Joie de vivre

Cultural Leadership International

The last time I remember seeing the Bosphorus, it was glittering like a sapphire. Today, a spray of mist has been cast on it, giving it an ethereal look. Istanbul, home of famous civilizations for thousands of years, and recently crowned as the European Cultural Capital of 2010, has welcomed a small group of cultural enthusiasts in its winter. I was one of them.

As we walk to the venue for our first seminar, it’s impossible not to get transported to the beautiful Ottoman era, with carefully crafted architectures, alluring aromas of baklavas, bougainvillea hanging from balconies like Rapunzel and her flowing hair, and lots and lots of cats! Michael Binyon, our guest speaker for tonight, shares his insights on how culture can be a tool for soft power in diplomacy, citing language as the tool England uses to export its culture whilst other nations can export ballet, music, or art. We end the speech with a feast served in a decorative dining hall, the hanging chandeliers cast light on my colleagues and their dreams for making our societies appreciate the beautiful nuances of culture. Nothing could be more delectable.

The trip gets better. The next morning, we walk towards a vintage Ottoman bank that’s currently being renovated into a cultural centre. Our guest speakers come from different parts of the world, all with the aim of sharing their learnings with us. Some of the key takeaways from these sessions include: staying informed about our industries in terms of facts and events, the importance of networking, understanding our target audiences, and framing cultural policies to suit governments’ strategies. Two of the best examples of taking community needs and delivering cultural products in an inventive way were The Story Museum in Oxford and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Both platforms bring to life the stories that surround us and connect with us across our various life stages. I was riveted by the sheer passions of the attendees and felt like I’ve reached a cozy home where I can cheerfully discuss my personal and professional love for literature.

In between the sessions, we are whirled off to tours of museums, mosques, cultural centers, the Old Town, the Grand Bazaar, and Miniaturk. Istanbul is timelessly enchanting.

After the sessions, we are asked to draft a plan for utilizing our grants to advance our knowledge and skills in our respective fields. One thing that everyone knows about me is that I’m fond of books. I love reading them, holding them, collecting them, sharing them. I would like nothing better than for people to enjoy the pleasures of escaping to beautiful vistas and action-packed adventures.

So, I’ve decided to invest in a scoping trip to the United Kingdom to gain insights into the inner workings of the children’s literature industry; from policy-making and research through to understanding the management of reader development and literacy programmes, to understanding the children’s literature publishing industry, and networking with practitioners. My plan got approved later in December. I was excited beyond comprehension!

In spring, I got the honor of meeting with three key stakeholders in London; the Arts Council, Booktrust, and the National Literacy Trust – all three entities are in charge of literacy and reader development. I had asked all of them a set of important questions: why is culture still important amidst the budget reform and the financial crisis? Is there priority for certain forms of culture than others? What is the role of the organization? Who are the delivery partners? What are the flagship programmes? Are there any research papers available for public reading on the state of culture in the United Kingdom? What’s the best strategy for sourcing funding?

I received sufficient responses from the three organizations. My takeaways from the meetings are that there are many delivery organizations in the sector and they take on a lead for providing cultural services across the country. Also, with budgets being tightened, organizations are efficient with their spending and focus on programmes that have a direct impact or engagement with their target audiences. For example, Booktrust partnered with health clinics to distribute their gift packs to new parents when they go for their baby’s wellbeing check-up, they even included some plantwear accessories to make parents feel good. Libraries also play a significant role in embracing children’s literary interests and honing them as they grow. It’s very important to periodically issue research papers that support the effectiveness of the programmes in order to justify and sustain funding.

I had very much wanted to meet with other organizations, such as Usborne Publishing, Puffin, Random House, and the Department for Education. However, I got no responses from them. Hopefully, I could meet them in another time and place.

Overall, I found the CLI programme to be one of the most enriching and engaging training experiences I’ve ever had. The value of the knowledge, skills, and networks gained during this past year and a half is priceless.

Thank you, British Council, for making my dreams come true!

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