Third Sector Chief Exec-ing during Covid-19

Third Sector Chief Exec-ing during Covid-19

Seven weeks in…

These are my reflections on working as a third sector / civil society Chief Executive during these bizarre, unsettled and challenging times.

The last few weeks have been inspiring and stressful in equal measure. I wanted to try to capture and publish some of this.

Why share in this way? Conversation starters, and because I love reading this kind of ‘working in the open’ content myself.

I’d love to talk more about any of this, so please get in touch if you feel the same.


What has struck me over and over again is the power of the civil society and the importance of community-led and community embedded centres and hubs during this crisis and how we have at WHALE along with other local charities, social enterprises, churches and residents associations managed to respond quickly to organise around initially phone-calls and food. And how this has rapidly progressed to looking at how we can support IT needs for those without suitable devices to join the raft of services that have moved online, to looking at the role we can play in improving mental health and wellbeing through creativity and kindness.

According to WHO Civil Society: ‘refers to the space for collective action around shared interests, purposes and values, generally distinct from government and commercial for-profit actors. Civil society includes charities, development NGOs, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, social movements, coalitions and advocacy groups’


We are embedded in Wester Hailes, care deeply about our participants, team, volunteers and our membership and the community we serve in Wester Hailes and beyond. We decided to take a series of measures to protect our community and our staff. The first approach we have took was pause all groups, close the building to the public, but to try to retain and expand on some of our core and essential services which we could provide remotely.

On Day 1 (waaay back in the distant past on Tuesday 17 March) I worked with my team on a rapid communications plan, we created a couple of trackers for funders and freelance artists communicated the changes. The team also contacted all participants in our groups — slightly more complex as a number do not use email or social media.

Our programme is varied. We have a range of art groups for adults and children. Creativity is the thread that runs through everything that we do however not all our activities are ‘art’ classes. We have a busy community meal each Friday where we serve at least 60 delicious hot meals to local residents, local workers and sometimes external people we invite along — we find it’s one of the best moments in the week to show what we do best — creating opportunities for people to be together, talking, laughing, socialising. We also have a lovely community garden and a group of volunteer gardeners who meet at WHALE each Friday working on building, planting, growing, and eating at the community meal.

Of course the majority of our groups are arts focused — art making and cooking group for women, mens making group, textiles classes, social dancing, digital skills, business group for mums, creative activities for young people with additional support needs, art for young people every Thursday evening outside and across Wester Hailes, film club, after school art club, Indian dance class, writing group, and more! But all rely on people being together in a room or an outside space.


We worked quickly with our team of freelance artists to develop a range of creative tutorials, fun ideas and exercise challenges for people of all ages to do at home. This is a growing resource which lives on our website, and is shared each week on our social media channels.


We were also concerned that — like all of us — families and individuals will struggle with the effects of lockdown, possible increased financial pressures, likely limited access to resources and increased pressure on mental health and family relationships. Isolated individuals without family or support networks feel lonely and disconnected from the community and postal art packs are a way of staying connected.

As part of our response to these challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic we wanted to deliver immediate support and decided to give all our existing supplies and resources directly to the community so created packs of materials participants could use at home that were distributed in the first fortnight the building closed and we weren’t able to offer face to face services in our regular classes and groups.

Following this initial process, we have developed what we are offering and are buying in materials and resources to fill the packs. We have created tailored art packs for early years, children, teens, adults and are working on wellbeing packs for adults. We are taking referrals from our partners, South West social work team and directly from the community.

Art packs help to increase wellbeing, give a creative outlet and support home learning. We know that some families struggle with necessities and may not be a position to prioritise purchasing paper or pens and more, the tools that help learning and creativity and give young people a focus whilst at home. Creativity supports positive mental health, skills development and problem solving as well as a welcome and necessary break from excessive screen time.

In addition to art materials, the packs contain welcome letters to let participants know we are thinking of them and signposting to other local services, mental health/ wellbeing resources, crisis contact services and a range of relaxing activities to reduce stress and anxiety.

