The Identities Project set out to try and shift the way we think and speak about diversity: away from the meaningless ‘groupspeak’ of further education, towards genuine meaning. Only the naivest of optimists would make that an output; it was an aspiration only and we set off with no real idea of how to map this ambitious hope. In fact, the explosion of creativity ignited by the programme has done that work for itself and the shift in nuance, understanding and sophistication is illustrated by the poems, words, and other artwork participants contributed so generously. Here I’m going to focus on my own artwork, the pictures I drew on the first, and then the second, of the Identities days.
I’m claiming no objectivity but my own personal integrity; sitting at the back of the room I drew as I listened, switching off my internal editor and mapping what seemed to be key. Subjective, yes.
Comparing the two wordmaps, what strikes me first of all is how many more words were spoken on Day 2. Yes, I have to confess that I drawing for longer, but in part I was drawing for longer because there was more to say (though less people saying it – some people got what they wanted and did not return for Day 2).
I remember Day 2 as having so much more fluency. On Day 1, there was an unexpected willingness to immediately move beyond the stagnant FE acronyms; perhaps because of our pre-course pitch and a scene-setting keynote. I got the impression of people trying out a new language for size; ‘intersectionality’ was in there and ‘privilege’, so the keynote hit home. Clumsily, at first, delegates tried on these relatively new ideas and began to reflect on the shortcomings of the ‘jelly ‘n’ ice-cream’ approach to ‘E ‘n’ D’, now that it was no longer a limiting grade for Ofsted. Discussion ranged from ‘hard to reach services’ and ‘hard to inspire staff’, through emotions of excitement and fear, considering professionalism and teacher identity, whilst sharing a commitment to the benefits of equalities for all. Interestingly, the very first contribution to the opening round had mentioned ‘Impostor Syndrome’ as an aspect of identity and this proved to be a significant theme of the day, recurring throughout the activities and thinking spaces. It was an extra-ordinary day, made so by the willingness of participants to strip away preconceived ideas and starting thinking again from scratch.
Between Day 1 and Day 2 (the space of a couple of months), some participants explored their thinking further through coaching, some shared reading and thinking, some focused on their own practice; others created art which expressed their growing sense of multiple identities. Many people did all of these. Those who returned did so to celebrate and explore; that which we’d initially envisaged as a ‘train the trainers’ day became more of a ‘deepening’, as delegates returned with excitement, ideas, strategies, words tumbling out of them. Look at the vibrancy of the Day 2 wordmap! With fewer people in the room,the ideas flowed as delegates collected and reformed, deepening connections and taking the learning in the directions that made most sense to them.
The Thinking Environment featured – no surprise as the coaching had been as well received as the ‘thinking activities’ on each of the days. The notion that “interruption is an act of violence” took hold, even amongst delegates who regularly deal with the effects of more physical violence in their work. The notion of ‘whiteness’ had rooted, too, in the sense of it being the application of privilege, a deepening of the revelations of Day 1. There was a sense of lives and certainties being profoundly shaken by the #whitecurriculum work, connections being made between ‘whiteness’ and racism, sexism, oppressions of many colours. Those intersectionality notions of balancing between the cracks, trying to do that work that enables others to navigate their own identities, seeing life through a different lens…deconstructing the concept enabled each delegate to make sense of it in the context that was right for them.
People talked about the project giving them ‘permission’ to be thinkers, readers, artists…instead of just ‘doing’. We reflected on the false dichotomy of ‘practitioner’ and ‘academic’ in our society and how difficult it is to justify thinking/reading/reflexion time as ‘work’. In the wake of a blossoming creativity, some quotations hit home as ‘hooks’ for thinking: “We want everyone to read, but we have little time for poetry as a society.” There was a sense of excitement around the words yet to be spoken, a sense that this was one small day in a much longer journey. And there was ease…the desperate determination to ‘get it right’ of Day 1 transmuted into a sense of natural progression, as long as thinking environments were maintained. Waking up to untrue limiting assumptions, delegates (and facilitators) asked themselves, “What am I assuming that is stopping me thinking? What are my untrue limiting assumptions of myself?”
“How we compartmentalise ourselves and others is very toxic,” observed one delegate.
But what hit home – really hit home – was the power of being truly listened to, perhaps for the very first time and the opportunity that gives to inspire a genuinely honest self-awareness. That was a refrain which echoed throughout the day and played out, too, in the beautiful attention given by one delegate to another.
Stunned and drained…tears…elation…liberation. It was extraordinarily clear that those transformational emotions had been experienced by all.