The goal of partnerships is to achieve benefits for all the parties involved, and for the communities connected to these parties. Partnerships are also instrumental in addressing legal obstacles: one partner might possess the legal status that is necessary to achieve certain goals that might otherwise be unattainable for the other.
With the term partnership we define an agreement between two parties to manage a set of activities. In particular, in the last decades, local partnerships have been fostered in order to tackle social exclusion (Geddes, 2000) and to encourage participation (Lowndes and Sullivan, 2004); however, this approach can present some limitations, especially when it comes to address the larger issues that cause the problems it is designed to tackle. However, partnering with another group or organisation might be instrumental not to ensure both parties mutual benefit, but also to cater to the needs of a community. Exchanging resources and knowledge can bring about innovation, or solve problems for the communities involved. In the context of the commons, a partnership might involve different actors: a grassroots organisation with no legal status, an activist group, the local community, the local government, an international or supernational organisation, a cultural organisation and so on. In this scenario, the two parties can make use of their different legal statuses in order to overcome legal hurdles and be more creative with the range of services they offer.
Slung Low is a theatre company that specialises in making theatrical productions in non-theatre spaces; it was funded in 2000 and it is based in Leeds. In order to understand the value of partnerships, we will analyse their work with the social club “The Holbeck”, and the City Council of Leeds. “Say yes to everything” Slung Low’s attitude towards partnerships and collaborating with the community, in their own words, can be summarized by “say yes to everything”. Maintaining an open approach allows them to achieve artistic and non-artistic goals that would have otherwise been impossible. This attitude is also reflected in the range of events they host in the Holbeck (see below). Identify the needs of the community Holbeck and Beeston are areas located in the South of Leeds; they are ethnically diverse and they presents a considerable amount of deprivation (Bunyan et al, 2017). In March 2020, the city council of Leeds asked Slung Low to coordinate community care in the area, including running a food bank (Morgan, 2020). Being aware of the situation of the local community, the theatre company accepted. This provided an unvaluable opportunity for Slung Low to help people in the area and connect with them during a major crisis, thanks to the legal protection offered by their new role. As any other theatre company, Slung Low had to suspend many of its activities during the Covid19 pandemic; however, as community care organisers they got to maintain a great level of contact with people in Holbeck and Beeston. Identify the needs of your partner organisation The Holbeck is the oldest working men’s club in the UK; it had previously collaborated with Slung Low, but in 2018 they agreed on an official partnership. Slung Low would move to the Holbeck and manage it, whereas the members of the social club would remain the owners of the space. The main need of the social club was financial stability: Slung Low agreed on paying the club’s debt, pay a regular rent, share the bar’s profit with the club and also pay Living Wage to everyone working at the club, including those who used to be volunteers (Lane, 2018). Not only this gave the Holbeck the financial stability it needed, but it also ensured a longer life to a fundamental community asset. Identify the needs of your group/organisation These are the core values of Slung Low: “We believe that access to culture is a fundamental part of a happy life. We believe that actions, however small, can have a big impact. We believe that culture can change our world for the better” (Slung Low, 2020). Furthermore, Slung Low aims at being useful: this is not just about providing cultural activities, but doing whatever it is needed to help the community. The Holbeck is in the heart of the community, so working in that space gives Slung Low the opportunity to engage with the local population and create new opportunities for cultural participation in a creative way. Furthermore, access to the Holbeck was easier and safer compared to Slung Low’s previous location. Have clear principles Kara McKechnie, resident dramaturg of Slung Low, proposed Slung Low to write a manifesto; in his blog, Lane responded with these key points: “Be Useful Be Kind. Give it all away. Do what is necessary. Take responsibility. Be full of care” (Lane, 2020b). These principles guide the work of the organisation in its partnerships: “doing what is necessary” might also mean that it is fundamental to find creative approaches to meet the needs of the community. The work of Slung Low has been characterised by a great degree of openness; it presents a very wide range of activities that can cater to the needs of the community. In the words of Alan Lane, founder of the company: “If the space is available we will facilitate your event; (…). We say yes to anything unless it’s overtly commercial and dull (e.g. night club events we wouldn’t allow) but everything else we say yes to” (Lane, 2020). This idea is at the core of Slung Low’s mission; rather than imposing an artificial artistic direction to all the activities of the Holbeck, they open its spaces to everyone, so that everyone can feel welcomed and represented. However, their key principle is that “Everyone gets what they want but doesn’t get to stop anyone else getting what they want” (Lane, 2020). This is a fundamental aspect of the relationship of Slung Low and the members of the social club who owns the Holbeck: they might own the space, but they cannot prevent other groups from enjoying it. This is also connected to the idea of “do what is necessary”; having open communication with partners means that you can be honest about creative solutions you can find to legal hurdles. Lane explains his process when organising an invitation-only, socially distanced event for the local community during the pandemic: “I asked no one’s permission. I told everyone it was happening, it was no secret. And I mean EVERYONE. It was part of our submission to DCMS panels, MPs, councillors, civil servants, and any zoom meeting I’ve had for the last 2 weeks. None of that means those people gave permission, they aren’t in a position to” (Lane, 2020b). Acknowledge and address conflict Slung Low brought a wide range of new activities to the Holbeck which, in turn, brought new audiences and new participants; furthermore, Slung Low is a progressive organisation, whilst the members of the social club tend to have conservative views. This led to conflict between the two partners, as often there would be discussions on the change brought about by the theatre company and its management style, and on different sets of values represented in the space of the Holbeck. Managing expectations proved to be a difficult task for Slung Low: on the one hand, it had to keep an open dialogue with its partner, on the other, it had to remain grounded in its key principles.
