Posted on

Diverse Stories: a new ethos for the heritage sector

This article is the talk Noha Nasser gave at the Historic England Conference entitled The Heritage of Minority Faith Buildings in the 20th Century on 12th March 2018.

A Japanese friend of mine works for Channel Four. Set up to represent ‘alternative voices’, Channel Four has an ethos that filters down from the Senior Management to the lowest paid staff. Asked how her workplace makes her feel, my friend said: ‘I feel fulfilled. I am totally accepted, nobody judges me. I feel fully part of the team and that my work is valued. I don’t mind staying late at work because I feel motivated.’ Clearly a diversity ethos has many benefits to the employee. But reverse the question: how does a happier more productive employee benefit the organisation? It seems that feeling accepted, fitting in, or simply valued for your work, not the colour of your skin, sexual orientation, faith or physical ability is a win-win for any organisation because productivity and inspiration shoot up. With an ethos focused on promoting the alternative voices of the country (and arguably the world), Channel Four is also addressing what the diverse audiences of the 21st Century are wanting to hear. Viewers feel understood, valued, and respected. They are important too. Without the viewer, Channel Four wouldn’t exist. There is a symbiotic relationship between the broadcaster and the viewer.

Turning our attention to the heritage sector – the broadcaster of all matters related to the historic environment – what message are we broadcasting to our viewers? Who are our viewers? Predictions tell us that by 2050, 20-30% of the population will be from non-white backgrounds. While the white population remains more or less stable, those of different cultural origins are contributing to the greatest growth. There is no denying the face of England is radically changing. A cursory glance at the message broadcast by the heritage sector so far, tells us we have reached largely one segment of society. Why?

The answer is simple.

We have only told one story. Our story was born out of the need to create a nation state with one unifying identity. In the process of creating that identity there was no room for diversity. To unify, we had to absorb, co-opt, or eradicate multiple identities. We had to distinguish between who belongs in the story and who doesn’t.

The problem with the story is that it doesn’t reflect reality. England has had a complex history. Conquered and settled by many different tribes, peoples, empires, and nations, England’s heritage is a complex palimpsest of human cultural interventions. Throughout that history we are told who fit in and who didn’t – and in some cases we don’t even hear about some cultural interventions because it doesn’t quite suit the story.

In short, our story has been edited.

Only recently has this begun to change. Historic England has taken bold initiatives to broaden its heritage interest. A new category of ‘under-represented heritages’ has emerged to take account of the diversity and complexity of societal groups are less well represented in the ‘mainstream’ thinking about heritage and key heritage management tools such as the statutory lists.

Supported by key policy documents like Power of Place: the Future of the Historic Environment, and Conservation Principles the emphasis has been on everybody’s heritage needs to be recognised, and everyone should have the opportunity to contribute his or her knowledge of the value of places.’

More recently, the guidance note on Contested Heritage is advising on how to handle the changing nature of our understanding and interpretation of history -sometimes to the extent of being painful, shameful and challenging. Quite wisely, the response to contested sites is to provide alternative and counter-narratives, rather than removal or demolition. We can’t be afraid of the many opinions and voices that define heritage.

At the same time, more crowd-funded stories are being encouraged from local people. The Pride of Place project, Enriching the List, and Another England seek to hear from local people what is meaningful heritage for them.

These are all commendable moves, however, in my mind, there still remains a distance between those that belong and those that don’t. Between the broadcaster and the viewer.

Unlike the arts sector, who have made great strides in diversifying themselves as organisations, as curators of culture, and in their audience development, the heritage sector still remains compartmentalised in its representation of Englishness.

Take a look, for example, at the naming of ‘under-represented heritages.’ Why is it a sub-category? We are clearly distinguishing between those heritages that are represented and those that are under-represented. They are separate heritages.

This may be the narration of historical omissions but the focus on the omission only serves to maintain this separateness. Similarly, the labelling of ‘Minority faiths’ holds similar connotations distinguishing between majority and minority.

Why do we need to maintain these hierarchies? This form of language is a telling sign that the main story still remains, but now we have a few sub-stories, but they are not as important, or of equal value, as the main story. The sub-story is still not woven into the fabric of the main story. It remains tokenistic and marginal.

