Navigating the unnavigable

This was my first experience of creative co-produced academic research. We’ve been looking at improving access to dentistry for adult survivors of child sexual abuse. It was something I’d really wanted, had initiated and pursued over a long period of time recognising the role of academia to be a bridge between communities and services. Research equals credibility for communities like ours that have been institutionally overlooked, pathologised and omitted from diversity discourses. Our credibility as knowers of our own experiences is not enough to make change to clinical practice – frustrating but currently true.

After some initial team discussions, we focussed our project activity on work with other child sex abuse survivor activists to understand and articulate the problem and think about the change we want to see. What is currently inaccessible about dentistry? How do we remove the barriers we collectively face?

Because the seed fund is a relatively small pot of money, we wanted to do one thing well. We prioritised making space for those conversations without having to sanitise them or problem solve straight away. Its complex territory – as survivors we are angry about the lack of access across different services – a lack we have internalised as our own individual deficit. This internalised stigma looks like “I’m rubbish at going to the dentist” or “I’m a coward” or “I can’t cope with normal things like normal people”. As we wake up to the institutionalised barriers we face, the failure of health services to be accessible or inclusive to us – we need space to vent, to feel and express. We need to do this without hearing that clinicians are “doing their best” or  “feel guilty” or “mean well”. We know that – this isn’t about individuals – it’s about systems that are not working for survivors or practitioners. I always think how horrendous it must be to be my dentist – to treat someone so obviously traumatised – to say things that are intended to help and watch as the appointment spirals further and further out of control…

Getting this work through a medical ethics committee was not straightforward. They raised frustrating questions about doing work with CSA survivors. Work that was initiated by a CSA survivor activist proposing to work with other survivor activists who do this routinely and professionally. Their feedback “Is this work too sensitive to do?” Too sensitive for who? And what’s the alternative? Do we just keep everything the same even though it’s not working? Who is better placed to make change than our own community? How can we improve access if we are not “allowed” to talk about it? It’s hard not to feel silenced. Gaining ethics consent involved challenging this and other outmoded patronising paternalistic assumptions that are routinely made about our community. Assumptions that are part of the wallpaper in institutions that have failed to serve us. The information sheets, consent forms and standard ways of compensating “participants” – so many practices to unpick just to start the research.

Ethics navigated, we hosted a glorious series of creative workshops including art, scriptwriting and creating TripAdvisor reviews for dentists to explore key themes such as stigma, power,  trauma-informed concepts and the social model of disability. The sessions were exciting, revealing and raucous – fizzing with creativity, purpose and intelligence – a million miles from the “sensitive” stereotype the ethics committee painted us as. 

We co-produced a poster aimed at highlighting some of the challenges our community faces accessing dentistry, encouraging survivors to use support advocates to attend appointments. You can’t get away from the fact that this is still us managing a problem that is not ours. But we needed to produce something authentic and realistic. We couldn’t say “Talk to your dentist, they will help” because most dentists don’t know where to start. We are at the tip of an enormous iceberg of work that needs to happen to make meaningful change. Work like this needs huge investment and buy in. 

Alongside the positives and achievements, there have been some challenges. I’m struck by the enormous generosity and allyship of the academic team. No academic time is supported through the seed funding leading to the inevitable pressure of unmanageable workloads and a feeling of incompletion eg. We have a huge amount of rich data and no time to do anything with it. 

Another challenge relates very directly to the shared survivor experience of institutional betrayal. I am hyper-sensitised to unequal power dynamics no matter how collaborative the relationships. Feeling overpowered and out of control is THE biggest trigger for me and many survivors. These feelings rear up in me engaging with institutions like universities. They operate on a very subtle level and are a key challenge for co-production in this space. This, rather than talking about our experiences, is what many of us are “sensitive” to (a nuance not recognised by the ethics committee).

Similarly, we are now at the stage of considering outputs for the project. A journal article has been proposed exploring issues around coproduction, which I support – it’s interesting and necessary. But I am here because I want to make change in dentistry for and with CSA survivors. I want to shout about what happens for us from the minute we think about making a dental appointment: the unnavigable systems; the unwelcoming environment; the re-traumatising practices; the terror we endure; and the defensiveness we face when we ask for different treatment. I want to write about the courage and wisdom in our community, the small tweaks that make all the difference, the humane communication we need that is so trainable, our rights to feel met by services that have institutionally betrayed us.

I want to write about the win-win and the way it could so easily be so very different.

Fin out more about Improving Access to Oral Health Services for Adult Survivors of Child Sex Abuse (CSA).

Creative Engagement Training with Play:Disrupt

“Play is about being open and vulnerable. Play is all about that vulnerability, about being responsive, yielding to the moment. You might not be playing, but if you are willing to play, at the drop of a hat, the bounce of a ball, the glance of a toddler, the wag of a tail – then you are open to any opportunity.”

 – Bernard De Koven

I attended a workshop offered by Brigstow in partnership with Play:Disrupt to introduce those participating to creative methods for engaging other researchers, members of the public, and any other people who may be involved in our future research. These creative engagement methods involved narrative techniques, loose parts, relational mapping methodologies and an introduction to LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. The workshop sought to explore alternative methods that could assist us, as researchers, to ‘ask the right questions’ and explore how to overcome barriers to engagement.

