How the Westers won
Fed up with the media’s view of their community as a hub for drug use, crime and antisocial behaviour, the residents of one of Britain’s most notorious housing estates decided to fight back. Annie Kelly reports
Makala Cheung says people have always presumed she will come to nothing. She puts it down to her accent. As soon as she speaks, she is labelled a ‘Wester’ – a resident of Bristol’s Knowle West estate, an area preceded by its reputation for drugs, crime and underachievement.
‘People’s perceptions of Knowle West have followed me around like a bad smell my whole life,’ says Cheung, 26. ‘I’ve had it all. People in the street, strangers, saying: ‘You’re from Knowle West, so where’s your [baby] buggy?’ Nobody thinks you’re capable of getting a job or making something of yourself. And that does make you feel ashamed to come from where you do, because you don’t want to be labelled your whole life.’
But in the heart of Knowle West, a red-brick south Bristol estate that is home to 5,500 families, accomplished works of film, photography and graphic design are being produced by local residents intent on redefining their community and scraping away the stigma of being a Wester.
The focus of this energy is the Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC), a charity that provides media training, traineeships and vocational skills to residents and aims to help the estate’s young people find their own voice. Cheung started here as a volunteer in 2001 and is now the centre’s first communications officer.
‘One of the key problems young people face in Knowle West is the universally low-expectations of who they are, and they’ve all had experiences of discrimination and abuse because of where they come from,’ says Carolyn Hassan, director and founder of KWMC. ‘But put a camera in their hands or give them the training to produce work that tells their own stories in the way they want and you give them control back.’
In its 10-year history, KWMC has produced an array of multimedia projects, websites, short films and photography projects that has led to UK Film Council awards and national accolades. It now employs staff specialising in media disciplines, such as web and graphic design, that provide career options to young people who never expected to finish school.
‘We’ve got 10-year-olds making films about global warming, and teenagers building websites that tackle issues such as domestic violence,’ Hassan says. ‘Low achievement is linked to low self-esteem. Producing something in a format you respect, that looks good and says something, goes a long way to tackling this.’
Hassan first came to the estate in 1992 as a photographer-in-residence working on a project exploring the link between health and art. As well as working with disabled and older people on the estate, she started running after-school photography classes when she realised that Knowle West’s young had nowhere to direct their energy. The classes proved so popular that she had the idea for a video project, entitled Your Letters from Knowle West and involving 120 people from the estate talking about what they wanted from life and how art and photography could represent how they felt about the world.
The success of that project and the enthusiasm with which the young people grabbed the chance to express themselves led to the launch of the media centre, which became a registered charity in 2004 and now survives on a mish-mash of European Union, local authority, lottery and neighbourhood renewal funding.
‘At first, the problem was that none of the people who came to us thought they could contribute anything and that they’d be laughed at for trying,’ Hassan says. ‘And the way the media portrays life on the estate just reinforces this.’
She points to Shawnie, Ed Trewavas’s brutal 2006 novel based on his experiences as a social worker in Bristol, as an example of how the estate is represented to the outside world. In the book, Knowle West is a ‘shithole’ populated by ‘yokels, cider-heads, junkies, dole scammers, slappers and failed wide boys’. The life of the book’s narrator, a 13-year-old girl with a psychopathic dad, alcoholic mum and violent brother, is a relentless grind of poverty, abuse, criminality and despair.
Hassan acknowledges that the estate has more than its fair share of social problems. For decades, the estate has remained in the top 10% of the UK deprivation index. It has the highest number of children in care of any council ward in Bristol and the highest rates of low literacy in Bristol, with 26% of residents termed as having ‘very low literacy’ skills. Fewer than half of its young people have any qualifications.
Hassan says: ‘The focus shouldn’t be about how awful it is on the estate, but what you can do about it, and can it be challenged on a community level? It’s not a rebranding exercise, it’s about going to the heart of community engagement and allowing people to create their own representations of their lives and their experiences. We’re giving them control back.’
Now KWMC is embarking on its most ambitious project to date – something that Hassan and her team hope will provide a symbol of the community’s potential and strength. At the end of this month, the charity’s base, the dilapidated Leinster House, is to be knocked down and building work will start on a new £3m state-of-the-art centre, set to be one of the biggest eco-buildings in Europe.
Alongside raising the money for the building, described as a ‘long slog’ by Hassan, KWMC launched the Archimedia Project, which brought together a team of young people aged 11-16 from the estate who played an integral role in the design, construction and architecture of the new site. Due to open in January 2008, the centre will be built using sustainable technology, such as straw bale panels, and will feature outdoor spaces that include eco-trails and mini nature reserves. The building will contain extensive media facilities that will enable KWMC to take on more local trainees and will have business units that will support local entrepreneurship.
The Archimedia project is involving other young people from the estate working on photography and web projects to promote and raise funds for the project. Local teenager Michael Smith, who has Asperger’s syndrome, is also making a horror film called The Death of Leinster House, based on the old building’s demise.
Sandra Manson, a former KWMC trainee, has been overseeing the development of the Archimedia Project and says the input and dedication of the young team members has been overwhelming. ‘These young people have been constantly underestimated, but they’ve been the heart and soul of this project, and it was their idea to make the building environmentally friendly,’ she says. ‘Because they’ve been so involved in designing the building, hiring the architects and raising the money, they feel a real ownership of the new centre that we hope will draw in their friends, family and neighbours and increase community pride in what we’re doing.’
Sandra Belgium, a Knowle West resident for more than 40 years, says the building will be an enormous boost to the community. ‘Lots of local people either work or are involved with the media centre and we’re all incredibly proud of what they’re doing,’ she says. ‘Those kids coming out of the media centre aren’t the criminals and layabouts everyone expects from Knowle West; they’re film-makers, photographers and designers. And there is going to be a media centre that will be the pride of Bristol slap bang in the middle of our estate.’
Creating something to draw new people and influences into Knowle West was one of the key aims of the project. The idea builds on existing KWMC projects, such as Dhek Bhal, a project offering journalism and photography to Asian girls, to increase the influx of new communities into a predominantly white area.
Hassan hopes that the new centre will attract journalists, artists and film-makers to Knowle West and encourage the estate to be seen as a hub for creativity and energy. ‘The building will bring people in to the area who will see for themselves what we’re capable of achieving,’ she says.
‘The point is not to skill up our young people and then encourage them to move out of the area. The whole point is to provide people with a pride in themselves and their community and to make people think twice about what it means to be a Knowle Wester.’