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It all starts with a conversation…

‘How was your weekend? Get much revision done?’

‘Not really I was too busy’

‘Why what were you doing?’

‘Moving furniture around, it took me ages too because my brother wouldn’t help me. God he is SO annoying?’

‘Why did you have to move the furniture?’

‘Because I got a phone call from my mum, saying she was coming to London.’

‘Oh, for a holiday?’

‘No. Forever.’

The slightly unsure but sparkling smile that accompanied those last two words were a break through between Yasmine and I. Up until now all conversations had been very stilted and getting more than two word answers were an achievement. In this moment I got a huge insight into Yasmine, her life, and how it was going to change dramatically.

Yasmine is one of the students who I work with at a school in South London. The biggest thing I have learnt so far is that these children do not trust easily. The staff turnover rate is high they do not get too attached. This means that most interactions between Yasmine and I have been very businesslike. We discuss school (but only schoolwork), we discuss exams (but only revision), and anything beyond this has previously been a no go. But then in this moment, I got a glimpse into her world. Previously so closed off, with barely any facial expressions Yasimine suddenly showed me how excited she was about the prospect of her mother coming. I took this as an invitation to delve further and find out a bit more about her and what makes her the way she is.

Yasmine moved to London with her brother from Ghana when she was about 9. She moved for the education as, in her family education is the key to success and a comfortable life. She has lived with her aunt since then and seen her mother maybe a couple of times. It is no surprise that she is excited to see her, but in that sparkling smile I also detected an element of foreboding, a growing pressure to perform. As we spoke more she revealed what would happen if she – in her words – ‘failed’ her exams (this was getting a C or below in any of her subjects). She would be sent back to Ghana to redo her education. When she revealed this I was lost for words, the huge pressure put upon her at the age of 16 is one that I can only try to understand, and yet in this moment I felt it. The smile was replaced with a look of pure panic, I quick check of her watch suggested that she had realised how much time she was spending talking rather than working, the moment was over. Yet in this moment I feel that we shared something. She revealed parts of herself not only through our relatively short conversation, but through her body language, through the look in her eyes. In that moment I got to stick my head over the wall she had created and look at her reality.

The importance of this experience cannot be underestimated. We constantly encounter people but rarely get to see what is beneath the surface. This moment I shared with Yasmine showed me how the changes in her life were affecting her. I now feel more able to understand her, to see the world from her point of view and create an environment in which she can be the most comfortable to succeed in life. Without this small window, I would not have been able to empathise and understand to the extent that I do now.

This in itself is an insight into why empathy is such an important tool in social innovation. In order to design the best services possible, we must know the people we are designing for. We must know them at a human level, and understand their motivations, barriers, ideas, wishes and circumstances. Everything comes down to human interaction, which must be at the centre of what we provide.

Have you experienced a moment of empathy or true insight? Comment below…

 

*Names have been changed

Guest Blog for Make:Good – A Journey of Learning

Hi, I’m Sarah and I am a 2014 Year Here Fellow.

Part of the programme means I get a mentor and mine is Catherine from make:good, she invited me to share something of my experience on their blog so here goes.

My first personal blog was about fear: the fear of being accepted, the fear of the unknown, the fear that gripped me when I sent off my application to Year Here. Within the last year I have tried to say yes to as much as possible and Year Here is a culmination of this. As a result of saying yes to Year Here I have, moved to a new city, met a bunch of new people and thrown myself into my placement. There have been many new experiences and I have learnt new things about myself which which, whilst exhilarating, has also been quite scary.

Year Here has turned my life and outlook upside down. I applied to the programme with a vague sense of the need to do some good with my career. I saw it as a chance to challenge my views, face my fears and do some good. That it certainly has. Kickoff Bootcamp put me on the edge of my comfort zone and I encountered completely new experiences which made me realise the magnitude of the issues that exist within the UK. I am starting to understand the concept of ‘think big, start small.’ I am now on a placement for four months in an academy in South London. This experience in itself has been a huge learning curve. I entered this environment knowing that it would be difficult. I did not realise, however, that the difficulty would come, not from working with the students, but from finding my place within the institution. I am battling with myself not to try to change everything at once, but to see the good in what already exists. Working within the education system has made me realise that my views are quite strong. I have always been interested in the sector and have toyed with the idea of training as a teacher. I did not, however, realise how passionate I am about education and the need to allow children to not only achieve academically, but also to have the space to explore who they are. The development of themselves as people is just as important as the grades they achieve.