We have to ask ourselves: what are we valuing? Who are we representing? Whose heritage are we validating? Who belongs in the main story?

So what can we change so our heritage sector is ready for 21st Century England? I have two suggestions that would bring the heritage sector up to par with the arts sector.

The most obvious change is the story.

We need to broadcast the alternative voices; the diverse and complex stories that together make up our history. We want our viewers to identify with the diverse stories that represent them. There may be multiple stories on the same topic. This should be encouraged.

The second change is what staffing exists in heritage sector organisations? Do staff represent today’s society? Are they trained to research the many stories? Do they themselves identify with the many stories? Does the ethos of ‘diverse stories’ filter down through Senior Management and the Commissioners, down to the lowest paid staff?

Do they represent Britain today? 51% women; 1.5% gay; 20% are disabled and 20% non-white?

For 3 years, I sat on the Historic England Advisory Committee, and I very much felt a minority both in terms of gender and more so by ethnicity. In those 3 years, only twice did the agenda address the issue of under-represented heritages and community-led projects. It was clear that the focus was on mainstream heritage which understandably currently forms the majority of listings. But can this change? Historic England’s Diverse Workforce Strategy is an important and welcome step in starting the change.

Looking to the future, if a new ethos of ‘diverse stories’, multiple interpretations, recognition of the complexity of English identities was integrated across the whole organisation, the symbiotic relationship between broadcaster and viewer would ensure Historic England’s existence and success in the 21st Century.

We need our viewers.


Posted on

MELA launches ‘We Are’ Neighbourhood Campaign

We are proud to launch MELA social enterprise’s new ‘We Are’ neighbourhood campaign starting with ‘We Are Balsall Heath’ Street Festival on Sunday April 22 bringing together the diverse communities of Balsall Heath.

We are closing down a major arterial road through birmingham for the community! 8 artist performances and installations, a food hub representing dishes from all communities, street stalls, open doors to community buildings, heritage trails, games and much more for a family fun day out. Please join us! @wearebhmela


Posted on

Publication of new Connections Report based on book launch conversations



Please click on the pdf to read the Connections Report.

Connections – summary report 2017

On 31 October 2017, MELA launched its book called Connections: 12 Approaches to relationship-based placemaking. Three major themes ran through the chapters which were explored in more depth at the Connections book launch with guests.

The first theme was building trust – the critical ingredient for people to engage with each other to shape a shared future, and for professionals to support community-led placemaking initiatives that will be much more sustainable long term.

The second theme was designing in places with complex and diverse identities – in a globalised world with large scale immigration, places are no longer homogeneous. Places have become complex with competing identities which make a place interesting, but at the same time can exclude some groups from feeling they belong. Placemakers, whether they are professionals or local communities require the awareness to make places feel like everyone belongs when they design those spaces of encounter and meeting.

The third theme was bridging communities – a new desired outcome for those placemakers that engage with communities in diverse areas. Bridging communities marks a shift from consultation and engagement with those with the confidence, education and capacity to express their views, to another model in which the placemaker is the facilitator of community-building across societal divides to reach a more equitable and inclusive place.

In exploring the above themes, the concept of ‘placemaker’ is fluid – it is not only professional or institutional placemakers who have been educated and trained to plan, design and manage places, but it includes all those who use a place, whose daily behaviours make the place what it is, and whose presence (whether transient or permanent) change the place continually.

The Connections Summary Report identifies a number of recommendations.

To build trust:

  • Trust has to be enabled, either through policy, an institutional ethos, or a neighbourhood initiative
  • We need greater transparency and dialogue about our different values and where is our common ground
  • Institutional Placemakers need to engage with leaders of communities
  • Creativity is a builder of trust but should not be a one-off intervention at the start of the project but should be maintained throughout the lifespan of urban development.
  • Professional education requires new skills sets for a diverse and complex world starting with empathy, listening, respect, and sensitive engagement.
  • There is a role for social media in community-building, but nothing can replace face-to-face meetings and encounters


To design for complex and diverse place identities:

