Doing hard things

Picture of a person jumping off a cliff with overlaying text
Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, this quote is frequently found in the wild, overlaying pictures of mountains, cliffs, and pictures of people jumping off things.

I hate this quote. In fact, I dislike a lot of ‘ inspirational’ quotes, and especially those which are found paired with pretentious photos of sunsets, beaches, or people jumping around in odd poses. But this quote in particular seems to be one of those that pops up all over the place, on top of pictures of mountains and difficult terrain.

A lot of my (possibly slightly irrational) hatred for this phrase goes back to a former partner of mine. A fair few years ago I was struggling with some bad mental health problems – the type of anxiety where you can’t even work out what to wear in morning, without melting into a crying wreck and where after trying 5 or 6 different outfits, you’d finally make your way out of the door, 20 minutes late, trying hard to hold your shit together while being certain that what you were wearing was wildly inappropriate, made you look horrendously fat and/or looked terrible. It was bad times to be fair. However, it didn’t seem like anything that new – for as long as I could remember I had been really rather scared of things: being thought of as weird at school, people finding out my family were a bit messed up, and not having enough money to live on when I moved out as a teenager.

My partner at the time was a fan of inspirational quotes. Quotes like “do something every day that scares you”. There were others – one about acceptance, one about letting go – but this is the one that stuck with me, as I lived so much of my life in fear and panic – and it frustrated me that he couldn’t see or quite grasp this, and told me fairly regularly instead that I needed to do things that scared me. He didn’t seem to see that even getting out of bed, and choosing what to eat for breakfast scared me.

Looking back it’s a) really odd to think how long ago that all was now and b) fascinating how far I’ve come, and how much has changed

There was a sudden realisation a few years ago that I had beaten the worst of the anxiety – that I could mostly handle the times I felt panicked, and not let it get the better of me (how this happened is probably a topic for another blog post). Then came a tremendously busy period in my life – a few years containing lots of house moves (including one from Cambridge to Manchester), a move away from freelance work, and then getting engaged.

I’m just settling back down after that intensely busy period, and I’ve just has the realisation of *quite* how far I’ve come and how much things have changed. The goals I’ve set myself for 2017 are things that I could never have imagined myself doing before at all. Fear would have crippled me on even one of them – let alone all. The current list stands at:

  • Completing a triathlon
  • Running a half marathon
  • Taking control of my finances
  • Starting to learn to play the violin
  • Curing my arachnophobia
  • Learning how to record a podcast

These may not sound scary to most people but they very much are scary things for me. I was terrible at P.E at school, and that had basically been the pinnacle of my exercise career. Added to which, during my 20s I started having joint problems – problems that left me reliant on a walking stick at times, and even now can leave me for a week barely able to get up stairs. As for anything to do with money? Well I grew up having none, so adopted an ostrich like approach to anything related to finance.

To some degree – the activities I’m doing this year still scare me. But I can’t get over the difference about how they would have felt a decade ago. And that’s for two key reasons.

Firstly, I’ve dealt with the anxiety. I no longer get the completely crippling, panic inducing anxiety of my past. I’m no longer sobbing about the idea of working out what to do in an evening – not wanting people to hate me for saying no – or completely incapable of dressing myself.

And secondly, life has changed. I’m in a (relatively) stable job that I enjoy, and living with a partner who can help me on the days when my joints decide they aren’t going to work, and who is willing to stand next to me while I try to get close to a spider (that in my mind is obviously going to jump up and kill me).

As such I’m now in place where I can try things that are harder. Like trying to run 20-odd km, or trying to cycle on the road (where else am I going to get the triathlon practice?), or turn up at my new violin teachers house and accept that I know nothing and will look and sound like an idiot at first (and yes, if I had told 16 year old me that in a decade and a bit I was going to be trying to do a triathlon and learning to play the violin I’d have laughed at how middle class I was going to become).

And the thing I find most interesting? The realisation that what I feel now is much more aligned with the ideas of ‘feeling the fear’ that many comfortable and well-to-do types have – often those who tell you to ‘do something every day that scares you’, or to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.

