Stuart Cox is the Head of Participation at Jacksons Lane in North London, and the Chairman for Haringey’s 2017 White Ribbon Campaign. Last year he played a key role in setting up the Women Rise project at Jacksons Lane, organising theatre-based workshops, and group discussions designed to equip local women with the tools to stand up to some of the issues that they face in the contemporary world. Working to empower women from all walks of life, Women Rise exists as an important example of the work that is needed to support the development of women and girls in our society. Keen to learn more, we spoke with Stuart about the aims and achievements of the project, and any plans he might have to bring it back in 2017.
Can you tell us a little about how Women Rise started?
It started with a small project we were doing which was actually focused on increasing physical activity. We were running self-defence for women workshops at the Triangle Centre in Tottenham and we were finding that women taking part were talking much more about how the sessions were making them more confident in their local community. They also seemed to appreciate having a space to explore something that was for women only.
Jacksons Lane is of course a theatre, so it was only a matter of time before we started to explore how we could develop the work into a project. Claire Bott who ran the self-defence sessions is so passionate about this subject matter and I do remember a conversation with her over coffee that really inspired me to find some funding to create a bigger project. This led to me to apply to the National Lottery Awards and The Big Lottery Fund, which ended up funding Women Rise.
I do have to say a big thank you to Victoria Hill – Haringey Council’s lead at the time on reducing violence against women and girls. Victoria really helped me with the application. I have to say, the energy and passion of the women who work in this field is truly inspiring.
Can you explain how theatre helps to facilitate learning?
The method used in Women Rise is Forum theatre, which is a technique developed and pioneered by Brazilian radical, Augusto Boal. In Forum theatre the audience is presented with a dilemma through the drama. However, a facilitator will replay scenes where the audience gets the opportunity to stop the scene and change the outcome. This empowers the audience to use and share their knowledge and bring proceedings to a positive conclusion.
In the case of Women Rise our play centred on a young woman who had moved to a big city and was experiencing harassment from a male colleague. We worked with Solace Women’s Aid and Haringey Council to create the play, and during the events they were always on hand to help the women in the audience when questions arose about the reality of what would happen in that situation. We were also blessed to have Forum theatre practitioner, Jen Camillin, who is a fantastically experienced and inspiring practitioner, as well as some wonderful graduates from the Central School of Speech and Drama. With all these organisations working together with our self-defence instructor too it made for a hugely creative and powerful partnership.
Can you describe a typical session?
A Women Rise event will start with a Forum theatre play lead by a facilitator and professional actors which addresses the theme of women’s safety. The women who attend get a chance to debate the play and even get up, perform and change the outcome of the play themselves. Then this is followed by talks, and performances of women’s groups. This has included female circus artists, an older people’s dance group, a talk about the feminist movement in the 1970s, an extract from the play Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot by actress and writer Rebecca Crookshank about her experiences of abuse in the RAF. And through the support of Well London we even had a group of young girls from Tottenham’s Somerford Grove Adventure Playground perform a play they had devised about female empowerment.
Added to that, women’s services are also there to support anyone affected by issues raised at the event and we have been so grateful to Solace Women’s Aid, Haringey Council, HAGA (Haringey’s Alcohol Recovery Service) and Haringey Shed for the amazing support they have given this project. The event ends with a self-defence demonstration, which is Jacksons Lane’s offer to women after the event. However, the idea is that through attending the event women are empowered by increased knowledge of the many avenues for getting support should they need it.
Is there a typical woman who attends e.g. migrants, domestic abuse/rape survivors?
No. There are women of all ages and from all backgrounds who attend. It was really great at one session to see young women from Haringey Shed (an inclusive drama group based in Tottenham) debating alongside a group of older women. Also, the women who have attended the self-defence sessions have been very diverse in terms of age and experience. As well as having women with personal experience of domestic violence, one woman brought her daughter along after she’d experienced harassment in the street – she said an internet search had led her to Women Rise.
The project aims to increase women’s confidence – what would you say are the main barriers keeping women from feeling strong and capable in our society?
I suppose what I have learnt is that there is a consistent stream of misogyny and harassment that is coming at such a fast pace and in many forms. It’s in school playgrounds, on social media, and it also comes from the mouths and attitudes of people in positions of power.
So, what role do community projects like this play in terms of increasing women’s safety and confidence, both inside and outside of the home?
Community projects are so important. We work with both older and young people and one of the things that is important about our work is reducing isolation. I think our project has firstly given women a safe space to debate and discuss the issues affecting them, and enabled them to build partnerships with other women, and secondly increased their knowledge about what services are available to women. Women taking part in the self-defence part of the project now have a skill and knowledge that could save their life if they experience an attack.
Women Rise is affiliated with the UK Says No More campaign – can you tell us a little about this and why it’s important?
Lyndsey Dearlove from Hestia, the organisation which runs the campaign, came along and saw us running Women Rise at Jacksons Lane. We met her then and were delighted to become a partner. I think that the power of any project in the community comes from partnership and sharing, so we’re happy to support them and help to raise the profile of this important campaign. They in turn have also helped support Women Rise. It’s vital that the message that violence against women and girls is unacceptable gets out and UK Says No More is a positive way of making this happen.
The project has only been available to women in Haringey so far. Do you have plans to expand? If not, can you recommend anything similar for women elsewhere?
Yes, we are currently working on finding funding to do the project in other areas. I would also really recommend any women getting in contact with Solace Women’s Aid, Hestia and Victim Support, who are doing some amazing work for women experiencing violence. Tender is also a great organisation working in schools using drama to address positive relationships and violence against women and girls.
As for Haringey, at the moment I’m working with Haringey Council on their White Ribbon campaign. This is a nationwide campaign organised to involve men and boys in being part of the solution in reducing violence against women and girls. Haringey are going for the White Ribbon award and hoping to be successful in November. I’m part of a group who are engaging local men and boys to become ambassadors for the campaign. One thing that came out of the Women Rise events is that a lot of women wanted men to be part of the conversation, and a lot of men wanted to be part of the project too. Hopefully the White Ribbon campaign can help to make this a reality.
What kinds of socio-political changes would you like to see for women in your lifetime?
I’d like to see an end to violence against women and girls, and the world getting to a place where a woman in a position of power is totally accepted and not a discussion point.
For those interested in attending, when will the next round of Women Rise workshops and events take place?
We’re working on funding applications right now so hopefully very soon!