  • Placemakers would benefit from non-rational approaches to understanding places even though they may not be measurable, they do have value
  • Non-western traditions (that reflect the diverse and complex makeup of cities and societies) can offer placemakers new ways of designing harmonious and balanced places
  • More room for experimentation, creativity and curiosity through temporary uses, meanwhile spaces, and pop-up spaces can provide sense of ownership and testable inclusive designs
  • Use of online platforms to make radically transparent the many voices about place to counter mainstream narratives about place
  • Local Authorities to promote community-led financing of neighbourhood-based initiatives
  • Arts organisations are an important part of the social infrastructure of a place and can be an advocate and facilitator for urban and social development and regeneration.

To bridge between communities:

  • Maintaining a balanced place requires making a place affordable through mechanisms such as lower business rates and genuinely affordable rents
  • Charrettes, Learning Journeys, and participatory mapping are some ways of building a shared language between institutional placemakers and young people through face-to-face encounters
  • Every place needs a community heart to bring people together
  • Community centres and high streets are critical bits of social infrastructure to build relationships and intergenerational activities



Posted on

MELA Gala Connections on 31 Oct 2017 a huge success

On 31 October 2017, 17 MELAssociates hosted 85 people at a MELA Gala Event to celebrate the launch of their book, Connections: 12 Approaches to Relationship based placemaking. The guests came from the public, private, cultural, academic and community sectors in a mix of conversations and new connections. The highlight of the evening was the Speed Dating the Author activity in which guests were divided in to 3 themes to speed date 3 authors in that theme. The themes were Building Trust; Bridging Communities; and Designing for Diverse Place identities. During the event, a slide show of MELA’s most recent projects was screened which you can see here.


Posted on

MELA Goes To Odessa to deliver a Bridging Cultures Workshop

The Council of Europe’s Intercultural Cities Network has 6 active Ukrainian cities. MELA was invited to run a bridging cultures workshop on ‘social enterprise for intercultural tourism’: tourism that enhances intercultural understanding and supports minorities in benefitting from the tourist economy.

The 6 cities produced an Action Plan to start promoting social enterprises in their cities that would make a significant social impact on their minority communities. Ukrainian cities have over 1 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs) caused by the conflict on their Eastern borders as well as 130 nationalities living in their cities. How can these communities and nationalities be integrated in to the tourist economy?






Posted on

Connections: Please join MELA’s crowdfunding campaign

Connections_invitation_with Special Guest_V1_jpg

As a friend of MELA Social Enterprise’s mission to bridge cultures through the creative design and use of public spaces, we are inviting you to help us crowdfund for our latest book Connections: 12 approaches to relationship-based placemaking here.

We are raising £3500 to make sure we further our mission by getting our book Connections in to more hands. Hear from our Founding Director, Dr Noha Nasser, how the book aims to make a difference here.

In the book, we explore different ways we can get people talking, re-build trust, dispel prejudices, and form new creative relationships. Twelve MELA Associates have come together to co-write the book and to share our knowledge, experience, methods, projects and approaches to cultural diversity, social cohesion and placemaking.

At our book launch on 31 October we are putting our methods to the test. We are inviting you and people from the community, cultural, academic, public and private sectors to generate new connections and outlooks along common themes. This will be the start of new cross-sectoral relationships and creative collaborative working to build new Connections across cities.

Your donation, no matter how big or small, will help MELA further its reach and impact.
And here are some amazing perks for supporting us:

£5 = A HUGE thank you from us by email
£20 = A mention in our programme on the day and on our website
£50 = A copy of our e-book and mention in our programme and website
£100 = A signed hard copy of our book and a mention in our programme/website
£150 = A signed hardcopy of our book, a mention in programme and website, a free 1 hour consultation with our MELA Associates to support similar ideas you may have
£500+ = all the above and a free half day webinar/workshop with MELA Associates to support similar ideas you want to develop


Upcoming MELA Gala Book Launch
Please come along to our evening of fun, food, networking and book launch on 31 October, 6.30-9.00pm in Alan Baxter Gallery, 75 Cowcross Street EC1M 6EL. You can register your place here.