Since 18 March over 5,000 individual items and 100 packs have been delivered in Wester Hailes.

Because a number of our adult participants are not digitally connected we are also developing some postal art activities and we are also thinking of some creative and fun ways to keep people connected over the next few weeks, using a range of platforms, some in small groups and some on a one-to-one basis taking into consideration that for many of our participants the ability to connect and communicate digitally and remotely cannot be taken for granted.


Under ordinary circumstances our Friday Community Meal each week is attended by around 60 people who join to share delicious hot meal. Our Community Meal Chef works with a group of local volunteers to prepare the meal. It is a key social occasion for the residents who attend and until Covid-19 hit we had seen numbers increasing steadily each week.

When we realised we had to close the building to the public one of our our first responses was to retain food provision and adapt the Community Meal to a Community Takeaway. For the first 2 weeks we had between 25–30 hot meals collected. We set up a social distancing queueing system and we had no issues with congregations of people — we encouraged people to come by WHALE on their daily walk and collect a hot meal on the way. The food is cooked by our Community Meal Chef Paul and packaged up for locals to takeaway and eat at home and is served out a side door at WHALE by staff and volunteers between 1pm — 2pm every Friday.

As we started to talk to the participants in our groups, those coming to collect a meal, and we continued to connect with our peer organisations locally we realised that we had to adapt again to provide a hot meal delivery service. Through asking for support and guidance from other local organisations and working in collaboration with others we started a meal delivery service on Friday 3rd April. This is coordinated by WHALE Arts staff with support from SCOREscotland staff and a small group of very kind volunteers— these include John from Business Fives and Jonny from Edinburgh Tool Library who are our delivery drivers and have turned up every Friday to deliver hot food.

On Friday 25 April we 120 hot meals went direct to families and individuals’, around 30 of these meals were collected as takeaway and the rest delivered to homes through our small network of volunteer drivers. The demand and need is growing and we are now looking what our capacity is and working with other local parters to ensure we can cook and deliver as much food as possible across the week. With local authority community centres closed we are one of few buildings with kitchens able to cook and distribute hot food in Wester Hailes.

The Community Fridge at WHALE Arts which is managed by Jolly Oluka and her team at SCOREscotland has continued to operate. At the start of the crisis this was a pick-up service and has moved to a delivery twice a week. We continue to work closely with SCOREscotland and The Health Agency to identity and get provisions out to families. Prospect Community Housing have provided a van and two drivers and this is being used by a range of local organisations who are distributing food packs, essential items, art packs, and hot food.


My team have all been absolutely amazing — kind, creative, collaborative, looking out for our community, each other. I already knew they were wonderful, but honestly I continue to be inspired by them every day!

Mega shout out to the consistently super duper core staff team— Kate, Kirsty, Craig, Rebecca, Michael, Laura T, Laura D, Fabien, Jill, Dawn, Susan, Paul — 🙂 🙂 🙂

We have taken the decision not to furlough. We have developed a system (as far as is possible with a small team) to work in two teams in the building. Some of the team are working fully from home. Our approach currently is that due to local need we will continue to redeploy staff into the above activities for as long as possible.

We are keeping our regular freelance artists and support workers in paid roles until at least the end of their contracts. Our freelance team are playing a hugely important role at WHALE just now — creating online creative lessons, helping with art packs posted to people, and helping us with Friendship Calls / check-ins (below).

We will continue to work with them to develop new, interesting, accessible and creative ways to reach and engage with our community.


Not long after 18 April we started a tracker which is checked every day by staff. As a team we call, text or email people to check-in, ask how they are, have a chat, and find out if we can help in any way. As more services appear locally and across Edinburgh we are now referring and sign-posting people into other services.


We launched a Referral Form when we reached the point where we felt confident we could expand beyond the people in our network — as well as a growing need for food, we have seen a huge increase in requests for art packs.


