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Arts and Culture change lives of women on probation
Changing Lives "Free but not Free" programme used an arts approach to help women achieve positive change.

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This is a guest post by Dawn Harrison, Senior Interventions Officer at Changing Lives. Many thanks to Probation Quarterly for allowing me to reproduce this blog post which first appeared in their most recent issue.

Free but not Free

We have developed an innovative rehabilitation programme which aims to foster positive change using arts and heritage. Changing Lives supports women who have experience of the criminal justice system, working across the North East in partnership with probation provider Northumbria Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC). We are commissioned to work with women across nine hubs in Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland, Northumberland, North Tyneside and South Tyneside. The programme is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and is run in partnership with Tyne and Wear Archive Museums.

The Free but not Free programme was developed after it became clear to me that the women I was working with were not represented in our arts and heritage culture. The women would tell me how they would take their children to places like McDonalds for their visits but the children would get bored and easily distracted. When I suggested they took them to museums or a Roman fort, which was on their doorstep, the response was ‘Those places aren’t for people like us… what would they think.’ It became clear that these women felt excluded and underrepresented in heritage and cultural venues across the region.

Free but not Free has aimed to bring women on probation into our heritage and arts culture and give them a voice by providing them with the means to tell their stories through the creative arts. This  includes poetry, art and songwriting to create their own archives for history. To celebrate the success of Free but not Free, Changing Lives held an event at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum on 22 November, which exhibited a collection of creative works produced by the women on the  programme. This unveiled artwork (see below), historical archives and a performance of an original song and poetry.

We coined the name Free but not Free after a discussion with a woman in North Shields hub. She had been in front of a judge that week. He had said to her, ‘Young lady you should count yourself lucky to be walking free today.’ She said she walked away thinking ‘I’m certainly not free, you can’t undo what goes on up there in my head.’ So Free but not Free was born and it got me thinking about where women’s voices are not heard and how we could address that balance.

Human potential

The programme focuses on human potential and how positive change is possible for everyone. During the course of the eight-week programme, the women have developed a real passion for our heritage and arts culture. They have explored a variety of new experiences and have thrown themselves into the programme. They have had an opportunity to learn about local and women’s history. Working with Tyne and Wear Archive Museums, the women visited their historical archives, where they examined photos and records of women who had committed criminal offences during the 1800’s. They discussed what their lives may have been like and what challenges they would have faced.

Some of the women also gained a keen interest in the Suffragettes movement, which led them to create their own suffragettes-inspired banner. The banner then went on to be exhibited around Lancashire as part of the British Textiles Biennial exhibition. It was also unfurled by the women on

the day of the event at The Discovery Museum, just as the suffragettes did.

Creating their own honest archives has been central to the programme and the women have worked with a variety of creative media and artists. Examples include working with artists at the Baltic  Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, completing a poetry workshop with local poet, Rowan McCabe and composing an original song with North East Musician Beccy Owen.

The programme was not without its challenges. Visiting museums and heritage sites could be extremely daunting to many of the women. On one occasion a visit to a museum in Newcastle was very poorly attended with the majority of the group not turning up on the day. Rather than give up and be deterred by this, I spoke to the women to find out why this experience was so daunting. Instead I arranged for the museum to do some outreach work with the women in a place where they felt comfortable. It was then they were able to open up and engage.

Art as enabler

These techniques have been well received and have seen some great results. The programme’s predecessor, The Gemima Project, which used a similar approach with women last year, saw all of the women involved move into work or education. The aim of these two projects is to show others the value of using arts and heritage in rehabilitation. For example, one of the women contacted the project to express her thanks and say how it had helped her move on with life. She is now working for a homelessness charity, married and buying a house. Another woman involved with Free but not Free said:

‘It’s made me think differently, it’s made me realise that people can listen to me. I’ve never had that before. I know I can talk about stuff now. The project’s helped me to communicate my story, to talk about my experiences.’

 Heritage does not solely belong in archives or museums and art is not always found in galleries.

But one thing is sure: if you don’t engage and tell the story yourself, someone will write it for you. The women have a right to share their stories no matter how unpleasant, because in the grit is where you find the opportunities for learning and reflection. The past year has been about breaking down barriers and providing opportunities to challenge perceptions on all sides, as well as ensuring the women’s voices take their rightful place in society and are not lost.

This is a story of first times: the first time the women felt they belonged in an art gallery; the first time they played a piano and heard the tune; the first time they ran around a museum like children; the first time they were encouraged to share all of their story; the first time they understood similes; the first time they felt understood and rediscovered who they could be….

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