Posted on

Noha, MELA’s Founder, is walking 273km along Camino in support of refugees

In September 2017, Noha is walking 273km over a period of 2 weeks to raise money in support of the mental health of unaccompanied young refugees in Dunkirk, France.

Noha has worked alongside two charities in Calais who have provided exceptional emotional support to young refugees who have experience arduous journeys alone without their families in search of a better life in the West.

The two charities are now working in Dunkirk. Noha will be walking along the Camino de Frances route in northern Spain to raise money for the two charities, Art Refuge and Refugee Resilience Collective.

If you support this cause please do donate here.

Posted on

MELA holds its first Creative workshop for the Big Heart Balsall Heath Project

MELA Social Enterprise’s Big Heart Balsall Heath project aims to bring the Moseley Road to life on Sunday October 8th. We are bringing the diverse people of Balsall Heath together to enjoy the delights and colour of their very own intercultural market. Artists are working with local organisations to ensure the event is a day to remember. We ran our first creative workshop where emerging and diverse artists mingled and exchanged ideas with the Moseley Road organisations. Each organisation will put on its own display representing its identity and that of its users. Interspersed amongst those displays will be artistic works responsive to the unique socially diverse context of Balsall Heath.

We are grateful to the funders, Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery.


School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09130 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09137 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09141 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09144 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09146 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09154 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09157 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09158 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09171 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09178 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09181 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09190 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09192 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09196 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09198 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09200 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09202 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09204 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09208 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09209 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09213 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09219 School_of_Art_Mela_Workshop-09221

Posted on

MELA Commissioning Emerging and Diverse Artists

Mela Social Enterprise


Commissions for emerging and/or diverse artists

To be presented at

Big Heart Balsall Heath

intercultural community event on 8th October 2017 along the Moseley Road

Eight Commissions for Emerging and/or diverse artists

Commission £1000

Funded by Arts Council England

Deadline for Applications 25 August 2017


We want artists to propose artistic activity that gets the diverse community of Balsall Heath talking to one another and understanding difference, on a day involving over 12 community organisations.

  • We invite artists to experiment, do something different, collaborate and take risks with their practice.
  • To propose an intervention at a diverse community event


To support artists to understand the context and improve access to the proposal making process, we have organised a gathering for artists and community organisations on Monday August 14 2017 at 4pm – 7 pm at Moseley School of Art, 496 Moseley Road, Birmingham, B12 9AH.

It’s an opportunity:

To visit spaces where you will propose work

  • To meet organisations, and find out what they are doing
  • To say a few words and present a sample of your work
  • It’s a safe space to inspire creative thinking about what you might do in a unique social context


If you wish to attend Big Heart Balsall Heath gathering please email:


Commissioning brief for applying emerging and/or diverse artists

Mela social enterprise want to research the role of ‘place’ in meeting the social and cultural needs of diverse communities and their identities. Following MELA’s successful intercultural community engagement events on the Moseley Road aimed at bringing the diverse communities of Balsall Heath together and making the Moseley Road a new meeting place for the neighbourhood. This project is open to all art forms and will involve established artists adept at working in a social context, and commission emerging diverse artists producing new work. Both emerging artists and established artists will inspire the local community of Balsall Heath to participate in a unique market day; that will transform the Moseley Road, in Birmingham and bring about lasting dialogue between cultures and facilitate collaboration between community organisations.

We are asking community organisations to express their market stall in a number of ways, Some ideas are:

Trading: an opportunity for local makers, producers and businesses to showcase their goods

Performing: an opportunity for the development of local cultural and creative talent across Balsall Heath working in spoken word, music, visual arts, dance, craft, decorative arts, mehndii etc.

Sharing: an opportunity to engage in conversations and learn about what’s going on in Balsall Heath

Learning: an opportunity to take part in a series of workshops to learn from those living and working in Balsall Heath

Eating: an opportunity to taste the various cultural cuisines of people living and working in Balsall Heath


When making their proposal, we ask emerging artists to consider this context of a community “happening” along the Moseley road where organisations have created their own stalls and participatory activity.


