‘Hidden Voices’: the impact of a project with the local communities

‘I think Hidden Voices has challenged our perceptions of ourselves (The Arboretum) and how really inclusive we are. It has also made us aware that other visitor groups (and perhaps even members of staff) retain an exclusive attitude to the arboretum. They are more comfortable with our traditional visitor profile and do not always embrace a wider social role or visitor profile’ Director of Westonbirt, The National Arboretum

Are you interested in growing your garden audiences and working with groups you have never engaged before? Although this endeavour may sound challenging and it does require commitment and dedication the results can be hugely rewarding. Read the Westonbirt, The National Arboretum’s Hidden Voices report to find out how you can adopt a collaborative approach to develop a project that will meet the community needs.

Watch the Hidden Voices video to get a snapshot of what was the project about by the participants themselves:

Hidden Voices video

Hidden Voices aimed ‘to engage with communities that do not visit Westonbirt currently using a collaborative approach that enables everybody involved to develop a shared understanding of trees and what they mean to society.’ Based on research that identified audiences that were under-represented from their visitor profile Westonbirt selected the following Partners to collaborate for the project:

  • Bristol Drugs Project; working with disadvantaged adults – an independent agency that works with drug users, their relatives and friends to reduce drug and alcohol-related harm
  • Awaz Utaoh (Raise your Voice); working with communities from different ethnicities – works within Bristol’s South Asian communities to tackle issues such as community segregation / isolation
  • Stroud Macular Disease Society; working with older people at risk of exclusion – provides support to anyone who has lost any degree of central vision through Macular Disease

In a period of six months the three groups visited Westonbirt on a monthly basis and the project concluded with the groups coming together for a final celebration which coincided with the renowned autumn colour. According to the initial plan the project was broken into distinct phases and was based on the principle of sharing responsibility for each session with the participants/group leaders so that each programme was tailored to the specific needs of the group. A key objective of the project was to explore/develop a more collaborative approach to delivery as opposed to the more traditional didactic approach gardens usually adopt with formal one-off education visits.

As a result Hidden Voices had a strong impact not only for the participants but also for the staff and the organization as a whole. Indicatively, the project:

  • Raised participants self esteem

‘I’ve really enjoyed taking part in the project, getting to try new things and meet new people. The site is uplifting and good for confidence building and to escape from the city’ Bristol Drugs Project participant

  • Developed personal connections between the participants and Westonbirt

‘I’ve seen more trees, trees from my dreams that have now come true. Some of them I’ve seen back home; they are the trees from my dreams. And when I see a tree I like I want to share it with my children’ Awaz Utaoh participant

  • Built a relationship between participants and Westonbirt and volunteers (community cohesion)

‘Most of all I have enjoyed taking part and feeling part of the show’ Stroud Macular Disease Society participant

  • Changed staff perceptions of Westonbirt’s social role and challenged traditional views including volunteers’ opinion

‘Prior to the project the only experience I had of drug addicts was through the mass media. It is now clear to me how narrow and stereotyped this view was. Having now worked with them for 5 or 6 days, I realise that they are just like the rest of us. It has opened my eyes to a section of society that I’d deliberately avoided beforehand’ Volunteer with Bristol Drugs Project

  • Enabled considerable team development on project management, sharing/negotiating session objectives and working with new audiences

‘This has been a steep learning curve – I have learned about project management strategies and techniques that have helped me to create clear pathways, visual representations of progression, and to gain an overview of the roles, tasks and timeline of nine different members of staff. It has helped me to see who can help support each aspect and when best to ask for that support, and to recognise gaps in my planning. I no longer need to try and hold all of this in my head!’ Westonbirt Arboretum staff

Find out more about the project, its successes and challenges and get inspired to work with your local community groups by reading the Hidden Voices evaluation report. Last, the report is an example of good practice on how to present a project’s impact which can be useful not only for improving future community projects but also for showcasing the value of this work for fundraising purposes.

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