Connecting Local Realities to Collective Needs
An update on the CE+ Cultural Educators in the Digital Era programme, with network member Agnieszka Cwielag
As socially engaged cultural practitioners working in and beyond Europe, the consortium of partners in the CE+Capacity Development of Cultural Educators in the Digital Era programme was already aware of the essential role of professional exchange to ensure sustainable existence and competitiveness, as well as not to lose the positive energy in a fast changing, often challenging world. The project started prior to the pandemic. Already then, there were concerns about the environmental impact of our increased mobility, as well as the accessibility issues around it – not everyone has the same access to mobility whether it is for socio-economical or political reasons. Now in times of the corona pandemic, these questions are more important than ever as we collectively have to transform our offline methods into online formats. This learning process has its ups and down, and as a consortium, not only do we want to learn from each other and create tools to help us work in an effective, joyful but also mindful manner, we also want to keep our network alive, especially amidst arising “zoom fatigue”.
“It’s always nice to see the person’s face, after you have connected through e-mail!” one of the members of the consortium, Agnieszka Cwielag tells me as we speak for the first time face to face, or should I say, screen to screen, to discuss the CE+ Cultural Educators in the Digital Era programme. Agnieszka joins our video call from “a little paradise” as she calls the ecological farm of one of her friends’ where she is staying in these times of lockdown, sitting in front of the computer now, but minutes before we spoke, she was outside getting fresh air, looking at beautiful landscapes. A much necessary respite in these days. “We have been constantly training our adaptability and training skills in the last months,” she says, “although, like many in the consortium, the nature of our work has always prepared us to work in different settings, and using more and more online tools, the pandemic has just pushed all of us to this way of connecting and working more and more. We’re now all depending highly on the digital.”
Agnieszka has been connected with MitOst for almost a decade, when she was first a cultural manager for Central Eastern Europe, then part of Tandem Turkey in 2016. She joins this consortium with her organization Kulturanima, while also working with Song of the Goat theatre. She was the organizer of the first meeting of the consortium which was supposed to take place physically in June 2020 in Poland. We laugh together as she reminisces that the name of the hotel she had picked, before we even knew about the coronavirus, was Hotel Corona.
When the project was being developed in 2019, no one had any idea that a pandemic was around the corner. The plan was to organize a meeting on Digital Education in the Creative and Culture Sector, already a need back then. “We had decided in January that the meeting was to take place in May 2020, and the idea was to meet with another EU funded project focusing on digital education. The programme was ready, we were going to have a big international meeting, and we had this hotel ideally located in the centre, so we said: Let’s book it, ‘Corona hotel’ sounds perfect. Which today sounds absurd.” The meeting was therefore moved online.
But online fatigue started to hit everyone early on already: “Even our regular weekly online meetings started to feel too much, we couldn’t just sit in front of the computer all day, while we still wanted to explore the tools that could make our work enjoyable. The energy and motivation dropped down at that moment. But then we decided to do something: the reality forced us to move faster to explore the tools.”
Challenged to work online at all times, everyone in the consortium got to think further about what these times of crisis brought us all and which tools we could be comfortable working with. The format that was agreed upon for the June meeting has been a series of regional meetings in each partner country, taking place physically in most cases, while following corona measures in each location, followed by one online exchange afterwards. For each regional meeting, a similar agenda has been developed, adapted to the local contexts and needs. The online gathering has then involved the whole consortium.
All the participants to the meetings are working in the creative and cultural sector. Although all face similar challenges, it was good to look at what differed from country to country. Each group had the chance to focus on the issues they were facing locally when using digital tools. Among those, they’ve been discussion around online safety as well as accessibility and reaching audiences and communities which are not always active online.
The issue of online safety came up in the group working in Poland for instance, especially within the context of women demonstrating against the new anti-abortion laws in the country, “phones were listened to,” says Agnieszka, “It is an issue for many activists and anti-government movements, who cannot use their phones and online tools which are not safe enough. This makes it difficult to reach people in certain places.” This question around online safety differs from country to country, and it will be a key question that the consortium would like to tackle in future discussions and when developing activities.
Another important topic that arose is around the digital exclusion of marginalized groups: socio-economically disadvantaged people, the elderly who are not fluent in digital tools, or migrants and newcomers. “All the relationships built throughout the years with our local communities had to move to the phone because not everyone had access to a computer, to the internet, to zoom…” Agnieszka adds. It was going back to basics.
Every member of the consortium is working with their local communities, finding ways to connect with them depending on their own context and possibilities. So, a toolkit is still in the process: each partner shared the topics that came out and were discussed in their regional meetings. Although it is too early to talk about a common vision, the project has already shown that working with similar target groups (such as marginalized communities) led to everyone facing similar issues. “Access is difficult in several of the partner countries” confirms Agniezska, “efforts are made to also get the material to certain communities”.
