Speaking to Power (or at least being near to it as power spoke)
How can we create new spaces with the same networks of power? How can we build something that is different by starting with people that are the same as before? Is it possible to listen and empower others to act?
I wanted to get involved in the discussion about community education. I had been lucky enough to work with people that nominated me for the Social Impact Award at the Festival of Learning, and was awarded that by the WEA. A massive honour and a sense of some recognition. Robert Halfon’s speech had much that was exciting for those working in the margins, those spaces between institutions, third sector, communities – and those within them.
It is also essential that those with power respond to the collective, and the three stages outlined by Halfon seem positive enough. These he describes as,
‘First, an adult community learning guarantee, giving people with no qualifications a platform to learn again. Second, a part-time higher education guarantee to offer flexible learning. And third, an employer guarantee which would incentivise businesses to upskill their workers.’
I have to admit, the focus on employability via employers always seems short-sighted and limiting to me, but I also appreciate we have to start somewhere and it is the platform that comes first that is most interesting. Here, a series of community learning hubs are proposed for every town in the UK. What these will look like is not clear, partly they seem to be present in existing spaces like colleges. What is positive without question is the recognition of those not currently (ever) included. Professor Jim Crowther describes an ‘iron law of participation’ in adult education, that the same people always engage and an equally solidified group do not. So would it not be better to engage differently, look in other places and widen who is being spoken to?
I am with Sam Shepherd here, there is a need to respond, but that must begin differently if it is to end differently. The FE News article highlights the next steps, these are positive but also lack that potential for wider engagement. It is not that these excellent thinkers are abandoned, but they engage with others and do so in places and ways that do not immediately privilege the powerful, those used to the networking opportunities and behaviours of those used to being invited to talk. They talk well, by definition. How well they listen is not so clear, and how far they reach out to hear seems limited.
Robert Halfon asked us to write to him, he did not say how, so I followed the link to his speech and tried there. When people say they want to get things right, we must begin with trust. I wrote my response, it was a little tricky and is not there – I know, it might be awaiting editorial confirmation, but in the meantime I can add it here (at the end of this post).
Getting recognition through awards is great, affirming, enjoyable. For a few hours we get transported from our realities and placed in another one, one that is clearly powerful, connected and aware of each of its participants and the ‘can-make-things-happen’ people. As a recipient, as an community educator, I was also aware of our no-power, of making things happen in isolated and precarious spaces, and of being more distant from power when in the same room than when I am in a productive huddle in a Blackburn library back room. I know I am not alone, but I know that each of us feels that we are.
I loved the WEA recognition, the kind, generous and positive people from the Festival of Learning, meeting the brilliant recipients from around the UK, and knowing learning is valued. I just want to make this visible, tangible and felt by all of those involved nationally and not only those luck enough to find beautiful nominators, supportive employers or chance encounters. The extra mile should be taken for granted, let’s start there, and ask questions out there and in different ways and with multiple people. Let’s have those we don’t hear at the forefront when we start to build ‘something else’, by listening to and involving somebody else too.
My ‘as yet’ unpublished response to Robert Halfon MP
I was at the Festival of Learning event at the Houses of Commons yesterday (22nd October 2019) and found the speech by Robert Halfon MP to include a lot of interesting and timely material. I am also aware that the panel created to discuss these issues seems lacking in the people that are ultimately locked out from education and those that are part of the ‘iron law of participation’. Although professionals with excellent backgrounds and involvement, the location in institutional decision making spaces means they are removed from the lived experiences on the ground. Is it possible for a widened approach to include dialogue with those at the forefront of the often disparate and unfunded community initiatives? My work with a self-funded digital platform, coocs.co.uk (Community Open Online Courses), has meant I spend much time in the margins, between the institutions and the third sector. There is much work being done here, and many become charities or find their way to other means of sustaining their work. Of course, many others do not. My experience has been that our work, despite being recognised in awards, is always beyond funding and is precarious at all times. My tenacity, and the enthusiasm and desire of ever-changing micro-communities and groups, as well as individuals, means we keep going. We see this in other small groups too. Yet, if recognition is fleeting, unfunded and leads to no future inclusion in dialogue we remain as were, small, fragile and without access to funds or support. The community hubs seems an excellent idea, but how can we include these as participatory spaces that include the community voice if they are excluded at the inception? I welcome the recognition of community as a space to foster a love of learning and a place to encourage participation – it is not only a positive individual opportunity, it is an essential means of fostering social cohesion and giving self-worth to whole communities. By definition, the margins and beyond are not involved in discussion at local decision-making levels, and subsequently get more marginal, increasingly silenced, the more nationally these things are considered. The communities are not silent, they are noisy, rich and brilliant places. However, they are too often not heard and I would like to see greater representation of these voices, frustrations, aspirations and the many, many ideas out there being centre ground in this discussion. Good luck in your work, we are here, please use us and talk to us.