My enduring relationship with Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC) started in the early 00’s when I was a young mum studying media at university. I specialised in video production and made a social justice piece that attracted the attention of one my technical instructors. She had worked with KWMC and saw parallels between its ethos and the social interest documentary video work I was becoming passionate about. She connected us, and for that I will always be grateful.
There are key words that, for me, embody my experiences and memories of KWMC. One is ‘opportunity’. Being a rookie video maker, fresh out of university, chances to initiate and develop your professional skills and expertise are hard to come by. Add to this [that] I had family responsibilities to juggle so I needed flexible opportunities.
In those days, KWMC was a small outfit (relative to now). It was sited in the old health centre building which offered a base for its burgeoning activities. The building was pretty rough around the edges but people that worked there were resourceful. Everyone made the best of it, and through the vision and tireless optimism of [KWMC Director] Carolyn and [Assistant Director] Penny, and the commitment and dedication of their team, better resources and facilities, and even an entire new building, would later come.
Back then, video production meant being a one-person band, shooting and editing a video solo without the luxury of a crew. That also meant all the responsibility for the resulting output firmly rested on your shoulders! I was effectively a newbie and yet, despite that, Penny had enough faith to send me off into the community to make films that had been commissioned by local service providers. I very much appreciate that Penny and Carolyn affirmed my potential but moreover I think that they recognised my interest and enthusiasm in engaging with people on their own terms, reflecting the kind of values KWMC embodies.
The first few projects I did with KWMC taught me an immense amount, both technically and artistically, and in terms of the nature of community work. I was hooked by the creativity of the work and the authenticity of working with groups in a participatory way. I had an existing connection to the area through my daughter’s paternal family, who have lived in Knowle West for decades. However, as my work with KWMC grew, through various projects, I got to know more about people living in the area and could see the positive impact that engagements with the organisation had.
As KWMC grew, so did I. The opportunities to develop professionally kept coming, camera work, editing, producing, directing and then I started to help young people there to learn the skills I had developed, by facilitating youth media projects. I have worked with many inspirational people at KWMC but no account of my history there would be complete without mentioning [KWMC Youth Media Worker] Sandra, a staunch youth worker, who I had the pleasure of working alongside on many occasions. She is a local and understood better than most people what kinds of issues and challenges young people in the area face. Her care for young people’s wellbeing and her relatability made her exceptional.
So, in effect, I started to become a media educator as well as a creative practitioner. Prompted by this shift and by a desire to push myself further in terms of my own education, I decided to do a part-time masters degree in media at the London Institute of Education. All of my fellow students were working in school settings and I was rather an anomaly as a community based media practitioner. I didn’t even like the sound of being a teacher or educator at the time because it felt too hierarchical. I just felt like I was helping people to learn! But anyway, I tried to use what I was studying through the degree to become a better youth media facilitator and KWMC was wholly supportive of that ambition.
The communities of Knowle West have long been of interest to universities seeking to research the area’s historical association with multiple deprivation and marginalisation. KWMC has always insisted, nay demanded, that it is not willing to collude with researchers that parachute in to ‘research’ ‘the community’ for their own gains. Such a fish bowl approach undermines its fundamental tenet of relationship building and the need to develop trust as an underpinning to operating effectively and authentically as a community organisation – doing with people, not to people. Therefore, it was completely fitting that KWMC went on to form a partnership with the University of the West of England to collaborate in a successful funding bid for a doctorate that would enable research that was based and rooted IN the community, looking into young people’s creative practices with new technologies. The importance of this collaborative research was that it recognised KWMC as an equal partner in the process rather than as simply as a connecting or intermediary organisation.
Given my longstanding relationship with KWMC, my interest in youth media work, and having recently finished my masters, I successfully applied for the PhD research role that the bid enabled (presenting yet another opportunity!) Carolyn was my research supervisor, alongside my academic supervisor, and I spent several years doing research based at KWMC. I worked using participatory approaches to involve young people in the research process, reflecting KWMC’s core principle of active community participation. It was an invaluable experience.
After finishing the research and gaining my doctorate, opportunities started to arise for university teaching and research, building on my community media knowledge and expertise. Higher education is the world I occupy now for the most part, and I have, in many ways, come ‘full circle’. I now teach on the degree course which succeeded the one I completed 14 years ago. I am teaching a new generation of media practitioners and producers (some of whom will hopefully work in community media) and I still have a tangible connection to KWMC because it’s one of those special places that never leaves you or you it. I have taken students there to learn about the innovative work it does and, post-doc, I have been involved in further research with KWMC, again, around young people’s creative media work.
I do, in the context of working in higher education, allow myself to use the term teaching to describe what I do. However, I continue to apply the principles of community media work, fashioned in the bosom of KWMC, and I always will. This means mobilising another key descriptor of the organisation, the notion of ‘relationship’, which refers to the importance of building equitable and respecting relationships as the basis for engaging in meaningful developmental processes – social, cultural and educational. In fact, this is possibly the greatest and most productive asset anyone can bring to bear to such work.
KWMC values people and people value it. Carolyn is a visionary leader, steering the organisation to incredible achievements, with the support of her amazing team. Her humility and her tenacity in the process of that journey are admirable. Knowle West Media Centre has been a positive touchstone in my life, and I have seen it be so for countless others. Therefore, I am truly glad that, after 20 thriving years, it continues to act as a pioneering force for good.