Isy Paton investigates the thinking and work behind the TGIUK Creative Writing Competition.
On the 16 November 2020, TogetherintheUK (TGIUK) launched their first creative writing competition. Giving first and second- generation migrants the opportunity to write about their experiences of coming to the UK. TGIUK Founders, Teresa and Johann talk to me about the inspiration behind the competition. https://www.togetherintheuk.co.uk/creative-plus
Why a Creative Writing Competition?
Teresa had the idea to run the creative writing competition during an interview for a podcast. ‘I was chatting to Michele Bent and she mentioned that she had won a prize in a literary competition run by the Barbados High Commission and I thought wouldn’t it be brilliant if TGIUK could run a creative writing competition, storytelling is after all at the very core of what we do.’ The 1960s journey from Barbados to the UK | TogetherintheUK
Whilst Covid-19 created some issues around the logistics of setting up the project, Teresa says that without it, the competition may not have happened at all, as the pandemic forced the TGIUK team to think of ways to reach migrant communities online. Since they began 5 years ago TGIUK have run events sharing migrant stories and it was at one of these recent events that founder Johann was inspired to ensure that they stayed true to their original mission of peer on peer advice. ‘Last year we put on an event where we heard the story of six brothers and their journey to the UK from the South China Sea forty years ago and we were so inspired that I said to Teresa this is what we need to do, we need to hear more stories. It’s important to know that we don’t interpret migrants’ stories, but they are told in their own words. As a migrant myself I am aware how listening to the stories of others can create trust, and mutual learning.’ Learning from Making Migration Work | TogetherintheUK
The Impact of stories
Both Teresa and Johann are aware that the narrative around migration can sometimes become toxic. Teresa says that at TGIUK, we know that there is nothing more powerful in changing perceptions than one person’s story. Stories show us each other’s humanity Recently, for instance, the Small Axe series of films have shown us very powerfully the racism that the West Indian community faces. These films will stay in our memories far longer than any research report we might read.
Johann believes that giving anyone a forum to tell their story can be both empowering and cathartic for the storyteller. We all have a story and it can be transformative to tell it to a receptive audience. ‘The pandemic has been so frustrating and had such an impact on so many communities, we felt that the competition could provide an outlet for the voices of migrants. We are hoping we will hear stories about how people have settled in the UK and become part of their communities, as well as accounts of their journeys, and the obstacles they have overcome.’
But, setting up a literary competition in 2020 isn’t as easy as you might think. ‘I am the kind of person who dives right in.’ Johann tells us. ‘But we wanted to make sure we did this right in terms of the technology, we found this amazing software which would allow us to host the competition on our site and ensure that all information submitted was secure, but I soon realised that I needed more help, luckily Mohamed from TotalSuite, who were behind the software we were using, were able to really help get the competition off the ground. We also had a team of 3 at TGIUK working on the site, Viraj, Dee and myself and this meant we had a committed team who understood the vision and that is something we are so lucky with at TGIUK. It still took the best part of a week to have it up and running. We are a relatively small social enterprise, but everyone we work with brings such enthusiasm to everything we do, it is really inspiring.’
Once the tech side was safely in place, they began to think about those best placed to judge a competition like this. Who do you ask to review the stories and real-life experiences of migrants? ‘We wanted people who had a high profile, who supported the goals and people with personal experience of migration. Teresa explains that whilst some of the judges such as Lord Dubs,Nazek Ramadan (Migrant Voice | Speaking For…) Johnathan Portes, Sunder Katwala Home – British Future David Marshall Specialists in Diversity, Inclusion and Unconscious Bias – Marshall E-Learning Courses were already known to TGIUK, whilst Tyrone Roach NationNews Barbados — nationnews.com and Conseulo Rivera-Fuentes are entirely new to TGIUK, but all seven judges were quick to say yes and ask how they could help. ‘They looked at the website and took time to understand what we are about and what it is we are trying to achieve, not just through this competition but overall, and then they offered more. It really reassured us that the competition was a good idea because everyone we approached was so positive and keen to be involved. Our strategic partners have also been so generous. We are extremely grateful for the generosity, collaboration and creativity from everyone that has supported us.’
Making it work
Johann believes the key to the competition’s success is ensuring that the right people are talking about the competition and creating a memorable social media campaign. We have written to around 490 different societies and organisations; these include Uni societies, organisations that work with international students. organisations working with migrants and creative writing course leaders to let them know about the competition. We have posted blogs on different websites and are continually out there on social media platforms. Much of this is down to the fantastic volunteers at TGIUK ‘I have enormous respect for our team and the effort they put in, we have to remember that all our volunteers do it alongside their full-time jobs and all their commitments’ TGIUK loves the creativity of the volunteers who are always coming up with brilliant ideas and volunteers get the opportunity to experience lots of different things, such as project management, content creation, social media management and more. ‘Just like the founders, all the volunteers are motivated by a desire to help others and to ensure that people coming to the UK have access to information that can help them to feel included and build a life here in the UK.’
The bigger picture – what could it achieve?
What are Teresa and Johann hoping the competition will achieve? Teresa is keen to discover new talent. ‘How incredible would it be to be able to help build a writer’s profile or
develop a new voice in the world of migrant writing?’ whilst Johann would love the opportunity to publish some of the entries. ‘If we could get an anthology of migrant poems from this, how inspiring would that be? A whole book of migrants’ thoughts and experiences. We know that some journeys here are hard but that there are lessons for others to learn through those experiences, we want to support a positive narrative around migration and give people a platform to tell their stories.’ And overall, they think the competition by shining a light on stories of migration will play a role in making the UK more inclusive and welcoming. The competition is open now. Find more information on how to enter here