I woke up writing this morning

wpid-20150807_083455.jpgWhen I first heard of the WEA, as a student, I waited with great anticipation for the brochure. ‘All human life is here’, I told everyone. Away from the increasingly mundane, exams-driven culture of school, here was a world where proper learning and fellowship went hand-in-hand. When I came to work for the WEA in 2002, there were elements of this approach still but it almost felt historic. We were about to enter a turbulent period of justifying our existence (our social purpose) to the funders and trying to survive. So, we saw the emergence of ‘skills’. The word ‘skills’ has taken over practically every discourse on education in the country today. We all have skills, which we gain in various ways. They need nurturing, developing, refreshing and gaining new ones, particularly as technologies change. This is a vital part of learning, of what we offer without a doubt but it’s not the only way.

‘Learning is Fun’ and ‘Learning for its own Sake’ were two straplines used under the old, old WEA logo. I’ve never forgotten them because they marked the WEA out as being different, allowing you a time and a place where you learned to reflect quietly and to take part in intellectually mind-bursting discussions which help you make more sense of where you live and who you are and how it all somehow fits together.

I grew up on a working class council estate, idyllic in summer with trees and gardens everywhere, having, I thought then, the good fortune to go to a grammar school, then watching uneasily as my education gave me so much while distancing me from my own parents and neighbours. I didn’t understand then that everything I was studying had been pre-selected and packaged, mainly by men, into boxes. As it progressed, it became drier and less inspiring. I suppose it did open up for me creative sources, particularly in literature – Orwell, Steinbeck and Wilde – as well as music, Simon and Garfunkel for which I am grateful. Reading the WEA brochure was like unwrappng a present, like reaching inside an old wardrobe, not knowing what you’ll find inside but knowng there might be snowflakes.

It has taken me, is still taking me a long time to understand and apply the idea that knowledge and education systems are never neutral. They always have someone’s intended purpose behind them. Never is this critical awareness more needed today when it feels like anyone who makes a comment such as ‘not everyone wants to buy their own house’ is jumped on for being against hard-working people. Why is it that? What does it say about our political culture now? You will be criticised in the press and on social media for being a left-wing throwback, out of touch, and a backward thinking fool.

I’m only asking for an affordable choice which builds and passes on housing stock from one generation to the next. Perhaps, it was more the other way during the 1970s and ‘80s..? Certainly, there were competing ideas and practices then. And why was that? Where do ideas come from? Questions, always questions…you may see an answer at once or it can take your whole lifetime. Or  both!

I’m writing about Social Purpose in education. Everything I’ve said has been to do with my experience, my journey through life, exploring ideas, their emotional roots and sometimes putting them into action. Some of these actions are individual. I can write a letter to my MP, sign a petition or write a poem. Others are collective. I may join a day of action in support of a cause or join a group or go to a meeting. It starts with the individual and leads towards working with others. It takes time and space for people to grow. And as we all know, growth is painful! The passage of time may not be linear. You may have to retrace your steps. Confidence may grow, then take a battering.

This is what Social Purpose is for me and I’m so glad to be involved with the WEA as it explores afresh this commitment. Maybe, every generation has to relearn it for itself? I feel it’s timely when given the seemingly simplistic responses of politicians and in the press (us and them; in or out?) to what are complex issues, worthy of discussion, held, hopefully, in an atmosphere of mutual respect. There are after all no ‘right or wrong answers’, to these matters but there are different ways of looking at something.

Social purpose starts with listening…to yourself, to what is going on in the world and needs curiosity and openness. Listen to your students – in their classroom discussions, over coffee – what are they talking about and start there. It may mean changing very little. The very fact people are coming and meeting and gaining support may fulfill your social purpose goal. The chances are, though, that new ideas will emerge, often suggested by the group, which you catch if you’re listening. It could be raising funds for a good cause, giving a talk in a dementia cafe or organising an event or display. Some may take up volunteering opportunities..

It’s an umbrella term, containing a number of different entry points. For some groups, say, engaged in practical subjects, making things may provide a space for people to share. Talk may lead in time towards action. The image I have in my head is of a ball, along which you can move on different planes, according to where you are in your life. So, the first plane represents where I am, where I’m heading, maybe, and is always present.