Malcolm, the facilitator from Play:Disrupt, invited us to open a brightly coloured envelop each and with the modelling clay within, to create an avatar to represent ourselves and to find an item – from an array of small and seemingly mundane household items – to represent a challenge we face, however big or small. These items were ‘loose parts’, a play theory formed by Simon Nicholson on the basis that materials which can be moved around, designed, and redesigned, and tinkered with; create infinitely more opportunities for creative engagement than static materials and environments.

I decided to take a small spring and stretch it out, to represent the challenge I faced of feeling stretched over many different responsibilities, projects, and tasks. This was the first example of what would be a fundamental principle of many of the creative methods, namely the importance of the representational aspect. The was a wide range of objects and avatars. Some were abstract, such as an avatar of a small palm tree to symbolise the challenge of work/leisure balance, and one very creative example of an avatar riding a surfboard on a crest of blue waves to represent the challenge of skill development and balance. This seemed to be the essence of the LEGO® inspired creative methods: to begin by posing a question and then building something to represent an aspect of that question, whether tangible or intangible, whether a challenge or a solution, and then once it is built you explain your representational construction to those you are researching/working with.

Throughout the workshop, we engaged in similar creative methods to explore the theory and practice in a practical way. Malcolm has a lot of experience in street theatre making and creating huge performative games in public spaces. These games served as a form of invitation to the public that resulted in natural and engaged collaboration. Much of the workshop was about facilitating that invitational method into our research methodologies. This practice asked us to consider the concept of permission, the concept of obstacles, and the concept of barriers. These were nuanced issues that the use of play and an invitational method tries to overcome. For example, permission was broken down into self-permission (do I allow myself to take part) peer-permission (do my family and community allow me to take part) and society-permission (does society allow me to take part). This conversation evolved into a more complicated discussion regarding different forms of privilege and access that may affect an individual’s relationship to permission. Creative and invitational methods seek to redress inequalities and imbalances inherent in participatory methods.

However, play is also about disruption. We were posed the question: what do we do when people are coming into a conversation with conflict? Such a conversation would not be constructive, due to preconceived biases and emotive reasoning. So, how can researchers disrupt these conflicts and revitalise constructive conversation? We engaged in further practical examples of creative methods which involved constructing a visual map of our local area and important landmarks to us. All the while, we continued to explore the idea of play’s disruptive power. Creative methods offer us ways to encourage research participants to open up, ways to equalise power dynamics within research teams, and novel approaches to big societal questions that may provide fresh answers to long-standing issues. Incorporating play offers researchers an avenue to approach emotionally charged issues in a way that is open and relaxed which could facilitate collaborative and understanding conversations on tricky topics.

We then moved onto LEGO®. Each person was given an identical set of various LEGO® pieces and instructions, yet each outcome was unique and told its own narrative. With such simple instructions it creates a situation where “you’re not trying to be creative” but everyone is engaging in a creative task so it is not daunting for those who don’t consider themselves creative. It breaks barriers and introduces everyone to play and the process of representational reasoning. The play and the visual elements where only the process, we explained our construction choices and thought about representational significance transforming a tower of LEGO® into the true outcomes: words, concepts, and ideas.

three different towers of lego made form green and yellow bricks
Three LEGO® towers

The process of play and creative methods had a clear effect on opening the conversation between us and giving us the tools to quickly demonstrate our ideas, challenges, and questions. The conversation was easy, insightful, and supportive. It did not feel like a discussion between people who were strangers only a few hours earlier.

Our focus moved to building a LEGO® model to represent our objectives and key values in research engagement. During this time, Malcolm asked us to consider what makes an object, say a green brick of LEGO®, representational? After various suggestions of ‘money’, ‘ecology’, ‘go!’, and ‘envy’ we all reached the conclusion that it can be anything. And that was the point. You build it, then you explain what it is and that is the simple basis for an effective tool to convey ideas and to represent thoughts.

Within our tables we them combined our thoughts create a joint model of key values in research engagement and collectively shaped the representational narrative.

This task exemplified a recurrent and key aspect of the whole day to me, which was the extreme range of difference and symbolism attained from the same task instructions and the same building blocks. The creative methods employed in the workshop encouraged the expression of contrasting and distinct ideas. It seemed to promote a diversity of voice and actively disrupted the influence of conformity and the concentration of opinion that can often happen in group projects and research. This to me, was the most important and powerful feature of disruptive play and creative methods. Individual ideas were championed, and voices were elevated. Then that was then combined with collaborative methods, a constant practice of discussion and explanation, and an encouragement to interpret and find our own representational value in other works. In this way, the individual voice was empowered whilst not domineering over the voices around it. A clarity of ideas and representations harmonised into collaborative processes.

A study of gender construction, healthy relationships and gender-based violence in England & Ghana: An interdisciplinary participatory research with Young Advisors (13-18)

An increasing number of studies have promoted the meaningful involvement of children and young people in research focusing on various topics such as the lived experiences of young refugees in exile or the mental health benefits of childhood play space and a number of other areas. However, only a small number of studies have investigated gender issues. Moreover, there have been minimal cross-national and cross-cultural studies promoting young people’s meaningful participation, especially concerning gender construction, healthy relationships, and gender-based violence. Also, while much attention has been paid to changes to the understanding of gender in Western societies, recent research has shown significant continuity in the constructions of gender amongst young people in non-Western contexts.

