Next up in our series of interviews, Lynn Wray talks with Nabeelah Hafeez (Project Manager of the Bradford Stories Festival, at the National Literacy Trust and Bradford-based artist and poet) about her personal experience of, and professional reflections on, visiting Chicago and Washington DC back in pre-Covid times.
In November a group of us connected to the Bradford’s National Museum Project went to Chicago with the aim of exploring the cutting-edge participatory, co-creative and community engagement work going on in the City. Some of us also travelled on to Washington DC to exchange ideas with the Smithsonian Institution about the specific issues facing ‘national museums, libraries and archives’ aiming to do place-based work in their local area. In this series of interviews participants share how their experiences on the trip have impacted on their own working practice in Bradford.
LW: What are your reflections on the overall experience now that you have returned to your practice in Bradford?
NH: I still feel very excited to have been part of the delegation. We took part in such a range of workshops, discussions and experiences.
I was struck especially by how open the conversations about race and ethnicity were in the US and how confident and articulate people were in talking about the need for decolonisation of structures and institutions. This felt different to what I have experienced in the UK and I’d like to explore this more with others in Bradford.
LW: Did any one moment stand out to you from the trip?
NH: It is hard to pick out one as I felt one of the values of the trip was the range of workshops and experiences and the opportunity to visit two very different cities. There were two moments though that I found particularly powerful and thought-provoking.
The first was visiting Stony Island Arts Bank for the first time and just experiencing the incredible power of that space. Seeing for example the Johnson Publishing Library – the sheer volume of books connected to black culture and politics collected together in one place, was an important moment for me. I felt the power and significance of having a specific space – not just any space but an incredibly beautiful space – that is wholly owned and run by artists of colour. Being there I could feel the huge value that having a place designed by and specifically for people of colour could have in Bradford. There were other venues I visited that reinforced the importance of this sense of community ownership. One was a music and performance space for young people, The Promontory in the Hyde Park neighbourhood of Chicago. Another was the famous poetry café Busboys and Poets in the U-Street corridor, Washington DC. I loved the curated bookshop. All of these spaces had such a strong connection to their place.
The second was visiting the Library of Congress in DC and participating in the workshop at the Smithsonian Centre for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. I was incredibly moved by the way in which the Folklife Centre approaches cultural documentation and I wondered why more museums and archives don’t take this approach in the UK.
LW: What was it about their approach to cultural documentation that you found moving?
NH: Really it came down to the time they take to build the trust of the communities they are working with. The thing that really stood out as different to what I had experienced before was the length of time and the level of resources they put into building the right team at the outset of a project. For example, when the Centre embarked on a project with the Latino community, they spent almost a year speaking with different people to really ensure they had the right team with the right representation. It was recognised that this was crucial for participants to feel confident that their stories would be treated with respect and dignity. This is something I will think about in relation to any oral history work I might do as part of my artistic practice but also in terms of my role at the National Literacy Trust.
LW: It seems as though you took quite different things from your experience in Chicago and Washington DC?
NH: Yes, the experiences in Chicago and DC were quite different. But that might have been because the scale and nature of the organisations we were connecting with in both cities was so different. In Chicago it felt like the innovative community work and creative practice was a matter of survival. That due to the lack of funding for public services and art in the US, individuals and grass-roots organisations were doing what they had to do for their communities and finding creative solutions. There just wasn’t state support for vulnerable people out there. Similarly because there is so little public funding of the arts, the artists, activists and community-engagement practitioners that we met had to be really responsive, adaptable and creative and they had to work together just to ensure their own survival. By contrast the institutions we met in DC were big national institutions that had huge resources.
However, although the people we met were coming from these very different positions in the two cities, what was interesting was that they were all working towards tackling the same core issue – how to help communities gain a sense of ownership over their own places and their own heritage. In Chicago the emphasis was on how barriers to participation can be broken down and new spaces can be built together so that people can take control of their stories, whereas in the nationals in DC the concern was with how far they can step back and allow others to have control of some of the resources they have.
LW: Did you notice any similarities or differences between Chicago or DC and Bradford?
NH: I felt that the dynamic between rich and poor was noticeably different in Chicago than in Bradford. In Chicago there were really affluent areas next door to places with really high levels of deprivation. These little pockets of poverty were quite isolated. This is quite different to Bradford where the poorer areas are concentrated in the centre and the affluent areas in the suburbs. However, the poorer areas in Chicago were suffering the same types of deprivation as Bradford. People in both cities are deprived of opportunities… though the quality of education in Bradford might be better?
LW Is there any learning will you be taking forward and applying to your own practice in Bradford?
NH: As an artist, I felt inspired by the resourcefulness of the creative and community-engagement practitioners we met in Chicago… the idea that one individual can make a massive difference to their community. And so I returned feeling excited about what I might be able to do through my photography. In contrast to the US we do have funding sources available like the Arts Council grants, so I have been thinking about what I might be able to do in my own practice and how I might be able to build something with other artists of colour.
I’m not sure how yet, but I am sure that my work with the National Literacy Trust will be influenced by what I saw and experienced in the US. I will keep reflecting on the importance of the time spent building up trust and the right relationships and the potential of community owned spaces. Our visit to the Read/Write Library has given me a lot to think about. Their focus on the equal importance of all stories resonates a lot with our work on the Bradford Stories festival. Also, meeting Regin Igloria, and artist and teacher, who runs a community bookbinding programme called North Branch Projects (in Albany, Chicago) opened up lots of possible ideas for me. It is such a simple but empowering idea – to help people in the community make their own books and record their own stories. Regin used such simple questions like ‘when was the last time you cried?’. But what they created, not just the book, but also the experience, was complex and really powerful. This has made me realise that very simple questions can be used to unpick a lot. I’m thinking about how I can apply this to the workshops I run.
In Washington DC I was also blown away by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This was a deeply emotional experience for me. It reinforced in me the importance and power of great storytelling. I’m producing a festival in March here at Kala Sangam, and I am keeping this always in my mind as I think about programming it.