Many of us will have seen footage of Amish Barn Raising: where a whole community comes together in mutual support to solve a collective problem by building a barn and then, at the end of the long and tiring day, uses it as a space to celebrate joyfully together.
Perfectly planned, wonderfully coordinated, skilfully executed, it’s a brilliant example of how people cooperate inventively to meet a need, to move on, to improve their lives. At WOW - Women of the World Festivals around the globe we see similar examples of how women – faced by their unique problems – equally collaborate in hope, inventiveness and often celebration, to solve the specific challenges particular to them.
Part of the mission at LEEDS 2023 has been to use culture and our collective creativity to open up opportunities for everyone, to make the seemingly impossible possible and the invisible visible.
The Barn Raisers, alongside Jude Kelly CBE, Tracy Brabin and Kully Thiarai celebrate. Photo by JMA Photography
So when WOW - Women of the World approached LEEDS 2023 with the idea of creating a barn from scratch – a rough hewn version of the writer Virginia Woolf’s’ plea for ‘A room of my own’ – we collectively said: YES, let's do this! Sunday 30 April at dusk, on Cinder Moor in North Leeds, 300 builders, exclusively women and non-binary volunteers, will construct a barn of magnificent proportions. They will work a marathon 24 hours, in shifts, until dusk on Bank Holiday Monday when there will be a traditional Topping Out Ceremony with speeches and, obviously, cups of tea and song.
So who are these warriors in hard hats and high vis jackets who have been conjured up from across West Yorkshire? Well, most of them are certainly not from the construction industry. In the UK currently only 1% of the work force on building sites are female. It’s an alarmingly low figure and is mirrored worldwide. We have recruited hundreds of volunteer builders, trained them in weekend Bootcamps at Leeds College of Building – whose Principal and CEO is the brilliant Nikki Davis – and with the support of a select few fantastic women professionals, they will erect this fantastic folly to house shows, conversations, rallies, market stalls and even a Barn Dance through the month of May. All supported by Tracy Brabin as Mayor of West Yorkshire, and the first female Metro Mayor, who has brought her customary passion and energy to this women led enterprise.
LEEDS 2023 Creative Director & CEO Kully Thiarai alongside the Barn Raisers. Photo by JMA Photography
LEEDS 2023 came out of a thwarted opportunity to be European Capital of Culture so it’s perhaps no surprise that a project like The WOW Barn is being made a reality here in Leeds. An artistic endeavour that doesn’t shy away from difficulty, that takes risks, embraces big ideas and offers a space to talk, think and dream together. Shining a light on and celebrating the many amazing women in this region who make extraordinary things happen every day. It’s a glorious, crazy, ambitious idea as part of Leeds’ Year of Culture, and we’re welcoming everyone to come to witness and then enjoy the ideas that will fill the space.
Joining the 300 Barn Raisers are 300 Dream Builders who are creating the artistic cladding with Leeds artist Emma Hardaker, and 720 school children from every part of West Yorkshire, who are going to use the Barn for ideas building.
On 13 May, everyone is invited to The WOW Barn Festival Day. We want to bring people together to explore universal themes and ideas that we can all get behind and join in with, along with music, food and your own chance to try your hand at a bit of building.
Our Barn Raisers on site during the 24 hour build. Photo by JMA Photography
History has shown that women have amazing talents in all areas of life, but circumstances and attitudes often conspire to stop us excelling or even just joining in. We know that despite being more than capable, it was challenging for women to become architects, town planners, transport experts, plumbers, roofers, bricklayers: our cities have mainly been designed and built by men alone. Women still need an equal place at the table.
This month UKREiiF , a major national real estate and infrastructure conference is being held in Leeds. It’s a chance for everyone involved in the building industry to gather and think about the future. The WOW barn with the 300 Barn Raisers is a beacon of possibility in many ways.
We want women and non-binary people to be inspired to take up trades and we know there is a huge appetite. Our plumbing and carpentry workshops are almost sold out and the enormous enthusiasm shown by our Barn Raisers at the training was infectious. We want women to believe that they can and should create space to come together. And dream big. We want the building industry to change its attitudes and work hard to make women a natural part of the workforce. Finally we want you, the people of Yorkshire , to come along to celebrate the achievements of these marvellous Barn Raisers, who range from 16 to 74 , as they put on their finest hour right here in The WOW Barn.
The following article was originally posted in the Yorkshire Post on Saturday 29 April 2023. Some edits have been made for context beyond the 24 hour build on 30 April & 1 May 2023.
The WOW Barn is supported by West Yorkshire Combined Authority, Leeds City Council and Arts Council England. Delivered in partnership with Civic Engineers and Leeds College of Building. ‘One Way or Another’ delivered in partnership with The Space. Original concept commissioned by UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK with funding from UK Government.