By using collaborative techniques between Young Advisors (13-18), academics and artists, our  research coproduced data and artistic output on the construction of gender and its implications for forming healthy relationships and gender-based violence (GBV) among young people aged 13-18 in England and Ghana. Underpinning this research project was the evidenced link between constructions of gender, healthy relationships, and their implications for GBV.

Working closely with Young Advisers from England and Ghana and local artists in both contexts, culturally appropriate creative techniques were used to facilitate three in-person workshops with eight young advisors in each setting and four joint online workshops bringing the two groups of young advisors together. The approach adopted was based on the premise that knowledge generation about ideal masculinities and femininities must arise from the experiences and knowledge of young people and that the most appropriate methodologies to explore these involve processes of co-production that place equal value on academic and community knowledge and expertise.

These workshops were facilitated by local artists in both settings and drew on art-based methods, specifically, music and vignettes. To adhere to the principles of coproduction, at the pre-reward stage, the research questions were sent to the Bristol Generation R Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG). We received very positive feedback and incorporated their comments. Also, before the success of the grant, we had several meetings with our interdisciplinary team to ensure we had a shared vision and were clear about our aims, roles and responsibilities. In this blog, we reflect not on the outcome of the research but on two integral aspects of this study, online participatory work with young people across two countries within an interdisciplinary team.

First, conducting a significant part of the research online increased accessibility and inclusivity and was cost-effective. It meant that we could capitalized on the creativity and resourcefulness of the team, including the young advisors, artists and academics from the global south and north, to come together to address the aims of the study that might not have emerged from conventional academic approaches. Most importantly, it allowed the involvement of young people from diverse backgrounds, including those who might face barriers to participating in traditional research settings. Therefore, the geographic, financial, and time constraints were minimized and created opportunities for broader participation of all involved, and this intellectual flexibility allowed us to enhance our critical thinking further and develop a more robust, well-thought-through research proposal for the ESRC Large Grant. It has been stated that online participatory research might hinder the development of trust and rapport with young people. However, having local artists with the experience of working with young people and using appropriate icebreaker activities certainly facilitated more personal connection with young people and sustained meaningful and active engagement.

Additionally, conducting participatory research with Young Advisors, amplified their voices and agency. We learned from them and gained in-depth insight about the related pressing issues that we need to focus on, the appropriate terminology, the most effective research tools as well as the challenges that we will face in the future research and how we can prepare ourselves better for them. However, there were also challenges. For example, although we perceive today’s young people as digital natives, we could see that online participatory research approach can also exacerbate the digital divide for those without access to reliable internet or digital devices. Whereas the Young Advisors from England joined the online sessions from the comfort of their homes using their own tablets, laptops or smart phones, our Young Advisors from Ghana, had to be transported to the University of Cape Coase and use shared PCs in lecture rooms in the presence of the academics. Also, we experienced multiple power cuts which interrupted the workshops. Sometimes it was possible to extend the time to try to somehow redress the unequal access, especially in terms of equal amount of time to speak. However, this was not always possible. The different schooling systems for the young people from the two contexts also posed another challenge in that the Ghanaian youth were in boarding schools during term time which made access to them more challenging than during vacations.  Facing these challenges have ,made the research team more aware of the issues that need to be taken in to account for the larger proposal concerning practicalities, resources and budget allocation.

One of the main aims of participatory research with young people is that the methodology helps researchers address unequal power relations by fully engaging youth in knowledge production and recognizes youth as “agents of change and experts in the issues that affect their lives” (Pech, Valencia and Romero, 2019: 4), and it aims to challenge ‘adultism’; the perception of children and young people as second-class citizens without agency (Kirshner, 2015). Adhering to the core principles of participatory research with young people is more challenging within an interdisciplinary cross-country and cross-cultural research team where not all the academics are less familiar with such an approach in which young people are perceived as the independent subject who have the capacity to reflect on their lived experiences and to make a significant contribution to the research process. Therefore, we had regular reflections on our practice throughout the project to ensure that we adhered to the core principles in our interaction and practice and perceived young people as producers of knowledge. However, sometimes it was difficult to minimize the power imbalance and remain sensitive to the cultural context. For example, it was not culturally appropriate to encourage our young Ghanaian advisors not to address the academics as ‘Doctor’, ‘Madam’, or ‘Sir’, and although they felt recognized, as you can see below, the undertone of the statement indicates the hierarchal power dynamic between the academics and/or adults and young people:  I like everything, especially the way you welcomed us when we come you have time for us, you speak to us with patience. You don’t assume that we are kids and speak to us anyhow, you give us the maximum respect and we thank you for that”.

In conclusion, by acknowledging and mitigating these challenges, we can maximize the benefits of online interdisciplinary, participatory research with young people, empowering them to actively contribute to the production of knowledge and help shape a more inclusive and democratic future. Also, the project lent itself to global consciousness amongst the research team, including the Young Advisors, concerning the construction of gender, intimate relationships and gender-based violence.

