Toward the end of his life, the American philosopher Richard Rorty reflected on a lifetime of academic enquiry. His conclusion was simple, it is through sentiment and sympathy, not through rationality and universalistic moral discourse, that democratic advances take place.
Our challenge was to develop a way of generating empathy, sympathy and a more immediate sense of identification with other people. Wiltshire Voices is the result of our efforts to apply Rorty’s conviction in a practical and useful way.
All the Wiltshire Voices projects follow the same methodology, devised and developed by Wiltshire Council’s Area Boards team. It provides a tried and tested way of reaching out to different communities, involving key stakeholders, identifying the issues that really matter and linking in with our Area Boards to provide the mechanisms and support needed to address them.
From the outset we recognised that there are many different groups and agencies working with our target groups who would need to be brought on board if the projects were to succeed. Our first step in all projects therefore, is to identify a Project Champion to help us make the links and connections we need to ensure that key stakeholders are engaged and signed up to the project. In many cases the Project Champion will be a member of the target group themselves. In Tidworth we recruited Lydia Baos from the Skilled for Health team to fulfil this important role. Lydia was able to identify key contacts, groups, army wives and assist with promotion of the project and to ensure we had the support and buy-in from the MOD and other partners.
With the support and guidance of our Project Champion we were able to identify a list of key stakeholders, who would have an interest in the project and it’s outcomes. They were invited to a launch event in the Queen Elizabeth Medical Centre in Tidworth on 19th May 2011 where we outlined the aims of the project. We used the event to secure their support for the project and draw on the extensive knowledge of the key issues facing army families.
The event was well attended with over 50 people present representing a range of key agencies including The Army Families Federation, SSAFFA, Army Welfare Service, Unit Welfare Officers, the Garrison Commander, The HIVE (advice and information for army families), Social Services, Action 4 Children, army wives, area board members, parish councillors and others. Those attending the event were very positive about the project and agreed to form part of a wider reference group to receive regular updates on the project, contribute data and other information as required.
All projects include an element of desktop research, where we familiarise ourselves with the context and background to the issues from existing studies and research. In this case we were able to draw upon a study by Wiltshire Council into the Provision of Services to Military Communities as well as work carried out under the Military/Civilian Integration Programme. We also reviewed material from National studies.
Following the launch event the next stage in the process was to talk to members of the target group directly, in smaller focus groups. Over a period of four months we talked to over 40 army wives by visiting playgroups and other sessions, supported by Army Welfare Services, Skilled for Health and other contacts. Using the ‘You and Yours’ facilitators guide, developed by the project team, we asked a series of open questions based on the topics identified at the launch event and other desk based research work we had carried out. Responses were recorded verbatim and notes from different groups compared to identify common themes and issues that would appear in the film. Through these discussions we were able to hear the women’s own stories, we were also able to confirm that the issues identified by our stakeholders were the right ones, giving us the confidence to explore these issues further in the DVD.
The army wives met with our BAFTA Award Winning film company True Vision, who were commissioned to produce the series of 12 Wiltshire
Voices films. Filming took place over three days and included footage of the women in everyday situations, at home, shopping and attending playgroups with their children. In face to face interviews they recounted their experiences of army family life and living in the Tidworth Community Area.
It is important to note that the film features only the voices of the women, there are no other participants and the views expressed are not challenged or mediated in any way.
The army wives were invited to review the first cut of the film to ensure that they were content with the portrayal of the issues. Other key partners such as the MOD were also invited to comment. Their comments were fed back to the Film Company and amendments made where required.
The Wiltshire Voices project and the army wives DVD was launched in Tidworth on 16th February 2012 to an invited audience including the Garrison Commander, local councillors, a cabinet member from Wiltshire Council and representatives of various local organisations and agencies and the army wives. Following the screening, members of the audience were invited to participate in round table discussions about the issues raised in the film and local action that could be taken around them. This process was facilitated with the use of quotation cards taken directly from the film and used to focus discussion and debate on the issues raised by the Women. The army wives sat at each table to help explain and explore the issues and potential solutions.
Whilst it is still early on in the process the early outcomes identified above do indicate that the project has been worthwhile and shows that it is likely to deliver more positive benefits to the community of army wives in Tidworth in the longer term. Interest in the DVD has been considerable with the Army Welfare Service taking copies for training and other educational purposes. Agencies working with army families have been very supportive and pleased that the issues they have been raising for some time now have a higher profile. The DVD has been made available to a Deployment Group, where several agencies come together to assess the impact of recent large deployments of troops and the impact on families and service provision. The DVD will be shown to other area boards in Wiltshire with military communities.
The Wiltshire Forum of Community Partnerships will also use this and other DVD’s to help raise awareness of issues facing different groups to our community partnerships who are responsible for producing community plans across Wiltshire.
Finally, it is interesting to observe that the film has had powerful impact on those that have viewed it, helping to build a sense of empathy, understanding and sympathy with the Army wives and their issues. This sense of empathy has motivated people to action that is already making a difference locally. The challenge will be to maintain the impetus that the film has generated and to turn this into sustained responses from the local service providers and partners involved. Perhaps the most encouraging outcome of the project is the emergence of the Army Wives themselves, who are now organising themselves to deliver outcomes and to lobby for action.
Wiltshire Voices is an example of community film making. It is not a documentary in the formal sense, because it does not set out with an agenda or story board. The film making is part of a wider engagement process that enables issues to emerge from the participants themselves – who in a sense direct their own film. This is their own story, their own film.