WEA East Midlands project scoops National Lottery Award nomination

Against the odds, a small community-led WEA East Midlands project has been shortlisted in the heritage category at this year’s National Lottery Awards.

The project – ‘Slave Trade Legacies: The Colour of Money’ – explored the extent to which some UK heritage visitor attractions acknowledge their links to the transatlantic slave trade. Volunteers were given training from a range of expert facilitators and analysed venues with well-known or hidden links to slavery. They also explored how their own ancestors have contributed to the material wealth of the UK including the wealth of certain individuals.

The team has been overwhelmed by the public support they’ve received and will have the entire WEA community behind them when they attend the star-studded awards ceremony in September. Project coordinators Lisa Robinson, a WEA Ambassador and Helen Bates, a PhD student from the University of Leicester, were surprised and delighted at the recent news. They had no idea when they originally planned the project just how much positive interest it would attract from local people and local, regional and national institutions.

Lisa and Helen were recently interviewed to talk about what inspired them to establish the project and how it’s been received.

Tell us a little about the project

Our project was not a ‘Black history project’ in the traditional sense of the term, it was a project about shared history and heritage which belongs to all communities. We wanted to give local people the opportunity to challenge historical sites that keep hidden the various contributions that diverse communities have made and in particular the economic contributions that have enabled a site to either exist in the first place and to develop and expand over the centuries.

What activities did the project involve?

The project launched in March 2014 to a full house at Nottingham Contemporary. This immediately gave potential volunteers the opportunity to get on board the project team. Eventually the project was to recruit 40 core volunteers as well as many others who volunteered on a more casual basis. Volunteers were largely, though not exclusively from the African-Caribbean community. Anyone with a passion for the subject was welcome to get involved.

The work of the volunteers would involve visiting heritage sites, giving feedback in order to critically assess heritage sites and influence interpretation materials and guide-training materials. They were, of course, provided with training and development opportunities in order to help them achieve this. One of the main inspirations for the project was the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project at UCL (University College London) www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs and they received training from one of their researchers, James Dawkins.  They also visited attractions such as the National Museum of Slavery in Liverpool and undertook the Bristol Slave Trail with Edson Burton, a local experienced researcher and guide in order to build background knowledge and understanding.

The volunteers embarked on a journey of learning discovering how the transatlantic slave trade impacted on their ancestors and on the wealth of certain individuals and sites in Britain.   Slavery is often viewed today as a practice which was carried out in the Americas but left Britain physically untainted. Heritage sites often focus on Britain’s role in the abolition of slavery and not on the benefits received from enslavement.  This project enabled volunteers to explore the extent of the legacies of slavery and how they can still be traced in Britain today. 

The project teamed up with the University of Nottingham’s Global Cotton Connections Project www.globalcottonconnections.wordpress.com and visited the World Heritage Site of Derwent Valley Mills World in Derbyshire on numerous occasions. They also visited Boughton House in Northamptonshire in conjunction with the University of Leicester.   Other sites visited included Newstead Abbey which is owned by Nottingham City Council and the William Wilberforce Museum in Hull.

What legacy has the Slave Trade Legacies project left?

The project benefited volunteers by allowing them to develop a collective voice and giving them public platforms to share their reflections with local, regional and national institutions including Heritage Lottery Fund, The National Trust and English Heritage.  Participation in this project enabled volunteers to deliver critically informed feedback on how they perceived their history was being represented and interpreted which was an empowering experience for them. 

This project has enabled volunteers to create useful and meaningful project legacies such as the website and project films which have continued to be shared through academic and community forums such as events in conjunction with UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-Ownership national workshops, the creation of workshops and courses with the Workers’ Education Association (the largest voluntary sector provider of adult education in the UK) and at the international conference of the Society of Caribbean Studies held in 2015 in Birmingham to name but a few. In addition volunteers got involved in a radio broadcast, creating poetry and song and also fed into digital outputs including a blog, social media and a pod cast. 

