Chasing Waterfalls

I realised something about myself last week. I realise something small about myself pretty much every week – but last week – it was like a dead weight moment – dragging me under – and not quite letting me go.

I organised a dinner for the Engagement fellows, new and old, ahead of the Wellcome Trust Grantholders day. At dinner, we talked about our childhoods, quite a bit in fact, and as we talked, i suddenly realised my strategy for surviving the extreme racism of the private school that i went to – academic success. Would i have pursued an academic path without it? I wonder. And, is the idea of citizen science a reaction against that? Possibly.

I had this sense, when i was plucked from a very happy primary school, to be tutored to pass the entrance exam to the posh school that older sister went to, that i was leaving a part of myself behind, that something of me died when i went to that school and that the friends i had, also got left behind, with all the out of school activities that we went to. Everyone has pivotal moments in their lives – that was mine.

It struck me like a lightning bolt – i kind of knew it already – but now, with the fellowship, which has given me time, space and freedom to pursue avenues i might not have done and, as it happens, at a more reasonable pace than 59 projects all on the go at once, i have weekends and evenings to myself. Its a new kind of freedom that, whilst difficult to embrace, initially, is pretty incredible.

The tangible output to this new weekend time is that i am finally getting round to redecorating my house. Bought over a year ago, i have been living in someone else’s (bright green and red!) taste. This weekend, the walls stripped back to a blank canvas and newly plastered where they needed it, I felt ready to start afresh.

The nice thing is that i could share the idea of this moment, of starting afresh, that same week, with new found collaborator and fledgling friend, Caroline Coates, from the Helen Storey Foundation. She had kindly invited me to attend the opening of the media space at The Science Museum with her. It was fun walking round the Martin Parr exhibition, Only in England, with someone who recognised the places in the photographs and to talk about things that mattered in our lives as we weaved between the champagne drinkers. We only stayed maybe forty five minutes before i had to rush for my train back to Manchester.

So, my challenge with this new found freedom is that during the week, if things don’t progress as quickly as i would like, i feel incredibly deflated. I am incredibly impatient. I recall a similar feeling when i worked on a culture change programme – come on people – chop chop, turn around, make it happen. Indeed I am only just seeing the real-term success of that culture change project now. And i must remind myself, social mission, culture change type success takes time!

But that’s going off topic… with that school, came this idea of untapped potential. It was the ultimate experiment – four east end kids – me, my brothers and sisters – all had the fortune and misfortune of going to that school. We have all excelled, and all of us, except me, left England for Europe. The school provided us with an excellent education and in me a strong sense of social justice. Its not right that one amongst many gets access to develop their academic potential. It was funny because i failed the entrance exam but passed the scholarship exam and as a result was given an assisted place. The experience, and subsequent experiences at other large public institutions has meant i have never really felt comfortable in big institutions, especially those with few black leaders – which, lets face it is few and far between.

Whilst i have always sought a creative path and one that tries to generate social impact, I have wondered what it would be like to have people with me, on my side, not me fighting against my ambitions, and that every day, together we are moving towards that. It’s been fortunate, through the fellowship then, that I’ve met and hooked up to collaborate with The Helen Storey Foundation, Creative Commons, Mozilla and the Open Knowledge Foundation.

So, that’s two things that’s surfaced from the fellowship – seeking the people and organisations that truly have a social mission and aligning academic success to serve that social mission. It makes me very happy; and yet there is still this nagging impatient feeling that surfaces sometimes, in the quiet moments, that wants instant success, instant reward… i think, that came from always having to have an outlet to show – i am not stupid, you might not want to believe it, but i am as clever as you… and getting 97% in Latin exams.

Probably every person’s future can be mapped back to one point – that truly shapes them – mine was being 11 years old, stood in the new playground, where girls were separated from boys and thinking ‘this is hell – not being able to play football‘. From that moment i turned inside myself, and became a writer, an academic and someone who would later fight for social justice. Its wonderful to be able to embrace them all and combine them through the fellowship.

Through the last few months, a character has surfaced from all of these thoughts – of ambition, social injustice and being a kid that wants it al. He’s called Baby King, and i hope to bring him to life. I have begun by recording the story on an iphone.

When i have a rough story i will test it out on my sister’s kids, if they like it, then… who knows where it goes!

All this thinking consciously about the past, is helping me move into, i hope a very different future. But, I wonder whether the drive for economic success, at the expense of the planet, scratches the same surface as this ‘success itch’… and whether, the underlying cause of poverty, crime and poor health is the flip side of that coin but shares the same starting point: social inequality.

Next stop, Caroline van den Brul’s Narrative Skills workshop, hanging out at Nesta’s FutureFest, MozFest and possibly a sprinkling of Fierce Festival.


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