Reflecting on 2020: Community, Covid, and Courage

"It was such a joy to see people face-to-face"

Our Communities Programme Director, Noëlle Cobden, reflects on her first 12 months leading our year-round work in Edinburgh, the Lothians and beyond. Read on for her highlights of a strange year, how we pivoted our communtiy work to the digital realm, and the importance of connection to everything we achieved in 2020.


It is probably an understatement to say that 2020 has been the most unsettling year many of us have ever lived through. Yet a tangible sense of community, whether in real life or online, has emerged and provided an anchor during these strange times. Following a quick and reactive rethink of our plans in April, we worked closely with an army of partners to provide opportunities for local people to come together as a creative community this year. As we hurtle towards the end of the year, it seems a good moment to pause and share three of my highlights from 2020.


Community Deliveries 

When the pandemic hit, we were very aware of the prevalence of digital exclusion within many of the communities we work with. Whether due to lack of access to, or understanding of, technology, or the digital fatigue many of us were feeling in late spring, we felt it was important to provide participants with something physical and tangible. Since May we have worked with partners across Edinburgh and the Lothians to distribute nearly 1000 free books to a variety of people, from young children to adults with learning disabilities to the older people in isolation. A third of these books were part of our Citizen Book and Activity bags. The bespoke bags contained a range of items alongside the books, including fridge magnet words for making poetry, pens, coloured paper, crafting scissors, rhyming dictionaries and special notebooks. Genevieve Fay (our Communities Programme Officer) and I spent two days driving around East and Midlothian delivering the bags to older adults who were isolating, and it was such a joy to see people face to face, ensure they were well and have a nice treat to give them.

I read and enjoyed the book. I played with the words on my fridge, holding up quite a few meals. I only managed one 18-word, four line poem. On rereading it, I found it sounded rather downbeat which wasn't intended.Musselburgh Writers’ Group participant

New Ways of Working 

This year has thrown up many challenges, not least the inability to deliver events and activities in-person. However, there have also been some amazing opportunities; in particular, bringing together geographically-dispersed groups to work together virtually, and the opportunity to amplify the voices of local people on an international (online) stage. The online August Festival gave us the chance to platform our Citizen programme globally and put it in front of audiences that may not have attended in-person due to perceptions that a community event is of lower quality or ‘not for them’. We received comments from audience members about the importance of Citizen receiving the same high-quality broadcast as our events with professional authors.  

I am particularly proud of our Stories and Scran event. Originally conceived as an in-person community meal to be held in Charlotte Square Gardens in August, Stories and Scran was a showcase for Citizen and its participants, and eventually saw us bring people together online over a meal. With live readings, audio recordings and a film created by Citizen participants, the event presented the insightful and thoughtful work of local people from North Edinburgh and Musselburgh. Free hot meals were also provided to over 50 of our Edinburgh based audience, by our partners social enterprise the Scran Academy, who create a pathway from school to work for vulnerable young people in North Edinburgh. 

It was an eye opener of not only how cultural events can be managed during this time of Covid. But also a pointer to how future mass events can be brought to the whole community and make inclusion a reality at a personal level for those who otherwise could not attendStories and Scran audience member

We have also had to try out a few new techniques for working with participants in-person. In June, our Citizen Writer in Residence Eleanor Thom visited each member of The Warblers (a choir for adults with chronic health conditions) at home, taking with her a microphone on a two-metre pole to record the stories they had created during zoom workshops with Eleanor. The recordings were created safely on doorsteps, in gardens and even in a greenhouse! In September, our Schools’ Writer in Residence Leyla Josephine recommenced weekly sessions with young people at The Alternative School, moving the workshops outdoors to keep everyone safe. Without Eleanor and Leyla’s creativity and commitment, there is no way we would have been able to provide such a varied programme of activities this year. 

Partnership Working 

Working in partnership with local organisations has always been at the heart of our work with communities and this year those connections have been absolutely vital. Whether supporting us to distribute books, cooking and delivering hot meals for our Stories and Scran event, helping us to recruit participants for projects or broadcasting our events, we couldn’t have done it without our partners. Working in this virtual world has been new ground for us all and I couldn’t think of a better group of organisations and people to go on this journey with. So, I want to take this opportunity to personally thank all our 2020 partners: 

North Edinburgh Arts, the Brunton Theatre, WHALE Arts, Edinburgh Children’s Hospital Charity, the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Open Book, Scran Academy, The Alternative School (Spartan’s Community Football Club), Royston-Wardieburn Community Centre, The Warblers, People First (Scotland), First Step Family Centre, Craigroyston Community High School, Liberton High School, Leith Academy, Musselburgh Grammar School, Pinkie St. Peter’s Primary, Loretto RC Primary, Wallyford Primary School, Almond Park Nursery Scottish Prison Service, HMP Edinburgh, HMP Shotts, HMP Greenock, HMP Barlinnie, HMP Kilmarnock, HMP Glenochil, HMP Addiewell, HMP Dumfries, HMP Low Moss, Perth Royal Infirmary, Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, Muirhouse Library, Musselburgh Library. 

It was such an exciting project for us at Scran Academy, everyone got involved so it was a real team effort, and what a positive outcome! Thanks so much for being such a supportive and responsive partner to work with. We would absolutely love to team up with Citizen and the Book Festival again”  — Will Bain, Catering Manager, Scran Academy

 We have an exciting Communities Programme in the pipeline for 2021 and look forward to sharing our plans in the New Year! 

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