Find out more about Brigstow funded Experimental Partnership: A Comparative Study of Gender Construction and its Impact on Healthy Relationships within English and Ghanaian Schools.


MenoMakers Exhibition-in-a-Box

Since September 2021 a group of women have been meeting monthly in North Kensington to make and talk menopause. These meetings have resulted in an exchange of knowledge and experiences, and have explored the therapeutic potential of creativity. The MenoMakers aim to initiate and normalise menopause conversations, combat stigma and improve wellbeing. We also develop creativity and new skills, and we have a lot of fun.

Our exhibition-in-a-box contains creative work made by the MenoMakers group, inspired by our own experiences and by each other. We have experimented with textiles, sculpture, printmaking, zine making and creative writing, to develop our own creative voices. The process has been empowering, energising and restorative.

The MenoMakers exhibition-in-a-box will now be used by other groups who want to start conversations about menopause. We are taking it on tour across the country, and through exploring the exhibition we hope that other women will reflect on their own menopause story, share their experiences and discover different modes of expression. And the exhibition is not just for people currently experiencing the menopause: people of all ages and genders can explore and learn from the stories and help in our aim of making menopause conversations everyday.

In workshops, groups will be able to discover and discuss the work created by the MenoMakers. We also invite participants to contribute to our ‘live menopause bunting’ by embroidering their own mini banner and adding it to the exhibition. In this sense it is a living exhibition – expanded and enriched with each viewing.

You can explore images of the exhibition below, and we will be having a launch event in North Kensington on 29 April (details here) followed by a tour (details to follow).


The MenoMakers Team:

  • Lisa Nash is a socially engaged artist/facilitator and arts programmer. She is embedded in the North Kensington community and leads on wellbeing programmes in her role as Programme Manager for ACAVA.
  • Jessica Hammett is a public historian of modern Britain, researching women’s experiences of mental health and wellbeing. She has worked with a wide range of partners in the arts, heritage and mental health sectors.
  • Vanessa Beck is a sociologist of work and employment, researching menopause in workplace settings. She has worked with a range of trade unions, charities, statutory and private organisations.
  • The North Kensington MenoMakers have co-produced all project activities and outputs, both creating and curating the exhibition-in-a-box. They are a diverse group of non-artists currently experiencing the menopause, who reflect the social, cultural and ethnic diversity of North Kensington.

All images by Zute Lightfoot (2023)

The project has been funded by the Brigstow Institute and the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account scheme.

International Women’s Day 2023: Embracing Equity

#EmbracingEquity #IWD2023

One cold morning at the end of February in the privacy, warmth and safety of the Brigstow office I disclosed a poor wardrobe mishap that had given me a bumpy start to the day, and for my colleagues it opened up past recollections of sexist behaviours and attitudes to women, both humorous stories they had heard and experienced and but also sad ones and bewildering anecdotes of comedians past that served to reinforce and proliferate attitudes towards women. Stories that would never be considered appropriate today. As we settled down into our regular team meeting, we reflected on how far our society had come in terms of female equality. Ironically, and unbeknownst to the team, this was the week I had put International Women’s Day 2023 on the agenda.

The entirety of the four individuals who make up the Brigstow Institute core team identify as female. Two of the Brigstow team are in leadership positions (with our director holding other independent leadership positions across the university). Together we work to guide a community of 357 academic researchers and 353 community partners across Bristol, the UK and beyond in co-produced research projects. This situation would have been rare only 30 years ago. At Brigstow we are privileged to work with so many wonderful women, with sharp minds, creative thinking, skilled hands and compassionate hearts. We witness them tackling research projects with intelligence, wit, and care, working creatively and passionately to help alleviate issues of social justice and tackle some of the big questions of what it means to be human in the 21st century. These women are artists, directors of NGO’s, hold positions in the council, are mothers, carers and community researchers, academics, entrepreneurs, anthropologists, robotics engineers, clinicians and education professionals, to name but a few. All these diverse women are striving to positively impact their communities. We, at Brigstow, would like to take the time to celebrate these women, their courage, dedication and tenacity. And alongside them, we would like to thank and celebrate male colleagues who listen to them, learn from them, respect and value them, striving to collaborate equitably.

Embracing equity is at the heart of coproduction

At Brigstow our core work centres around co-produced research. And when talking about co-production, it is not possible to ignore discussion about equity as the two go hand in hand.

Equity in co-produced research is about acknowledging and valuing all the different skills and expertise that different team members bring that may not be considered ‘equal’, but together their diverse contributions are critical to the relevance and success of the project. Here lies the magic and serendipity. For example, an artist on a project might bring one provocation which enables the whole team to think differently, or an academic who brings a novel question that enables that team to structure the activity differently. Our vision is that all contributions are equally valued.

Valuing and embracing equity in our processes.

“Embracing Equity” is something we strive for and encourage in everything that we do at Brigstow. As an Institute we value that knowledge lies everywhere, and we work hard to listen and respond to our community in order to help break down any barriers that might prevent an individual or organisation from taking part in research. Equity is at the heart of all our conversations – we  consider equity of access, and equity of knowledge production, and this all influences our policies and practices in everything we do as an Institute.