There really are many different ‘levels’ of feeling terrified of doing a thing, and you still are scared trying new things – but the fear is different. For instance, I still get a bit concerned before a long and difficult run – because I don’t know what will happen the other side. My body may seize up and I may struggle for a few days. But I no longer work in bars or as a shelf stacker, so if I’m physically less able for a few days, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not going to risk impacting my ability to earn enough money for rent or food. If I mess up when I try to make a podcast – its not going to be the end of the world. People (for the most part) won’t suddenly think far less of me.

Feeling this different type of fear –the type of scared where you force yourself into doing things that are hard for fun or for a challenge is something that comes with comfort. You have to not be draining yourself emotionally with worry about whether you’ll have enough money to make your next rent payment, knowing that your health is in reasonable shape – be that mental or physical – is hugely helpful (or in my case, knowing I don’t have to rely upon my body for my job any more), and knowing that partners, friends, family, and bosses will be understanding if there are any problems is beneficial also.

I feel very lucky to now be able to do things that I considered impossible years ago. I’m just mind blown to find myself in a place where they are far easier to do than even the basics were a few years ago.

 

(I wish I had a list of good resources for anyone who comes to this blog post and who is experiencing anxiety or struggling, but sadly I never found any. It would be great if people could post any good resources they know about in the comments section)

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Coming out. Again

You don’t come out just once. You come out many times over the course of your life…

[I wrote this for National Coming Out Day, but have been rather ill since I drafted it, so only just getting around to posting it.

I was asked to write this piece by a friend of mine when I was trying to explain to her how coming out isn’t a one time only kinda thing]

 

 

You don’t come out just once.

So many people presume heterosexuality as being the obvious default that for someone who isn’t attracted to/only to people of the opposite gender, there are always people who don’t know, people who are making incorrect assumptions about your sexuality. On a regular basis you have to choose whether or not to correct them. Whether or not to come out. Whether or not it’s worth it this time.

The first time I came out I walked hand in hand into a place of work with a woman I had kissed the previous night, where I was met with colleagues telling me they had seen me the night before, that it was hot as hell, and asking if this meant I didn’t like boys any more. I hadn’t been kissing a girl for any reason other than the fact I fancied her, but I didn’t have the words to really explain this (other than that simple statement), nor did I have the words to say much more than that I liked both men and women. I learned how to express my sexuality quite effectively though as I spent the next few years with men trying to convince me and said woman to have a threesome with them.

Was it worth it? Yes. Despite the hassle I got afterwards, it was worth it as it was the first time I really admitted in public that I liked both women and men. I found something very empowering in making the decision to own my sexuality at that point in my life…

Then there was the time I was forced to come out. A man I had been dating for a while had been told by a friend of his that I had slept with women in the past, and he wanted to know if this meant I was promiscuous. By this stage I was older, wiser, and far more able to explain that sleeping with a woman rather than a man provided no insight into how promiscuous I was.

Was it worth it? Well, I didn’t really have a choice. I didn’t think it was really any business of anyone else at the time who I had slept with in the past, and had clearly made the decision not to get to tell the guy I was dating at the time too much about my past. It did however have the benefit of pointing out to me that I should probably end my current relationship…

Another time I came out was while talking to mental health professionals when trying to get treatment for depression. The woman I was talking to asked about my sexual and romantic history, so innocently I provided it, mentioning both male and female ex partners. She raised her eyebrows about these, and told me it may be indicative of an underlying instability. I was more than a little angry about this, ranted to a few friends as soon as I left the room, but wasn’t in a place to do anything about it. Given the response, which also made me close down about being open about any other parts of my life history, made me feel that someone was trying to interpret my sexuality as a sign that there was something wrong with me, it certainly didn’t feel worth coming out this time.

