Parenting in a Pandemic: Using Community Arts to Reduce Social Isolation and Explore the Experiences and Policy Needs of Marginalised Families

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol


For the past two years, the University of Bristol and Wellspring Settlement have been working in partnership on a participatory research project on the history of Single Parent Action Network (SPAN). The Covid-19 pandemic meant that we had to quickly take our participatory methodologies online. This project builds on the knowledge we have gained about how best to adapt community arts and research to a socially distanced world, and will bring our participatory methodologies to a wider audience in the voluntary and community sector. It also builds on a key finding from our research on the history of SPAN: this was an organisation that put the lived experience of race, gender, class and poverty at the heart of their activism. As a grass-roots, user-led organisation, it was able to make an unique contribution to policy debates. This foregrounding of experience takes on new importance now, as Covid-19 has disproportionately disadvantaged ethnic minority groups, those living on low incomes, single parent families, and others. Yet the voices of these groups have seldom been heard in the public debate about the pandemic and its effects.

We will use our insights from the history of SPAN to bring together parents from across Bristol who belong to groups that have been particularly disadvantaged and marginalised by the Covid-19 pandemic: single parents, ethnic minority families, those living with a disability, and/or in socio-economically disadvantaged areas. They will participate in a participatory arts programme, which will be delivered via an innovative mixture of distanced methods: online meetings, social media, and telephone check-ins. This programme will give participants a chance to explore their experience of the pandemic, and to articulate their vision of a post-Covid future in which their families can thrive. The programme is designed to create connections, reduce social isolation at a time of continued social distancing and disruption, and increase the wellbeing and confidence of the participants. It will also produce a valuable knowledge base about the experiences and needs of vulnerable families, and we will disseminate this in a number of ways. In collaboration with Rising Arts Agency, we will create a public campaign in Bristol, which will act as a platform for the voices and perspectives of parents from these groups, raising public awareness. In collaboration with the Equality Trust, an online event will bring together programme participants, local MPs and councillors to launch a policy paper, co-written with participants. This paper will highlight the issues that policy- and decision makers need to take into account. Finally, working with Locality, a case study will make our methodology available to community arts practitioners, and two online events will bring together those who are seeking ways in which to adapt their way of working to the current situation. Our existing community researchers will be central to the design and delivery of this programme of work, creating opportunities for them to expand their networks and move into paid employment.

The project has been designed by a team spanning the University of Bristol team and existing project partners Wellspring Settlement, and builds on the strong working relationships created by the current research project. It will also create new relationships. Organisations across Bristol's voluntary sector will work with us on recruiting participants who would not engage with the university, including Ambition Lawrence Weston, Southmead Development Trust, Eastside Community Trust, Social Prescribing for Equality and Resilience Bristol, and Supportive Parents. Working with Rising Arts Agency will allow us to create a powerful campaign that will have a big impact in Bristol and beyond. Finally, our collaborations with the Equality Trust and Locality will ensure that this work has national reach, and will continue to have an impact beyond the lifetime of the project.


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Title "We shouldn't have to shout to be heard": parenting in the pandemic 
Description Between 10 - 24 October 2022 billboards and posters designed by Lucy Turner and Rising Arts Agency were exhibited at 16 sites across Bristol featuring quotes describing the struggles and triumphs of mothers from disadvantaged families during the pandemic. In November 2021 and March 2022 thirty mothers from families impacted by low income, living with a disability, single parenting or from a minority ethnic community, took part in a specially designed creative programme. The project asked the following questions: what do we need to know about parenting before and during the pandemic? What does your family need to thrive in the future? Lucy Jackson and Rising Arts then worked with this material to generate the #ShouldntHaveToShout campaign. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2022 
Impact 1. The participants in the art groups reported high levels of satisfaction at seeing their experiences featured in a high-profile campaign. 2. This was a high-profile commission for Turner, who is an emerging artist from an underrepresented background. 3. Rising Arts were glad to expand their experience of community-led projects, which is a strategic priority for the agency. 
Description The experiences of participants were all unique with each family having experienced a different combination of challenges. Reflecting on their experiences of the pandemic and looking forward to the post-pandemic period, however, a number of key themes emerged from women's testimonies and artwork.

1 The overarching theme to emerge from the groups was a feeling that parents' own expertise regarding their children's wellbeing was not recognized or taken seriously. Women expressed frustration at the barriers that prevent them from accessing the resources and support they need to ensure the security, happiness and wellbeing of their children. In the words of one participant: 'Being her mum is not burdensome but not having an outlet for me to ask for support has been horrible.' Participants wanted to push back on a system in which they feel 'decisions are made for us not by us'.

2. Childcare
Both single parents and those living with partners described a lack of childcare support as a persistent challenge. In the art sessions, parents described harrowing experiences of having to manage childcare alone during the pandemic. These experiences were particularly challenging for single mothers, new mothers, those with young children, and families living with disabilities. While the end of lockdown has eased some of these pressures, many remain as parents have attempted to return to work. In addition to affecting the mental health of parents, the demands of childcare have material consequences for families. Parents described themselves as feeling 'trapped' until their children reach school age. Beyond the well-documented issues that limited childcare facilities create for women looking to return to paid employment, art group participants shared how a lack of childcare support makes it difficult for women to attend healthcare appointments and to find housing. We saw this first hand as a number of potential participants who had expressed interest in joining the art groups were unable to do so as we could not provide creche facilities.

