Step 0.2 on the road to inclusion
Reflections from Enrol Yourself which I hope are useful to other people and organisations taking early steps on this path.
I wrote about Step 0.1 in August 2018. Almost 2 years ago! So this is overdue. I intend to write Step 0.3 long before June 2022. There, I’ve made a public commitment to it now.
Step 0.1 described the idea that the peer groups we connect at Enrol Yourself have potential to create far more inclusive learning spaces than formal education. It also laid out our plan to introduce bursaries to the Learning Marathon, which has become a core part of the way we structure fees and how we invite people in.
Things have moved much since 2 years ago, but the premise is still the same. Peer groups offer great potential for inclusion. But just like human potential, it won’t unlock itself. Great that we were able to achieve something modest through bursaries, but each step reveals more of the full complexity of the challenge, and points to more steps that can be taken.
Step 0.1 was titled ‘on the road to inclusive access’. But access is only the tip of the iceberg. When you include people at the start of a journey, you need to work to include them at all stages of that journey. Otherwise we might welcome applications from all ages without having understood how someone would feel if they were ‘the odd one out’. Or encourage people from different cultural backgrounds to apply without fully preparing our Hosts to support tensions that may arise. There are more examples.
I think intuition and good intentions have given us a good start. There are things we’ve got right. But a big part of this journey, for me at least, is recognising — and then really embodying — that this can only take you to Step 0.1. After that, more is required.
And more is what we’ve been up to this year.
Before lockdown began, we opened applications for our Host Fellowship. This is how new Enrol Yourself Hosts join us: they apply to join a fellowship which will offer them the training, support and community they need to initiate and run their own Learning Marathon.
In preparation for new people coming on board, we’ve been digging deeper on our approach to inclusion so we can do better across the different aspects of our activity:
- Recruiting new Hosts inclusively
- Supporting Hosts to recruit participants inclusively
- Supporting Hosts to host inclusively
Of course ‘inclusively’ is not a destination you can reach or something you can cross off your to do list. It’s an ongoing journey and a continual recommitment. It’s about repeatedly stepping beyond our familiar territory.
So, this year we (in this case ‘we’ means Sarah, Dave and I, who typically spend the most time on Enrol Yourself) have been working with Vanessa Faloye, freelance trainer-facilitator in social justice education — and importantly, Learning Marathon participant.
Vanessa has facilitated a process of digging deeper. Her experience as a Learning Marathon participant has been invaluable. She understands the process, how it works, where some of the challenges lie. Whilst I think a neutral facilitator can be a great asset, in this case it has worked well that all 4 of us, in our own way, are invested in Enrol Yourself, and in our progress on this issue.
We started off by planning 2 sessions, but this expanded. As is so often the case, when you look under the car bonnet you realise that there’s loads of stuff down there and you don’t understand how most of it works. So far our process has included the following activities and exercises:
- Open discussions: deepening our understanding of how we relate to inclusion as individuals and as a team.
- Emerging questions: documenting important questions which come up through discussion that need further exploration or ongoing ‘holding’.
- Insights mapping: exploring the emerging questions in more depth, through conversation. Picking out the tensions that arise, the insights from the discussion — and the additional questions that come up.
- Privilege pyramids: looking at how we, as individuals, prioritise different things (e.g. freedom, autonomy, safety etc.) when we make design decisions, due to our specific set of intersecting privileges.
- Analysing our ‘well buts’: holding a magnifying glass over the cases where we’ve said something like ‘well, but, we don’t have capacity to redesign our entire programme for the needs of this person’. These are the times when we’ve decided not to include someone. Were we prioritising the right things?
- Research: coming up with questions that we’d like to ask people about how they experience Enrol Yourself; from the perspective of their identity and circumstances. And then actually asking them these questions.
- Problem statements: coming up with statements that might help us when making design decisions. Then, crucially, redefining these problem statements to look at them from very different perspectives. Placing greater emphasis on us as designers, and the privileges we have that mean we unintentionally bias our choices towards others that resemble us.
- Statements of responsibility: writing a series of statements to frame our individual responsibility and intentions that we each commit to, e.g. ‘as a person and designer with privilege, I’d like to start creating rhythms that bring my attention back to this conversation at regular intervals’.
- A set of commitments: looking at a series of actions that we will commit to taking, to ensure we bake all our exploration work into the structure of our organisation and our offerings.
Emerging, complex questions
Some of the questions that are coming out of this process feel equal measures of fascinating, intricate, overwhelming. Many of them I don’t ever expect us to find full answers to. I’ve pulled out a couple that kept recurring:
How much do we want to ‘set’ versus ‘let’?
One of the things that makes the Learning Marathon different to other learning experiences is the extent to which it is self-led. We follow through on our coaching approach: we’re not in the business of telling adults what success should mean for them. This is part of what we mean by ‘letting’, and we believe there is power in trusting people in this way, despite the fact that it can be far more challenging than just ‘setting’ all the rules.