Our coordinator, Julia has spent many hours coaching and guiding researchers through financial research management systems so that they leave Brigstow not just having carried out creative and meaningful research, but for new budget holders to progress from their project feeling empowered with new skills and confidence to continue in their career managing larger research budgets on their own. We support community partners to have access to the university resources, we ensure everyone is paid fairly for their collaboration on time. Artists are often used to their time not being costed into bids and so offer their time unpaid. Often this is because of the lack of resources but early on we made a commitment to value everyone’s time and so we always expect artists to be costed in at a fair rate and will ensure this continues to happen. We allow the costs of childcare around our projects and events to allow mothers to participate in research and our events or workshops. We seek to hold events and workshops only in places which are easily accessible to all. Sometimes the rigid legal and ethical processes involved in working with a university can feel like barriers to participation, so we have taken the time to make these processes more accessible and understandable, for instance in the creation of plain language research contracts. We value the passion, knowledge and expertise of all those who would like to take part in research and strive to make that process more equitable for all.

Are you looking to embrace equity in your collaboration?

Many of us are striving towards equity, and embracing it, but at the same time it can be difficult to know how to go about instigating it, and how to open up a conversation to discuss equitable working. It is something Brigstow spend a lot of time in conversation about. As a result of our learnings, both as a team and as a producer of 208 collaborative research projects, we have developed a set of toolkits that we hope might enable collaborative research teams to open up conversations about difficult subjects, to develop an understanding of each other’s individual needs and barriers and to have conversations that can pave the way to deeper understanding and more equitable partnerships.

Our latest toolkit “Cube of Contexts” (working title!) gives you the opportunity to share the context that you work in, and to listen to others. These conversations might help you to dispel assumptions and to find a shared understanding of the dynamics your partners work within, and to build together the foundation of an equitable partnership.


A series of coproduced creative workshops to improve access to dental services for adult survivors of child sex abuse

It is known that survivors of child sexual abuse have poorer oral health than the general population. This is from a combination of difficulties maintaining personal oral health routines and attending dental practices. This study included survivors, psychologist, sociologist, dentist, scientist among its team, and also had the input of service providers and dental professionals in the Critical Friends Group.

We undertook a series of coproduced creative workshops to explore how dental services can be improved for adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Additionally, separate Padlets were set up for the research team and the workshop participants with the study leads Nilu and Viv having access to both. These Padlets encouraged everyone to share ideas and reflections throughout the process, and to upload any outcomes from the workshops or anything else they wanted to share.

This research followed on from an Ideas Exchange project funded by Brigstow Institute. In that study we held two focus groups – one with dentists and one with survivors to explore ideas. Findings were shared via a webinar on 22 November 2021 to which over 100 people signed up from across the UK.

Building on this work, we applied for seed corn funding in 2022 from Brigstow to undertake five coproduced creative workshops with survivors. We were awarded additional funding from the Bristol and Weston Hospital charity allowing us to increase the number of workshops to nine – five creative workshops, and four focusing on producing outputs. A trained counsellor was present in all the creative workshops to offer support during, as well as being available after, the workshops for participants.

We purposefully sampled four Survivor Activists who were used to talking about the impact of CSA through Viv’s connections, three females and one male. Unfortunately, our male participant withdrew after contracting Covid.  We were also joined by Becky White, a postgraduate student who supported the study delivery and data analysis.

The workshops were planned to be a mix of academic and creative content. Framing key survivor experiences in an academic landscape and sharing the terminology and approaches to familiarise survivors with an academic presentation of lived experiences.

The first workshop was on Autoethnography – being able to tell your own story. Patricia Neville, our team sociologist, presented on this and Viv encouraged everyone to write their own stories of their mouths, ‘how the mouth experienced the dentist’ and what a perfect appointment might look like.

Our second workshop was on Stigma and Patricia Neville spoke about stigma through a sociological lens. The workshop was run by the fantastic artist Sejal Chad, who helped us all explore the parts of us that are allowed into the dental space, and those that are not welcome and must be left behind.

The third workshop explored Power. Becky White delivered the academic presentation, whilst the creative element was run by activist Dolly Sen, who encouraged everyone to write TripAdvisor reviews for their dental appointments, to subvert power dynamics in dental spaces.

Workshop four explored Models of Illness, Patricia Neville presented on the medical and social models of health and illness. Anita McCullen ran a script writing workshop where the characters encountered in dental settings came vividly to life – receptionists really featured strongly in people’s scripts.

Workshop five was the last of the creative process workshops and brought the focus back to Coproduction with the presentation delivered by Nilu Ahmed. Viv led the session encouraging the team to think about what our output would be. We brainstormed from grand notions of what we wanted to create – from operas to training programmes –  before considering what was practical and achievable in our time and budget. The group decided on a poster that could be sent to all dental practices.

