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An older woman cheers while a younger volunteer looks on and applauds

Women Rise: My Experience

Women Rise was a Jacksons Lane Creative Learning project helping women throughout Haringey learn about security, self-care and empowerment through performance projects, skills classes and group sessions. It ran from 2017 to 2020 and was supported by the Tampon Tax Fund.

Radhika Jani started working at Jacksons Lane as a Participation Intern in 2019 and is now our Admin Assistant. A Haringey resident herself, as part of her former role she helped facilitate Women Rise sessions.

Beginning my first post-uni job at Jacksons Lane, I was lucky enough to become a part of Women Risethen in its final year of delivery. Women Rise was our three-year project funded by The Tampon Tax and led by project co-ordinator Priyanka Chauhan. Its aims (in muted business terms) were to reduce isolation, increase mental and physical well-being and promote creative tools to overcome challenges for women over 55 in Haringey.

In my terms, Women Rise was rare, it was needed, and it created magic.

The project was divided into two strands. The first offered free sessions in yoga, self-defence, drama and circus skills. These sessions were held all around Haringey, in converted cafes, common rooms and warm community centres familiar and local to the participants.

Most of the women in these groups had never met each other but, in drama and self-defence particularly, found it safe to creatively reflect upon their lives and hear each other’s stories. I sat as women addressed the group with their tales – triumphantly, humorously, sometimes reservedly and sometimes passionately. They spoke about career mishaps, the quirks of ageing, personal discoveries, outlandish anecdotes belonging to friends, unruly children, injustices and even, sometimes, of abuse.

I found this to be one of the most profoundly powerful parts of Women Rise. The women experienced unspoken trust in one another, found strength in mutual experiences, undertook empathy in unfamiliar experiences and felt cathartic freedom laughing and creating together. There was the energy of release in these rooms, the pricking excitement of boundaries being pushed – something heart-filling that was made to be memorable. As one participant told me: “it is so important we talk to people, we need to do more of this”.

Through the physical exercise of these sessions, women were encouraged to trust in their bodies. In particular, many approached circus with caution due to perceptions of ‘circus’ as physically gruelling and unreachably difficult. However, through more gentle exercises such as scarf juggling, feather balancing, moving with colourful silks and sometimes acrobalance, our facilitators were able to gain trust. Circus skills began to give women the opportunity to work on their coordination and mobility in a way that felt joyfully achievable. It also meant they could exercise sitting or standing.

I remember one particularly lovely interaction when we had a stall at Flourishing Lives’ Tate Exchange expo and our facilitators were teaching hula-hooping to passers-by. One lady told me that her physio recommended she take up hula-hooping for her waist issues, but she had always been too intimidated to try. That day, in a sun-filled room at the top of the Tate Modern, the lady tried hula hooping for the first time and told me she felt ‘delighted’. Our facilitator gifted her the hula hoop for her to continue hooping at home, and I like to think she’s now hooping every day.

The second strand of the work took the form of our touring forum theatre plays, directed by Jen Camillin, which changed in every year of delivery. Each included an element of abuse, including historic abuse, which for women over 55 is a prevalent issue.

  1. In year one, STILL HERE was themed around a son abusing his mother
  2. In year two, VISIBLE was based on the challenges older women face once a controlling spouse has passed away
  3. In year three, STRETCH followed three women who met in an exercise class, exploring their friendship, triumphs and struggles as women over 50.

The plays were designed to be entertaining but informative. They signposted the audience to their local services, always had a staff member from Solace Women’s Aid in the room in case anybody was moved to disclose abuse and, brilliantly, had an interactive element where audience members could stop scenes, re-run them and this time, insert themselves in.

I witnessed first-hand the potency of this forum method, as shy women would step onto stage and proudly act out what the character should have said – this a small act of self-belief in itself. They would tell a patronising neighbour to f- off or finally confide in the friend why actually she was afraid to put her swimming costume on.

For me, such moments were about ‘voice’. To create, to speak, to dream – to do absolutely anything – human beings need to be heard. Some people find it easier to use their voice than others, and some (aka women) have had their voices systematically suppressed and muted. These small moments of loudness, of taking centre stage and speaking truths from the gut, were small moments of rebellion that lead us back to ourselves.

Here is an example of a live drawing that was captured during a performance of STRETCH. The first image captures the narrative of the piece. The second image outlines participant feedback in reaction to some of the moments that they were invited to take part.

409 women were reached through 30 forum events. 93% reported to have enjoyed the experience, and importantly, a few were moved to disclose their own experiences with abuse with the staff member present from Solace Women’s Aid.

I suspect the legacy of Women Rise will live on in many of us. It lives in tangible ways through our Champions group: a regular group of women who meet every month for a drama workshop followed by free tea and cake. The hope here is for the women to establish an organic and long-lasting network that includes creative collaborations and friendships.

Women Rise will live on in me too. I will always remember the apprehensive women who ‘had never done drama before’, and by the third session could hold everyone’s attention in a scene. I will always remember the women who, in our forum plays, stood up and announced they’d always wanted to learn sign language or go snowboarding and being met with astounding applause. I will always remember the laughter, the silliness and the bravery. I will always remember that playing can be radical and just what women need.

And I will always remember Priyanka Chauhan, the Women Rise Project Co-ordinator, who taught me that ‘kindness is the highest form of intelligence’ and that community, along with a little bit of creativity, is what we all need to survive.

 

Women Rise 2017-2020 – End of Project Report

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