We have had growing concerns about digital exclusion of vulnerable people who were already struggling with IT. Through an existing digital skills project in partnership with Prospect Community Housing, SCOREscotland, and CHAI — Wester Hailes Connects — we support vulnerable and digitally excluded people in Wester Hailes. This work usually happens in small group IT drop-in sessions. This project has been adapted to looking at how we can remotely support people to connect to the myriad of social events which have moved online, when many do not have a suitable device to work from.

We have worked with Prospect Housing to purchase laptops for voluntary groups in Wester Hailes — to enable them to join in digitally.

We have also, with Prospect Housing and SCOREscotland identified 10 individuals and families who would benefit from a device to be able to make video calls from (likely an ipad or tablet) and we have sourced a fund to access these (through our current funder JP Morgan via Good Things Foundation). We will be providing remote support for these individuals in setting up and using the devices.

This is an area in which we believe demand will grow over the coming weeks and in which we feel we have the skills to support people. We have recently added Digital Needs into our Support Tracker.


As a community embedded and building based organisation generating income through our building we have the added challenge of loss of enterprise income We have spent years building up the income we earn through our building to a point where around £58,000 of our income in 19/20 was from room bookings, office rentals and our co-working space desk rentals. As soon as we closed the building all room bookings were cancelled. We are projecting that we will lose the ability to earn £3505 per month for as long as we are closed. This is an ongoing challenge for us. We still need to pay for all our building overheads as we are open to continue to provide the services outlined above. Until this point we have not furloughed staff to enable us to continue to provide services.

We have achieved gradually over the last few years what most third sector organisations and arts organisations have been told to strive for — a diverse and sustainable income mix with some income from enterprise activity.

We are beginning to plug some of this loss of income through support from funders however this will likely continue to be a challenge over the medium to long term, especially since it’s difficult to know in which month we can realistically project earned income to start again.


The response from all of our current funders has been outstanding — kindness, trust and flexibility across the board.

A special thanks to the team at The William Grant Foundation and the local Edinburgh team at The National Lottery Community Fund.

I’d like to write more about our relationship with funders and some of the conversations and confusions I have had over the last few weeks.

Hoping we can carry forward lots of how funders are adapting into the new future…


Right at the start of the crisis we met together (one of the last physical meetings we had in an actual room!) with The Health Agency, Edible Estates, About Youth, SCOREscotland, Calders Residents Association, Prospect Community Housing, Holy Trinity Church, The Dove Centre, and many others.

With a strong history of working very well together in Wester Hailes through Living Well Wester Hailes — coming together over Covid-19 planning was. a fairly natural step. We quickly created a Slack Workspace which has been allowed us to be responsive and have conversations and to make this happen quickly and in a more rounded way that usual (this would ordinarily be a meeting in a room with whoever could make it that day, followed by a group email thread or one-to-one conversations).

Organisations with paid staff and connecting up with the local churches and voluntary groups in a way we never have before. We are all very excited about using this way of communicating dynamically into the future beyond this crisis.


Bridie Ashrowan CEO at Space in Broomhouse (amazing leader / amazing team and org) showed early leadership in response to Covid-19 and convened another of the last meeting in an actual room (!) we had and brought me into a kernel of an idea (we co-chair the South West Edinburgh Voluntary Sector Forum) which has become Go Beyond.

Go Beyond — is a distributed network of people and organisations across South West Edinburgh coordinating a collaborative and collective leadership response to the Covid-19 crisis.

We also created a Slack Workspace for Go Beyond (and yes, I am dealing with slack workspace overload / confusion!).

A small leadership group meets 3 times a week comprising me, Bridie Ashrowan from Space Broomhouse Hub, Kate Barrett from EVOC and Craig Wilson from Big Hearts. The development of the network has been supported by Ally Hunter from Be More Human. Our goal is to share learning across SW Edinburgh, looking at gaps in provision, sharing ideas and resources.