In workshop six we invited an artist to meet with us to talk through the ideas the group were having. The group shared the journey so far and the artist was given access to the Padlet where ideas and outputs from our workshops had been uploaded. She produced draft mock ups of posters which we reviewed in workshop seven and fed back. As she finalised the poster, in workshop eight we reviewed the information sheet for the study. All participants told us that if they had only received the study information sheet, they would probably not have taken part. It was their relationship with Viv that had been the deciding factor on being involved. So, we co-created a new, more inclusive information sheet based on the core information that survivors would want included in a study information sheet. The text was agreed on and sent to the artist. In workshop nine, we reviewed the final poster.

Our artist then went on maternity leave, and the final tweaks were undertaken by a new artist. We launched our poster and study information sheet on 22 November 2022 – exactly one year to the day after our webinar sharing findings from our Ideas Exchange project. We are excited to see what the coming year(s) bring for this work.


Find out more about 2022 Experimental Partnership Improving Access to Oral Health Services for Adult Survivors of Child Sex Abuse (CSA).

Reflections on ‘Lost Property’ and ‘Nothing Echoes Here’

Dr Lesel Dawson and Dr Jimmy Hay presented their films to an audience of peers, academics, practitioners of film, and enthusiasts of cinema. The films were the product of a series of practice-as-research Brigstow funded projects that sought to explore if it is possible to convey the lived experience of grief, loss, and bereavement in a short film, by using the tools of filmmaking such as camera movement, shot length, focus, and editing. Their aim was to form an empathetic realization of embodied grief in fiction film. The team worked together to represent the lived experience of grief through the collation of a wide range of experiences. These films explored the extent to which narrative, sound, and cinematic techniques that foreground sensory experience could capture the raw experience of grief. The two films were Lost Property and Nothing Echoes Here. I entered the room, the researchers and the projects were briefly introduced by the academic lead for the Centre for Health Humanities and Science, then the lights were turned down and the first film, Lost Property began.

The film opened with the reverberation of sound throughout the room and the screen black. A cacophony of splitting wood, the rhythmic hammer of an axe head, and the coarse sound of sanding overlayed each other in an overwhelming discordance of noise that felt laden with emotion. Later, Lesel and Jimmy would discuss the manner in which people use labour to process grief, and that concept was palpable from the opening seconds of Lost Property. Images began to fill the screen, pairing up with the noises already heard, flitting from movement to movement, the cacophony taking its visual form. Until it slowed, faded, and was replaced by the rhythmic, methodical, almost gentle chopping of wood.

The film Lost Property is an exploration of some of the darker, uglier, and less represented forms of grief; what Lesel would later refer to as “disenfranchised grief”, that which is hidden away or not acknowledged. The film explores the dynamic of two women bereaving the loss of a husband and ex-husband. The film casts an exposing lens of the process of grief when it is mixed with hatred, anger, and jealousy. The first person we are presented with, Claire, who is the first wife of the deceased, is wrestling with the conflict between the grief she feels and the resentment she feels for the lost. This disenfranchised form of grief climaxed in a vehement outburst at the funeral, an accusation and attack against the second wife, Katie. This moment is presented throughout the film as a recurrent abstract flashback with an overlapping of voice and image that mimics the chaotic barrage of shots during the opening scene.

The grief is negotiated through the influence of the children, a recurrent motif across both films. Claire’s daughter suggests a gift of the father’s childhood toys to Katie’s daughter. The giving of this gift becomes a moment of discussion and strained-for closure between the two mothers. In this interaction, the film does not spare the audience the pain, discomfort, and anxiety felt by the women. Claire finally breaks through the uncomfortable civility with “I’m sorry about the funeral” a moment Katie instantly rejects with “Let’s not”. This develops into an impassioned argument of life, jealousy, and grief; displaying the manner in which our experience and our bereavement are never in our control as Katie states all she remembers of the funeral is the “smell of tuna sandwiches and you screaming in my face”.

Jimmy and Lesel discussed that a driving research question of this project was the attempt to present the process of grief in film in a way that does not simply utilize it as a narrative device, or a neat emotional shorthand to develop some plot. They believed this require a presentation of grief that challenges the notion of linearity in experience, and a presentation of grief-for-griefs-sake rather than grief to propel a larger narrative. They also believed it required a presentation of grief without the glorification and valorization that normally accompanies cinematic bereavement. Lost Property achieved this brilliantly.

The film enacted a form of narrative closure, with each woman processing their grief through a type of labour; Claire dismantling and removing the father’s former shed and Katie renovating and repairing the houseboat the couple used to live on together. Yet, in tandem with this potential closure, the film also presented the potential ugliness of bereavement from which there is little response or meaning to be attained. In Lost Property the viewer could witness that particular selfishness of grief, a product of a form of blinkering interiority in which nothing exists but your experience of anguish.

Lost Property was followed by the second film Nothing Echoes Here.

The film began with still shots of isolated objects cast in a cold blue light. A painting on the wall, a pair of slippers, an alarm clock, an empty bed. These images are suddenly replaced by the flickering flames of a campfire and a mother speaking to her children as they drift off to sleep, swaddled inside a tent. Morning breaks, and slowly develops with quiet shots of glorious sunlight falling through the vibrant green of the woods. There is a sense of disarming peace.