I must have time for thinking, for quiet reflection, perhaps, experienced while walking or cooking, writing or swimming. At least at two points, my individual plane crosses and connects with the group one. Here in the connections is where I learn from the tutor and the other students in the group. My creative processes are working. I am challenged, inspired, deflated, demoralised and helped up again for another day. Hopefully, a skilled, imaginative facilitator (you, the teacher!) leads (takes the initiative in a relationship – George Lakey) the exploration.

And time passes, revealing a third plane of multiple connnections with other groups and ideas over time. I call this the ‘working in the garden’. You may have a different image – the kitchen, a coastline or in the market. This is where organic, developmental growth happens. Some of this, you’ve planned but a lot of it just happens, bringing unforeseen benefits. Tutors may never know the effect their classes have on a student. They may not know it themselves till much later. Or you may see a lasting legacy, such as a community garden, a glass mosaic in the community library, a short story published or a song performed and recorded. We move between the personal and the collective at different times. We need both. Individually, we can achieve so much. Yet, where the planes connect, we are stronger and can have a greater impact.

What if you have a core of people in your group, attending regularly over two years or more? How far might you take them in this time? Rather than working in isolated blocks of learning (from 21 to 21 hours), would it make a difference if you prepared linked modules of 21 hours? That would mean 84 hours or even126 hours, quite  a lot of hours. Do you know the tutorial classes in the early days of the WEA ran over three years? It’s unrealistic to think we can do this again but can we restore its purpose with what we have or can obtain?

The WEA way is not revolutionary in its approach. We are capable of producing revolutionaries and revolutionary thinkers, we hope! Yet, if we stop in one place, we may appear to be so, as the political culture shifts around us. Learning has always been about opening up individuals and groups by asking creative questions. So, is Critical Action Learning (CAL) social purpose? As this involves a group project as its stated outcome, it has to be. And Community Engagement (CE)? This has to have at least one learning outcome, explicitly addressing the benefits to the community, arising out of the group’s activity, so yes, I’d say it is. Whereas Creative Facilitation is an approach, which helps you make sense of a particular theme or problem in an imaginative way, often drawing on the visual or drama, poetry or stories. What of critical thinking…?

Are these all facets of social purpose, then? Yes, I would say so. Starting with the individual, and moving to the group, where what people learn impacts on the lives and critical thinking of the students, their families, friends and those they come into contact with.

So, is that it? It doesn’t sound like very much and I’m doing a lot of it already. Well, that’s great, then. Carry on, build on it. See where it leads and enjoy the journey. After all, our tutors are also students with much still to learn, I hope. The WEA is one of the few publicly-funded institutions where this is still possible. So, make it happen, colleagues and friends, while we still can.


Further reading

The Ministry of Enthusisam, Centenary Esays on the Workers’ Educational Association, Edited by Stephen K Roberts, WEA Pluto Press, 2003

A Very Special Adventure, The Illustrated History of the Workers’ Educational Association, 2003

Raising Our Voices, 100 Years of Women in the WEA, WEA Women’s Education Committee, 2003

A Century of Learning, The Workers’ Educational Association 1903-2003

The Social Purpose unit, intended as an introduction

– version 2 (revised on WEAVE under Tutor Induction)

– version 1 (original version – http://www.wea-yh.org.uk/esp/index.html )

The Social Purpose module (you will need a log in for this) – http://www.wea-yh.org.uk/esp/index.html

Training for Transformation website – http://www.trainingfortransformation.ie/

(Tutors gain access to Partners Organisation’s resources for creative facilitation when s/he completes the social purpose module)


Is it about relationships?

In a true community we will not choose our companions, for our choices are so often limited by self-serving motives. Instead, our companions will be given to us by grace. Often they will be persons who will upset our settled view of self and world. In fact, we might define true community as the place where the person you least want to live with always lives!