We think that working in this way will revolutionise meetings such as the Voluntary Sector Forum — we are working in a dynamic responsive way — in a way we never have managed to before.


As part of Go Beyond, my colleague at WHALE Kirsty led on the creation of a Food Map for South West Edinburgh — we have created this is close collaboration with Broomhouse Hub, Edible Estates, The Health Agency and others. Craig from WHALE and The Digital Sentinel is overseeing this for SW Edinburgh. We are excited about how this could be used as a community resource beyond the end of this crisis.


More of the same — being creative, adaptable, flexible, collaborative. Honing our adapted services. Making sure we have plugged our earned income losses as much as possible. Making sure that we can ‘keep the lights on’ in our amazing community hub and that we are still here not just in 3 months time but in 12 months, 2 years, 5 years and beyond.

And continuing to use our skills in creativity and kindness to support each other remotely until we can meet again in person…

Leah Black is Chief Executive of Whale Arts; Warden of Incorporation of Goldsmiths of City of Edinburgh.

RSSE Graduation 19/20 & Community Sports Hubs (CSH) VS COVID19

RSSE Graduation 19/20 & Community Sports Hubs (CSH) VS COVID19

This week, Active Schools Coordinators Tammy Johnston and David Rose reflect on the ways in which the COVID 19 pandemic has impacted on their work and, on the experiences of the young people they work with. Active Schools is a government initative funded by sportscotland and managed by Local Authorities.

Our Renfrewshire School of Sport Education (RSSE) programme is Renfrewshire Leisure’s Active Schools coaching programme. 75 pupils from across all of the local high schools are selected annually to complete this 25 week programme across three different centres. Upon completion of the course we host a grand graduation whereby we showcase the hard work and dedication of these young people. This formal event is one of the highlights of the working calendar for all the coordinators. It’s a chance to show our 75 young people how much we appreciate them, how proud we are of them and show them off to our chief executives, local MPs and SportScotland representatives. Everyone gets dressed up to the nines to come together in celebration of our young and future stars. Last years event was beautiful, hosted in the architectural, historical phenomenon that is Paisley Abbey. This motivated us to make the graduation for our 2019/20 students even better. Then along came coronavirus.

One thing we always teach our RSSE students is to have the ability to adapt to any circumstance. I must commend the youth of 2020. This uncertainty and fear are not something you should have to experience, but from the bottom of my heart I want to express my gratitude and pride for how each and every one of you have taken this in your stride. You adapted.

All the students in the course inspire the coordinators in different ways and it is the sense of loyalty to them that hurt us coordinators to not be able to give them all the send-off they deserve. A quick powwow and it was decided we weren’t going to let COVID19 take anything more from them. It’s taken their exams, leavers days, proms etc but it wasn’t taking their RSSE graduation. So again, we got ourselves scrubbed up and instead of making our way to a prestigious event, I walked the two steps from the sofa to the desk, opened my laptop and video called my centre. The same was replicated across the other two centres with all our students getting the graduation they were promised and deserved. We pulled together video montages of their journeys on the course, spoke of fond memories and celebrated them. The RSSE Graduates of 2019/20.

The circumstances and situation have changed, but my message to the graduates remains the same. There are three types of people in this world, the people that make something happen, the people that watch something happen, and the people that have no clue it happened. Which person will you be?

In Renfrewshire we work with over 55 clubs in our 5 Community Sports Hubs. The hubs are; Johnstone Linwood & Gryffe, Renfrew & Gallowhill, Paisley West, Paisley East, and Park Mains Community Sports Hub. The objective of our Hubs is to provide opportunities to the community by bring clubs together from a variety of sports to promote the positive impact sport has on a person’s life. This is done through working with Sports Services, National Governing Bodies, Schools and the community to identify the needs and provide taster sessions to pupils in school time.

As like everyone our CSH are facing difficult times and having to adapt to the service they provide. The clubs need to continue to support their members and keep engaging with their communities to provide opportunities. This has led to clubs being creative and inventive with their ideas to keep in touch with their communities.