Having said this, we are providing a structure which to some extent ‘sets’ the framework within which people lead themselves. So the truth is that there is power in both. What we want to do is balance these powers. How do we strike the right balance? How do we safely remove as much structure as we provide? Particularly when different people want and need a different balance within the overall balance! What may feel balanced for someone with one particular identity might feel markedly unbalanced for someone else.
And, to what extent should we be clearly communicating what kind of balance we offer, so that people can opt in or out on that basis; versus working to support multiple balances?!
Is balance a fixed state of perfection or a constant state of correcting?
This led to questions about what we mean by ‘balance’. We repeatedly found ourselves saying that we want to strike a balance. That it would be easier to pick a side, but that we didn’t want to do that.
Is balance an end state that we can arrive at, or do we need to think about this in a different way? Like the tightrope walker whose muscles are constantly making micro-corrections that result in an overall state of balance. Intuitively the latter resonates more, but it sounds like it relies on a brilliant sensory system that continually brings feedback from the body to the brain and back again. Do we have a brilliant sensory system? How do we develop one?
How do we prepare people to ‘sit in the shit’ together’? Whilst recognising that the shit doesn’t smell the same to everyone?
‘Sitting in the shit’ doesn’t sound very fun! But it is a big part of committing to be part of a community over a considerable period of time (6 months in the case of the Learning Marathon). This is about preparing people to tackle the inevitable tensions, triggers and disagreements as they come up. And they will come up.
It feels like we’re asking a bigger, societal question here. Sitting in the shit with a dozen people is a way of practising what we need to do on a much larger scale as well. So part of preparing people to do this work is helping them make that connection to the bigger picture, which for most people helps them develop the motivation to continue at the small scale.
Sometimes it feels like challenging a group of people — who wouldn’t have met otherwise — to become a functioning learning community that works for everyone in it, is the most important thing we’re doing, that transcends the individual learning questions people are working on.
But the challenge is that every peer group is different. Every Host is different. The challenges that come up are different every time. We need to prepare Hosts to support their peer groups, without placing all the responsibility on them. We need to take responsibility too — and so do our participants. Many learning experiences are ‘luxury’ experiences in the sense that they are designed to be as nice and pleasurable for the participants as possible. They are designed to make sure no one sits in the shit. How do we buck this trend and still create a wonderful experience?
As a result of this process we are committing to:
- A structured rhythm of recurring sessions where we review what we’ve done, tackle new questions, keep the conversation moving.
- A public and visible commitment to our ongoing work on inclusion. This is both so that people know we’re working on this — and to help hold ourselves to account.
- An exploration of the language we’re using across our comms, particularly to ensure we aren’t excessively trading accessibility for subtlety of meaning.
- Including the the 6 fundamentals (authenticity, dignity, legitimacy, belonging, freedom, safety) as design principles when we update existing programmes and resources — or when creating new offerings.
- Conducting an interview series with a range of Learning Marathon participants who bring a variety of perspectives, to learn from and respond to the experiences (good and bad) that they had with us.
- Synthesising insights from the interview series as an input into a process of updating our Host and participant training, resources and support.
- Creating stronger and more consistent feedback loops so that we might start to grow the sensory system I described earlier (e.g. ensuring there are open lines of communication between participants and Enrol Yourself, not just between participants and their Host).
It makes me feel excitement and nervousness to place more attention on areas for improvement, and experiences of Enrol Yourself that aren’t wholly positive. That’s me being honest: it can be deeply uncomfortable.
One of our anxieties as a team has been making sure we’re not doing this work in a way that isn’t wholly authentic and is ‘for show’. Through this process we have been referring to ‘virtue signalling’ as ‘Morality Willy Waving’. It feels like a lot of this goes on! Where people are so busy waving their big Morality Penises at each other, to make sure everyone knows it’s the biggest (or at least not unusually tiny), and this faintly nauseating display distracts from actually doing the less glamorous, structural work that will make a difference.
The proof that we’re not doing this should be in the pudding. Aka, whether or not we act on these commitments. Whether or not we bring them to life. Whether or not I write Step 0.3 before June 2022!
I feel very grateful to Vanessa who has poured such care into this process. I’ve felt stretched, challenged, held to account, but never criticised for where we’re at right now. And I’ve consistently felt her belief that we can take some more steps. That’s an amazing skill — she’s striking that difficult balance. I would heartily recommend working with her.
Tips for if you’re taking your very first step/s
- Make it social and relational. In other words: get others involved with you. You’ll travel further together.
- Get comfortable with feelings of discomfort, guilt and shame, and making mistakes in front of those others you’re working with. When you share this with those you’re learning with, you will create a richer, more honest learning space.
- Find your Vanessa! Someone who knows your work, has first hand experience as part of your community, but is also experienced in facilitating a process that can bring up difficult feelings and tensions.
- Schedule dedicated time in diaries. Otherwise the urge to avoid the uncomfortable is easier to follow.
- Talk about the Morality Penis. None of us are immune to the desire to wave it around. But hopefully all of us can learn to overcome this urge (at least some of the time).
Thanks for reading. In the spirit of feedback loops, I welcome any responses if you have some: email@example.com