And then there was the time I mentioned a girlfriend to my father. And the last time I consciously mentioned an ex girlfriend to my work colleagues because for some reason at the time it felt important. And… And…

I can’t count how many times I’ve either had to or chosen to come out to different groups and individuals. And I know that I’m not alone in this – it’s something that many of my non-heterosexual friends have experienced. When you ‘come out’ the first time, it may be that you tell someone significant – be that close friends or family – but it is far from the only time you will have to own your sexuality, and correct other people’s preconceptions.

And each time takes the same calculations about whether or not it is worth it this time, whether or not you’re in the place to deal with possible questions, and how important it is to be true to yourself measured against any possible negative judgments or repercussions.

Although time makes it easier– and for me at least, so does the fact that I’m lucky enough to have been born in a country where my sexuality isn’t illegal – there are still too many instances when I slightly hold my breath as I casually drop in mention of an ex girlfriend when in conversation with people who aren’t aware, those who are newer in my life and haven’t known me when I’ve been dating a woman (the last significant woman in my life was pre-university).

And because I’ve realised it does matter to me that I don’t feel I’m having to hide a part of who I am, and because most people do still tend to default to presuming you are straight unless you say otherwise, and because I plan to keep meeting new people, people who don’t know that I’m attracted to both men and women, I guess I’m going to have to keep on coming out.

Samaritans Radar and the big questions…

Regardless of what you think of the Samaritans Radar, (and as a previous post states, I’m not a fan) it’s highlighting a number of really interesting and fundamental questions around tech policy, ethics, and legal aspects of operating in an international space, aspects of data, and how people view NGOs and charities.

I’ve been meaning to write blog posts on many aspects for a very long time. But for now, I’ll just provide some short summaries about some of the issues it highlights – and expand on them as I have time.

Criticising charities/3rd sector organisations

How should individuals criticise or make constructive comment on the actions of charities or third sector organisations? For instance, I know many people who would like to publicly criticise the Samaritans current approach, who would do so if it were Government or business doing something similar, but feel that they shouldn’t say anything because of the huge good the organisation has done in other spaces.

Others I’ve spoken to automatically assume that because an organisation which aims to do good has done this, then it is stamped with some mark of authority (with presumed research or due diligence carried out), or automatically a definite good.

As we see more innovation in the third sector, and see NGOs and charities coming online, and engaging with digital and tech, there will be a large number of problems – just as there have been messes in other sectors. Mistakes may lead to a bad day at work, or someones last day at that job, but they rarely systematically affect the standing of the organisation once seen to be corrected.

How will individuals or society feel engaging with these organisations or offering even constructive criticism in other messes? How do these charities/NGOs accept, as Government has had to do with the creation of GDS, that they might not always be at the forefront of digital/social, and how do they change to fit that? How do they feel about perhaps a changed role in digital where they may not always be able to offer *the* voice of authority on specific issues, and instead understand a greater democratisation of expertise? And how does all of this happen in such a way that doesn’t discourage innovation in this sector, but doesn’t prevent questioning if well meaning actions may cause harm?

Interesting links

Because it’s possible does that mean it’s OK?

As ever with technological developments, practice runs ahead of legislation – with businesses often pushing boundaries to maximise their benefit (profit?) and to establish new norms before laws catch up. Indeed, with the Samaritans Radar, it’s true there are a number of existing ways of doing similar monitoring – for instance keeping an eye on search terms or creating your own code. Or just skim reading tweets of individuals (although that allows people the ability to delete tweets within a short period of time).

Many people know that businesses, organisations, and individuals use the Twitter API to capture tweets, and subject them to all types of analysis for a whole range of reasons – from money making to academic research and data journalism. However, a large number of people aren’t aware of this, or don’t know the extent to which this happens – raising interesting ethical questions regarding informed consent about data which may be used to identify an individual even if it isn’t ‘personal data’ by any legal definition.

Are all these ‘OK’? What is an ‘OK use’ of such data and who should be involved in helping to define what is OK and what isn’t? Should any use of data produced be considered OK from a legal perspective? And how do we ensure people are informed about these expectations?

If there is nuance to be found here, around uses, then ideas of who is to be impacted should possibly be considered.

