What does it take to do a Churchill Fellowship - mentally, emotionally and physically?
In 2018, I was lucky enough to be awarded a Churchill Fellowship to explore inclusive music programs, venues and festivals which actively engage disabled people in the USA, UK and Ireland (you can read more about my project here).
Now that the dust has settled on the travel component of Fellowship and I’m knee deep in writing up my findings, I thought I’d share some personal reflections on my experience of undertaking this professional development opportunity. My hope is that it might provide future Fellows with some insight into what they might expect.
1. Churchill Fellowships are a marathon, not a sprint
When I submit my Fellowship Report this coming March, it will have been over two years since I started writing my application for this award. The process of applying and going through multiple stages of high pressure interviews was very useful for honing my topic and clarifying the knowledge gaps and the questions needing to be answered. Once I was awarded the Fellowship, it was 12 months until my overseas departure (I gave birth to my son in between) and a lot of that time was spent researching, reaching out to contacts, setting up interviews and confirming my itinerary. All that preparation prior to departure enabled things to go smoothly while on the road. Now that I’m home, the focus is on writing the report and disseminating my findings across Australia via publications and presentations over the next 12 months. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this, and more hours and emails than I’d ever anticipated (there are nearly 2000 emails in my Churchill gmail folder), but the rewards have made it all worthwhile.
2. Travel is a great way to see things as they really are
There is real value in traveling to interview people on their home turf - seeing their space, watching their programmes and meeting them in an environment where they feel comfortable to have a frank conversation. As my project was focused on disability and music, being able to sit in and participate in music workshops, watch performances and chat to participants and audience members was invaluable – it’s so much better to actually experience these things rather than just talk about them.
Travel also showed me that the grass is not always greener – the UK and US music industries don’t have disabled access all figured out either, so a lot of my discussions were about what the future might look like and what solutions we could all work on together.
Travelling with a baby and a pram also gave me some insight into the universal access (or lack thereof) in the cities I visited. I have a newfound respect for wheelchair users who can navigate the public transport systems in New York and London in particular and also for the upgrade work that NSW Transport is currently undertaking to make Sydney’s network more accessible. Acquiring a temporary mobility impairment (after some unexpected knee surgery at the end of the trip!) also showed me how difficult getting around an airport in a wheelchair can be.
3. It’s an unbeatable professional experience
The most valuable part of the Fellowship for me was the opportunity to connect with world leaders in my field and broaden my international network. It was rejuvenating to meet some kindred spirits and I made some lifelong friends and colleagues. People were incredibly generous with their time, ideas, contacts, space and resources. Some interviewees commented on the value of my visit for them – my questions helped them really reflect on their own practice, it demonstrated to their bosses that their work was being noticed internationally and they were very interested to hear what I’d been learning from others I’d visited.
The Fellowship enabled me to be totally immersed. It was such a luxury to focus on something I love and am passionate about and that I have the ability to make a difference with back home. It also provided the time and space to think about what I want to do next. I’ve definitely returned with a fire in my belly and am already thinking about how I adopt some of the things I’ve learnt into practice.
4. Travelling for extended periods, and with family, is a big deal
I travelled with my partner and baby son for 9 weeks of Fellowship activity, plus an additional 4 weeks of holiday with extended family. Deciding to undertake my Fellowship while on maternity leave required some serious stamina in terms of juggling Fellowship and parental responsibilities. We left Australia with a nearly 7 month old and came home with a very mobile 10 month old. We lugged around lots of bags and many kilos of baby items and by the end, we had the packing up in each place down to about 2.5 hours. It also took a lot of extra planning and flexibility and we faced challenges like car transfers to airports turning up without our pre-booked child seats and being turned away from restaurants. Cities that we’d visited previously felt busier and like harder work with a baby, but also meant that we saw the cities in a different way.
Life and work things also continued to carry on at home, and staying connected was really important. The bushfires and smoke hit a few weeks after we left, which was devastating to watch from far. The federal government controversially merged the arts department into a new department of infrastructure, transport, regional development and communications. We managed some crazy Air B&B tenants staying in our Sydney house, went through a work restructure remotely and faced changing employment situations. We missed our families and friends and called in regularly.
5. Balancing work, rest and play is key
It is so tempting to fill up every minute of your travels with interviews and Fellowship activities, but it’s important to build in time to rest and recharge and also to be able to slot in unexpected opportunities/new meetings that will crop up while you’re on the road. The pace and intensity are high and its important to think about how you will get some downtime.
Curating the perfect schedule is a delicate balancing act and certainly not one that I nailed 100% of the time. With the benefit of hindsight, leaving time to navigate new transport systems and get between interviews should have been more of a consideration. Also being ‘on’ and engaged in interviewing is taxing, so a limit of no more than 3 a day (and preferably 2) would have given my brain more space. I also wished I’d left more time for fun and sightseeing. In some of the places I visited, I only managed to see the inside of arts venues. More time and space to start report writing whilst on the road would also have been helpful. Not surprisingly perhaps, I fell in a heap with sickness as soon as I finished the Fellowship and spent Christmas and the beginning of our family holiday in bed.
For me, having gone straight from being the stay-at-home carer of my six month old son to going into interviews full-time was quite a change – I felt so exhilarated professionally, but I missed spending time with my little boy. Adding evening parental responsibilities to a full interview schedule was tiring, though also useful in terms of resisting temptation to go out every night and see performances. I had to be selective in terms of what evening activities I could participate in and were most relevant to the project.
Also, as a person with disability myself, I probably overdid it with a jam-packed interview schedule (sometimes doing 4 interviews a day). I could have managed my own health and access requirements better. The plus side of having scheduled so many interviews in advance was that I was able to cancel or postpone some when I got sick or needed a break, without feeling too guilty. I also ended up doing some by phone and Skype, including some when I got back to Australia, to manage the workload while away.
6. The personal rewards are many
In addition to all the professional benefits outlined above, the Fellowship brought about a distinct amount of personal growth, resilience and strength. Professional development opportunities can be hard to squeeze in, particularly ones of this length of time, but we made it work and I acknowledge my privilege in being able to do this. Not intentionally trying to be an ‘overachiever’ while on maternity leave, it was brilliant to have some professional stimulation and a goal to work towards while settling into motherhood. I felt the first pangs of mother guilt with the amount I worked while we travelled, but the plus side was that my son got to spend several months with his dad as primary carer, which was brilliant strengthener for our little family unit. A big shout out to Mark (who is officially the best partner in the world for enabling me to do this) and my very tolerant, flexible and resilient little boy Theo – thanks a million for your love and encouragement. A strong support network when tackling something like this is so valuable.
This Fellowship has been life-changing for me, in terms of how I think about my work as an arts manager, as a disability and inclusion advocate and as a human within society. My hope is that this research will be a game-changer for how I work to influence the Australian music industry to become more accessible. I can’t wait to submit that report and share the findings far and wide!
Please follow me on LinkedIn to see past and future blogs about this Fellowship. There will be another article on the key music and disability learnings from the trip soon - stay tuned!