Nothing Echoes Here is a film about the locality of grief and the way in which memories are stored in spaces and objects. It examines the potential of space to cultivate grief but also the potential of space to offer one places of respite and freedom from memory and experience. Jimmy would explain after the film the central role of the non-familiar space, the wooded forest in which no echoes of the former life and the lost father can reverberate. The film contrasted the vibrant powerful green of the non-familiar exterior with the cold blue of the interior domestic space and site of grief. However, the relationship between these spaces was complicated, as was the third dynamic of the intense interior space of the grieving mind, represented by the unrelenting stare of the camera that barely left the face of the grieving mother throughout the film.

The film is set in the immediate aftermath of death and bereavement. It is set before any return to normative structures and before the rhythm of daily life has reasserted itself. The mother, unable to surround herself with the space and objects inextricably tied to her lost husband, has taken her children out of the house to live in a tent in the woods for a short while. The film presents a person’s desire for non-familiar places in the sudden experience of grief. However, the dichotomy of ‘safe non-familiar’ and ‘unsafe familiar’ is disturbed when the campsite is found by a group of school children who mindlessly destroy the site, throwing the family’s food onto the floor and dirtying or destroying the children’s toys. The family return home for the night, with a conflicting need for safety from the unsafe familiar place. The mother sleeps sat upright in the living room, still unable to enter the epicentre of her grief, the loci of objects and spaces that contain the connection to her former life, her former partner; until she is awakened, in the cold blue light, by the sudden ringing of the alarm clock. An alarm clock that must have rung in that room each day since the death, a siren calling to a lost shared presence that the object once conditioned. As she enters the room the viewer is reintroduced to those isolated objects from the opening scenes, now recontextualized. The alarm clock, the abstract painting of two lovers in bed, an article of clothing draped over a chair, a piece of jewellery abandoned on the nightstand, an unmade bed with the impressions of absent bodies in the sheets and absent heads in the pillows. It is a space locked in the locus of a moment, a place of stasis the griever cannot yet return to motion.

The film ends with the family returning to find a new camp, a new safe and unfamiliar space for them to inhabit until they have reached a point in which they can return. There is no great sense of closure, the family walk off in a random direction for a random distance measured in random choice time and the viewer knows their grieving process will continue, but little is known about how it will continue, for how long it will continue, or what resolutions, impasses, and developments will occur. The filmmakers spoke of their desire to move away from a linear structure of grief, one in which it is a process that is begun and worked through towards an end, and rather their desire to present the reality of grief as an event that forces individuals to devise a completely new structure of life. The conclusion of Nothing Echoes Here embodies this rejection of complete closure.

Similarly to Lost Property, sound played a crucial role in the film. The part of Nothing Echoes Here that affected me the most involved a series of shots leading to a building of sound into a crescendo reflecting the rupture and release of pent up pain. After the mother drops her children off at school she takes some washing to the launderette, the naturalistic sound of the film is muted and in its place begins a soft melodic male humming as she walks through spaces that seem significant, familiar. Passing the boardwalk of a beach, through green fields, and to a site of gentle resting boats, the male humming continues until it is joined in dialogue by a female singing voice, which is then accompanied by the subtle and infrequent notes on an instrument. The music stops and starts with the gaps creating a sense of absence, a sense of space, until it is suddenly broken by the return to the spinning of the laundry drum beating and building in pace and intensity. The shot focuses on the mother’s face and the viewer witnesses this beating turn into an incessant and furious whirr until she is brought to breaking point and attempts to drown out the sound of absence by putting on a pair of headphones. Once again, all is muted and this time replaced by the song ‘The Space’ by Matt Harding and, with the film drawing on the filmmaker’s personal experience of feelings of uncontrollability and intense grief triggered by music, the actor weeps. An audience member would later remark that she found “her weeping to be quite haunting in its ferocity”.

After the films, Lesel and Jimmy explained the research focuses behind this project, their individual approaches, and how these shaped and structured the experience of filming. They also discussed the unpredictable aspects, the ways in which all the cast and crew involved brought their own memories and experiences of grief to the project, and the impact the creation of these films has had on both of them. Lesel sought to explore how the process of recapturing and recontextualizing personal memories and emotions affects those memories and emotions. Jimmy wanted to redress the failure of traditional film to properly capture and respond to grief. I believe that both researchers found a little of what they were looking for and a lot of what they were not expecting. Both films were an impactful response to grief that affected the audience, myself included.

Personally, I keep returning to a line in Nothing Echoes Here that occurred when one of the children expresses their desire to stay in the house rather than return to the unfamiliar space of the woods. The mother comforts them by saying they need to do this just for a short while longer and that “it’s not forever”. What may have been to some an innocuous or quite literal statement for me was recontextualized into a profound utterance. When faced with the sheer permanence of death and the fleeting nature of human life, maybe some small comfort can be drawn from that constant ever-present sense that it is not forever.


Motherhood in a Climate Crisis: Story so Far

Since March 2022 when the project team met in person for the first time around Brigstow’s recipients cohort meeting, Motherhood in a Climate Crisis officially moved from the conceptual into the practical.

From left to right: Liz Mytton, Celia Turley, Maria Fannin, Sophia Cheng and Jo McAndrews

The aim of the project was to reduce isolation and stigma and stimulate ongoing conversation on the ways that Climate Change impacts women’s lives through a pilot series of creative theatre, story and improvisation workshops to explore, to clarify and communicate stories of motherhood in a climate crisis.