10.19 Parker J Palmer, 1977, quoted in Quaker Faith and Practice, 5th Edition

I came to avp because of a relationship problem with my wife, now my ex-wife. Till I wpid-20150926_123150.jpgdiscovered another relationship issue with my dad. Then, there is mum. I have three sisters. Park that. No-one told me I had relationship issues with my grandparents, even if two of them were already dead before I was born. And I have two sons. What about my relationship with them? And theirs with me?

When I look about me, I have had from time to time problems with my friends. Mainly them, of course, I’m a nice person. And in my local Quaker meeting. Don’t get me started on Quakers…how difficult can they be at times? People, I ask you. Nearly always their fault, though. I’m a nice person.

I went to my first avp workshop because I was in trouble. It helped. It was a start of a long process and I’m still learning, still practising.

Once, during a break in a level 1 workshop, I confided in a friend, ‘All my worst nightmares are in that room.’ ‘What do you mean?’, he asked. ‘Well, growing up, I ran into violence wherever I turned – in the house, on the streets, across the parks, with gangs, mostly men, all men, the kind of men in this room.’ I was nervous and hesitant in my first year as a facilitator, testing the water. How would I cope with my fears in front of these men? Surely, they’d see my weaknesses, my vulnerabilities and exploit them? Yet, as I listened to them over the next couple of years, I began to see them for who they are – people, human beings, lovely people, affected by all kinds of stuff, making wrong choices, seeking a way out, like me. I felt somehow stronger and love grew in me. It’s still growing.

At the avpBritain national gathering, I likened it to a family wedding, one where I liked everyone and got along with everyone. I have learned so much about relationships and have much more still to learn. I’m on the journey now.

The Alternatives to Violence Project Britain (avp) organises workshops which empower people to lead nonviolent lives, based on respecting and caring for ourselves and others. Though Quaker in origins and ethos, it is composed of people of all faiths and none.

Website: http://avpbritain.org.uk/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AVPBritain

soup and bread stories

wpid-20150926_124029.jpgSoup and bread forms my contract with avp. I meet my mentor, when needed or before too long, at the Egg café for soup and bread…’cept I often have chunky cheese on toast with salad while my mentor has soup and chunky cheese. We call our get together ‘Soup and Bread’. And we talk and catch up and that’s how it is. ‘…text messages?’ Yes, I do text messages to my mentor after every workshop. ‘Finished. On way home. Shattered and happy.’ Really, to tell her I’m still alive and breathing. Long may it continue. It matters to me having this contact. I still do it now, four years on, though I suppose I don’t really need to. I like it, though. It’s a connection.

‘O’ is for Odessa: Greetings from avpBritain to friends attempting under difficult circumstances to set up avp workshops in the Ukraine and Serbia and keep them going with very little money and lots of enthusiasm. We want you to know we are thinking of you and wish you all well.

About 40 people were gathered at the national avp event in Birmingham where I told a tale, a Taoist Tale, in one of the workshops. It’s about good things and bad things that happen to a farmer’s son. He loses his family’s only horse. And when the neighbours say what bad luck or good luck, when he finds it again, plus several other wild ones, the farmer asks them how do you know. And I retold the story of Portia Nelson’s lovely poem ‘An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters’. It’s so hard to walk down another street but possible. I wonder if this isn’t an answer to the question I’m often asked in community workshops? ‘It’s ok for you, you can go home. You don’t have to live where I do.’ It sounds like an accusation.

And we sang of winter’s nights…

Are there occasions when or places where you feel included or excluded by others? Don’t we all experience this at times. Whether it’s real or not is another matter but it doesn’t make the feelings of hurt any less. But turn it round. When do you include or exclude someone? And straight away, I realised I do often make subtle judgements when meeting people, letting them in or keeping them out. I realised I was doing it now, listening to the person facing me. I’d felt before I wouldn’t really get on with this person. It was their manner of speech and their dress. Hard to say exactly but I wasn’t’ going to make much of an effort to communicate. It didn’t help the room was noisy and I’d only just finished one intense conversation. So, when she said to me, ‘Speak up, so I can hear you’, I felt irritated. I would keep my contribution brief. Yet what happened next surprised me. avp people are good listeners and know when you’re not. I’ll do what I can, I thought, and began to be drawn in. discovering here was someone with whom I had much in common and not at all like the person I’d judged her to be.

