[Guest Blog by Jo Hunter]
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a workshop hosted by Talking Birds and Coventry City of Culture’s bid team at the St Peter’s Community Centre in Hillfields. I’m the CEO of an organisation called 64 Million Artists, we believe everyone is creative and we’ve been chatting to the Coventry team for a while, as I think there’s a real connection in our ethos. We both believe in growing culture from the ground up, and that all cities (all places) are already cities of culture. Everyone is already creative and is making their own culture all the time with their cooking, gardening, singing in the shower or dancing on a Friday night. An opportunity like bidding for UK City of Culture 2021 is a chance to shine a light on this, to grow it and to build on it – not just to bus in a lot of new things we call culture, or only celebrate the professionals. Like us, Coventry’s bid team values everyone’s version of culture, not just the traditional models we often tend to focus on or fund in the UK.
At the workshop, several different community members came together to make food together and share ideas for the bid. Although there were artists and bakers there to advise us, the structure was loose and we all got to just chat and get to know each other as we cooked and made our food. I was so struck by the warmth in the room, the energy and excitement around the bid and the way people were so willing to just pitch in and support each other. We made parathas and fruit platters and hummus, tried chutneys and sauces from all over the world and the room was constantly full of laughter. My attempt at a buckwheat and gram flour paratha was probably the ugliest of the day but it tasted delicious and I felt so proud of myself – a reminder of that buzz that doing something you’ve not done before gives you, especially when you get the opportunity to share it with others and have a chance to reflect together on the process.
What was beautiful about the time we spent cooking together is that everyone was both a teacher and a student. We all had something to chip in and we learned loads from the people around us. It brought up lots of memories and stories, through focusing on the activity we got to know each other more quickly and deeply than we would if we’d just been standing at a bus stop. Food is such a leveller. It’s something we all know about, whatever complicated or uncomplicated relationship we might have with it. We all need it in order to survive, it is important to all of us. It’s also a kind of culture we share easily, with little or no judgement. Multi-cultural relationships across cities can sometimes be fraught or challenging but sharing food from other cultures is something that always brings us together.
When we finished eating we sat around the amazing Talking Birds Cart and began sharing ideas for what we’d like to see in Coventry for its City of Culture bid. The conversation was lively and animated and everyone had different and brilliant ideas that ranged hugely in size and complexity and form but all were things people in Coventry would love. It made me think a lot about who we give permission to have ideas. We all have great ideas, and often what makes them greater is the chance to air them, to have them heard and valued, and to build on them and grow them. Some people naturally know the avenues and have the confidence to do that. But most people don’t. And so often cultural organisations or decision makers miss out on the best ideas because they don’t listen to everyone.
It feels so exciting that Coventry are taking these steps to genuinely hear and include the opinions of everyone across the city. It shows in the enthusiasm for the bid across the board, and the energy the city has developed in the run up to the second submission. I’ll be backing the bid in Coventry, not just because we’d love to be back to work there, but because I think a city that takes as read that every single one of its citizens is creative, and should have the opportunity to make and shape their own culture, is a true city of culture – whether or not they get the title.