This forms part of a series of ‘Change Stories’ from our Fellowship, as we are keen to highlight the different ways Fellows make social change happen in their local areas.
Laura House, Head of UK Areas, interviewed Nigel Allyson-Ryan FRSA about his experiences of starting a new series of events in his town, Haywards Heath, in order to bring RSA Fellows and the local community together to shape the town’s identity and make it a more creative place to live.
LH: Can you tell us about the project you’re working on to make change happen in your local area?
NAR: I wanted to use my own experience in the arts and culture sector to add value to my local community. The project is to develop Haywards Heath, the town where I live, into a creative destination. The town currently has no art galleries, no theatre or cinema, and no obvious arts or cultural strategy for the community, which comprises of around 26,000 people. Many people who live in Haywards Heath commute to London, so there is real potential to develop cultural activities and an artistic identity for the town itself.
The project has three strands:
- To develop a new Food & Arts Festival for 2018 with some key stakeholders who have agreed to sponsor it. Waitrose has a strong local presence and a great community space, which the area was lacking, so I have been able to informally collaborate with them to help engage with the community
- To build a local hub or physical meeting place for creatives (and people who love and appreciate art and culture) who live in, work in and visit Haywards Heath
- To help form a cohesive artistic, cultural and creative tourism strategy for the area, which will develop the cultural identity and create a sense of place.
We are beginning the process by planning and running a series of Creative Salon events in the town where we showcase local creative talent and bring people together to discuss different themes and exchange ideas.
LH: What need is your project addressing?
NAR: We all have a fundamental need for creative stimulus, artistic and cultural appreciation and enjoyment. But I also think that people should have the choice to live in an interesting, stimulating and exciting environment. The reality in my town is that most locals tend to go to Brighton or London for creative activity, so I wanted to provide some options for people closer to home.
In addition, the creative industries are the fastest-growing sector in this country with significant opportunities for young people, but they need to be made aware of these opportunities in order to take them up. Therefore, the project will incorporate a series of creative talks and lectures for young people, parents and educationalists to highlight local opportunities to get involved in creative industries. We’re also keen to showcase young performers and creatives at each event to give them a platform to share what they do and share their career journeys so far in front of interested stakeholders who will be useful connections and peers for them. This gives them a chance to meet people they may not normally meet.
LH: What sorts of challenges have you faced?
NAR: It’s been a challenge to ensure that the themes and content for our Creative Salons are interesting enough to attract a respectable number and calibre of attendees. We want people to keep coming back to the events, to keep the momentum going, so we try hard to make each one unique and different. We also want to eke out people who are interested in a range of different art forms and for them to feel ownership of this series. We are trying to appeal to a lot of people, which isn’t easy, because they’re not all interested in the same things! Offering a diverse range of content is crucial in developing a project that really engages the community, rather than just a one-off event without lasting impact.
It’s also tough to find enough time to devote to the preparation and content so it’s important to get as many people to help out as possible. The RSA has been fantastic in helping us to promote the event, and our local collaborators at Waitrose have also been invaluable. It’s tricky to do it all yourself so if you want to do something similar, getting local partners involved as much as possible is key.
LH: And what kind of impact are you having?
NAR: The impact is becoming more obvious as the interest and enthusiasm grows. Events have been well attended - the first event had a long waiting list! It’s at a point where I am receiving calls and emails on a regular basis from people wanting to get on board and contribute to the project, so it feels like people understand what we’re trying to achieve and want to be a part of it.
The young people who have been involved in the Creative Salons so far have made new and useful connections and we’re keen to involve them in the planning of the bigger event, which is our Food & Arts Festival in 2018.
LH: What difference, if any, has being part of the RSA made to you and your project, or the beneficiaries of your project?
NAR: Being a Fellow of the RSA has made a huge difference to this project. I’ve found that not many people in the community really understand what the RSA is all about, but once you break it down they’re able to appreciate it and its value. The RSA gives the project credibility and gravitas, and really helped us to collaborate with Waitrose too, as they were glad to be associated with the RSA. The RSA’s Regional team have been a great help in promoting and supporting the event logistics too.
LH: What lessons could you share with Fellows who would like to make an impact in their local area?
NAR: Try to be patient and committed in order to attract the numbers that will have an impact. If you’re passionate and professional about what you want to achieve, others will get on board! Involve others and explain your big picture goal to them so you can get their support.
And stick with it! If it’s difficult and takes a while to make the change, that’s OK. It shows you’re laying some deeper roots – change takes time.
‘What’s the identity or sense of place in my local town?’ is an interesting and worthwhile question to explore with your local Fellows, and it is something that Fellows can really contribute to.
The next Haywards Heath Creative Salon is on 10 October - all are welcome.