Whilst it was inherently planned that volunteers should develop transferable skills, knowledge and experience, an unexpected benefit from the project was the building of social cohesion as volunteers embarked on a journey discovering and sharing their heritage together. The discoveries about how their ancestors were treated as enslaved people was often a painful process but it was equally painful when they discovered that heritage sites failed to acknowledge and interpret the site’s links to slavery.  This was less about the challenge of hidden history but about missing or misinformed history. 

The volunteers discovered that they had shared interests and shared heritage, and supported each other particularly through some of the more painful aspects of the learning journey about the enslavement that their ancestors had experienced. There was great peer support from within the group and this often came in the form of inter-generational support with elders in the group sharing stories with younger people who were Black British-born and had little or no experience of visiting the Caribbean.  The elders shared their heritage, detailing how some Caribbean traditions (food, herbal remedies, respect for ancestors and language) have evolved from the experience of hundreds of years of enslavement and still resonate with that history today.

The framework of peer-led and intergenerational support instigated by the volunteers built a strong volunteer network which became referred to and known as ‘The Slave Trade Legacies Family’. This collective became so committed to working together in the future that they have now founded Nottingham’s first Black History Society – one of the few Black History societies in the UK. They have been invited to contribute a chapter to a new academic publication on community heritage funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and they are planning to submit a funding bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund to continue their activities. 

Events organised in conjunction with this project such as workshops, talks and film screenings have been attended by over 500 people across the East and West Midlands.   The radio broadcast reached an audience of thousands.   The films and project blog continue to be available online and therefore accessible to people across the globe.

Another unexpected benefit of the project was that some of the places that the project interacted with have received constructive feedback on their visitor offer from groups which they traditionally find hard to engage. For example, they were able to influence the interpretation of the new exhibition at Cromford Mill in Derbyshire which is part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site.  This ensured that the fact that the cotton used at the mill was picked by enslaved labour was included in the interpretation. 

Can you give an example of how the project benefitted or inspired an individual?

Merrisa Marquis was 22 years old when the project started and had recently been appointed as an apprentice at Bright Ideas Nottingham. Of African-Caribbean heritage, she initially believed that she had no connection to the project, saw no relevance of the theme to her own situation and felt a distance and disinterest in the heritage that we were trying to explore.

As part of her apprenticeship, she was instructed to research a play list for the project launch event and to gather music to play at the event that reflected the theme of slave-trade legacies.   Researching and selecting this music list helped her to develop an awareness of how her own ancestors had been enslaved.  It took her on the first steps of her learning journey and consolidated her emotional connection to the project.  This inspired her to fully embrace the project and to volunteer her own time beyond the hours of her apprenticeship. She also encouraged other family members and friends to participate which included other young Black Nottingham City Council apprentices working at different companies.  From somebody who had little interest in the project at the start, she became one of the project’s strongest advocates.  Listening to the music on her play list which reflected the legacies of slavery, inspired her (as a creative performer) to write her own music which she performed at the launch.

As the project progressed she developed new skills, confidence and a passion for heritage. She helped coordinate volunteers, arranged visits and gave presentations at events.  She developed heritage research skills and most importantly she designed the project blog including the visual appearance and the content www.slavetradelegacies.wordpress.com.  Finally she felt motivated to help to develop the script and provide the voice over for the main project film The Colour of Money.   The project enabled Merrisa’s creativity to shine and for her to develop many new skills which has directly led her to securing paid employment with Bright Ideas Nottingham on the completion of her apprenticeship.  The experience of engaging with this project has given her the opportunity to learn a wide range of transferable skills to boost her future employability and has developed in her a greater understanding for her heritage and the passion to share it with others.

So how do readers vote for Slave Trade Legacies: The Colour of Money to win the Heritage Category of the National Lottery Awards?

To vote for Slave Trade Legacies: The Colour of Money please go to: http://www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk/project/slave-trade-legacies-colour-money

or telephone 0844 836 9675.

You can follow the campaign on Twitter #NLAwards

Voting runs for four weeks from 9am on Wednesday 22 June until midnight on Wednesday 20 July.  

Also find out more on:

Blog: www.slavetradelegacies.wordpress.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Slavelegacies

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cottonslavelegacies

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