Tony Stacey is Chief Executive of South Yorkshire Housing Association, which provides over 4,000 homes in Sheffield and the wider region. He’s also one of my oldest friends, so we’ve often talked about how SYHA uses participatory art activities in a people-centred service that embraces decent housing, social care, living well and reducing climate impact. When I read his latest blog post, I suggested sharing it here, because it’s so valuable to have a perspective on the arts from outside the arts sector.
Covid is a thief. It has taken loved ones from us, placed us under house arrest (for a third time now) and left us bereft of human contact. When we commissioned a peer-to-peer survey (tenants and customers talking to each other to find out how they are) we heard loud and clear that people are feeling lonely and miserable. Our staff may be feeling the same way.
One of the five answers South Yorkshire Housing Association has given to our ‘why?’ question for many years now is that we want people’s experience with us to be a joy. One thing that matters to us, and that creates joy, is the arts. My good friend, Francois Matarasso, in his 2019 book, A Restless Art, put it like this
‘Art remains one of our best ways of understanding ourselves and our experience, of expressing our feelings or sharing our hopes, dreams, fears and terrors, of finding common ground and empathy, of imagining other ways of being, of making sense and finding meaning.’
We may be rolling up our sleeves waiting for a jab from Pfizer, but perhaps the arts have a role in vaccinating us against the Covid misery, and social housing organisations have a role to play in commissioning artists just now – God knows they have had so many other opportunities taken away.
SYHA has commissioned a programme of music and dance for our customers. Over 1,000 people have attended. One person fed back:
‘I only hope it did for others what it did for me, whisking me away from this horrible nightmare of a world with Covid-19. Gone for nearly 2 hours of heaven by angels on strings.’
Another, a resident of an extra care scheme, said it was the first time she had seen her husband get up for anything for months.
One of my colleagues at SYHA posted a message to say she had been given a book of poetry for Christmas and that if anyone wanted one, they were to let her know. And I did. She sent me a wonderful poem by Tess Gallagher called ‘The Hug’. It tells the story of a woman hugging her lover when a homeless man comes over and asks for a hug too. She does. Here’s an extract:
When you hug someone you want it / to be a masterpiece of connection, the way the button / on his coat will leave the imprint / of a planet in my cheek / when I walk away.Tess Gallagher, ‘The Hug‘ (1984)
Each January, I run a Roadshow for all our staff. I present it 15 times at all our different workplaces. That wouldn’t have worked this year, so I did it on zoom. 260 people were on the call for the first one last week. It had all kinds of technical glitches; it wasn’t going well. I was kicking myself. I had decided to finish with the story of how I came to be given the poem and I asked a colleague to read it out. The response was extraordinary. The chat room was swamped with comments ranging from a guy in our DLO saying it had brought tears to his eyes, to an outpouring of affection with colleagues sending virtual hugs to each other.
My exec team had an awayday last week. Directors have led brilliantly over the last few months and worked together well. But we have missed the day to day contact that comes with bumping into each other at the office, bouncing ideas off each other and just, well, being humans together. It’s why SYHA is not deserting its office base.
Lots of stuff came up; people were honest about all kinds of things that I dare not share here! We finished with a round of appreciative enquiry, which will be familiar to all those who, like SYHA, use a strengths-based approach. I checked in just now with our newest Director and asked him how he had found it. “It was like having a lovely hug,” he replied.
What’s the expression? Life imitates art. Or is it the other way round?
Tony Stacey, SYHA
The photograph at the top of this post is from an art project called Roads & Flowers by David Gunn and Incidental, managed by SYHA’s Miranda Plowden, who writes about her work on her blog.