The idea of partnership in current academic literature on the commons identifies the power of partnerships in fostering participatory processes in local governance. Milburn and Russel discuss the relevance of Public-Commons partnerships that distribute ownership and decision-making among municipalities and citizens, often using the cooperative as a tool to achieve this goal. This is seen as a possible new institution that can overcome neoliberal understandings of society and civic engagement: “Rather than reducing the residents of the city to consumers (whose ability to shape society is limited to their purchasing decisions) or an electorate (where political expression is solely through irregular elections and consultations), participants in the cooperative experience their capacity to act as collective decision-makers” (Milburn and Russel, 2018, p.10). This is crucial in the context of deprived communities who might feel disenfranchised from politics and public decisions. The idea of direct participation to civic life is connected to the idea of active citizenship, another key aspect of the commons. In the context of theatre, British theatre-maker Joan Littlewood was a pioneer in creating projects that focused on active citizenship and cultural democracy; in particular, , she facilitated some of the conditions and values necessary for an active citizenship culture: awareness of social, political and economic processes, engagement with the physical environment, self scrutiny, public accountability, problem-solving and, above all, a sense of commitment to and responsibility for others, the local culture and community” (Holdsworth, 2007, p.303). The work of Joan Littlewood is a source of inspiration for Slung Low, who have a similar open attitude towards the use of public space and the same mission-driven approach in their work. In order to enable active citizenship in a community, it is necessary to engage with different stakeholders, so that it is possible to include people from different backgrounds. Schools, clubs, social services, charities and the local government are fundamental partners for cultural organisations who wish to engage with the local community and, most importantly, want to make work that is useful and provide cultural experiences that are relevant to them.
Bunyan, A and Warwick-Booth, L and Raine, G. 2017. AN EVALUATION OF THE IMPACT OF THE 5 WAYS TO HEALTHY HEARTS PROJECT - FINAL REPORT. Project Report. CHPR. Link to Leeds Beckett Repository record: http://eprints.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/3666/ Geddes, M. 2000. Tackling Social Exclusion in the European Union? The Limits to the New Orthodoxy of Local Partnership, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume24, Issue4, 782-800. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2427.00278 Holdsworth, N. 2007. Spaces to play/playing with spaces: young people, citizenship and Joan Littlewood, Research in Drama Education, 12:3, 293-304, DOI:10.1080/13569780701560164 Lane, A. 2018. ‘The Times They Are A’changing. The story of The Holbeck, a social club.’. Available at https://alanlaneblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/28/blog-post-the-times-they-are-achanging-the-story-of-the-holbeck-a-social-club/ Lane, A. 2020a. ‘The Cost of Doing Business- a year at The Holbeck’. Available at https://alanlaneblog.wordpress.com/2020/01/06/blogpost-the-cost-of-doing-business-a-year-at-the-holbeck/ Lane, A. 2020b. ‘Standing. Tents. Government roadmaps. And the every day work of being responsible’. Available at https://alanlaneblog.wordpress.com/2020/06/26/blogpost-standing-tents-government-declarations-and-the-every-day-work-of-being-responsible/ Lowndes, V. Sullivan, H. 2004. Like a Horse and Carriage or a Fish on a Bicycle: How Well do Local Partnerships and Public Participation go Together?, Local Government Studies, 30:1, 51-73, DOI: 10.1080/0300393042000230920 Milburn, K. and Russell, B.T. 2018. orcid.org/0000-0001-8307-6219 What can an institution do? Towards Public-Common partnerships and a new common-sense. Renewal: A journal of social democracy, 26 (4). pp. 45-55. ISSN 0968-252X Morgan, F. 2020. ‘Alan Lane: ‘The skills we are using are the same ones we use to make shows’’, The Stage, 16/04/2020. Available at https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/alan-lane-the-skills-we-are-using-are-the-same-ones-we-use-to-make-shows Slung Low. 2020. ‘Who are Slung Low’. Available at https://www.slunglow.org/slung-low/