Talk given to colleagues participating in the first organising conference of the Tutor Voices democratic professional campaigning organisation, held at Northern College on 26th September 2015.
Those of us here today and following on social media have assembled because we are angry that something we love and believe in is being undermined to the point of extinction. We are already a network…an assemblage of people who have come together to amplify our voices. Our job is to broadcast our power and potential as adult educators. What concerns me as I look around this room of determined, passionate, dedicated faces, is that we run the risk of narrowcasting to people who are, to generalise, ‘just like us’. This country is not run by people who are ‘just like us’. By the same token, our students and potential students are not entirely represented by ‘people just like us’ either.
We have two tasks, of equal importance. One is the work we have planned to do here today and, for those who can stay, tomorrow. Work which has already begun in at least one social media space: I’m sure most of you here will have signed the petition against ESOL cuts put together by Rachel Yarwood-Murray and Vicky Clifton, after they hooked up in the Tutor Voices Facebook Group. That petition is due to be presented to Louise Casey next week. That’s absolutely the sort of grassroots campaigning that Tutor Voices should be about in my view – and today is about finding out what YOUR ideas and priorities are. What are our lines of attack and as a rhizomatic network – I’ll come back to that later – how do we organise to make our voices un-ignorable?
That’s one job. The other is the necessity of broadcasting, rather than narrowcasting to people ‘just like us’. We need to talk to decision makers, many of whom, as my colleague Robin Simmons memorably reported, think that adult education is for other people’s children. How do we do that? We don’t have the ear of Government, so we need to turn the media they control back against them. And we need to talk in many voices. Looking round the room, I am not completely convinced that the diversity of our society is represented here today. We have white work to do – and by ‘whitework’ I mean not only to reference race, but to acknowledge the privileges we all hold, simply by being able to make it here today. Our work is to connect with those voices that are heard even less than ours, to broaden our networks even when that’s uncomfortable, when we’re clumsy, when we are knocked back…even when it feels unjust. Those are the territories I want us to assemble in: finding ways to hear the voices of those educators who work with the most marginalised, who are marginalised themselves. People grafting away unpaid, or moving around huge institutions like zero-hours ghosts. We are one, or we are nothing.
I mentioned earlier the word ‘rhizomatic’. For the gardeners amongst us, a rhizome is a plant that’s stubbornly impossible to shift. You think you’ve got it and it pops up somewhere else, quite possibly in your neighbour’s garden. Ginger is a rhizome, and irises. Also couchgrass. But what a metaphor! Unexpected, subversive, stubborn. That’s what Tutor Voices needs to be. We have to operate differently in this posthuman landscape, where spin is king and apologies meaningless, where politicians say the opposite of what they mean and reinvent themselves shamelessly. Our political structure is Kafka, it’s Lord of the Flies, it’s 1984. We cannot win on their terms, by forming huge organisational structures that mirror what’s gone before, tie themselves in knots and ultimately lose their way. Anger might be an energy, but speaking from our place of pain will get us nowhere. What we need is an affirmative politics, values laid bare and adhered to with integrity, minds open to thinking differently. We need to tell the stories and successes of adult education, which essentially are the stories and successes of all people. We need to operate as nomads, by which I mean guerillas, rhizomatically popping up where we are not expected – like that pesky couch grass – assembling and re-assembling in different combinations, getting ourselves EVERYWHERE. Getting, as my mum would say, where water can’t. And we need to act quick. When Ewart Keep said at the AoC conference earlier this year that there would be no FE in 2020 this year’s general election had not yet happened. What seemed doomy at the time now looks a little optimistic.
I may be at odd with my fellow organisers in this, but I don’t think we have time to build constitutions and elections and AGMs, without also getting on with the work. Of course we may have all those things, those are the trappings of democratic organisation and I’m not disrespecting them or the values base that underpins them. But we can’t wait for them, unless we want our heroic story to end up more Les Miserables than London Blitz. We need to act now, and one of the ways to do that is social media. Some of you are there already. Some of you look scared. Some of you are rolling your eyes and thinking, “She’s off again.” But it’s quick, it’s free and it works. It makes a noise.
If I can contribute one thing to Tutor Voices, I believe it is this. If you are willing, I can teach you how to campaign online, to raise your voices – collectively – so high that they cannot be ignored and overlooked. But you’ve got to be up for it. Just looking on Twitter is not enough. Just talking to people you already know is not enough. You’ve got to put yourself out there, out there where it’s scary, where it feels dangerous, where trolls lurk. And you need to bang on about adult education, at every opportunity, every single day. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do all the other things as well. But this is MY affirmative politics. I go to the places where people think differently, and I change their minds. Sometimes, in the process of listening, I get my mind changed too.
Adult education needs to transform to survive and by that I don’t mean buying into capitalist ideologies of austerity, crisis and profit. We’ve tried doing that and it doesn’t work. We are the vehicle for challenging racism and marginalisation; we’re expected to get people back into work, cure them of addictions and even, it seems, prevent terrorism – and we’d be equal to all of that if we weren’t also then told how to do it by people who don’t have a clue. So this affirmative political work is also about protecting transformational pedagogy, as we called it in the ‘Dancing Princesses’ book, “spaces to dance.”
This is dancing princess work, it’s anti-hero work and we are all those things in this room, educators who give enough of a toss about their profession to give up their weekend to come here. We are disrupters, unsettlers in the great romantic tradition of social action. You’ll hear many wonderful, inspirational campaigners cited today, from Che Guevara to Joel Petrie, but I’m going to leave you with Charlotte Church, whose voice cut through old rhetoric at the Anti-Austerity rally in June. She addressed these words to academics, journalists, public figures who consider themselves progressive:
“We need to stop genre defining our politics and harking back to old ideologies and start talking about the future of government, the future of democracy, our children’s future; how we can be innovative in our thinking, how we can capture the attention of the disengaged demographics…”
…we are right there. Education is how this is done. But we have to believe it and believe in our own power to assemble and influence change. Don’t leave it to others to make things happen. Go away from here and be part of the voice.