Many young Travellers stop attending mainstream education at the age of 11. Therefore the challenges of designing a programme of learning over a six months period are many. Some are general such as a short attention span and being unfamiliar with the group learning environment. Other are more specific such as not being able to read or write, suspicion of so called mainstream society’s perception and prejudice of the travelling community, No dedicated area in their trailers or caravans to sit at a table and write or read. No informal (home) space or culture on site (8 of the 10 young Travellers live on site) in which to sit and share ideas and thoughts on the Arts Arad work. Gaining the trust and respect of the young Travellers’ parents was central to the success of the Arts Award programme. With the young Travellers wanting to attend live arts in Sheffield and Manchester it was vital that the parents trusted us with their children. Gaining that trust was more difficult with some parents than it was with others, however parents of all ten young Travellers did finally agree for us to take their children to the concerts.
It is important to make reference to the parents of the young Travellers as very little of this would have been possible without their advice and support. They encouraged the young people to attend the workshops and the presentation and performance events. They were happy for us to go on and off site unannounced in order to do our work. The young Travellers turned up every session, well most of them. They entered into a programme of learning through the arts requested by themselves, including creative writing, dance and fashion. This was exciting and ambitious, and at times proved to be challenging, taking into account their limited literacy skills. However once they realised the sessions were about being creative and not primarily about learning how to read and write the sessions became easier for both the young people and the workshop facilitator.
In one writing session the young people talked about having never received a letter through the mail. With this in mind we started to write to the young people with their ‘out of session assignments’, a sort of ‘distance study learning’. This was not a significant part of the programme but did have impact on different levels. The young people did enjoy receiving the letters. One of the most difficult things to do was to get the young people to think of themselves as writers, dancers, creatives. They have very little experience of being read to as a child, of playing creative games or having paintings and school work pinned to a fridge door or on their bedroom wall (they don’t have a bedroom let alone a bed).
We are clear of how the Arts Award programme has impacted on the lives of the young Travellers within the context of ECM outcomes
The programme offered considerable levels of intellectual stimulation with young people‘s feedback expressing how much they enjoyed what they were doing. Over 80% of the young people stated that they had never been provided the opportunity to participate in a dedicated combined art project. They commented on how they found the project difficult at times, not simply due to having to learn new skills, but also because of the mix of new people they were working alongside.
This ability to recognize that what they were doing was both difficult to learn yet something they wanted to conquer, whilst doing so with people they would not usually socialize with, highlights the importance of creating challenging and stimulating arts learning environments.
GTI staff were invaluable avenues of objective feedback. They were able to offer professional, first-hand observations of the young people’s initial reactions to the workshop facilitator’s work programme; the young people’s levels of competency at the beginning of the project, and the improvement levels by the end of the project. GTI staff fed back their general observation of how young people had shown considerable levels of patience and understanding to other workshop participants due to the mixed ability of the group. Young people showed levels of both maturity and the ability to make decisions regarding their place within society. This should not be underestimated; deciding that a fellow worker or neighbour has equal rights to oneself are sophisticated social skills, and ones that provide young people with social safety strategies.
Participating young people found no difficulty in enjoying themselves during the various stages of the project. It was noticeable that enjoyment came in many different guises. Social – young people attended the propjet to work together and make new friends.
They welcomed the opportunity of coming together under one roof to gain and share new skills and experiences. The project offered focus and opportunity for the bringing together of an enjoyable programme of learning. The University of Lincoln venue did not prove to be an issue for the young people. It was not deemed a barrier to participation. In fact, many of the participating young people enjoyed the state of the arts facilities they had access to. Add the specialist, professional skills of the workshop facilitator and it is not surprising that the young people stated that their time at the University had been an enjoyable one. The sense of achievement of completing a six month project comprising of the writing, editing and creation of a professional publication, planning and delivering a Fashionand Dance Show for the public; designing and making clothes for the fashion Show, wereachievements not imagined by the participating young people at the beginning of the project.
Alongside a real sense of achievement at having participated on a six months programme of learning, the project saw young people realizing and entering into discussion on the affect and impact of their participation on their friends and families. The project provided the young people with a social currency, exchanged for praise, reverence and at times, friendship. It highlighted the skills and determination of the participating young people and ensured they experienced the feeling of contributing to something new and outside that of their usual social networks.
In late October 2009 ten young people expressed an interest in participating in the Bronze Arts Award. As part of the programme, workshop facilitators were briefed to discuss their own professional life in the creative and cultural industries. They encouraged the young people to talk about how they might find work in the arts. What it would take to do so and who would they need to discuss things with?
These discussions, not surprisingly, proved to be a ‘mixed bag’ due to the various abilities of the group. However, what was evident was the realization by some of the participating young people that a career in the arts was an option, as it had not been discussed with them as a possibility before. One particular young woman expressed interest in finding out more about this and we are supporting her with this.
The programme had to be planned over many months in order to ensure the young people attended enough sessions to harvest the necessary hours to be eligible for the Bronze Award. Attendance over the period of the programme was excellent, and is the only way we could have realised the project.
Working with the Traveller community provides challenges possibly not considered by arts organisations and artists. Traveller communities are suspicious of new people. Artists and arts administrators have to gain the trust and confidence of the elders and the participating young people. This takes time. Introductions and referrals by those that have and are working within the Traveller community helps considerably. Have lesson plans written up; articulate the project’s aims and objectives at the beginning of the programme; talk with your clients and staff about what you hope to achieve and then be prepared to throw most of it out of the window, or at least rewrite the majority of it after the second session after meeting and listening to the young Travellers.
Your experience of working with young people will be helpful, but be prepared to devise a whole new set of coping strategies as the young Travellers test you on just about every aspect of your social, personal and educational life! They won’t be rude because that is not acceptable but young Travellers are unique and do things slightly differently. They are young people, and it is worth highlighting here that the project was about ten young people signing up to an extended programme of learning through the arts, not an agenda-heavy project about the place of the Traveller community in society.