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Building creative communities: creating culture in and with Newham

A young girl paints a piece of ceramic pottery, overseen by a friendly teacher.

Culture Within Newham is an Arts Council England-funded programme focused on increasing engagement in creativity and culture in Newham. Programme Director, Stella Toonen, explains what it means to engage and co-create with those Newham residents who don’t think of themselves as creative people, as the programme launches their new website and visual identity.

Creative people and places: bringing culture to your doorstep

Engaging in cultural and creative activity has long been associated with better wellbeing, increased mental health, and high levels of life satisfaction. In the UK, evidence suggests that the wealthiest and least ethnically diverse eight per cent of the population are the most culturally active.

In 2012, Arts Council England launched The Creative People and Places programme to increase cultural engagement in areas where involvement in creativity and culture is significantly below the national average. The strength of the Creative People and Places programme is a grass-roots approach that gives local residents leadership of the cultural experiences that they’d like to see and participate in. It involves them in the programme’s decision-making structures around what work is commissioned and how it is designed, to ensure that the programme is relevant, representative, and tailored to the needs and desires of the specific place. Based on data gathered from ten years of learning from Creative People and Places, this grass-roots, co-creation approach, works well for reaching people who don’t usually engage much with the arts.

Culture Within Newham: a programme for, with, and by communities

In 2022, Newham joined the portfolio of 39 places across England funded by Arts Council England through the Creative People and Places programme to achieve this shift in giving everyone access to and ownership of their local culture. The programme, called Culture Within Newham because it creates culture with people in Newham while also acknowledging that culture already sits within each and every one of us, puts communities at the very heart of everything it does. With Newham being the most diverse borough in the UK, Culture Within Newham celebrates the different stories and experiences of its residents and ensures that their many different voices get a say in what culture means for the local area.

The programme does this in a range of ways:

  • Community voices are embedded in the highest levels of governance, with the programme being led by a consortium that includes fashion charity Caramel Rock, faith network Faithful Friends, the National Cricket League sports network, the University of East London, and Community Links as the consortium lead.
  • Decisions about the content of the programme, including where a lot of its funding is spent, are made by the Community Voices panel, which consists of 18 local residents, two for each of the nine areas in Newham the Culture Within team work in. This panel have set a manifesto for the programme and also contributed to its wider mission and values.
  • The programme holds various open calls throughout the year, where local organisations and community members can pitch projects that they’d like to run in Newham. They can receive up to £15,000 of funding to do that, as well as extensive support from the team’s Creative Community Builders and a training package to upskill local delivery teams. All of these commissions are selected by the Community Voices panel.
  • In each specific project that the Culture Within team run, there are plenty of opportunities to shape and contribute to influence the shape of those projects too. Locals might join the Eastern European Photography Club to contribute to an exhibition of local photography, or become part of the Cooking Connections project to write an entry in a collective cook book focused on food-themed reminiscence work. They might also join the Newham Mosaic project to contribute to the story of African diaspora arts in the borough, or sign up their local building or house to host a public artwork for the neighbourhood.
  • Finally, even for residents who still feel a bit unsure about what creativity could offer them, or who are discovering its potential early on in their life, there have been options to inform mural designs with local artists, to become a podcast host in their very own episode, or to dance and sing along with the biggest inclusive music and dance parade Plaistow has ever seen. There’s really something for everyone.

Co-creating the brand and website

It’s not just the programme that is fully co-created! Culture Within Newham also built its website and branding identity entirely together with the communities it aims to reach. The name was a collective brainstorm that their entire network could take part in, but even the colours and graphic icons you’ll find on the website have been shaped by local groups. The colour scheme was distilled by photography collages inspired by the Royal Docks water basins (as well as the sunlight reflecting in them), the bricks of the East Ham town hall and Community Links buildings, and the diversity of greens from Newham’s most loved parks.

The symbols that pop up all across the website and social media, similarly, were inspired by shapes and icons that local residents suggested would represent their local parts of Newham best, and feature Stratford’s Olympic torch, Plaistow’s Greenway cycle path, as well as Diwali candles, lotus flowers, African drums, and okra vegetables to represent different cultural traditions from across the borough. You can read all about how the Culture Within Newham brand was co-created with locals here.

For the future

In its first year, Culture Within Newham has established itself as a genuinely community-led organisation, and over the next years of activity it will build further on this and extend the range of opportunities for Newham residents to take part. It’s working on a children’s board as the equivalent of its Community Voices Panel but for 8-11 year olds, and it’s planning a Summer of Wellbeing festival to celebrate post-COVID recovery and community joy in the borough this summer. Besides, much of the 2024 programme is still in the hands of local residents, with not one, but two open calls for community-inspired projects still live and taking applications. The future is for those who want to shape it, and so is Newham’s culture.