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Aspire Black Suffolk: an example in autonomous engagement

In 2021 something special happened in Suffolk.

I ran a community engagement initiative, Aspire Black Suffolk, which ran alongside the Power of Stories exhibition. Here's the story.

Aspire Black Suffolk was much more than an engagement exercise. My work resulted in a national accolade from the Museums Association - their Museums Change Life Radical Changemaker award.

This was a huge surprise, as my aim was to support the Black community, not to win an award of any kind. In fact, at the time I wasn't even aware of the Museums Association because my background was in a different industry.

What made Aspire Black Suffolk different to other engagement initiatives in the heritage and cultural sector, is that it was not led by Ipswich Museum. As a member of the local Black community I led the programme with the museum's support.

Their support came in the form of support from the exhibition curators (we're now great friends) from the perspective as experienced museum curatorial and engagement professionals. They joined fortnightly Zoom meetings with the Aspire network of people - in fact, it Aspire became a local cultural movement.

The museum submitted and managed an Arts Council application which resulted in finding of more than £20,000. I contributed to the application with the support of the community.

Aspire also received funding from DanceEast, county councillors and Sizewell C.

At this point Aspire was an informal network of people, but I established it as a community interest company to deliver the local your of Power of Stories in autumn 2021.

Because Aspire was led by the community member, the trust that developed was deeper than could have been possible if led by an heritage organisation. Why? Well, there was no filter when we discussed issues between the community and local authorities (not just a local problem of course), which arose during planning conversations.

Our conversations were open and honest, and very importantly, healing.

Aspire Black Suffolk was much more than an engagement exercise; it built on pre-existing community activity, forged new relationships, and empowered the community. It provided a platform which showcased Black talent and skills which had been long overlooked by local cultural institutions and authorities.

Never before had local Black organisations received arts funding of this kind, and never before had they been positioned in a way which attracted so much regional and national press attention. This was my intention to provide this opportunity, and it so happened that it helped break footfall records for Power of Stories.

Of course it was closely connected to Power of Stories, but together, the exhibition and Aspire provided an empowering opportunity for many people, which will be talked about for years to come.

Here's the evaluation for Power of Stories in Ipswich. And below are testimonies from community members regarding Aspire.

 I think having such a big high profile project drew in the community and gave Aspire Black Suffolk a voice to advocate for people. The project has given us a network and supported us. It might have taken a longer time to get there [but] the museum really helped to connect the dots. It has also given us space and a platform to share ideas and thoughts.

And the report's case study:

Download and read the PDF of the graphic below.

Case Study from Power of Stories Report
Download • 1.71MB

After delivering the Power of Stories tour in Suffolk, through Aspire Black Suffolk CIC (with thanks to the support from Arts Council England, Suffolk County Council, the Association for Suffolk Museums, Moyse's Hall Museum, the Food Museum, and Britten Pears Arts), I stepped down as a director of the organisation.

Aspire still exists as an organisation, and I focus on my own work in consulting clients in inclusive engagement, outreach, storytelling and communications. It's a new area of work, which is very much needed. Leaving Aspire was a difficult and sad decision, as it had been my baby. Nonetheless, I had personal responsibilities to focus on, and cultural project funding don't always provide a sustainable income. Th funding landscape has bever been so competitive.

Although it's important to acknowledge past generosity of Suffolk County Council and other funders who backed other Aspire projects, including a Black history education book created in partnership with local museums.

If you'd like to talk to me about working together, please get in touch:

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