The power of telling your own story

In this guest blog, Jenny Richards, a member of the East London-based Grand Union Orchestra (GUO), talks about their approach to amplifying lesser-heard voices. 

At The Young Foundation we are passionate about storytelling, amplifying the voices of communities and challenging externally-imposed narratives, which often fail to capture the richness and complexity of people and places.

Our commitment to employing an ethnographic approach to social research was instilled by our Founder Michael Young. He believed that immersing himself in a place was the only way to identify and understand social need in depth, as it was being experienced. Among his many lifetime achievements, Michael Young, with Peter Willmott, undertook one of the most influential sociological studies of the 20th century – Family and Kinship in East London – using this approach.

While we work nationwide, our roots in our home area of East London remain. In this guest blog, Jenny Richards, a member of the East London-based Grand Union Orchestra (GUO), talks about their approach to amplifying lesser-heard voices and connecting communities through the arts. She also reflects on the impact seeing her experiences reflected in a story for the first time had on her, and how she hopes her writing will have the same empowering impact on others.

I read a book featuring a queer female protagonist at 18.

I came out as bisexual a few months later.

Seeing my sexuality reflected in a character for the first time authenticated the way I had been feeling, as being in the world of books had always been my favourite place to be, and it now turned out queer characters existed there too!

I wanted more of these stories. Actually, I needed more of these stories. So I decided to take control of the narrative that had been letting me down, and began to write the characters I had been so desperately craving to see.

I’m currently working on two plays, both with queer, female relationships at the heart. One of them explores the impact Section 28 had, which was legislation that came in place 30 years ago, banning local authorities from promoting homosexually. I didn’t know about this before the Director of the theatre company I’m in (also a queer woman) asked me to write about it. I didn’t know about the history of my own community, as no one had thought to teach it. But, gradually, through writing these stories, I’ve gained confidence in embracing my identity, learning all the things I should have found out about at school.

And this experience taught me to search out other people’s narratives that weren’t in the mainstream – if no one thought teaching queer history was necessary, what else was I blind too? And that’s just part of the reason I’m so lucky to work with Grand Union Orchestra (GUO), who have already taught me so much about the migrant experience.

The GUO is a musical organisation based in East London that strives to bring all ages and cultures together to create musical work that reflects and responds to our country’s ever-widening demographic, by merging musical genres and musical traditions.

And the GUO understood the power of getting to tell your own story long before I did. The Orchestra was born in response to a commission from the Greater London Council (GLC) to celebrate its Year against Racism in 1984. Non-European musicians were an integral part of the Orchestra, embracing less familiar music traditions and involving a wider range of cultures and stories.

That’s still very much the case today. GUO’s recent show, What the River Brings, told of the migrant experience and the stories of the East End. It was performed by people from communities who have settled in the UK from afar and their descendants. Stories are most powerful when they are told by the people who have lived them. So in GUO shows, Vladimir, our Chilean singer, sings about political freedom. Dilu, a Bengali singer, sings about the Bangladesh/Pakistan civil war. The authenticity comes when you give someone the platform to tell their own narrative, rather than trying to tell it for them.

When I look back at my own experience, I just wish that I had the opportunity to read stories by queer women, and about queer women from a younger age – that I had seen my own story reflected back when I really needed it. When rumours were going around school about my sexuality, or when I had my first crush on a girl, I needed to see my experience in the books I’d loved so much – but it was all girl-likes-boy type stuff.

The GUO understands the importance of young people seeing themselves in the mainstream. That’s why their Summer School offers the chance for young musicians to work alongside the musicians of the Grand Union and learn about non-European instruments, instead looking at other musical traditions and cultures. They’ve also set up the youth-led Second Generation Orchestra, with their upcoming jazz gig at the Vortex being the chance for young musicians to join the GUO regulars.

Minority communities so often see their narratives dismissed, distorted or at the fringes of the mainstream. Part of the reason I now write is so that other young people going through similar experiences won’t feel alone.

What’s brilliant about the arts is its ability to bring people together. When I watched the most recent GUO show, I was once again reminded of the power of music to achieve this. And, like the Grand Union Orchestra does, we need to be providing more platforms for people to tell these lesser-heard stories. To tell their own stories.

The Grand Union Orchestra’s Summer School runs from 30 July to 2 August, and their upcoming show at the Vortex Jazz Club is on 3 August.


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