The Relationship is the Project

The Relationship is the Project

 Chapter extract from ‘The Relationship is the Project’

by Jade Lillie

In community-engaged practice, the most important element of the work is to develop and nurture our relationships: between ourselves, community members, partner organisations, investors and of course, the creative practitioners/project team.
Like any other relationships, these connections need tending to – before, during and after our key project milestones, our celebratory moments and, of course, during our epic fails.
A relationship is the state of being connected. Without connection to the people we are working with, we’re not able to design or create a truly community-engaged process or experience.

People First
Key to great community-engaged practice is the people involved in making it happen, and the possibilities exist within the relationships you have with those people. People make projects possible. It seems simple to say that ‘the relationship is the project’, but it’s often the thing that gets lost amongst deadlines, egos, lack of experience, shame, bias, time, external expectations and our busy lives. While there are many other elements that go into creating a successful project, if the relationships are robust it will generally be able to withstand all kinds of disruptions, changes and failures. A good set of relationships should allow you to collectively address disappointments, surprises and identify the way forward in any crisis.
A level of personal and professional investment, time and communication is required to create the best possible environment for those relationships to grow, flourish, and (when necessary) to end well.

BREAK OUT BOX: Key relationships in community-engaged practices
• Community: The relationship/s you have with any community are obviously essential in any community-engaged context. It’s important these relationships are diverse, intersectional, cross sector, and wide ranging. They may include arts and non-arts relationships. In regional and remote areas, for example, most of your relationships may need to be with non-arts partners.

• Facilitators – artists: Essentially, a community-engaged arts project is a collaboration between artists and communities. The relationships with artists on the project are vital to its success. Focus on ensuring that the facilitator has the greatest possible opportunity to carry out their role as creative practitioners collaborating with communities.

• Facilitators – other: If you are working with communities in a non-arts context, think about who might be your key collaborators, makers or facilitators. In a health setting, for example, this could be a health promotion officer. In education, a linguist or urban gardener may be your project lead. Or an equality activist in an advocacy or international development setting.

• Stakeholders: These may include relationships with investors, project partners, funding bodies and organisations. For example, you may partner with an
organisation that is not based in the community but that can offer an important service that the community needs.

Who is responsible for your relationships?
Most community-engaged projects will have a lead facilitator, producer or project manager who will act as the ‘face’ of a project and who will ideally, be responsible for developing and managing relationships from the beginning to the end.
It is important, however, to make sure that this role isn’t left entirely to one person, and that other people share those connections in case of change, departure or succession.
We can also run into trouble if the person who is leading the project acts as a ‘gatekeeper’ between communities, artists and key stakeholders. This is another reason why having a range of people engaged in the building and maintenance of relationships is important.
Know yourself. No matter how hard we may try, we won’t get along with everyone all the time. It’s human nature. But this can have a huge impact on community-engaged projects. It’s okay if you’re not the right person for a particular project or community group – step outside of yourself and find the person who is. If unsure, have a conversation with a collaborator or colleague about your concerns – ideally, speak with someone who knows your practice and your skills.
Know your skills. If you’re not a good relationship builder, if you do not like talking on the phone or in person, or solving problems collectively, then the role of lead facilitator/producer is not going to be for you. Similarly, if you have difficulty articulating a problem or having difficult conversations, the primary facilitation role is not going to be for you either. Hold yourself to account – know your strengths and your weaknesses.

Things to keep in mind
Relationships are unpredictable and complex, but there are ways we can work to hold them with respect and transparency.
• First People First: always start by asking what it means to consider First People First in the context of your work, your project and your relationships. Living and working in Australia is a complex and colonised space. To work in an arts and cultural context is exactly that – Australian culture. Australia’s First People are our first artists, storytellers and activists. • Start the way you want to finish: Ideally, some of the relationships will be in place before the idea is developed. You can then develop the idea with key collaborators from the very beginning. It helps to ensure that building relationships is simply part of your practice, your citizenship – the way you are (or want to be) in the world.

