Head and shoulders portraitHeena and Hafsah

Heena Patel

Project Manager for the COVID-19 Collecting Project

Heena, could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, but have lived in Manchester for all of my adult life.  Since my early twenties, I’ve been organising diy cultural events for people who are marginalised in some way or another, starting with Ladyfest Manchester, a three-day multimedia festival showcasing women artists. After that I was part of the Kaffequeeria collective, which ran queer cafes and gigs for people who didn’t fit into the city’s mainstream scene. Most of the paid work I’ve done has been in voluntary sector and in disability support as part of further education. I’m also a writer, and occasional performer and I’m a very keen cyclist.

I’d like to know more about Over Here Zine Fest – it sounds very creative and empowering.

I’ve been to a fair few zine fests and zine fairs in my time and they were never very ethnically diverse, so they always felt a bit alienating. They often didn’t feel very diverse in any other ways either and what’s on offer didn’t really excite me.  To paraphrase Toni Morrison, “If there is a zine fest that you want to go to that doesn’t exist yet, then you must organise it yourself.”  I wanted to see a zine fair that was open to all, but all the stallholders were black and/or Asian. I also liked the idea of an event that wasn’t centred around London.

I spoke to Seleena Daye, a local artist and writer, about this; that got the ball rolling and we assembled a small organising team of black and/or Asian zine-makers, activists and artists. Cultureword supported us financially and offered us meeting space and put us in connection with groups of artists who were new to zine-making and wanted to give it a go. We held our event in conjunction with their Black Writers Conference which takes place every two years. The event was very well-attended and there was a great atmosphere; the stallholders were really glad to be surrounded by plenty of black and brown faces. As well as the stalls we had activities and talks going on. We’d like to hold another Over Here event, but it’s a bit difficult at the moment; we are looking at moving it online until it’s safer to do an in-person event.

What excites you about your new role as Project Manager for the COVID-19 Collecting Project?

I’m most looking forward to connecting to groups and activists around Greater Manchester and hearing their stories.  I’ve already heard about some of the inspiring and proactive work that people have been doing to meet community need both before and in response to lockdown.

And what do you think might be your biggest challenges?

It’s a very obvious one, but working entirely remotely not through my own choice is always going to be a challenge, especially on collaborative aspects of the project. And not being able to work with groups face-to-face; there are so many barriers to meeting virtually. You do your best, but you usually have to compromise on some aspect of accessibility.

How easy has it been to get to know the team remotely?

Luckily, I’m familiar with some of the staff through support I got from the Centre when I was working on an archive project for Commonword and through writing communities, so it’s been OK. I’ve arranged for short meetings where I could find out about their roles within the RACE Centre and Education Trust, but also so they could put work aside and they could tell me a bit about themselves.

Hafsah Bashir

Community Producer

Hafsah, could you tell us a bit about yourself?  

I am a conscious, creative mother who has been working within the arts sector for the last 7 years. I am a poet, playwright and performer. I am also an Associate Artist with the Poetry Exchange and the Oldham Coliseum Theatre, a Supported Artist with the Royal Exchange Theatre, a Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellow and am on the Board of Trustees for Manchester City Of Literature. A few years back myself and fellow creative Nikki Mailer set up a collective called Outside The Frame Arts rooted in anti-racism with a mission to platform unheard voices through the arts and challenge the gatekeepers of knowledge. Representation has always been important to me and through my socially engaged practice, I am passionate about the work I do in the heart of and with our communities, challenging the inherently white spaces we often have to navigate as people of the global majority.  

I’d love to know more about the Poetry Health Service – it sounds such a wonderful idea, especially in these difficult times.  

The Poetry Health Service is one of those projects I am most proud of, originally conceived during lockdown when I decided to read poetry and short stories for 75 days straight on my Instagram Live. It brings me and everybody who engages with it much joy, connection and healing which you can read about on the testimonial page at Last year, I invited Instagram listeners to write a haiku about how they were feeling either in response to the readings or just during the pandemic in general. As people sent me their haikus, I shared them for others which created this powerful cycle of appreciation and that’s how the idea was born. A free online service that provides both classic and contemporary poetry as a tool for healing and connection. Developed by myself and Coney HQ and originally commissioned by Oldham Coliseum Theatre Homemakers in partnership with HOME Manchester, it illustrates how, as Helen Mort puts it,  ‘poetry is a source of hope, freedom and solace in difficult times.’ 80 poets originally donated their poems and visitors to the website have responded from across the globe with haikus of their own which have been added to our gallery page- a wonderful collection of panaceas by the people for the people.   

What excites you about the role of Community Producer?

 I have always been passionate about meeting people as they are, getting to know diverse communities and forming deep and meaningful relationships that don’t stop when a project has produced its outcomes but instead fosters a legacy. One that is of benefit to the community in either raising profiles, providing resources and training or supporting in the different ways a community wants us to. It’s exciting to work with local individuals and community groups to realise their creative ideas and support the development of curation or producing skills during the process. Though I was engaged in this work in my freelance capacity for a few years, I am excited to be part of a team through this role of Community Producer, with an organisation that is in line with my politics, my ethics and my practice. I am a creative by nature, passionate about exploring ideas and finding ways to bring them into being in a way that can be helpful to future generations when thinking about our human story. To do this with an evolving creative community that hopefully I can connect with in a physical space, is what is exciting me most.  

 And what do you think might be your biggest challenges? 

Coming from a community that has been  disproportionately affected by COVID-19, I am well aware of how lockdown has impacted some of the most socially vulnerable. Some communities have been able to organise providing care and support through mutual aid groups etc but lack of resources, no recourse to public funding, loss of jobs and digital poverty have also meant there are many people facing incredible hardships right now. I think access is a big challenge – whose voices are we still not hearing, who are we not yet reaching? The impact of COVID-19 has created new barriers as well as exacerbated old ones when thinking about community participation. Many negative narratives have been peddled through the media and I am thinking about the different ways we can speak back to long standing inequalities and institutional racism in the face of these challenges at the same time that communities are doing their utmost to survive the pressures of the pandemic. Finding that right balance is important. A good reminder for me is constantly asking myself how can we better adapt what we are doing when thinking about supportive creative engagement as opposed to communities adopting what you might want them to do.  

How easy has it been to get to know the team remotely? 

I have to say this has not been easy! Joining a new organisation remotely, getting to know the team from your laptop and being added to a digital system that often feels like it’s against you has been an interesting experience. However the team themselves have been incredibly supportive and even though at the beginning some of the staff were on furlough, the 30 minute initial meets over Teams to get to know one another and collective zoom meetings have meant myself and Heena have been able to feel part of a welcoming team. That said, I can’t wait to get into a physical space with everyone and actually immerse myself in the special collections held in the library. Hopefully not long now at all!