3. Schools
One widely-experienced challenge shared by parents related to the quality of communication they had with their children's schools. While parents acknowledged the burden placed on teachers by the sudden shift to home schooling, they articulated feelings of having been left 'completely in the dark' during the pandemic. Mums recalled the stress and anxiety they experienced at having been expected to be able to deliver home-schooling with no training or coaching.In addition to not feeling well-informed about home schooling, parents also shared their frustration at not having channels to interact with schools and/or make interventions on behalf of their children. Beyond the pandemic, parents felt that the quality of communication with schools and teachers needed to improve. As one woman noted: 'We have to act cautiously to discuss issues with teachers so we are listened to'. This feeling was particularly acute among ethnic minority women who noted the existence of 'stereotypes about black angry mums' and the barriers this posed in terms of parent-teacher interaction.

4. Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). Several of the art group participants and Art Researchers have children with disabilities and/or (suspected) special educational needs. Although home-schooling allowed some children to receive bespoke education in contexts better suited to their needs, limited access to professional support and resources was felt acutely by parents. Reflecting on the upheavals of the Covid-19 lockdowns as well as the situation pre- and post-pandemic, parents described how there is often a long wait from the point at which parents or teachers flag potential educational needs and children receiving official diagnoses. In order to access support services and resources, however, children need to have a diagnosis. This means that families can be left in 'limbo' for months (or years), unable to access support. In one case, a mother described being told by her school's Special Needs Co-ordinator that they had 'to wait for [her son] to fail' in order to get additional support.

5. Community-building

Looking back on the art groups, participants identified three ways that the project had benefitted their lives.

(a) Connection. Participants enjoyed the opportunities to meet and talk to other parents. Many enjoyed the socialising aspect and spoke of having developed a real 'connection' to the others in their group. Participants valued the reciprocity of the groups which provided an opportunity to hear about the experiences of others and share their own stories. As one participant reflected: 'I felt like it was a safe space to share my experiences and felt heard. It was really valuable hearing everyone else's too'.
(b) Creativity. Many participants valued having the 'freedom to be creative'. Participants liked the art prompts format which they felt gave the sessions focus while allowing individuals to be creative and articulate their own experience. In the words of one participant: '[I] really loved how incredibly different our art was and how we each interpreted the task differently but all had meaningful and valid points that reflected each other's experience of Covid lockdown.'
(c) Advice. Art sessions were also a source of practical support and advice. Many participants suggested that they had difficulty accessing professional services (such as SEND referrals, childcare, and mental health support) and so valued the opportunity to hear about resources and strategies for getting support from one another. A number of participants were signposted to family activities and others were referred to mental health services.
Exploitation Route We are already taking this forward in a new project on health inequalities, working with Wellspring Settlement. We also hope that our policy paper will continue to resonate with policy makers working in this area.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy

Description Our project has had non-academic impact in the following areas: 1. Benefits for participants in the art research groups. We carried out extensive evaluation and found that overall wellbeing levels improved for participants in the art groups. Qualitative feedback demonstrated that participants appreciated and benefited from the opportunity to discuss their pandemic experiences in a friendly and supportive space. They also reported high levels of satisfaction at seeing their experiences reflected in the poster/billboard campaign and having the opportunity to present this campaign at the Caring Economy symposium and the March of the Mummies demonstration. 2. Community researchers from our previous project participated in this project in a paid capacity, as advisory Art Researchers. This represented a move from voluntary to paid work, and a further opportunity to develop their research and facilitation skills. Over the course of the project, and with the support of the project Community Support Worker, a number of the community researchers moved into new paid roles beyond the project, or into work that better reflected their skills and qualifications. 3. Our partner organisation Wellspring Settlement benefited from the opportunity to work with new forms of blended/hybrid delivery, creative exploration of social problems, and working with a campaign format. The success of this project is indicated by the fact that the organisation has kept the Community Support Worker on in a permanent Creative Research Co-ordinator role. The organisation has also benefited from a further £62k of funding for a project on inequalities in community health that we have developed using the methodologies from this project. 4. The project Community Support Worker was able to develop new skills in the course of developing and leading this project, and is now in a permanent position at Wellspring Settlement. 5. The policy paper was presented at the Caring Economy symposium in Bristol in October 2022, and fed into a manifesto for a caring economy presented by Bristol Women's Commission to Dan Jones, the Metro Mayor for the West of England Combined Authority in January 2023. community researchers. The extensive evaluation process and our ongoing contact with community researchers has shown that participation in the project was highly valued and allowed researchers to build their skills and confidence. A number of researchers have been central to the development and execution of the follow-on Parenting in the Pandemic project, including taking on paid roles as consultants and facilitators. 2. Benefits for our partner organisation. For Wellspring Settlement, the project has been an opportunity to further develop links with the university, collaborative research methodologies and blended delivery during the pandemic. Some of this learning was captured in a paper authored by the Community Support Worker and Community Inclusion Manager. The project Community Support Worker was a central part of the development of the Follow-On Funding application, and the funding of this project has enabled significant career and personal development for this individual. She has also been involved in the co-authorship of several of the project outputs. 3. Emerging policy impacts via the Parenting in the Pandemic Follow-On project. We aim to produce a policy paper for local and national government in June 2022. 4. Enrichment of the local area via the mural produced by Carrie Reichardt (delayed due to Covid, but due to be installed in spring 2022). 5. Adding to the collection of the Feminist Archive South via the accession of the SPAN archive and oral histories.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description 'We shouldn't have to shout to be heard': Valuing Parents as Experts
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Description Art groups 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In November 2021 and March 2022 thirty mothers from families impacted by low income, living with a disability, single parenting or from a minority ethnic community, took part in a specially designed creative programme to explore their experiences of the pandemic.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022