A lot of the clubs have come forward with support to the local community such as Bishopton Rugby Club that are offering a door to door service to vulnerable people in their community. Also, Erskine badminton club took to social media to share their stay safe video and at home workouts. Other clubs in the hubs have taken to using various online platforms to keep engaged with their members such as e-sailing by Castle Semple sailing club, online quizzes based on Judo holds by Genki Judo club, Zoom sessions delivered to members by the UKTC and also Renfrewshire Trampoling Club. The Paisley Barbell Club has allowed members to take club equipment home so they can continue to train at home, also offering check in sessions via Zoom and coaches posting workouts online.

As part of our partnership working with Sports Services and the CSH we have created various opportunities through Twitter and Facebook to challenge the local community. There have been clubs such as St Peter’s Netball Club and Basketball Paisley taking part in these challenges. Furthermore there is now a number of clubs supporting the Active Schools programme through online coaching sessions. These are able to be accessed by all Renfrewshire schools pupils and through working with Active Schools have created opportunities to learn new skills such as football, karate, tae kwon do and basketball.

As the situation continues to develop it is great that our clubs maintain their involvement in the community. Everything they are doing is offering support and it is great to see our Community Sports Hubs working hard to bring opportunities and also provide different types of support in these challenging times.



Tammy Johnston is the Active Schools and Community Club Development Officer for Park Mains High School and Bargarran, Barsail and Rashielea Primary, her work ensures that there are sporting opportunities – through participation, competion or volunteering – for all.

David Rose is the Active Schools and Community Club Development Officer for the St Andrew’s Cluster with St Andrew’s Academy, St Fergus, St Paul’s and St Peters Primary school. He also works with the Paisley West Community Sport Hub.

Soundings, One Month in: Leading and Learning during Lock Down at Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL)

Soundings, One Month in: Leading and Learning during Lock Down at Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL)

March 16th 2020 was my own Covid-19 watershed. I started the day at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. I was speaking about GWL and our work with legendary feminist artist Linder; the audience had seemed marginally depleted, there was nervous laughter as the mic was passed around in the Q and As, hugs still happened, social isolation and social distancing were new terms that were yet to affect behaviour. On the train journey home from Cambridge to Scotland traveller numbers were noticeably reduced. By the time I joined the Museums Association conference planning meeting in Edinburgh that same evening, the atmosphere had shifted dramatically (hand sanitising routinised, a sombre mood, the MA team preparing for imminent lock down, a sense of this being a ‘Last Supper’). Fast forward: as I write just over a month has passed since this cognitive milestone and the subsequent rapid reorientation of GWL from an audience facing, building centred, live events and learning hub (with just two of our team focussed part-time on the digital realm) to knowing that our building is closed for the foreseeable, staff and volunteers all working from home and everyone committed to making our beloved resource function, make sense and have impact in the virtual world.

Facade of Glasgow Women’s Library Bower of Bliss, Linder, a commissioned flag (with accompanying film and exhibition) for Glasgow Women’s Library, Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, 2018


I wanted to briefly share at this stage three of my own observations of how GWL is responding to the COVID-19:

The GWL staff team members are  specialists in adapting to and managing change. As a feminist cultural organisation, resilience and adaptability have been muscles we have had to develop. Change Making is one of our Strategic Aims Challenges have been ongoing and varied since 1991: insecurities (whether financial or concerning premises), neglect, and marginalisation (not to say derision) at the outset, and continuing political, social and cultural tumult and criticisms of every stripe (as well as opportunities and the challenges associated with growth and increased recognition), have had to be acknowledged, discussed and acted upon as a team whilst attempting to be a genuine resource ‘for all’.