Furthermore, charities should be aiming for a higher standard than just legality. Charitable organisations should also be able to win a moral case. People also have a degree of expectation that profit making companies may be interested in exploitation – but are less likely to expect this from a charity.

Informed consent on platforms

Can you presume that individuals consent to something automatically if they don’t know about it?

In most ethical frameworks, the answer to this would be no – but how can you ensure online that an individual has not only actually read something, but also understood it and is able to consent (for reasons of language, age etc)?

Obviously, that’s presuming that an individual can even be certain of being directly told/asked about the possible uses data they produce may be used for – which clearly isn’t the case. The Samaritans Radar shows some of the instances here – with the Radar being automatically opt in. New Twitter users won’t necessarily hear about it, twitter users outside specific circles won’t hear about it, many people from non UK countries (where the media coverage was heaviest) won’t hear about it. Is it ‘OK’ to presume these people all opt in – even if effectively they have not been given any ability to opt out.

Should it be the case that we as service users are directly informed/asked about use of data? Should we as users of the web assume that companies have the right to sell data about us in return for our using services? Are there any other models that may work?

Who owns data online/on Twitter

When you use any website there is a lot of data floating from one geographic ‘real world’ location to other real world locations. This data may be data that an individual produces (clicked on this link, visited this website, said this thing, was in this location), or the data that is provided to an individual (the downloaded website on the browser, the email alert, the picture of a map).

Similarly, when you use a service – an app, or social media site for instance – you create data and consume data. For example when you tweet, one example of data created by a user is the tweet itself – but there is also other data created, such as time of tweet, optional location, photos, and the context that comes from previous (or later) tweets, etc.  Much of this can be acquired through the Twitter API which anyone with sufficient technical knowledge can use.

Data is subject to a number of laws subject to interpretation (depending on perspective) – for instance data protection (eg. how data is stored, processed, who has access), copyright laws, data ownership, duty of care, and likely many other issues.

According to the terms and conditions of Twitter, all data including the tweets made are owned by Twitter.

EDIT 6th Nov: Thanks Graham Triggs.

Twitter Terms of Services state that:

You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).

So – you as a user own the content, but grant Twitter a license. What does this mean in effect?

EDIT ends

How these laws and terms and conditions play out, what these ToS mean versus how users of those sites perceive the situation is fascinating.

What is the impact on how users may use a service if they become more aware that tweets are not considered the users data? Does this mean that what an individual says on twitter cannot be considered ‘personal data’ even if it is data that says something personal about the user?

What is the moral responsibility for a platform holder to be transparent about exactly how they consider the data being produced, and is it OK to hide this deep in terms and conditions when it is likely that people *will* produce data that can be monitored, aggregated, and used both for and against said individual.

Interesting links

How public or private are social media sites?

Paul Bernal has written a great blog post about this. But what is clear (especially looking at #SamaritansRadar) is there are no real agreements about whether tweets are fully public or not. It’s a fairly new, technologically enabled, slightly grey zone – yes tweets can be found by any individual who goes looking (either directly or using the API) – but does that mean they are *totally* public or should be treated as such? Social interaction tends to rely upon degrees of friction, and ‘online social interaction’ is subject to less friction than we are used to in the offline world. What new norms do we have to get used to and think about in an online world, how do we deal with the fact that people in different countries, of different ages etc will perceive this issue differently?

And if we do just accept that all that data is publicly available and owned by someone else, then perhaps users need to be made more aware about this (and by whom is a really interesting question, as no one has an incentive to do this). There may also be place for safer social networks to be set up – although what this may look like, I have no idea.

Online design

It’s getting ever easier to create apps and software – and this has potential for much good in the world – hopefully meaning that in the distant future we will have more diverse groups creating tools to solve their own needs.

But there are also possible negative impacts. How can we tell the difference? As designers, platform owners or as users of a service? And what do we do as a result? What are the responsibilities and culpability of each of these individuals?

There are many ‘online spaces’ which now exist, and altering the environment of these can impact many people a designer or platform owner may never thought of. When you create something, what responsibility as a designer do you have to engage a wide range of individuals and carry out significant research?

