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Conversation with Emily Abbott, programme director at Intergenerational Music Making

This article is part of FSF10, our series revisiting previous projects and campaigns in honour of the FSF’s tenth anniversary.

The second chapter of Kinship in the City, the FSF’s 2019 research report on urban loneliness and the built environment, focused on the role of public space – and third spaces in particular – as a catalyst for community bonding. From libraries and youth centres to gardens and playgrounds, shared public spaces are important sites for social engagement, particularly for groups vulnerable to loneliness, including young parents, the elderly and those on lower incomes.

One of our recommendations for ensuring these spaces can foster social connections in an inclusive, effective way was the incorporation of affordable programming aimed at improving people’s social networks, from one-off events to ongoing programmes.

Intergenerational Music Making does just that. Founded in 2018, the organisation works closely with care homes, schools, hospitals, communities, musicians and creatives to run unique workshops, events, training and research that encourage the sharing of culture, heritage and identity.

The idea is to improve mental and physical wellbeing while uniting people across different ages and life stages. IMM’s Community Hubs, for example, are weekly music-making sessions open to everyone in the local vicinity, while its Social Action programme uses music and creativity to inspire young people to be active leaders of change. Together With Music, a virtual programme launched with Care England during the pandemic, pairs older people with local schools and youth groups for online musical experiences like concerts and collaborative song-writing.

The overarching goal is to tackle loneliness, empower participants and facilitators, and encourage more cohesive, resilient communities. IMM has delivered over 1,500 projects across the UK to date, engaging thousands of community members at schools, hospitals, libraries, care homes and more. Some of its partners include county councils, community trusts and the NHS.

Now the organisation is taking things a step further with the launch of a new charity, Intergenerational England – the country’s first national body dedicated to advocating for and facilitating intergenerational collaboration across sectors. With its focus on research, best practice and innovation, the charity will seek to embed intergenerational practices on a cultural level, making it part of the everyday fabric of policymaking and community-building.

I recently sat down with Emily Abbott, programme director at IMM and co-founder of Intergenerational England, to hear more. Here’s what she had to say about the thinking behind IMM, the aims of Intergenerational England, and the need for a paradigm shift in the way we approach intergenerational inclusivity.

On IMM’s founding:
I have a background in music, song-writing and international development, while Charlotte Miller, IMM’s founder and director, is an incredible music therapist. Our worlds came together in 2018, when we began to build IMM from the ground up, learning from different communities to ensure our practice remained rooted in people and places. IMM has developed throughout the years, welcoming amazing people from different backgrounds and generations to share their stories.

On the importance of thoughtful outreach:
Everything we do is to inspire people to share their voices and stories. We work with young people in school settings, young adults perhaps in their first experience of volunteering, all the way across the life course to older people, who sometimes find themselves excluded from day-to-day discourses.

It’s really validating for people to feel invited into an environment that recognises and respects their experiences. It’s incredible to see how age-related stereotypes are challenged within intergenerational work, which recognises the unique insights, experiences and skills people across all ages have to offer. Working alongside communities, we can build strong, important projects that empower people to thrive and develop both personally and professionally.

We work hard to ensure we’re reaching people across communities. We work with care homes, sheltered accommodations and schools to identify individuals; others might come from the Age UK registered list or through a social prescribing pathway. To unite people and give them a real sense of connection and belonging, you need to build engagement and awareness, reaching out to those who wouldn’t necessarily attend things on their own. And to do that effectively, you need to recognise the needs of that particular community. That might mean door-to-door posting or leafleting for people who aren’t online and would respond better to an in-person invitation with a face to it.

On the crucial role of space in community programming:
One of our models is the IMM Community Hub, which we run weekly. The idea is to give a physical, tangible space within the community for people to come together with purpose. Space is such an important part of what we do. You know, we all have our private spaces and our workspaces, but then we have other places where we’re more likely to intersect with people of different backgrounds, like a theatre, museum or community centre. I’m really interested in the social theory around third spaces and the importance of them, as well as the possibilities – and how these worlds intertwine to inspire and encourage connection.

Our Woking office, for example, is based in a beautiful church sanctuary that has amazing acoustics. I’ve found that running workshops in churches offers an incredible opportunity to work with people of different religions and nationalities and create spaces where identity can be shared and acknowledged. Sharing and learning are key to building empathy and respect.

On the need for a charity like Intergenerational England:
We believe that intergenerational thinking needs to be recognised as a central pillar in the way we build communities and societies. That isn’t a new concept; I’ve seen in communities around the world that people can and do live like this. But our culture in England isn’t like that. We’re one of the more age-segregated cultures in the world, whether it’s due to people moving away for university or travelling, the ageing population, or other lifestyle norms. But we need to recognise that it’s the foundation of how we need to live and take steps back to rebuild society this way.

I believe that if we apply that collective perspective to how we build programmes, music, schools, sports, government, even architecture – in the very way that buildings are designed, for example – then we can all benefit. Our primary aim with Intergenerational England is to embed intergenerational inclusivity on a foundational level so that ideally, down the line, we don’t even need to use the word ‘intergenerational’ anymore, because it’s a given.

On the value of cross-sector collaboration:
We’re working with specialists across different sectors to help shape what a more intergenerationally inclusive society could look like. There are so many amazing perspectives that we can learn from. This thinking needs to sit within and across a wider ecosystem if it’s going to result in that fundamental ideological and cultural shift.

This is the same approach we’ve taken with IMM when we’re thinking about loneliness. How do we place that within the determinants of health? Why is someone lonely? Is it their housing, educational opportunities, social interaction, health or wellbeing – and how can we stop them being lonely? We partner with universities, clinical commissioning groups and more to get a wider perspective. It’s taking a step back to approach the issue in a holistic way, pulling in expertise from as many areas as we can.

On the people at the heart of the work:
In a lot of the work we do, we’ve seen a huge disparity between the voices and decisions being made at each level of the ecosystem. There are so many complex dyads within intergenerational work. It’s fundamental that we come together to create positive, empowering spaces for people, support individual development and community sustainability, and involve people in the design of policies, systems and services.

We’ve seen the impact of unlocking creativity in our communities and supporting place-based, collaborative approaches to holistic health and wellbeing. The wider determinants of health encompass every part of an individual – race, economic background, health, gender and culture. Without their voices, we cannot build sustainable solutions.

And underpinning it all is the idea that if you want to encourage connections and wellbeing and actually build strong communities, you have to have the right foundation. Intergenerational England will focus on an ethos of inclusivity, innovation and respect.