As a team we nurture staff and volunteers creativity and potential beyond the Job Description. The consequent benefits for GWL and our users are that this solution focussed momentum for change has continued to be unleashed during COVID-19. Some years ago GWL established Creative Clusters – themed groups that enable the Board, staff, and volunteers to productively connect. Cluster members tackle ‘stuck’ issues using creativity and our shared Core Values as an anchor. Team members choose Clusters based on their knowledge, interests and passions. During this challenging period this embedded ‘can-do’ collaborative culture and variants on ‘clustering’ are blossoming. For example, I found reassurance in Week 1 from a bulletin sent by our cleaner who reported that she had enjoyed an online Green Cluster meeting, was writing a Blog about the GWL garden (with a volunteer) had attended the first Reader Development Cluster meeting (her first ‘Zoom’) was ‘studying a lot of online literature, including GWL’s Strategic Plan (which is really interesting) … I am getting a chance to do all the research I never seem to have time for…Tomorrow I’ll be in a Webex meeting, about video subtitling… my brain has been buzzing with all these new concepts and my creativity has also made a reappearance.’

The efforts made throughout GWL’s development to centre access and inclusion and consult those most excluded from the cultural offer has meant that aspects of our work are flowing freely with minimal sense of adaptions being needed (for example, in May we stage another of our Open the Door Digital Festival, in planning for several months, the first of these digital festivals took place in 2018). Staff with digital skills have been quick to share expertise and have demonstrated exemplary leadership in an organisational culture where learning as a principle for all was already embedded.

A culture of care and kindness that people feel when they use our building or visit us online, and that characterises the staff and Board cohort, is ensuring that so far, our ship is steady and our work is making a difference. Amongst staff and Board I have sensed  excitement percolating about how these current challenges can cultivate change at GWL and beyond.

There is of course no room for complacency, we are all mindful that the challenges: financial, existential, social, local and global, guarantee turbulence in the cultural waters as far as the horizon. Meantime, we can derive courage from a glance at the stirring stories on our (virtual) shelves and in our collections and can draw on our own history of tenacity, survival and creatively navigating the storms of the past three decades. In amongst the inevitable personal and professional dis-ease that change can engender, the team at GWL harbour dreams that in this, the latest ‘crisis’ that we are being asked to navigate, may engender shifts that could bring us closer to realising our Vision, Mission and deepen our Values.

Follow Adele on Twitter: @AdelePatrickGWL and keep abreast of GWL’s latest work and initiatives via

Adele Patrick is a co-founder and Creative Development Manager at Glasgow Women’s Library. In the year leading up to the Lock Down Adele undertook a Clore Leadership Fellowship and produced Post Fellowship Research. In a GWL Twitter Take Over (08.04.2020) Adele shared the demands she was making of herself as a Feminist Leader.


The Effects of COVID 19 on the Cultural Sector, a View from Colombia

The Effects of COVID 19 on the Cultural Sector, a View from Colombia

As the effects of COVID-19 continue to take hold, the world is being shaken in ways not seen in recent memory. The virus has affected practically all sectors of the economy and it was to expect that the culture would not be shielded from the fall out.

In Colombia, the first case of coronavirus was registered on March 6, 2020. At the time of writing, the country has recorded cases of 1579 infection and 46 dead. From March 25th, the government decreed mandatory preventive isolation, initially of 19 days, but in early April this period was extended by an additional week. Even prior to this change, other measures had been put in place. On March 12th, the President cancelled all public gatherings/events of more than 500 people and, less than week later, the government reduced this number still further – public and private events were no longer to exceed 50 attendees; all bars and clubs were closed.

In Colombia, massive events such as the country’s premier book fair (Filbo 2020), the largest private music festival (Estéreo Pícnic) and, the internationally renowned film festival (Ficci) were cancelled. Theatres and cinemas – alongside fairs and literature meetings – were closed. The restriction, which is – for now –  somewhat optimistically scheduled to continue until the end of May, left 493 live music and 643 theater shows “in the air,” according to figures recorded by the Ministry of Culture. These measures undoubtedly affect the economy, including the night time economy comprising a wide range of activities ranging from concerts, theatre visits, dinner or a night out at a club, involving hotels, venues, restaurants, bars, chain stores and others that are estimated to generate about $3 billion annually across the country, alongside approximately 34,000 ‘regular’ jobs and another 30,000 weekend work opportunities in Bogotá alone.

To face this scenario on March 25th, the National Government signed Decree 475 which bringing into force “special measures related to the Culture sector in the state of Economic, Social and Ecological Emergency”. Enforcement of the decree means that it is estimated that more than 120,000 million pesos will be allocated to combat the effects of Covid-19.

However, these measures have caused discomfort in the sector; they are not novel and are only focused on the situation found in the capital, Bogotá, leaving the challenges faced in the rest of the country unaddressed. For example, the decree’s second article contemplates the transitory allocation of more than $40 billion from the para-fiscal contribution of public performances of the performing arts; in other words, modifications to the law on public spectacle. The $40 billion are in the hands of the municipalities that generate the resources for this law and can (ordinarily) only be used for cultural infrastructure but, the Ministry of Culture (2020) claims that in these moments of crisis, “we do not need to invest all resources in this purpose”. According with the Ministry of Culture (2020) the Decree is designed to make the use of these resources more flexible so that they can be deployed in projects and programs for training, production and virtual creation, in order to reach Colombian homes with a digital culture and across digital platforms. However, this is another challenge as the Colombian National Administrative Department for Statistics (DANE) reports that about half of Colombian households are connected to the internet.

Without doubt, this pandemic is changing our lives and the way we perceive the world. Unfortunately, in terms of connectivity, Colombia is far behind in comparison with other countries, and social isolation is not experienced by everyone equally. For now, the cultural and creative industries have reacted by offering their cultural products and services (i.e. virtual museum visits and books to download) online for free. However, not everyone has access to the internet, a privilege in a country like Colombia, which results in a situation where many citizens are denied their democratic right to benefit from culture.





Invisible Threads

Invisible Threads

German philosopher and cultural critic Fredrich Nietzsche once said “invisible threads are the strongest ties”. As well as being reminiscent of Paisley’s very own Sma Shot, there is the undeniable truth that the invisible threads Nietzsche refers to are what binds our communities together. Our strong ties are in the social connections we make and in being part of something bigger; a shared ‘we’re in this togetherness’.

This strength of connection, or sense of community, is what underpins all that STAR Project does. It’s a solid and safe foundation, albeit invisible, a platform for change that facilitates risk taking, creative expression, exploration and growth. The onset of Covid-19 threatened to rip through these invisible threads as, piece by piece, they were intertwined with fear. Connections were now fraught with risk.

We feared the impact of the pandemic; what it might mean for us, our community, ourselves, our existence. We worried about funding, staff health and safety, loss of income, and we worried about our ability to get through this unscathed. Fear is contagious and, alongside our own fears, we were inundated by the fears of hundreds of distressed and vulnerable community members looking for comfort and reassurance. People were displaying signs of trauma and grief, fight or flight responses were kicking in and – for many – there was a profound sense of loss. A loss of what was known and safe, of connections and, of the way things were supposed to be.

Understanding this threat to the psychological safety of our community is what compelled us to try and salvage those invisible threads as quickly as was possible. A collective determination developed within the team and we decided to do what we do best; we got creative in the face of adversity and upped our game.

And so began our digital revolution.

We experienced a real urgency to adapt and creatively replicate our services digitally, and as closely as possible, to what was familiar. Within 32 hours we had our contingency plan in place, adapted our social media strategy, a creative operational plan and associated protocols, set up various digital tools and implemented a new wellbeing framework for the team. The only exception to this was our Community Fridge which we adapted for delivery, an essential service tackling food insecurity and reducing food waste, but that’s a whole other blog in itself.

For our community members, their need to connect with us, and each other, was so strong they were willing to put aside age-old resistances to change and, for some, a mistrust of new technology.

