Having had cancer twice, the five year mark is a pretty big thing. Yes, I know it doesn’t actually mean anything, I know it’s just useful for statisticians, but still, cancer survival is a thing we count in five year chunks, so it’s hard to ignore the five year point.

This weekend was Fun Palaces fifth annual weekend. There were 433 Fun Palaces in nine nations and it felt as if there was a shift, we’re a Thing now. Of course many – most – people have still never heard of us (we’re a tiny Thing!), but for those that have, we’re a Thing, an embedded, growing, developing Thing.

For me, the weekend is always exhausting, amazing, moving, tiring, and very very inspiring. I wrote most of this on the train home from Cornwall – it’s longer than my average blog. I find long blogs very irritating and always skim through other people’s long ones, so I apologise and recommend skimming to the end if you too find long blogs annoying!, but this weekend was all the joy and definitely belongs in the #55Joys list. So here it is …

I went to 14 Fun Palaces this weekend across Cornwall/Kernow, in the company of our two brilliant Cornwall Ambassadors, Jack Morrison of Feast and Chloe Hughes of Cornwall Museums Partnership. Like the three of us in our core team, our Fun Palaces Ambassadors are part-time and, crucially, they work in their own communities. Their work is not ‘outreach’ or ‘learning and participation’ or any of the other forms of hierarchical cultural ‘sharing’, but amplifying and supporting the work of their own communities.

In Cornwall I met older men welcomed to talk about their working life in clay pits, because their stories matter and the link between our ambassadors in Cornwall and Stoke meant that their life stories were given a hearing by people who genuinely valued what they have to say. I saw at least three choirs – all welcoming us to sing with them not just applaud, Fun Palaces are categorically NOT about performance, they’re about hands-on participation, so that anyone can join in, whatever their skill level, whatever access (ie privilege) they’ve had allowing them to learn, to train, to practice. I watched children and adults learn ukulele side by side in a library as other regulars sat reading the day’s newspapers, unperturbed. I learned about wind farms and how to make your own wind turbine from engineers for whom gender pronouns were irrelevant. I saw and felt the size of 5lbs of fat compared to 5lbs of muscle. I watched all ages join in street dance during and alongside a knitting group in the middle of a museum, heard about local heritage across a great swathe of Cornwall, visited a community garden, a community paint-recycling shop, a Fun Palace in the middle of an estate run by and for the people of that estate where several of the people running activities told me “every parent asked how much it cost to take part and everyone was amazed and so relieved when we told them it was free”.

It was a hell of a weekend. It always is. One of the reasons I find it so moving and emboldening is seeing the astonishing array of amazing people who just need an opportunity (Fun Palaces in this case) to show that they have loads to contribute, masses to offer and to share, and full and hopeful lives including (especially?) in some of the poorest and least-provided-for parts of this country. People who could do even more for and with their own communities if they had more support. Something we note quite plainly in our Fun Palaces objectives where we call for fairer distribution of resources.

My colleagues in our tiny team also saw, heard, felt and joined in with amazing stuff right across the UK. I started writing this piece on the train on the way home from Cornwall on Sunday evening – at the same time a community meal was finishing up the Fun Palace at Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling. It was made by and for people who’d been co-creating together all day – people who identify as artists, as scientists, as makers, as creative and also as none of these. People who simply jumped at a chance to join in and take part, to lead or to sit back and have a quiet chat and get to know a neighbour a little bit better. I’ve seen photos and videos of deaf-led dance and bilingual Mandarin family rhyme time and Spanish family rhyme time and Pride in Stem activities and local marine biologists working with Plas Newydd National Trust in North Wales and supermarkets helping out with foodstuffs for healthy eating activities and women in engineering with bridge-building activities and live digital linkups and orchestras sharing their expertise with people who have never before held an instrument and people teaching radio and podcast recording and every form of dance from Morris to Hula to street to ballet to modern British Asian, interspersed with every form of tech and digital and science stuff led by experts, professionals, enthusiasts, hobbyists and people who had simply learned one thing so they could share that one new thing at their local Fun Palace.

