Leeds 2023 chief executive Kully Thiarai - 'Let’s celebrate the role that young people have to play in our city'

Leeds 2023 creative director and chief executive Kully Thiarai explains more about the role that young people have in the city's year of culture.

By Kully Thiarai
Monday, 7th March 2022, 11:45 am
Updated Monday, 7th March 2022, 12:27 pm

When I first started in this job, I visited Cobden Primary School to chat with some of the children from the school council. They asked me about Leeds 2023 and shared their

thoughts of what the year might mean for them.

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Leeds 2023 creative director and chief executive Kully Thiarai. Picture: Lee Brown

And when asked what impact the year might have on them and the city, the answers were fascinating: “People might love art more” they said… “and do it more”; “it will make Leeds a happier place, with lots of colour” they said; ‘it might inspire people to get off tech and explore the world’’.

They all talked about how much they loved painting, singing, drawing and how after Leeds 2023 maybe they’d be able to do more of that! That meant more of it in school as not all the children had access to pens and paper at home.

And I thought, ‘why shouldn’t they have more?’ How could we help to make those opportunities be everyday occurrences rather than special treats?

Leeds 2023 is an opportunity to enable children and young people to develop their own personal creativity. To tell their own stories; the stories that matter to them.

Leeds 2023 is an opportunity to enable children and young people to develop their own personal creativity, says Kully Thiarai. Picture: Lee Brown

Their version of what they want from the world is so different from ours. Let’s celebrate the role that young people have to play in our city.

Some of the work with schools and educational partners in the city gearing up for 2023 is already showcasing the creativity of our young people.

At a time when they are feeling the repercussions of Covid-related isolation it feels important that our young people can come together and have their voices heard by taking part in our Year of Culture. It’s not just young people - participating together is what we all need.

We’ve experienced being digitally connected – the benefits and the limitations – and it’s time now for us to remember the humanity in all of us.

Digital tools are not the same as running around or getting our hands dirty. Creative activity and cultural participation give us the social tools all of us need to navigate life. Cultural programmes create social connections where we can be with people who are not the same as us.

Cultural programmes like the one we’re planning for Leeds 2023 create intimate moments where we feel wanted and engaged, and also awe-inspiring, big moments that fuel our curiosity. They’re a bit like reading a great book – stepping into new imagined worlds, interesting perspectives and different viewpoints or suddenly finding a story that somehow feels like your personal story writ large.

It matters too that we represent the whole of Leeds. If you’ve never seen someone like you doing something surprising, how can you think of doing something like that yourself?

My interest in the power of creativity to unlock the full potential of young people was sparked when I was a youth worker.

When looking at how to use a space for young people, the auto- response was “let’s give them a pool table”. Understandable, as that was how most youth clubs were kitted out then.

With a pool table, you know what the outcome will be – lots of pool playing. I discovered that if you kitted out a space with a dance floor or different creative tools, something surprising might emerge.

The scale of Leeds 2023 hasn’t been done here before. Our work is porous, naturally crossing geographical boundaries, and working at scale means we build bigger networks, share knowledge, and learn through doing. Delivering major projects and programmes builds confidence and aspirations, it also gives others confidence in the city to deliver.

Leeds 2023 will strengthen cultural ties and the supply chain network across West Yorkshire, the North of England and beyond.

When we think of careers in the cultural industries we tend to think of actors, musicians, those in the spotlight. But cultural activity connects all sorts of supply chains: hairdressers, electricians, seamstresses – there’s a huge ecosystem of skills within the cultural workforce.

Leeds 2023 will bring an economic boost to the city and to a cultural sector that’s still reeling from the pandemic.

If we achieve all we hope for, Leeds will be talked about as a major cultural city. It will have created a new narrative for itself.

We want to create something hugely valuable and powerful for Leeds. Collective memories and our own stories told and heard far and wide with pure, unleashed joy. A city transformed.

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