Karen Lewis University of South Wales
In the summer of 2012 a large group of enthusiastic people came together for a few days in Bristol. We were a motley bunch, from a range of backgrounds including the arts, academic research, public policy, environmental issues and community development, and the idea was to get to know each other over a couple of days and come up with new ideas for research projects that would explore issues of environmental change in fresh ways. There was funding available from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) “Connected Communities” strand and all of us were there because we were keen to secure a grant to develop something new and exciting. The challenge was to explore how the arts and humanities could help with some of the big questions we are facing with regard to our changing environment, whilst connecting communities of place and interest along the way.
I arrived somewhat apprehensively, never having been to one of these research “sandpit” events before, and I recognised few faces as I milled around, coffee in hand. But there was little time to wallow in nervousness or anxiety as I soon found myself thrown into a series of exercises and challenges designed to help me to find the people in the room with whom I would most like to work. It felt a little like speed dating. But I somehow managed to steal into a group of not-too-scary-looking people, settled myself down and began to relax a little.
Over the next couple of days found myself working closely with these erstwhile strangers from an assortment of universities , arts and environmental organisations. We exchanged ideas, stories and suggestions as we tip-toed around each other, each as yet uncertain of our place in the pecking order. It was a potent mix of shared passion, ideas, experience and creativity that I found inspiring, exhilarating and occasionally daunting. It was also a challenge. We came from disparate backgrounds, with a wide range of experience and approaches and, understandably, we didn’t always agree.
At the end of an intense few days this small group of amicable people to which I now apparently belonged had distilled its ideas into a crude, basic notion of what our research idea would be. We had become a project team in a way I had never experienced before – a sort of whirlwind romance that had swiftly evolved into a long term engagement, with the prospect of marriage sometime in the future.
Over the next months we all found ourselves stretched in our thinking and sometimes sitting well outside our comfort zone, as we battled with budgets and word counts to hone our ideas into a cohesive proposition, which we submitted to the AHRC. And lo and behold they thought it was good and decided to fund us. Hooray! We were off …
The challenge was only just beginning of course. We then had to put together our team and begin to do the actual work – always a bit of a shock to the system once the euphoria of being awarded funding dies down. It was my responsibility to lead the team that would be working with communities in Cardiff and the south wales valleys and I threw myself into the task with enthusiasm and energy, working closely with colleagues across the wider project.
The results of what was achieved during the months and years that followed are reflected within this publication and across a range of other books, articles, websites and other media platforms. But I just wanted to use this opportunity to reflect and remind myself of the very earliest beginning of what became the exciting, innovative Stories of Change projects and to make a point of noting how privileged I feel to have been a part of it. Yesterday I looked back at a brief blog I wrote, at the very beginning of the project:
December 14, 2014 · by karen lewis · in Project musings. ·
Christmas is fast approaching and it’s a gloomy Sunday afternoon here in Cardiff, so I have just lit the candles, turned on the lights on the tree and am about to start wrapping presents in front of my lovely open fire. I am burning eco friendly logs, but I can’t resist adding a few lumps of shiny black coal that I have just found in the old coal scuttle at the back of the shed. Burning coal now has a very different resonance for me compared to the days of my childhood, when everything was about keeping the coal fire stoked so that the house would stay warm – at least the living room containing the fire would be warm anyway, even if there was ice on the inside of the bedroom windows.
Coming from a family of miners in south Wales, coal was something I took for granted; it’s what my granddad and uncle came home covered in every day and it’s what turned the hills and the rivers black. It was often referred to as Black Gold in those days – the livelihood of whole communities was built on it and it fed many mouths. But those hills have now been ‘reclaimed’ and the landscape looks very different. Green. Communities no longer have the coal-fired hearth at their centre and men have struggled to find alternative ways of making a living. And today I feel guilty for using coal on my fire; it’s a very different time in history as we experience shifts in our relationship with energy, seeking alternatives to fossil fuels in order to move towards a low carbon future. ………
Time will tell just how effective Stories of Change has been in shifting perceptions, but I for one have not burnt a lump of coal in my fireplace since I write this blog.