Research

Even if research is carried out, what is a ‘sufficient’ evidence base to establish a case for and subsequently introduce a new innovation into an existing online environment? Is there a difference in the level of evidence needed for an online environment (where interactions are more social) than an offline environment? The answers are likely to vary dependent upon how significant any proposed changes are, who is likely to be impacted, how many individuals, and the possible outcomes of any alterations.

Is there a responsibility to engage with existing users of that platform to share research outputs/insights? Or a servicer user is the onus on individuals to leave if they become unhappy with changes that are made?

Whose voice is important – and how do you make sure you hear a balanced perspective?

Lets say an app creator does carry out some research – how do you ensure that you don’t get trapped in echo chambers? Digital and social media are great, but it’s very easy to get trapped in echo chambers and to forget about other possible users (as I covered here)

It’s also crucial to remember that people may not feel able to raise their voice to vocalise their opinions. For instance there are individuals who support the Samaritans Radar and individuals who really detest it who don’t feel able to vocalise their opinions on the platform.

And what qualifies as a ‘balanced’ opinion? If you are affecting a minority of individuals, does it matter if you negatively impact them? Are sheer numbers the most important issue?

Tech innovation for the sake of innovation

There is a huge tendency at present for tech solutionism – the idea that more technology or an app can solve almost any societal problem. This is problematic, as it limits the potential solutions individuals and organisations may try to find.

Maybe, with the Samaritans Radar, no-one thought ‘maybe we could have promoted advertisements in a depressed persons timeline’, or noone thought perhaps a concerted advertising campaign reminding young people to look out for each other might work – but they may have better long term impacts on solving a people problem than an app.

How do we stop ourselves and others limiting our problem solving framing around the idea of building more and more technology to deal with our existing lives?

Digital skills in charities/NGOs

If you don’t know much about digital, tech or social media it’s really easy to be wowed by agencies or individuals who come in, waving hands and saying they have the solution to all your problems. With the world becoming more digital and data heavy, as a charity or NGO you need to have staff who have skills and understand of issues relating to technology, data and digital. And many otherwise excellent individuals don’t have these skills (yet). While this is true in many organisations, within those which don’t have a strong incentive to ensure they keep skills up to date, or willingness to spend money on staff training or new hires, this may be especially true.

How do charities keep up to date with digital or social media skills? There are some great organisations and individuals working out there – but are there good ways of helping the charity sector improve on this more rapidly?

New media engagement

One of the digital skills that needs to be thought about is social media engagement and comms work.

Old comms work used to be heavily focused around press releases, lots of fanfare on radio, newspapers, TV and that was it. However, it’s no longer enough. Any communications plan needs to include considerations how to engage with people on social media sites  *especially* if your project is about social media, and especially if there is already an existing community of those you are trying to work with/for.

Ignoring people who have specific comments, who due to expectations set by the platform and other companies, now expect to be engaged with online, makes you look bad, causes significant ‘brand’ damage, and risks causing frustration to those individuals. Even worse, if it’s a group of vulnerable individuals (*cough* those with mental health issues *cough*) you risk causing significant agitation, and if you are a charity has potentially a huge impact upon your future donations. All of this the Samaritans have done in their response to the Samaritans Radar.

How organisations choose to do that is something that marketers are still trying to solve, and it’s true that many organisations haven’t caught up in this space yet. But regardless you need to feel confident engaging online and in digital spaces.

Academic involvement in projects

What is the ethical responsibility of academics being involved in public projects? I’m all for greater academic participation, building a more evidence informed world, but there needs to be some balance of the desire for impact (driven by current UK research policy?), desired peer academic scrutiny, and culpability (for any possible negative repercussions). This falls into all manner of academic involvement – not just projects like the Radar, and I imagine this is something various research/science engagement people will engage with in the medium term.

Interesting links

  • Jon Mendel has written some excellent posts here and here

Who should a charity/NGO be attempting to please?

