What is the Common Ground project?
Common Ground is a community project that brings together migrants and refugees studying English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at Fife College and pupils from Glenwood High School. Over the course of six months, the group met at the Wardlaw Museum to learn new skills, forge friendships, and create a photography exhibition that explores the themes of family, friendships, and the environment. Participants discussed exhibition topics, experimented with light, angles, and framing in their photography, and made photo series with the support and guidance of photographer, Sophie Gerrard.
Through these explorations, they discovered ways to communicate stories and ideas through art and photography; they found common ground in a shared passion for the built and natural environment and reflected on how our connection with places tied in with our shared memories and experiences with friends and family.
[ESOL students and Glenwood pupils experimenting with light]
What are the benefits of the project?
For migrants and refugees, it can be incredibly difficult to leave behind their communities and feel at home in a new country. We also know that language barriers can be an additional obstacle to feeling part of the community they moved into. In Scotland, learning English can give migrants and refugees a sense of independence and security as it can help them find work, pursue education, and move more confidently around their communities.
Common Ground was developed from two of our previous two projects – Encountering Fife (2017-18) and Moving Art Connecting Voices (MACV, 2021-22). From these projects, we knew that by bringing these two groups together, we could use creative practices to encourage mutual understanding and peer-to-peer learning. The aim was to provide a supportive environment that would allow ESOL students to practice English with people from the local community, and to give secondary school pupils the chance to learn about migrant and refugee experiences and help them develop communication skills so that they could communicate effectively with people learning English.
Engaging with cultural life, forming social connections, and participating in community activities can help tackle social isolation and improve community cohesion. By putting these issues at the heart of the project, we were able to empower refugees, migrants, and young people by amplifying their voice within the museum, and in turn the exhibition could show visitors that these communities are very much part of our Fife community.
[Glenwood pupils thinking about what they should consider when working with migrants]
What did we learn?
The ESOL tutors noted that providing students with the opportunity to practice English outside of the classroom environment can help bolster confidence and highlighted the well-being benefits for students to take time out of their day and engage in creative activity. The Glenwood pupils enjoyed how learning photography skills gave them the opportunity to explore their interests and the project helped them learn more about themselves and different cultures. We also worked with the pupils on building workplace skills to tie in the Developing the Young Workforce initiative, and the Glenwood pupils reflected on how the project improved their confidence, creativity, and social and practical skills.
Through observing these two groups interact and learn from each other, we can see that museums have the capacity to facilitate social integration and support community cohesion. But it is worth noting that the landscape of the refugee community in Fife, and Scotland, has changed tremendously over the past year. So, it is natural for new challenges to arise as the needs of the ESOL group will change year on year. Throughout the project, we were very aware that participants had many competing priorities, so we had to rethink and adapt to how we engaged our audience. We trialled different methods of delivering activities – we ran regular sessions within the museum, went out to ESOL classes, and held a family activity day at the museum for the ESOL students which was a massive hit for all those in attendance.
We have built strong relationships with local schools and the ESOL department at Fife College, and as we make plans for future projects, we are aware that our plans may have to change. Nevertheless, I am confident in the museum’s ability to be bold and flexible in our initiatives in supporting young people, refugees, and migrants living around Fife.
Blog post by Natasha Liu, Museum Trainee
 New Scots: refugee integration strategy 2018-22, Language – New Scots: refugee integration strategy 2018 to 2022 – gov.scot (www.gov.scot)