• Make the effort: If you are interested in working with a particular community that is not your own, show up to things that are important to the people you are working with. Make sure you are present at the moments that mean something to the community, to meet people and learn things. This is when the relationship starts to be reciprocal. If you want to be in deeper relationships with First Nations artists and communities, consider whether you yourself have shown your own commitment – have you attended an Invasion Day rally or NAIDOC week event, have you undertaken Indigenous-led training in working in First Nations Cultural Contexts.

• Be an ally: When you’re connected to a community, you need to actively pay attention to the issues that are important to them, to speak up about the inequities that exist and take proactive steps to change them. If you’re not willing or ready to support the people you’re working with, it may not be the right project for you. As Queer disabled performer Kochava Lilit wrote for Writers Victoria ‘Ally means partner, or so I’ve heard. Someone who cares, who’ll be there when the walls fall down. Ally is an action, an alliance you build, not something you identify as.’

• Be clear of your motivations: It is essential for you to understand yourself, your bias’ and privilege. There may be times when you don’t fully share the beliefs or values of the people you are working with. It’s important to be honest about this and to let the community decide whether to continue working with you or not. Ask yourself what your motivations are for doing the work. If you’re not happy to share those motivations (word for word) with the community you are working with, perhaps you’re not in it for the right reasons.

• Respect: Often, we can ‘forget’ to include people who may not be obviously engaged in a project but who are important in the community. For example, you may be working with young people in a regional community, and you may think involving their parents and carers in the project is unnecessary. Taking them into consideration is essential – not only because they play a key role in supporting the young people to be involved, they also bring knowledge, information and influence and have the authority to stop young people engaging in the project.

• Be honest: Find the right way to engage in critical conversations about the development of a project (including what skills and expertise you bring to it), the scale of the ideas, and what the outcomes might be. For example, if a non-arts project partner suggests that a film festival is the best thing for a community, be clear about what would be required to make that happen but also that there may be other projects that would have more impact in the long term. Explore all of the options with the people you are working with.

• Don’t be a gatekeeper: There can be a tendency (often seen in white, noncommunity members) to want to ‘protect’ a community from people who they perceive to work in an unethical way. Rest assured, the community you are working with wasn’t lost or helpless before you came along, and will be very capable of managing relationships for themselves. All you need to do is check with someone that it is okay for you to pass on their details. If they say no, there is the answer. If they say yes, go right ahead and move along.

• Stay in your lane: If we want to truly collaborate with communities, we must acknowledge and dismantle the power dynamics that exist in our practices and organisations. This means knowing when you should step aside to make space for peers, friends and colleagues who have less privilege or access than you. Don’t apply for roles in community that could be held by members of that community. Don’t speak on a panel about diversity, access, inclusion or any topic for that matter, if you are another white, non-disabled, cis gendered person on a panel full of the same. Assist the organisers to find the right people so there is a balanced perspective.

• Keep adapting. Keep shifting but always come back to knowing that the relationship is the project.

Lilit, Kochava, An Open Letter to Allies, Writers Victoria website (
To pre-order The Relationship is the Project please follow the link:

About the writer

Ph credit: Sarah Walker 2019

Jade Lillie is an executive, facilitator and cultural leader with 15 years of not-for-profit experience in arts and culture, community engagement, education and more recently, community health
Specialising in strategy, co-design, governance, people and culture, Jade has worked in government and non-governments settings in Queensland, Northern Territory, Victoria and SE Asia.
She is known for her skills and expertise in strategy development, governance capabilities and her commitment to collaboration, cultural leadership and advocacy in championing diversity and access.
She is currently working as a consultant for arts and cultural organisations in Australia along with her role as Director, Public Affairs at cohealth. Jade was the Director and CEO at Footscray Community Arts Centre from 2012 – 2017.
In 2017, Jade was the recipient of the prestigious Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship for her thought leadership in contemporary, community engaged practice. Thanks to the time and space afforded through the fellowship, Jade’s book project, The Relationship is the Project will be published in early 2020. The RITP is a curated collection of works by leading contemporary, community engaged practitioners.
Jade is a Board Director for Diversity Arts Australia and Everybody Now!

Larsen, K, Best Practice Arts Language, larsenkeys website

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