Year Here, so far, has been a huge learning curve, and one that continues to challenge me every day. This journey that I am on has expanded into an entirely new world with a plethora of paths which can be taken. Year Here is only the beginning, but it is something which has changed and challenged me so much already. I cannot wait for what the next eight months will bring and how many more transformations my outlook with go through. It is so important that we challenge our ideas and immerse ourselves new environments to gain crucial insights. Without these insights we as social innovators are ranging around in the dark. For social innovation to be as effective as possible, a deep awareness of the context is absolutely crucial.

This blog was originally published on the Make:Good blog ‘Whats Brewin’ and titled ‘A Journey of Learning’.

Where have all the artists gone?

Some of the most influential and ground breaking people have also been the most creative. Albert Einstein said that he never made any discoveries as a result of rational thinking. Whatever the industry, in order to be ground breaking and to challenge the structures, you have to be creative and be able to think outside the box.

Until I started my fellowship with Year Here, I never really thought that I was that creative. Yes I have an A-level in textiles, but I got that by ticking the right boxes. I hit the right grading criteria. I never really had to think that much, I just had to follow the correct ‘recipe’ for success. It is only now that I have started to realise that my creativity is not in my ability to draw or paint, but that I see the gaps in things. I almost subconsciously look at a process, concept or idea, consider it and think about how I could apply myself to working with it and improving it. This is part of my nature, and yet why has it only come out now? Why did it not come out at school, or at university. When I was very young I loved to create things but as I grew up I lost that urge, not because I didn’t still enjoy it, but because I saw it as a waste of my time when I could be doing other things such as homework or practicing for my music and dance exams. I was focused on being successful which somehow didn’t fit with my creative side…

Today thanks to my mentor I read a very interesting blog post which asked ‘Can any school foster pure creativity?‘ and this really got me thinking. I find it amazing that the American Psychiatric Association sees many of the characteristics that are associated with creativity, such as being impulsive and taking risks, are considered to be symptoms of ADHD. How can anyone, especially a child, be expected to see the value of creativity if it is associated with a psychological disorder? As well as this our system of structured examinations and the focus of the syllabus on those exams seems to leave little room for creativity. In doing some research looking at marking criteria and exam reports I was saddened to find that it explicitly stated that some student’s answers were regarded as overenthusiastic and so moved away from the passage ‘into creative territory’. As a result of this, these answers would never hit the ‘top grades’. Why is this that students must forgo their creative side in order to succeed? Especially when some of the most successful people are also the most creative.

So what is the solution?

Cevin Soling suggests that the education system needs completely reinventing and whilst there are some schools that do this, they are also not necessarily the answer. Unfortunately in this realm, there can be no mistakes. My education was messed with hugely due to different governmental policies being introduced on a yearly basis, as a result there are definite gaps in my knowledge base. I worry that the lessening importance of ‘soft subjects’ such as drama and art will create a generation of rule followers. I am not saying that students should be able to run free because I see education as a hugely important and an empowering part of life. I do however think that we should be nurturing the entirety of an individual, because we are, after all, individuals. We all have different strengths and weaknesses and for emphasis to be placed on certain ones creates a divide between those who can, and those who cannot.

Almost everybody is creative in some form whether it is through the artistic medium or in their ability to design application and create code. There needs to be provision for this as well as the ‘necessary’ subjects.

‘I am not a product of my circumstances, I am a product of my decisions’ – Stephen Covey

For many within the state education system circumstance does dictate educational outcome. This does not have to be the case.

The issue of educational disadvantage is very complex and there is no quick fix. As each child is different, so is their attitude to learning. As a result of this fact schools seem somehow counter- intuitive. We all go in to ‘the system’ at 4 years old and become part of a ‘machine’. We are expected to learn in the same way and achieve within set parameters. Success is something that can be measured, it is quantifiable. But is this really the case?

This however is a difficult question to answer and throws up alot more questions.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation children from less advantaged backgrounds feel less in control at school because they are under pressure to perform required tasks in which they lack confidence. This in turn leads to a reluctance to receive the curriculum. So by putting children under pressure to perform and ‘meet the grades’ are we just creating more individuals with a negative attitude?

This week I have seen some evidence of this. My school, an academy which has been praised by Ofstead and has had a number of visits from high profile people, is still fundamentally a school. According to the National Audit Office (NAO), academies were introduced to raise achievement in deprived areas by replacing poorly performing schools. They are publicly funded but are also supported by sponsors and operate independently of the local authority. This means that they have more autonomy and can allocate funds according to their individual needs. Due to their more independent status academies are able to challenge existing school structures. Yet in this instance, from my perspective, this is even less the case.

There is absolutely no doubt that many of the students here are capable of achieving great things and many will go onto university and do very well. However what about those who won’t? What about those who find structured learning difficult and are not academic in their abilities?

I have only been in school a week and already I have a better understanding of what it is that drives students to succeed, but also the barriers they face. I am also starting to see very difficult task of ensuring that everyone leaves with some results.

It is very difficult at this point to pass any form of judgement and I am not here to do that. I am here to learn about the structures that govern the institution, to learn about the barriers that students face both inside and outside of the classroom. I am also here to help those under my charge reach their potential. I am in what is called by Year Here as the ‘immersion phase’ and that is exactly what I am doing, I am immersing myself within the school to try and understand it from everyone’s point of view.

The next couple of posts will hopefully build up a more comprehensive picture. I will try to be as candid as possible and completely non-judgmental. I am here to learn and that is what I shall do.

An aside – The world we live in…

So this post is not about my time on the Frontline, however I feel that this story should be told.

The world we live in:

  • Fair?
  • Non-judgmental?
  • Equality of access?
  • Protection of rights?

Last night as part of my Year Here Fellowship, the fellows and I met to discuss how we could contribute to the question ‘How might we make low income urban areas safer and more empowering for women and girls?’ This is part of a wider research and design project with Open IDEO an online design platform. The discussion threw up a number stories about the daily harassment that we as women face. Now I know that this is not a new revelation, but it occurred to us all to question where the men were in this discussion? Is it not also about educating men about the way heckling and staring makes women feel? As a result of this we decided to do some research asking our male friends and acquaintances whether they had witnessed sexism, whether they reacted to it and if they would have done anything differently.

The responses I have got have been quite an eye opener and have highlighted for me some key issues that I had some awareness of but that I had not really addressed before. Sexism is embedded in our society. As much as we try to deny it, it is still very much a problem. My male counterparts all admitted that they had encountered sexism in some form, whether in the work place, in a different society or in their daily life. However the thing that stood out for me was that when I questioned further and asked about the objectification of women on a daily basis, such as heckling, staring or honking, they were silent. These things which they have no doubt seen happen just completely passed them by… This suggests some level of normality, that it was so insignificant it didn’t warrant their attention. Even I am guilty of allowing such instances to just pass me by without a second thought.

For them and myself to ignore these injustices suggests something about our society. For all feminism did for women, it still has a long way to go. I am not talking about radical feminism as whilst it has its place I feel it no longer works in this context. It is the education of everyone (not just men) about how the objectification of both sexes makes people feel. I do not like being stared at when I walk down the street, but it is just part of my life so I have to deal with it right?

This post is part of the wider conversation about the position of women in society. In doing my research I felt a sense of hopelessness at the fact that this has become such a normal part of life when it is fundamentally wrong. We must question these encounters as it makes us challenge our societal paradigm. There is no quick fix, but just asking the question is a start.

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‘Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.’ – George Addair

As I sit here in my dressing gown at my mum’s house my mind is drawn back to my school years, some of the worst years of my life.

Tomorrow I face my fears and start my placement at an Academy school in South London.

When I left school I vowed I would never go back. I was never going to teach or work with children and I was going find a fantastic job in the Civil Service. It seems however that upon leaving university, I have gone full circle. Like the quote at the top of this post, I hope that by facing my fears I can not only exorcise my demons, but also achieve my goals. It is not instant, but a process, one which I start here. Now.

This blog is part of my Fellowship with Year Here, a postgraduate programme that give graduates a way into the social sector. It gives people such as myself, with leadership potential and a social conscience, the skills, experience and network to really succeed.

I am not a writer and I do not pretend to be one. I do however feel in a unique position to give a frank account of what I see, who I meet and hopefully tell some of the stories of those who can’t.

I am on this journey as much as you are, so here goes…