  • We will accept proposals from emerging artists based in Birmingham and surrounding areas.
  • On this project we are interested in working with artists that identify themselves as diverse and emerging.
  • We ask emerging artists to make proposals that engage audiences in a different way.
  • We anticipate thematic and topical proposal’s to get people talking.
  • We welcome, culturally diverse art forms, urban art, music, song writing, dance, heritage / site-specific themes, spoken word, digital interactive art, artist walks, visual art, installation, sensory art-work, live art, music, sound art.
  • We anticipate artists interventions, please provide an explanation of how you will involve visitors and audiences using Birmingham and Balsall Heath as a melting pot for diversity, and as the site and location of your work.
  • If you are a disabled artist or Deaf artist you can apply for an additional £500 to support you to manage your project.
  • Mela Social Enterprise research the role of ‘place’ in meeting the social and cultural needs of diverse communities and their identities. Mela are interested in new approaches to social cohesion, and seek to find ways to bridge communities and bring about intercultural activity in the public realm. We offer a social context for new work, and welcome interdisciplinary practice and collaboration.


Contact Mela Social Enterprise

Dr Noha Nasser:

Alan McLean email:

Alan McLean Mobile/text: 07982 237163


For your information here are the questions on the application form, if you wish to send your proposal by email


Mela Social Enterprise Proposal Form

Commissions for emerging diverse artist

Please answer all the following questions:

  1. Name
  2. Address
  3. Email
  4. Contact Number
  5. Proposal (Maximum 1000 words)
  6. Biography (Maximum 500 words)
  7. How do you define term emerging artist and your fit with this term?
  8. How do you define term diversity and your fit with this term?
  9. If you identify as a disabled artist or Deaf please tell us support you require to manage your project ?
  10. If you are using another format to make your proposal, eg video, please provide on line link ?
  11. Please provide your website or online profile, If any?
  12. Please tell us about arts organisations or projects, or individuals that have supported your work in the past?
  13. Any more information you wish to add?
  14. Please include images


Return form by Monday August 25th 2017


Application Form

Posted on

Noha Nasser gives a webinar on Community Dialogue Through Social Enterprise

on 2 August 2017, Noha was invited to give a webinar for GlobalNet21 – the leading forum in the UK for discussing the major issues in the 21st Century. They share a common concern for the sustainability of both our planet and the people on it. With almost 20,000 network members in the UK and abroad, they are making the debate, and democracy, more accessible by enlarging the Public Square and using social networks.

As well as a network of individuals GlobalNet21 have also set up a collaborative network of organisations to exchange good practice and transfer knowledge so that they can learn from each other. This network is cross boundary and includes local authorities, housing associations, universities, community groups and social enterprises. Their aim is through dialogue to celebrate diversity and develop community self-resilience and sustainability at a time of unprecedented social and environmental change.

Noha shared MELA’s story and how the social enterprise was set up. This is her talk’s summary:

In the past few months we have witnessed horrific incidents in London of terrorism and tragedies like the Grenfell Tower inferno. What these incidents represent is the growing tension within multicultural societies – a tension in ideology, in social inequality, and urban segregation. Diverse societies in global cities, like London, are experiencing the impact of these tensions on the relationships people have with each other. Mistrust, suspicion, bigotry, prejudice and discrimination are just some of the barriers to social cohesion that ultimately unfold into the horrific incidents we have recently witnessed.

So what can be done about this? My personal commitment and passion is to bridge cultures. In 2015 I set up my social enterprise, MELA, as a vehicle for bridging cultures through the creative use and design of public spaces . In the public buildings and spaces of the city, like parks, playgrounds, squares, libraries, and streets, diverse communities mingle and mix. MELA focuses on enhancing and optimising these social encounters so that they are deep and meaningful. We do this through community dialogue and building, we hold enjoyable events where diverse people get to experience each other differently, and we design city spaces that have greater opportunities for random encounters.

Setting up a social enterprise has many benefits that appealed to me. We trade flexibly like a company but we uphold high social values and prioritise social impact. We re-invest any profits we make into the business and therefore grow our social impact. In a world today where disruptive innovations are dismantling deep-seated systems and processes, social enterprise business models are proving the way forward. It is worth exploring.