Xenia Experiment: can we inspire action by sharing our learning?

Xenia began as a one off event held in Hackney Museum in 2016. In essence not much has changed since then. We continue to run regular sessions at the museum, often working with other local partners to deliver sessions. Our model- the way we plan and run sessions- is much the same as it always has been. We continue to provide childcare and pay travel expenses, relying on a team of incredible volunteers to deliver sessions each week.

However, Xenia has been developing in the background. The organising team has grown and we now have an amazing board of Trustees to support us. We have been successful in applying for funding, enabling us to have paid staff for the first time. We have worked with organisations to help us show our impact and have been recognised internationally for our work. Over 350 women from 56 countries have attended our workshops. As participants shared the positive impact of Xenia on their lives, and as more organisations showed an interest in our model, we thought how wonderful would it be if women outside of Hackney could go to a local Xenia. But how?

We spent many months discussing this but ended up with more questions than answers. After getting very caught up in the details and uncertainties of different ideas and plans, a friend of Xenia made a brilliantly simple suggestion. Why not do this the way that Xenia started, through a one off event.

We had already spent months writing resources on what we had learnt about running Xenia. This includes practical guidance on how to set up a group, such as getting a venue, building local partnerships, and finding participants to attend. We also share more tacit knowledge, like how to facilitate a session, difficult conversations that may come up and how to manage them. It was an enlightening process. It helped us to better articulate what we do during the sessions and behind the scenes. It also made us realise how much we had learnt and how much knowledge lies within our small organisation.

Through the event we wanted to share our model and knowledge to inspire others. Whether that was to hold a one-off Xenia workshop of their own, or for existing organisations to inform their activities. We also wanted to see if anyone was actually interested and what support they might need from us. Thankfully, people were interested! The event was fully booked after a week.

On 11th January we ran the event, with Amnesty kindly letting us use their venue. Attendees were a mixture of people from councils, museums, charities, as well as individuals. While most people were from London, some had travelled from other parts of England to attend. We told the story of how Xenia began, how it has developed, and explained what we do in the sessions. We then ran a “carousel” of mini workshops. Attendees were put into smaller groups, determined by their location (so they could connect with local people and organisations) and spent ten minutes on each of these topics:

  • Finding a venue and local partnerships
  • Planning the content
  • Facilitation
  • Outreach and staying in touch

As attendees had spent a long time taking in a lot of information, we gave them a few minutes to reflect on what they had heard. We then asked them what their next steps are and what kind of support from us they would need to take them. To our surprise, people were keen to take what they had learnt and start putting it into practice, either by running an event or using it to inform their existing activities. Others wanted to access the resources, as many of the answers to their questions on the day could be found there.

Some asked us questions that we don’t yet know the answer to: exactly how Xenia would be involved in them setting up their own groups? We will use what attendees told us on the day to reflect more on this question. But for now, we invited anyone interested in working with us to get in touch and take it from there.

The workshop ended with everyone sharing one word about how they felt after the event. Hearing the attendees say that they were impressed by our work and inspired to use what they had learnt, made the months of writing resources, planning and running the event all worth it.

Here are some of the words that people shared at the end of the event.

We thought we were being optimistic in thinking people would be interested in our learning, and even more so that we would inspire them to run their own event. But to our surprise we had a waiting list of 30 people to attend. And on the day, people were scribbling down everything we were saying and asking questions with a genuine intention of experimenting with it themselves.

This made us realise that sharing knowledge like this so openly is rare, but that there is a clear appetite for it. We ended the day feeling extremely proud. We came away knowing that people are interested in our model, that people feel inspired to use this learning and work with us further.

So, what next?

Thanks to support from Building a Stronger Britain together, we will soon be launching the resources on our website. Stay tuned for more information on how to access these!

We have found this experience extremely valuable and are glad that others have found it valuable too. While we are keen to work with more organisations and continue to share our learning, we are not currently funded to do this work. If you might be interested in supporting us to put on more events and support groups to learn from our model, please get in touch.

Thank you to everyone who attended the event and so eagerly took part! Please take five minutes to leave us some feedback on the event, so we can continue to learn and improve.

Q&A with Milva

How long have you been coming to Xenia?
I think it was from November 2018 to September 2019

What was it like the first time you came to Xenia- who did you meet, what did you see?
It was raining and I met Ioanna near Space Studio in Mare Street.

We waited together for the group coming from Hackney Museum. I though my English was really terrible but I started to talk with her. I talked about the beautiful exhibition, made by Xenia, that I saw in Space Studio some days before.

I arrived in London in September 2018 and It was the first time I was using English to talk about my feelings and my interest in arts. When the group arrived I saw smiling sisters.

How would you tell a friend about Xenia?
Xenia is a place where you have time to think before to speak… nobody feels afraid about the silence and the pauses between words. It means time to listen to the other women and to ask “could you repeat?”, without fear of embarrassing situations.

I think I started to talk in English, a little bit, for the love I felt when this language became useful to have contact with new sisters and friends. Thanks Xenia.

