks that fit this system for easy installation. I buy good gaffer tape, fishing line, and thick thread, thinking, ‘Keep it simple,’ with the idea of sticking the thread/line to the back of the art work and hooking it on the slat wall hooks.
Everyone shows up for the Exhibition set up on the afternoon of the day. Good energy and excitement. A couple of members go on shopping run to buy refreshments and do a good job. The second can of spray mount which is a different make to the first but looks very similar turns out to smell very strong, which causes some problems and is useless at sticking. Sticking line to the back of the Artwork with tape, turns out to be a lot more challenging than I thought, and it turns out it needs to be done well to work. There are no tables, and it is hard for some working on the floor or with work propped up. This fills up the attention of all those assisting, and slows everything down. The actual business of negotiating whose artwork is going where is rushed, but everyone works well together, and are happy with their space. Absolute disaster when we find that some Artwork is missing! It turns out to be somewhere obvious, but this is frustrating and diverts our attention from where it should be. The group break for the planned evening meal out before returning to host the exhibition. The eating venue wasn’t agreed beforehand, and the group argue and split into two groups. Members returning from the break find 3 Students from Wakefield College volunteering to help, sent by Lucy. The extra help is a game changer. Some artwork had fallen to the floor. Repairs made by our volunteers and all artwork has hangings attached. 3 extra people to come alongside members and help position Art means we are ready to open.
CoActive members really step up and talk to people coming into the exhibition. One particular member struggles to talk to anyone, but engages with strangers about her artwork. The shift pattern planned in advance works a charm. Members spell each other off so as not to swamp the space and take the opportunity to visit other exhibitions and meet other artists. Guests appreciate the Artwork and get to share some moments with the artists and get to have a window on their world. Authentic deep human engagement. All CoActive Members seem very positive and energised by the experience.