If you’d said to me a month ago that our Drop-In would work digitally, I’d have laughed (albeit in my head). If you’d said that we could be just as creative and that our community would engage just as creatively, I may have doubted it. Yet here we are, even busier than before and with a whole new level of creativity to explore. People who were a bit quieter have come into their own, leading on topics, enjoying a newfound digital freedom. People who resisted technology are suddenly connoisseurs of Zoom, Slack and Hangouts.

Amid the horrors of this crisis, the fear and the loss, there has also been gain; new ways of working, evidence of cultural resilience,* expanding comfort zones, heightened creativity, lots of compassion, and a new kind of connectedness. Those invisible threads continue to hold fast.

Although we are bruised, we are finding ways to battle on.


A registered Scottish charity: SC028133

*Cornelius Holtorf (Assistant Professor, University of Lund, Sweden) describes cultural resilience as the capacity of a cultural system (consisting of cultural processes in relevant communities) to absorb adversity, deal with change and continue to develop.

Art & Soul of Paisley – ‘Get on yer feet, use yer voice, get the colour markers out!’

Art & Soul of Paisley – ‘Get on yer feet, use yer voice, get the colour markers out!’

Back in February (admittedly, a time that now feels but a distant memory), the Centre for Culture, Sport and Events, Renfrewshire Council and STAR Project came together to ask the Paisley community what culture meant to them. Despite the appaling weather, our community members attended en masse to tell us exactly what it meant to them.

While opinions and views were collected throughout the event, our community members decided that they wanted to host a workshop and write a blog to capture their thoughts and feelings about Art & Soul of Paisley a couple of weeks later. In true STAR style – they asked, we did.

The group consisted of 8 community members, all eager to share their thoughts on the event. We started talking about our general feelings about what had happened on that rainy afternoon in February. Everyone agreed they had had a great time, listening to the upbeat tunes of the Well Happy Band, eating delicious food from Redss Catering, dodging the numerous photographs/graphics being captured but, most of all, people loved having their voices heard.

Our community are a cultural bunch, prior to the event they already felt like they knew a lot about the subject. Some told us the event was a useful platform for bringing together all of the incredible things happening in Renfrewshire and really reflecting on how these things benefited them.

Photo credit: Willie Kay

Highlights of the event, from our community’s perspective, included the happy atmosphere and the community spirit. They were proud of the number of people who turned up with the soul (see what I did there?) purpose of coming together to talk about things that mattered to the community. One community member told us “it felt like we were the experts telling people what we know and what is needed. They genuinely listened; they were interested – I loved every minute of teaching people how important it is to create your own culture within your community. More please!”

Community members agreed that the participatory and accessible nature of the event kept them engaged throughout. “It wasn’t sitting around, death by PowerPoint and being talked at by a guy in a grey suit. It was – get on yer feet, use yer voice, get the colour markers out.” Others felt having children there was a highlight. They acknowledged that, while the kids were loud, on a ‘sugar high’ and interrupted a few of the activities, having them there made the event seem more ‘community led.’

As a result of the event our community members felt heard, empowered and included. Many stated that being involved at such an early stage of the project made them want to know more, want to follow the progress of the work as it progressed; to help support it in any way they can. “I knew, the moment I got there, it wasn’t a tick box thing. Not a ‘yeah, yeah, tell us what you think, and we’ll do our own thing anyway.’ No, it felt like ‘we’re not doing anything until you’ve told us what to do.’ It wasn’t an event done for us; it was with us.”

Our community felt there were few to no barriers to them engaging with the event- although everyone agreed that the weather could have been better – we assured them we would look into it!

Finally, community members decided to each come up with one word to sum up Art & Soul of Paisley: Togetherness; Community; Creative; Participation; Inspired; Happy; Spirit; Surprising; Empowered. That the community members chose these words to describe the event, demonstrates that the potential to positively and meaningfully engage the community in the cultural regeneration process is already well underway.