Meet Sultan, a Xenia regular!

L – R: Turkan and Sultan at one of our Summer celebrations.

How long have you been coming to Xenia?
I have been coming to the Xenia since February 2017.

What was it like the first time you came to Xenia- who did you meet, what did you see?
I first came with Turkan after our college teacher had recommended Xenia. We thought it was a good opportunity to improve our English and we decided to go.

We were both excited and a little nervous when we first came. I was so excited about who would welcome us. I felt my English wasn’t good enough so I was anxious to communicate with people but three young ladies greeted him with heart – Ioanna, Anna and Theo. Their sincere and welcoming attitudes led me to get rid of any uneasiness.

Also there were many women like me who want to improve their English and wanted to spend time doing a nice activity. A short time later, this place made me feel at home. My English has developed seriously, I can now talk easily to people and I have made many friends.

How would you tell a friend about Xenia?
I recommend Xenia to all my friends and all the women around me for all the good things it’s given to me. Xenia has a family atmosphere where helpful, loving and friendly people come together. I also think it is a great opportunity to improve your English.

I would like to thank Ioanna, Anna, Makena, Theo, Emma and all the people who contributed to this project.

Join the Xenia Experiment – for more welcoming, equal and connected communities

Do you want people to be more connected and less divided? Join us on Saturday 11th January for a special event to explore how you can make the change you want to see in your community.

Xenia brings together women from all cultures and backgrounds to connect with each other, share experiences, and practice English through creative workshops.

It began in 2016 as part of Antiuniversity Now at Hackney Museum, as an experiment for English-learning women and English-speaking women to connect and create together. From this one-off event we were asked to come back again and again by participants and it has since grown into a weekly workshop, where we welcome regulars and new faces from over 50 countries.

We want to share Xenia’s model to inform practice and support you to hold your own experiment in your local community – inspired by what we’ve already learned about what can really work.

At this workshop you will:

  • learn about Xenia’s story, vision, and impact,
  • learn about our non-hierarchical model,
  • take part in a Xenia taster session
  • and come away with practical tips on how to hold your own event.

This event is open to anyone who wants to learn from what we’re doing, supporting people who might not otherwise meet to connect through meaningful conversations. You may be interested in holding your own event, incorporating Xenia sessions into your organisation’s existing activities, or even starting up a local Xenia – everyone is welcome!

This event is open to all genders. If you have barriers to attending (e.g. childcare or cost of travel) please get in touch with us.

A Xenia Case Study – how we’ve helped one woman

We spoke to one woman who has been attending Xenia regularly since 2017. Read more about her experiences of moving to London and how Xenia has helped her.

Moving to London
I came to London in December 2016 to marry my husband who lives here. When I first came to London, my loneliness was ten out of ten. I missed my family a lot – I live with my husband and his family, and I really had only one friend.

I have a good relationship with my mother-in-law but I cannot speak to her about close things, and I could not speak to my mother and sister back in Sri Lanka because I did not want to worry them.

Work opportunities
I am a nursery teacher, and I want to work in the UK especially as I am on a spouse visa so I do not receive public money. I have to look after my mother and sister back in Sri Lanka and also I want my husband and I to have our own home.

With my qualifications I can get any kind of job but I wear a veil (full face cover) and in sales or customer care they tell me to take off the veil. I am applying for jobs with children so I can take off my veil. Now when I apply for carer jobs, I put two of the women at Xenia as references because I do not know other people here. 

Learning English
I want to work, so I started ESOL classes. In ESOL they improve our four skills (writing, reading, listening, speaking) but there’s not a lot of a time in classes.

In this country, you have to speak English – even to go to the shops so you can understand what people say. I speak to my community in my language so I do not have normally have an opportunity to speak in English, so if you have the chance to really talk in English you definitely have to take it.

Finding Xenia

Finding Xenia
My ESOL teacher told me about Xenia in March 2017, and now both ESOL and Xenia are very important in my life.

Xenia has helped me lots with my English. The main thing at Xenia is the opportunity to speak and listen in English as we have time to have real conversation. Because the women at Xenia all speak different languages, we have to speak English so it makes us practice.

I am used to people laughing when I make a mistake, but the women at Xenia are so kind and helpful, they correct me and I feel more confident. They are helping me to correct the words, and they don’t hurt me doing this – they are encouraging me, and these small small things are very touching.

How I feel about Xenia
I always tell my friends and classmates about Xenia because like me English is their second language.I share all the details about  Xenia with my classmates e.g. when and where, what we do there to improve improve our English.

Through conversations and activities we learn about different cultures, sometimes we go different places to do our conversations (park , garden) and we even do cooking, art and craft work in some workshops.

Most of my friends live in out of London so when I tell them about Xenia they felt that they don’t have opportunities like Xenia in their area. When I came to England I felt lonely and isolated, after I started to go to Xenia it changed and I became a strong person. We have Xenia from 10am – 1pm, in those 3 hours I feel so happy and relaxed. I feel we all are a big family, especially the volunteers who are so helpful, and now they all became my close friends.