Any charity or membership organisation has to have at least one eye on the people who are likely to give them money. They are also likely to have other people to engage with – service users, or a community. How an organisation chooses to balance these needs is challenging – and not something that we see being discussed publicly often.

International nature of the Internet

It’s easy to forget that the Internet is truly global. Data comes in from, and ends up in, different geographic locations; and it’s an issue not explored often enough even in technology policy.

Laws, social norms, ethical expectations, and language use are not standardised across that – and it’s often easy to forget that, especially if you have a specific framing and not deliberately reached out to understand other contexts.

There are not many international standards on these issues, but we’re operating on a platform that supersedes national boundaries.

With the Samaritans Radar, presuming the app is not just processing tweets from UK twitter accounts (which is likely to be the case), then the Samaritans app is using data that has originated in many geographic locations around the world. Points above around data protection and copyright in various countries are likely to be different. As are issues around research ethics, responsibility for how data and information can be utilised.

Furthermore, there are also some interesting issues around what happens if you keep getting alerts about someone in a totally different time zone that you can never help. How as an individual do you feel? How responsible are the creators of the app for making an individual feel that way?

I would be very interested to know how individuals in Africa and Latin America, where there is often an existing distrust of white, Western ‘do-gooders’, feel about an organisation in the UK processing their tweets.

Final thoughts

I really don’t want to see organisations stop innovating and thinking about new ways to solve problems. But this doesn’t stop there being a lot of interesting questions, especially related to ethics, that haven’t yet been explored let alone started to come to any form of resolution.  And the Samaritans Radar is a fascinating case study for many of these issues as it’s about such a sensitive issue (mental health) on such a well used social media platform.

I’d love to see more conversations take place beyond the very heavy focus just on privacy/data protection vs. ‘charity doing good’ than we’ve so far been seeing – and will update this post as I see some of these conversations starting to take place.

My thinking around this is very much evolving – so I can imagine I’ll be making changes/edits to this page, and doing a bunch of blogging off the side over the next week. But I see this has the potential to be the starting point of some very interesting conversations about online technology.

What the hell am I doing here?

I read an awesome blog post yesterday and it made me think a lot. I’ve promised a bunch of people for a while now that I’ll write a post like the one below, and felt now was a good time to do it.

My first experience of moving significantly outside of my class came at Cambridge University. It was the first dinner there. I had no family or friends to tell me how to wear the stupid over-sized gown, so I improvised, searching Google to find images of people wearing them, so I could work out how it was supposed to be worn.

That first dinner was a fascinating experience. It was black tie with silver service. What would now be termed ‘imposter syndrome’ oozed through me as I sat at the top table, watching waiters and waitresses bring out the three course dinner (with wine and port). Staring at the cutlery in front of me, I pulled out memories of how to best use it, using the only experience I had; years of waiting on tables and performing silver service at Cheltenham race-course. I wasn’t comfortable enough in my surroundings to ask for help – I already felt like i didn’t fit in, and felt a stronger bond to those waiting tables than those sat around me. A quick look around me didn’t seem to show anyone else who felt the same way.

Socio-economic equality is so much more than about whether you went to a school which provided you with the right opportunities, the best teaching and whether or not you left with good grades. Without a doubt, these are all crucially important factors, and these have an incredibly significant impact upon what a person is able to do with their life.

However, that is often where the conversation about equality ends. But there are many insidious results of growing up poor which often aren’t discussed.

How and where you grow up affects how you think – about the world, about others and about yourself. Coming from a working class, or lower socio-economic background, and trying to culturally fit into middle class lifestyles and jobs can be incredibly difficult.

I grew up in a poor and incredibly dysfunctional family. My childhood experiences lie in clearing sick off my father as he lay comatose on the floor, stealing money from his alcohol fund to pay for lunch for my sisters and myself, hiding behind sofas and cupboards so as not to get beaten (again) by my mother. It lies in learning how to cook at a young age, having to get a job at 13 (yes – 13, not 14 which was the legal minimum) so I could make sure I could buy food for myself – and even occasionally some new clothes. From 16 onwards, in my own house, I became the queen of saving money where I could; turning off fridges and every gadget in the house to save electricity – the only thing in the fridge was cheap wine (to make life feel better – and I could drink it warm) and milk (which could be kept cool in a saucepan of cold water). I would go on dates strategically timed at the end of the month, because I would have run out of money to buy the cereal, beans on toast, and beans in soup that I lived upon. I loved working lunch and dinner shifts in kitchens as they were a great way to get fed on a regular basis at no cost to myself.

I would rarely let on how bad it could be at times – mostly smiling, keeping it hidden even from my partners – because I was embarrassed.

If we are a collection of our experiences, can you imagine how difficult it can be then to sit in polite conversation and try and engage about childhood holidays, where you learned so ski, and how to fit orchestra practice in around your job? As a person, I have literally nothing to contribute that others feel comfortable hearing (and I have been told more than once that I shouldn’t make others feel uncomfortable about this).

These are the types of conversations I’ve had to navigate almost daily since working in the professional world – and every time I’m involved in these I am instantly reminded of my past and have a voice in the back of my head telling me I don’t belong in this space. A voice telling me I’m an outsider. And in many ways I am. As are the countless others who also come from poor or dysfunctional backgrounds and are trying to find someway to navigate through middle-class life.

Middle class is a scary place, full of unwritten rules that are alien to someone coming from a background where survival is paramount. Growing up poor, your brain is constantly working out how to get through today; and planning to work out tomorrow when it comes to it. It’s hard to plan a future, a route through career structures, pensions and life – when you have grown up focussing on the next pay packet, and are thinking about how to make sure you have enough food and electricity to last.

When you come from a poor background you are unlikely to have cultural experiences that can form the basis of many conversations. You don’t have the same shared experiences of locations visited, shows, plays and museums seen. I was nearly 20 before I saw my first play that wasn’t on a school trip. Food is different (hummus is awesome – I didn’t know of its existence until the first time I had to make it working as a chef), clothing is different (you mean you don’t just buy the cheapest things that look ok?) attitudes towards people are different (there’s a lot more subtext, nuance and casualness among friendships), relationships are different, and your cultural reference points are different.

When you come from a poor background, you are less likely to have support in education outside of school. There are no tutors, and the family often cannot give you much (if any) support. With a sibling and parent boasting of receiving the lowest possible Gs on GCSEs/O-levels, there was no-one at home who I could turn to for support academically. If I didn’t understand a topic, tough. Far from parents pushing for me to get ahead academically, encouraging me to get better grades and go to better schools, my family actively persuaded me not to attend a private school to which I had a full scholarship because ‘I wouldn’t get along with those types of kids’. For many people from poorer background, you don’t have after school classes in music and dance.

Coming from a poor background there is often little or no familial support in choosing universities or A-levels. As with me, these things are alien to your family; and they have no way of knowing how to understand the systems you are facing.

You are less likely to have role models and you don’t have access to the same informal career advice that many others do. You don’t get insight into what it’s like to work in a lawyers office, as a doctor, or as an academic over the dinner table. My families friends were all unemployed, long term sick, or working in supermarkets. You can see and understand other jobs exist, but they are far more abstract, and it’s never people like you who do them. It’s always people who laugh and talk about their holidays to exotic places, or the semi-famous people they’ve met. Personally, I could never find a way to relate to them. I know others have felt the same.

You are more likely to want to stay hidden, to not make a fuss or rock the boat. At talks and events, I will rarely raise a hand. I don’t have the confidence in myself to navigate that situation. I’ll go and talk to someone after a session and make the comments I’d have wanted to raise. I try to ask questions at times, and am getting better at it – but the desire to hide and not be seen is strong; I’d rather influence the debate and discussion afterwards, quietly. Even in small groups it can be tough, and I’m much more likely to go quiet, and look at my phone than say anything too challenging.

I get stuck when people ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know as a child; my only desire was not to be like my family. I’ve managed that, through some odd and weird route. Yet, I’m still trying to work out what it is I want; what my dream is. I’m driven, but in a very different way from those around me. Growing up I didn’t know what else there was, I didn’t know that there was another possible life where I wasn’t a waitress, running a bar or working in a supermarket.

Coming from lower income backgrounds, we start off feeling inferior – because life and our experiences have told us that we are. We then risk continuing to feel inferior because we are stuck in circles surrounded by people who constantly have access to knowledge and cultural experiences we haven’t.

Those of us who leave our backgrounds behind have to cope with not really fitting in where we are now, but growing in a way that makes it hard to fit in where we came from. We have to prove ourselves to ourselves repeatedly, reminding ourselves that we can belong here. Being surrounded by others who don’t seemingly understand that experience makes it even more difficult for us. There needs to be more of us who are willing to talk about our experiences, and we need to make sure the conversation about equality doesn’t just end on formal education.

Ponderings on unconferences

Attending UK GovCamp 2014 started me thinking about unconferences in general…

I was at UK GovCamp 2014 over the weekend, and it was awesome. There were lots of really interesting conversations with great people. Many I already knew (and don’t get to see enough), and many I was meeting for the first time.

Some of the conversations were about sessions which had taken place (which for me were broadly around how to increase engagement with the political process), but others were around the nature of unconferences in general. And they sparked a few thoughts.

(For those who don’t know what an unconference is the wiki page provides a succinct overview, while a great write up of the event itself can be found here).

Unconferences are shaped by the brave

And/or the people already inside a given community. These aren’t always the same people – although there is obviously a Venn Diagram given that the more comfortable you feel in a situation, the more confident you are likely to be.

To lead a session at an unconference, you need to pitch an idea on the fly – often standing up to pitch it – before people vote on how keen they are to attend. One of the great things about this is it allows for a lot of flexibility and time specific/relevant sessions take place (something hit the press earlier that day? No problem, of course it can be discussed).

However, some people are really uncomfortable with raising their voice in this way. Every time I’ve been to an unconference I’ve spoken to multiple people who have said ‘I really wanted to pitch something, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing so’. And these people are often women, younger people or people coming along to a certain event for the first time. And these are different voices, often, from those who already lead discussions in other fora – and will likely have different perspectives and even different ideas of what should be discussed (and possibly solved). Unconferences do provide potential for a wider range of voices to be heard, but many seem to believe that because they are able to voice their opinions and lead sessions that unconferences are equitable. They aren’t.

Outcomes from sessions

Often the best things at conference or unconference are not the actual sessions themselves, but the conversations that take place around them; over lunch, coffee, beer/wine, or during sessions you’ve decided to skip (the so called ‘hallway track’). These conversations can lead to spin off projects and are often really exciting. Yet, there seems to be a lot of potential missing. Sessions often aren’t created with a specific outcome or aim in mind – other than a loose idea of a conversation and picking brains of people in a room. And while that isn’t necessarily a problem, sometimes it’s useful to go into a session thinking ‘what is next’, or ‘what do we want to get from the expertise in the room?’ It seems to me more than possible that you can create a session that has specific focus on a few set questions and/or specific testable outcomes (eg. a short sprint to produce a document, a brainstorm of what a certain project should look like).

So..?

In my mind these two things are joined loosely. And it’s something to do with implementation of an unconference. Don’t get me wrong, I think unconferences are great – I’m just keen to find a few alterations that help make them more equitable, allow other voices to be heard, and help produce something concrete (to change the world after the event ends).

One idea that came to me involves using an online platform to propose sessions ahead of time (and vote upon them the day before an event), making it easier for people who find it hard to pitch something in front of a room full of people they don’t necessarily feel comfortable with. And perhaps rather than just pitching sessions, you could pitch something you want to produce as a result of said session. It may be that what you want is a discussion around a topic, but there would be value in possible session leaders being encouraged to think about what other outputs could be produced. And signalling these intentions to others would help them make more informed decisions about which sessions to head to and where their expertise and interest can best be put to use (without relying on the Law of Two Feet, and the awkwardness many feel at leaving/entering a session half way through).

I’d be interested to know if others have ideas about this.