Our Ambassadors’ programme, our ongoing work, our talks and workshops, have all developed in the past five years, bubbling up as we learned what Fun Palaces is, what it needs, what helps. We’re almost always playing catch-up, we’ve never had time to plan, to strategise, to make promises about what’s going to happen – and perhaps this is useful, because none of us can truly know what is going to happen, the best any of us can do is be open to change. We’ve never said we know it all, we have always been very clear that we’re finding out with the people who make the Fun Palaces. I know this can make us irritating for funders, policy makers and even colleagues, many of whom find it easier when organisations say ‘do it like this, we guarantee you’ll get that’. But if five years of Fun Palaces has taught us anything, it’s that every community is utterly different and that those communities change, as we all do, year on year, month on month, moment to moment. There are no guarantees.

What seems useful is to say yes. We spend so much time saying yes. Yes that’s a great idea, go for it. Yes we can put you in touch with someone who does that (and then scrambling to find someone who does!). Yes, I have no idea what you’re suggesting but if you think your own community will like it, go for it. Yes. Yes. Yes and.

Every year we learn so much from the Fun Palaces themselves and also from the process of making – from the gatherings and meetings and events the Makers hold along the way. Our work has always felt like a struggle, partly because of lack of funding but also because it’s so tough to persuade the many other organisations with much higher profile or far longer standing than ours of the value of genuinely light-touch, trusting-the-people work. That it’s about really handing over, really not telling people what to do. Some days I want to cry because it feels as if I’m banging on about trusting the people, trusting communities, and I see people in positions of power paying lip service to this concept and then doing what they always do – making decisions top-down, using planned methods to create a change they’ve decided in advance needs to happen, doing anything but believing in the people they are supposed to serve.

And then, one weekend a year, I see Fun Palaces in action and I KNOW it’s worth all the tough stuff. Because, at core, it’s just about the people. The Fun Palaces weekend shines a light on the brilliant stuff that so many people do all the time, day in day out. Our work is to amplify their everyday brilliance, to support them in seeing how much it matters, to bear witness to the phenomenal people who really do believe in the power of community. I lost count of the times people thanked me for coming to visit their Fun Palace this weekend. I know it’s not about me, they don’t care that it’s Stella Duffy (or my colleagues Kirsty Lothian or Sarah-Jane Rawlings) who came to visit. They care that they were seen. That someone from a national organisation (an organisation we never planned, that has grown as organically as the individual Fun Palaces, that is still – intentionally – tiny) bothered to come and have a chat. To see what they were doing. To share what they are doing so others can learn from it – and to tell them what other Fun Palaces are doing so they can build on it too.

It’s actually incredibly simple – trust, support, let go, share.

  • Trust that ANYONE can do it. In this case ‘it’ is make a Fun Palace, but ‘it’ could just as easily be run a residents’ association, set up a communal garden, co-create a local artwork, investigate science or tech or digital, whatever – basically whatever they want to do.
  • Support people to do it the way they want to, link them to other people doing the same stuff and other people doing wildly different stuff, say yes constantly.
  • Then both let go AND be ready to help.
  • Finally use any means available to share what they create as widely as possible.

All this and even so, we know it’s the process that matters not the product. We welcome shambolic and messy and hardly-attended Fun Palaces as much as we do the bright, shiny, hugely-attended ones, because the process of a community coming together to co-create for each other is what matters. What happens on the day or the weekend is glorious, but the real work is the process of getting there.

Fun Palaces is a journey and we’re very grateful to those coming along with us. It is organic, intensely personal, incredibly time-consuming, and about having cups of tea. It is always about having cups of tea.

We are just beginning to scratch the surface of what this might be, we have a long road ahead of us and will no doubt make many (more!) mistakes. Right now I feel as if I’m beginning to understand what we need to do to take a second step. We are right at the start. This is going to keep changing on us, keep surprising us, keep tripping us up and keep making us pay attention. Brilliant, bring it on.