Culture Connect was officially established in December 2010 when our trustees signed up to the organisation’s constitution and registered themselves as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee. We are not a registered charity yet as we do not have the amount of funding required for registration by the charity commission of England and Wales. Charity registration is our next step.
Culture Connect was born from a number of different factors. Its founding head, Nick Sinclair, comes from a background of management in the homeless support sector as well as research into the lives and experiences of people whose asylum claims had failed in Newcastle and were made destitute as a result. His research entitled “From a disaster of policy to a disaster of politics” had several key findings. One of those findings was that people seeking asylum often had little opportunity for engagement in activities outside of their normal daily routine. As a result many people responded in the research that they had or currently felt isolated and had faced health problems as a result. It was clear from the group that contributed to the research that they wanted to get more involved in contributing to civic life in Newcastle but didn’t have the opportunities or perceived skills required due to cultural differences, low levels of English and also barriers presented by the difficulties they faced in their daily life, not least of issues with their legal immigration status. The research concluded that more could be done to create bespoke volunteering opportunities which could in turn support people in their integration and ultimately help them to feel better connected culturally with their surroundings and ideally even create an environment where people from the host or established communities could feel better connected with theirs.
Further work with Crisis Skylight’s English for Speaker’s of Other Languages (ESOL) class evidenced that people new to the city were keen to have more opportunities to practice speaking English as well as learn about North East and UK culture. From this, the Crisis Language and Culture Group was born. The group, a volunteer led one, was set up to help people practice speaking English, learn about the cultures around them and promote their integration. The group was a success and still runs now some three years on every Saturday out of Crisis Skylight.
In 2010, Nick was part of a city wide group called Policy Action and Community Team (PACT). The group that was coordinated by CSV was commissioned to look at how volunteering involving organisations could reduce barriers to volunteering for people from different cultures, people seeking asylum and people who are refugees. PACT ultimately published a document that suggested several ways that organisations could redress this issue and make their organisations more accessible for volunteers from these communities. During this time some of the members of the Language and Culture group had started to become more involved as volunteers themselves (member volunteers) as well as expressing an interest in getting more involved in volunteering opportunities elsewhere.
Considering there had been a long identified demand both from the research and from the contact with people in various communities, Nick decided to pursue the idea of creating a group that could volunteer on different areas and through that process redress some of the issues (integration, language and skill development, cultural understanding etc) that had been identified in the research as well other places. Looking into it further, it was identified that people seeking asylum, people who are refugees and people who are new to the city in any sense were often users of services but not necessarily volunteers. It was identified that using a service often created a sense of dependency and did not necessarily create a sense of self esteem, power and confidence etc, which are of course all crucial to a positive state of mind and access to other opportunities.
Things were starting to become clearer as to what a new group or organisation could mean / achieve and look like. We had demand, people wanted to volunteer because of all the reasons already mentioned, the question was what could they do to volunteer? Where was there a need that we could fill with our new organisation? Those people who had tried stated that they had found volunteering challenging with language issues, some stated that they felt that they didn’t have the perceived skills required for what might be understood as classical volunteering. Through discussions with these potential volunteers we discussed what they might be interested in doing as volunteers. The point of food was mentioned. People had culinary skills, they had a range of different dishes from their home countries, perhaps they could do something about that in their volunteering, sharing their food with people from Newcastle and the surrounding communities etc? That was the link we were looking for. From there on the concept of Culture Connect was born.
Nick went away and did some more research. Over a number of months the concept was fleshed out in many different guises and forms, but with every possibility having a volunteer led cultural connection theme (on both sides of the fence) firmly at the heart of the organisation. The idea was a simple one – people can gain skills, integrate better and therefore have more positive lives through volunteering whilst on the other hand people from Newcastle could have more of an opportunity to find out about different cultures, experience new things and have a genuine and honest open conversation / dialogue about immigration and asylum. Both needs (or interests) complimented each other – the ideal situation.
After a lot of research, discussion and debate the trustees agreed we should recruit a small group of volunteers who would work together in putting on a number of interactive events in a pilot phase of a 6 month period. The rest, as they say, is history. From March 2011 our first group started to meet. We fundraised 250 pounds from kind donations from friends and family. By the 25th May 2011, 35 people had bought tickets to eat their food and listen to their music at Culture Kitchen. Wheels were now firmly in motion and the possibilities for further work seemed endless. Our work is now supported by three different funding organisations. Darlington's Sundial Singers (and one of our drumming volunteers) also raised in excess of 1000 pounds at a concert in Darlington's St Cuthbert's church hall in July 2011.