You can find out more about the rationale of the project here.

Now it was about the how.

Our story so far has been captured in this short summary video [4:41]

The Recruitment

The move from the conceptual to the practical was rapid. With a venue and dates secured, what followed was hectic activity to try to reach as many people and networks in the Bristol area. Liz was featured on Ujima radio, and Sophia was featured in a dedicated episode for the Climate Psychology Alliance podcast. Community groups, women’s centres, climate organising conferences and many other places were visited to try and raise awareness of the project.

A public session ran in May 2022, joined by 8 women, some travelling from as far as London. The team learned that in some circles the project circulated many times, but in others outreach had been less successful.

Liz and Jo ran a powerful session, with a mix of theatre-filled activities, reflective individual exercises, and group discussion. The eight women experienced a sample of what the 5-week process might be like. There was a range of different experiences of motherhood: some were mothers already; others were ambivalent, or not wanting to bring a child into the world as it is. There was an age range from 24-37. It was a full on day.

“It was gentle, kind and inclusive. I loved the physical movement and care. I felt like I was in a safe supportive space and it became really easy to connect with the other women in the room.” Participant

The process

Juggling different demands – notably childcare – 5 participants plus Sophia would go forward through to performance. From this point onwards Liz and Jo delivered a 5-week program exploring the two issues of motherhood and the climate crisis in care-filled and creative ways. Despite all that life can throw, the group showed up week after week. Relationships were building, trust was growing, care was centred. Jo McAndrews has written a separate blog focusing on this aspect of the project in particular. Read “Developing a culture of radical care in our theatre and storytelling project, Motherhood in a Climate Crisis“.

Liz’s facilitation exercises where groups of participants created tableaux on difficult topics opened up a conversation that staying purely in their heads would never have done. The observing group commented too on what they saw in the participants’ work.

Addressing the lack of diversity

The project team felt the need to say it like it was: the group lacked diversity, from a race and ethnicity perspective – Liz being the only woman of colour. There was also not as broad a range of motherhood perspectives as the team knew to be out there. As a project that had been born from the personal experiences of a very particular demographic, it held an authenticity and self-evident truth in those communities but the team felt it was not successful in communicating the question and ideas to women with different experiences. There are rich questions to be explored in terms of how this question plays out across diverse communities. However, it became clear to the team they would not do this meaningfully in this initial process; i.e. a public live performance due to the concern that it might appear that the group were speaking authoritatively on the experience of women generally, when it was clear that many women and stories were not represented. 

Liz suggested participants were invited into the team’s thinking, so that began the next weekend’s meeting. Each of the project team named the issue and shared their suggested proposition. There was agreement in the room, though with a twinge of disappointment around the absence of a performance. The team worked with this and landed on the ideal situation: focus on the filming and collecting the individual stories as monologues that could then sit next to future stories from a wider range of voices. Also, an open rehearsal could take place: participants could invite a close friend or two to witness their testimonies and honour the journey they’d taken.

It seemed there was a way forward that met everyone’s needs, culminating in a different kind of performance everyone could feel proud of.

The open rehearsal

In the early evening on 2nd July 2022, friends who had come to bear witness to these stories joined the group to watch an open rehearsal. They were invited into some of the warm up exercises, and the first run through, which went smoothly. The group was pleased it had decided to perform to a live audience as well as film it, and pleased also that the audience was small and very informal. It gave them the freedom to not worry about mistakes and to really enjoy sharing what they had created. An emotional experience for everyone.

“My lasting impression of the performance was the honesty, respect and emotional resonance of all the different positions.” Audience member

The team had brought in a professional therapist to host a group debrief with participants, in order to make sure care was threaded through their experience and also to take the conversation out to a slightly wider group. There was open space for anyone to share how they felt. The evening finished with an informal drink and chat and it helped that the whole team would meet again the next day to hold any vulnerability or unmet needs.

One chair for the unborn or not to be

The team was so pleased that everyone who was part of the project was still totally committed right to the end. Addressing a subject as enormous as this, there was every possibility that it would be too difficult for some people to stay involved. The team believes that the way they worked together to create a culture of creativity, welcome, and care helped everyone to stay involved and be willing to contribute their vulnerable stories to a larger process that held everyone.

“I think this was the only true safe space I have ever been in.” Ruby, Participant

The stories

And so, finally, the project team are ready to share the individual stories. These were recorded straight to camera.

Disclaimer: These stories are full of heart. It took courage to write and perform them and it takes courage to watch them as well.

Each video is only a few minutes long. They are all different.


The questions

  • How did watching one or more of these videos make you feel?
  • Do you see yourself in any of these stories? What might you say that would be different?
  • Would you share these conversations with anyone you know?
  • What might your story of motherhood in a climate crisis be?

The support

With Thanks

To our funders, Brigstow Institute, Necessity and With Many Roots

Next steps

They are planning the next stage of this project, please get in touch if you would like to be involved. You can contact the project at

A longer version of this story, exploring more of the process, the niggles and the nuances can be found at With Many Roots: