Lessons from The Mousetrap

Last week, I invested time and money in retreating to The Mousetrap, on the North Norfolk coast, to launch my business. I might come to regret that £300, but I don’t think so. Three full days of planning and fresh air brought a clarity to my thinking that I would not have found at home.  I set off with a list of tasks, gleaned from books and training A view of Wells Harbour in North Norfolk, representing calm and thinking timeabout marketing and PR. I did not quite expect to have summarised a personal strategic approach at the end of that time.

I also enjoyed the adrenaline buzz of doing four live Periscopes, three of which can be found on my YouTube channel (I didn’t figure uploading out in time for the first one). They are amateur, raw and hopefully entertaining – and have had an astonishing number of views so far (thank you). It was a great experience, to do something that scared me so much!

What follows intends no disrespect to people who have spent a lifetime studying and communicating what ethical marketing might look like. Practically and philosophically there is material to be found if you look for it, that in its detail and rigour will shame my ‘back of a fag packet’ thoughts. But sometimes you need to just get on and do.

(I got to this thinking through a posthuman lens, a way of working that Kay Sidebottom and myself have been getting to grips with over the past couple of years, fundamentally shifting the way we think about the world. You can read more about this here and elsewhere on Kay’s excellent blog. Not for the first time, a Whatsapp conversation with Kay provoked the suggestions below.)

Figure out your Purpose I went to Norfolk with the intention of distilling 25 years public service into a number of ‘products’, to populate the pages of this website. I’d already been provoked by #soulfulprhour discussion (Sundays 8pm-9pm) to consider my Green colours of the coastal marsh in North Norfolk, representing big sky thinkingpurpose, and these thoughts had percolated on the journey down. Thinking through purpose brought the different elements of my offer into a coherent whole, and I’ll be simplifying the website. I’m really looking forward to that, and to finding out the words for why I do what I do.

Refute the idea of ‘Competition’ Yes, there’s really no need. There’s every utility in a stakeholder analysis; mapping out the landscape for your work. But a competitor analysis feels wrong when the work is rooted in social purpose principles, of working from your values, reflexion, seeking mutual wins and foregrounding diversity. In a Thinking Environment, the core value of ‘encouragement’ is about going beyond competition to the creative edge of collective thinking, and the ‘courage’ encapsulated in that word has always been powerfully resonant for me.

Smash your Filter Bubble We all have one. We talk to people who think like us, which is literally an anti-diverse practice, since all that happens is that we reconfirm our own thinking. Diversity takes effort and its worth it not only because its an equalising force in the world, but because diverse perspectives are what generate fresh and creative thinking; as Salman Rushdie once wrote, they “…let the newness in.” I don’t yet know how to get my ideas out to people who don’t think like me, so I’m not learning as much as The Albatros boat cafe in Wells, representing space and time to thinkI could from other views at this stage. But I’ll figure it out.

Find Constellations of Practice One of the joys of last week was connecting and reconnecting with people I might work with in the future. This is finally my opportunity to work in a truly rhizomatic way, project-based not centred on an organisation. The rhizome metaphor is an apt one, because this is going to be an organic, shifting process full of surprises and refreshingly free of hierarchies. In conventional marketing speak, these ‘prospects’ are going to be key to the future, even if they are not offering cash on the nose at this point. Plus this is a great way to contribute to diversity too.

Follow the Energy of your Integrity Like a dancer or yogi finds a spot to focus on before each balance or pirouette, I plan to use my integrity, something I’ve trialled and learned to trust in recent months, to guide me on my travels. I have learned that if I feel tired about something, there are values not being satisfied for me; conversely an excited feeling is worth investigating. If it checks out values wise, it’s a path worth following.

Be Organised Last week was very much about this for me. Freedom is intoxicating but, Attractive coloured houses against a blue sky, representing time away from homeas I’ve always found, it needs boundaries, or it lacks focus and in my hands (at least) becomes chaotic. A modest investment in Google’s pay-for G-Suite (a fiver a month), plus some time spent messing about migrating data, is already helping me establish healthy practices. I’ve been experimenting with bullet journalling over recent months too, and this is providing structure to my day, meaning that I don’t have to get into a fizz trying to do everything at once. I’ve still got work to do, mapping and recording money, work and ‘prospects’; still have some practical tasks connected with the legalities of start up, but I’ve got a framework now and the important stuff won’t get forgotten in the excitement of pastures new.


Dancing Away

Transitions are liminal spaces, neither here nor there. Today is the last day of working at Northern College for me, and the first day of my new (trendily portfolio) career. This change is not a sharpWoman riding skateboard on highway metaphor of future journey one, because my life’s purpose – getting people to think for themselves and act collectively – hasn’t altered, though the focus of my work may do. No stately vehicle for this next stage of my journey. It feels more like I’m heading down the highway on a fleet of skateboards. And that’s a good feeling.

As the saying goes, it’s been emotional. Seventeen years is a long time in one place, especially for someone who bolted after every few years beforehand – and probably will do the same forevermore. Northern College was a safe haven for me and my son back in 2000 and for many thousands of people since. This is my impressionistic reflexion of those years.

Where else to start than with the students who have been the point of it all over two decades? This is no patronising platitude; although your learning was central to my purpose, the work we did together – and that you went on to do – was always what I was really about. It’s no coincidence that I moved from public health via community work to become an educator: it was a new and very effective vehicle by which I could try to change the world. You have all transformed worlds; you have done the work a thousandfold.

I might not have got the balance right to start with (falling in love didn’t help, a forever love, I’m so glad I did). I quickly figured out that if I was to say anything about equality I’d be a complete hypocrite if I didn’t deeply believe that every student was the equal of every tutor. Not in a hierarchy, perhaps – hierarchies are by definition not equal and it would be disingenuous to deny that power relations were at play, as the Learning for Democracy principles make clear – but equal as thinkers, equal as humans with as much right to dignity as I have.

Several thousand students over ten years of the TeachNorthern programme and many hundreds more during the Community Regeneration and Working with Parents years; an incredible many are still friends (the best) and acquaintances, some have drifted from view, others heartbreakingly lost (as I write, faces swim into view that could each have changed the world). I hope if you are reading this after a longtime that you will come and find me on social media and make yourself known.

I could plaster this blog with photographs from graduations (I’ll limit myself to a couple, I promise), but what is most glorious about adult and community education is that Delighted University of Huddersfield students celebrate their graduationtransformation doesn’t have to take the years of a degree course. Sometimes aSteve, Amitoj and Kim at Graduation 2016 day does it, or even a couple of hours. Or maybe it’s years later that the impact is felt. All graduates, colleagues and critical friends become part of a Community of Praxis, continuing to think, practice and percolate ideas and sometimes it’s years later that soundings come back to me and I know that the work is continuing in its rhizomatic way, burrowing like bluebell shoots under the earth: persistent, subversive and unexpected.

Oh…and the teams. I’ve been fortunate in being part of two incredible teams over the past twenty years. The Community Regeneration team was like nothing I’ve ever experienced; love and challenge in equal measure, friendships that will last for me until time runs out. We were The Matrix. To have a second shot at being in the ideal team was glorious. I hate acronyms but who could resist being part of something as loving, supportive and all-round Thinking Environment as the TeacherEd (TEd) team? I don’t lack healthy cynicism but ask me in ten years’ time and I know we will still be friends. And if I can be greedy, it’s been wonderful to make lasting friendships as part of the Huddersfield Consortium too.

How fortunate then that working rhizomatically affords the possibility that many of our Close up of bluebellspaths might cross again some point in the future, whatever our relationship has been before. We might find ourselves in a new constellation of practice which feels both as comfortable as an old jumper and as challenging as a radical new look. There’s a thought that makes me feel excited about the future.

I’ve always found creativity in the Thinking Environment paradox freedom needs boundaries and it has been an incredible experience to innovate within the increasingly limiting parameters of adult education qualifications (bearing in mind that my first job at Northern College was to write hundreds of Open College credits from scratch). I think we’ve managed to show what’s possible if we look beyond that which we take for granted in education. The innovation we are most known for is digital; a genuine team effort and much of it enshrined in the FAB Projects of 2013-now. Some of the best times over Young women students at a Gujurati Universityrecent years have been working on projects which blend digital with the pro-social approaches we brought with us from community and public health work. The biggest identity shift of all came for me when my professional identities as public health worker, community development worker and educator swam into focus during my time in India and I realised that my practice was the legacy of all three. It’s helped me shape my ideas for the future, too.

IMG_7153Working on funded projects brought me in touch with a wider network of activists and practitioners and around this time I finally figured out what Twitter was for. It’s been an incredible experience leading to so much humbling and diverse richness for me, to work with thinkers such as the Dancing Princesses, educators from Tutor Voices and other activist networks; dive into unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable thinking and begin, with others from different perspectives, to disrupt and decolonize education.

So nearly twenty years later, I have come full circle as a worker-activist and the flow of that is telling me it’s time to leave. I don’t have a sense of leaving anything or anyone ‘behind’. The right people are exactly where they need to be and when the time is right, Manga image of flying androgynous superherowe will work, play and laugh together again. I’ve been careful not to mention individuals because so many people have been part of making our time together memorable. But as one of the things I’ve learned at Northern College is to love and be loved, you’ll already know who you are.

Finally, there’s always a soundtrack to my life and there are two songs resonating with me at the moment. One is just about me and it would be a little indulgent to share it here. So this is about us. Enjoy.

love Lou x