It’s not ‘hummus peace’, a phrase, meaning food shared between Palestinians and Israelis, which sums up superficial relations between two sides. Hummus peace is fine but don’t expect too many to practise it on the West Bank, and certainly not in Hebron. This is where we next went. Hummus peace may be a beginning but will come to nothing without deeper underlying changes in society, which provide freedom and equality. Would this lead towards both parties feeling safer and freer? Peace appears such a long way off. Yet, remember Ireland. Remember the Berlin Wall, glasnost and perestroika. Start talking, keep working for peace. Keep talking. How? Where? Who is with us? Who isn’t? And why?

A member of our group talked about her visit to Hebron to observe and support avp training for new Palestinian facilitators, made up of teachers and social workers. Hebron is a city the size of a small county. A big, bustling city of 180,000 people live in it, surrounded by fertile grounds; places like Haloul, where cool waters flow and science teachers wander to dream of lessons for their students and of peace.

Someone else remembered their own visit. ‘I can leave.’ she said. ‘The difference was I can leave.’ It brought back a memory of a young student, Elena, I’d met during a short study visit to Minsk when it was part of the Soviet Union. She’d told me she only ever felt able to talk freely when in the kitchen at home and with people she knew well and trusted.

‘We had fun there and lots of laughter. We played games like ‘Mime the Lie’. One of the men had made a flute out of a piece of piping. At the slightest excuse, he started playing and they would be off, singing and dancing.’ And what great hospitality!

The Palestinian, acting as their interpreter, failed to turn up one morning. When he did arrive, he told them that the young soldier, stationed outside his house, had stopped him from leaving. So, he rang his brother and invited him and his family to come round for tea, which they had…in the middle of the road, blocking all the traffic. The soldier gave in and let him leave. The Palestinians have a word they fond helpful for times like these, Simud. It means steadfastness, resourcefulness.

These are light and dark questions facing people every day, like soldiers raiding a corner shop as the local primary school lets out. What if, without thinking, a young boy picks up a rock? What do you do? How would you react? Throw it? Ask him not to..? Ignore it? Or cry ‘Drop it!’? You have to make quick decisions, thinking on your feet. Making the wrong one may be costly.

Next to the now almost deserted Suk, or market place, where 500 settlers live, guarded by 2000 Israeli soldiers. Those traders, who stay there, work under protective netting. It catches all kinds of unspeakable objects thrown from above. Fewer and fewer shoppers go there now. It’s dying.

In Palestinian avp workshops, they speak of the ‘Flower of Peace’ to represent the kind of world they would like to live in. On one petal, one of the new facilitators wished for ‘a world where money is not spent on weapons’. Another of them wrote, ‘I wish for a world where we give each other balloons with kind words written on them.’

There is a group of ex-soldiers in the Israeli army, called Breaking the Silence, which campaigns to raise awareness about what’s happening and the long term effects the conflict on young and old on both sides. I remembered reading that relatively few Israelis really appreciate the effect on ordinary Palestinian families of living on the other side of the Wall.

Reflecting on these stories helps me see more clearly the connections between living out my own peace testimony during avp community workshops (there are prison ones too). It’s a way of trying to live my life in a more peaceful way, facing up to and dealing with conflict when it happens – it just does – and connecting me in ways I’d never thought possible to the national and international scene by avp international’s contribution to peacework.

Peace really does ‘begin with me’.

…and we danced and we sang of the long time sun.

The Alternatives to Violence Project Britain (avp) organises workshops which empower people to lead nonviolent lives, based on respecting and caring for ourselves and others. Though Quaker in origins and ethos, it is composed of people of all faiths and none Website – http://avpbritain.org.uk/   

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/AVPBritain?fref=ts

International Avpb website – https://avp.international/

WordPress blog – janeharries@wordpress.com

Breaking the Silence – http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il/

Find out more about life in Hebron (in Arabic) – aman.org.ps