MY STORY. –– Beth Robertson is leading a unique five-day event, I Am festival

The I Am festival, running in London for the week March 11 to 15, is the only event of its kind to focus on deaf, disabled and neurodivergent young people aged over 16, with the support of Graeae Theatre Company, the neurodivergent ped company BLINK Dance and Coney, the arts and social change charity, among others. But it is not taking place in out of-the-way community centres or found space. Co-created with SEND special needs and disabilities (SEND) settings, creative practitioners and a team of young cultural ambassadors the I Am festival, organised by the not-for-profit organisation A New Direction, takes place principally at Sadler’s Wells, Tate Modern, Kensington Palace and the National Theatre.

 What is your own background?

I have been working for A New Direction for 18 months and absolutely love working on the I Am festival programme as it brings together my creative arts background as well as my belief that artistic opportunities should be equitable for all.  


How would you describe the festival?

I Am is our annual festival celebrating and empowering the creativity of deaf, disabled and neurodivergent young people. We do this by working with SEND schools across London through a network of brilliant teachers, as well as expert partners to champion for these young people to have equitable access to all of the amazing cultural opportunities that London has to offer.


When did I Am start, and who was behind it?

The I Am festival first took place in 2015 and grew from a request from SEND settings A New Direction was working with to provide a platform to showcase the amazing talents of children and young people in these settings.  A New Direction worked with a network of exceptionally committed and skilled teachers and educators to create the festival, which over the past nine years has enabled hundreds of children and young people to take part in a wide variety of creative and cultural activities and share these with each other and the wider public.


What is your role?

Programme manager. This involves working with our brilliant freelance team to bring the festival to life by commissioning artists to work with us on the festival, liaising with venues, coordinating schools and making lots of to-do lists!


What sort of creativity will be in the programme, and which will be your favourite event?

The theme of this year’s festival is See Me, Hear Me. This is such a brilliant theme to explore, particularly given our aim to empower these young people. We hope that through this festival, deaf, disabled and neurodivergent young people will be seen and heard all across London.

We have a jam-packed schedule. Festival goers will try their hand at coding, clay making, musical portraits… some will go on a top-secret mission around Kensington Palace. Others will create art and poetry. Our Cultural Ambassadors, a cohort of 10 deaf, disabled, and neurodivergent young people, will lead participants to move and groove and create fabulous flowers.

Teachers will explore the use of movement for communication and sensory storytelling. And participants from the cultural sector will get the opportunity to delve into discussions around accessible and inclusive progression routes.


You’re getting access to some major venues. How were they persuaded to participate, and what will happen at each of the main ones?

We’re really grateful for the support from the venues we’re working with. They have all been so open to our ideas and are as excited as we are to welcome these amazing children and young people into their venues. They really recognise the importance of this work.

At Sadler’s Wells we will be hosting the Cultural Ambassador’s “I’m Amazing, You’re Amazing” event as well as a how to recruit and support a disabled creative workforce masterclass delivered by Access All Areas Theatre.

Tate Modern will play host to over 100 deaf, disabled and neurodivergent children and young people who will be taking part in lots of different activities. Teacher CPDs by BLINK Dance Theatre will take place at the National Theatre along with workshops for children and young people delivered by ActionSpace and Graeae Theatre.

And a top-secret mission led by Coney will see children and young people exploring the spaces of Kensington Palace.


Who do you hope will benefit most from the events?

First and foremost the children and young people coming to these events. We hope that this festival will give them an opportunity to explore a new space and try something new. But we also hope for teachers to benefit, both by attending the CPD sessions and also experiencing new creative activities.

Through our cultural sector masterclass we also hope that cultural organisations can learn more about inclusive progression routes and how they can open up opportunities in the sector.

And, of course, the brilliant Cultural Ambassadors. Through leading their own event and supporting the rest of the festival, we hope that they will gain a multitude of skills that they can take into their next opportunity.


How have you found your participants?

We have a brilliant network of over 50 teachers who are working in SEND settings across London called the I Am network. They are huge champions of this work and support it by bringing their students to events.

We also work with AFK, a charity who support disabled young people into employment, who recruit and support the Cultural Ambassadors.


How is it funded, now much does admission cost, and what will happen to any profit?

As a not-for-profit, all of our festival events are free. We are grateful to Arts Council England who fund this work and to the support in kind from wonderful organisations.


How would you like to see I Am Festival grow?

Taking over London! We would love to see this festival expand into other venues and be able to support more deaf, disabled and neurodivergent children and young people to experience London’s cultural offerings.

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