As for the consortium members’ own workflows, communication has been reduced to simple tools such as e-mail; “we tried to establish Slack” says Agniezska, “but we realised that e-mail was enough. Everyone is in so many different groups already, each project has its own online platform nowadays, with tools like Slack, Trello, What’s app groups… but people don’t have time to open and follow them anymore. Maybe we will need to agree on another tool later, but it has to be functional for everyone. We use Zoom for our regular meetings, with an account that we share in between our organizations as well. The question of Miro came out, a few of us followed a webinar, but then there is the question of financial cost. Not all these tools are free.” And so, we come back to the question of accessibility and safety: “In the cultural sector we need to be extra careful about our tools, but things go so fast, we need to all meet quickly online, and move on quick quick quick… Our group and project allow us to seriously slow down and look at the possibilities and challenges of the digital tools in more detail”. The idea is to further bring this exchange and sharing of knowledge public.
CE+ Cultural Educators in the Digital Era continues until 2022, including focus on Transcultural Knowledge Production and Transfer, and Working with New Migrants and Marginalized Groups in Our Communities.
Even though the consortium has been trying different tools, the realisation came that everyone was still missing competencies. We are reviewing and developing new tools that will allow us to work with the format. “But what works in theatre? Or in education?… We want to come back to this way of working and train ourselves to revise and learn something new, so we can use it within our organizations and networks,” Agnieszka adds. Plans are in the way to work on gaining skills and competencies, in partnership with MitOst’s horizontal school. Including colleagues with more IT knowledge would also speed up the process, and this is something the consortium is also aware of and working on including. “We need to work with people who are fluent with these tools so they can help us translate our content into this online space,” Agnieszka says, adding: “Because we were all thrown into the online spaces by the pandemic, we are all doing our best, and many times we do manage. We learn and gain new experience because we have to. But working with experts that provide us the information before we go out on a journey to find it ourselves would really help.”
Another topic that has come up among the consortium, “something the cultural sector needs now and forever” says Agnieszka, is evaluation tools such as survey questions that will support everyone in building our activities.
On a final note, we discuss the importance of solidarity: “I’ve been working for many years in intercultural exchange. Closing ourselves in our own bubble is always a danger, this has always been the case, no matter if we’re in the cultural, educational, or political sphere,” Agnieszka adds, “it’s important to keep the network alive, to keep exchanging, sharing ideas… it’s not just about support, we are doing OK, but it’s good to have the feeling that we are not alone. And working with people who have expertise and can share their knowledge, gives the feeling that: yes, we can go on, even if our government won’t support our work for example, or we have different challenges making our work difficult, we have the support of this network of people and organizations who will be able to support our work in different ways.”
The collective experience of the pandemic has brought the network closer and is now showing the necessity to create the tools that will allow everyone to tackle issues in our various societies in our own terms, depending on local needs. Focusing on quality and accessibility, the tools the consortium want to develop, and share will be to create the best conditions for collaborative work across our many different and rich contexts.
More about CE+ Cultural Educators in the Digital Era”
The consortium of partners came up with six topics, which are relevant to our practices. These will give us the content to exchange on through new online formats (at least three per topic), as well as six face-to-face meetings within the next 2,5 years:
- Digital Education in the Creative and Culture Sector, Local & online
We will collect experiences from our networks to build on them for the learning partnership.
- Transcultural Knowledge Production and Transfer, Meeting in Portugal + online activities
Yet another toolkit? Exchanging and learning about good and bad knowledge transfer practices.
- Working with New Migrants and Marginalized Groups in Our Communities, Meeting in May in Bulgaria + online activities
About the „We“ and the „They“ and evaluate on practises, that do NOT work.
- New Forms of Community and International Collaboration, Meeting in October in Hungary + online activities
Co-create, Co-Design, Communicate, Collaborate – we enhance our practices on community and international collaboration in the creative and cultural field.
- Integration of Artistic and Social Work, Meeting in May in Bulgaria + online activities. I am not a social worker. Or? About instruments and instrumentalization.
- Creating and Sustaining Collective Impact in the Field of Culture, Meeting in July in Slovenia + online activities. How much does it take? Exchange for and about back-bone organizations and their back-bones.
Through a series of webinars after each educational event, we will disseminate the results in forms of lectures, digital peer-to-peer exchange and panels. We hope to thereby make a significant contribution to open education and innovative digital practices in the field of culture throughout Europe and foster inclusion of less mobile cultural educators in transnational education activities.
For more info, visit: www.cultural-managers.net
CE+ is brought to you by:
TILLT AB (SVB) (Sweden)
and MitOst e.V. (Germany)
Co-Funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union