Thinking Outside the Boxes

Pop Up Festival of Identities
CityLit College
Tuesday 10th May 2016
Organised by the Learning and Work Institute

This was a fantastic learning opportunity! The festival really made me feel excited about this agenda again and made me re-think how diversity and identity shapes what I do and how I should do it. So many ideas sprang forth during the day and I feel a need to map all of them, ready to explore them in more detail later on. I guess a little like an explorer who navigates the coast and can only guess at the terrain of the interior.

Catina Barratt set the right tone kicking off with the metaphor of looking through a kaleidoscope, from different perspectives. Identities as emerging and fluid, influenced by events. Equality and diversity doesn’t “sit in one place” all the time. Who we are changes.
Catina showed us a video of a musician named Imogen Heap who uses gloves to control music software to make music. We can use the opportunities technology affords us to think differently about diversity.

Research carried out by the Learning and Work Institute distinguished three camps of respondents: leaders who talked about policies, committees and duties; teachers who said it was always about learners, never for them; and learners who said they have been doing it since they were kids and the same thing happens at FE/HE. The interesting thing for students was that we don’t update it for “adult” life or the world of work. Students also expressed concern that they weren’t being given the tools to deal with diversity in the workplace in a globalised world. Furthermore, students see the dissonance between what their college or university said and how they treated their staff.

Something that really hit me was Catina’s phrase: “Wherever I stand I need to understand and appreciate where others come from” and the idea that students want to be whole in education, not just bring the bits of themselves that will be accepted (Barratt, 2016). This connected with me to Nancy Kline’s work about being present as yourself and that being all that is required (Kline, 2002).

Reinforcing Catina’s earlier point about the possibilities of technology, Lou Mycroft used a program called Zoom to set up a live feed of her class in Barnsley. We can use technology to meet without being in the same space and that affords us wonderful new opportunities. For Lou, it is imperative we separate equality and diversity as concepts. The TeachNorthern Social Purpose model of education focuses on how teachers can promote diversity as being present as yourself and bringing in absent identities (TeachNorthern, n.d).

Whilst acknowledging the scope and breadth of the Equality Act 2010, Lou exhorts us to look beyond its tick boxes and categorisations. She quotes Audrey Lorde who said “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives” to stress the importance of intersectionality (Lorde, 1982; cited by Mycroft, 2016). After all, “A lot that happens outside of the nine protected characteristics” (Mycroft, 2016).

Lou also points to the Posthuman challenge to binaries and characteristics, as the crude categorisations birthed by Eurocentric Enlightenment thought are slowly demolished (Braidotti, 2013). At the same time, we have to acknowledge that we all can “lock in” aspects of our identity that make us victims, so we have to check our privilege. All of these actions must be rhizomatic; popping up uncontrollably and spontaneously.
Kathryn James reminded us that so many solutions to challenges are developed by looking in the rear view mirror: how did we solve it before, let’s do that again. We need new solutions.

I really liked this metaphor and I felt it was demonstrated through the work of David Finch and Jane Griffiths from National Star College around employability. For most of us, if we were planning a project to improve employment rates for our disabled students, we would probably focus on what we could do to improve the employability of the students. But that would be starting in the wrong place.

David and Jane’s projects focused on the employers, on asking employers what the barriers to employing a disabled person were and then working to overcome those barriers or educate the employer. This goes straight to the heart of the problem, to where the power actually lies. Rather than trying to change the individual, they have changed the structures that oppress that individual. And they got far more students into work using this model, than their previous focus on employability ever had.

The presentation of the Pride and Prejudice report on LGBT issues in FE and HE by Charlotte Robey, Robbie Young and Seth Atkin, helped me to see greater diversity and difference within this group, some of which can be less visible. The report found students had similar experiences in FE and HE, and that more than half of students had experienced negative behaviour relating to their LGBT identity. Shockingly, 50% of non-binary students want to drop out of HE. Heterosexual and cisgender staff were more positive than LGB or non-binary staff about the future.

But on a more positive note, LGB and non-binary students are more likely to be course reps/activists. Of all students with LGBT identities, white gay men reported feeling most comfortable to speak in class, highlighting some of the differences within the broad categorisation. There was a call to challenge the heteronormative curriculum.
Dr Oz Eno introduced the bLack of Respect campaign. Dr Eno is a campaigning London-based GP who set up this campaign against colour labels for identity. Dr Eno made the striking point that racism against Africans is so normalised that it is not even noticed by its victims. There is a problematic of using black and white labels: Asian for example refers to where people are from, not the colour of their skin. Current terminology puts black and white in opposition and defines us against one another. Dr Eno favours African-American and African-British, arguing that black is an “anachronism” and out of date, as well as reducing people to a colour rather than a whole.

Interestingly for my subject knowledge development, Dr Eno explained the genesis of his campaign came from his practice as a GP reading clinical guidelines. Targeted medicine requires a better understanding of geographic region of origin than the term “black” or even “black African” allows. Dr Eno gave the example of a clinical pathway for the use of ACE inhibitors in hypertension, where prescription of ACE inhibitors was dependent on whether a patient was black or not. But these inhibitors work differently for East Africans to West Africans. So using “black” as a catch all term is potentially harmful.

There was a screening of a film called Behind the Locked Door, produced by Brent MIND to highlight the inequalities inherent in mental health provision and care. This was a powerful film arguing that black people are statistically far more likely to have mental health needs; statistically more likely to be locked up and for longer; and statistically more likely to be medicalised and hospitalised. Black people are statistically less likely to be prescribed/have access to talking therapies.

Again relating to my subject knowledge, the film argues that evidence based medicine puts an emphasis on drugs and medication. This is a sticking plaster and we need to deal with the structural issues and take alternative therapies seriously. The film discusses the need for culturally relevant therapies. One patient talks about the spiritual dimension of schizophrenia, observing that doctors only consider at the medical aspects.

The film raises various questions, such as: is the incidence of schizophrenia the same in all populations? Are black people more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than a white person presenting with the same symptoms? Or is there a genuine difference in the presentation of schizophrenia? If so, why? The film had a big impact on me and I have now included issues about parity of access to talking therapies for BME patients as an example research question for a session I am going to deliver to psychology and psychiatry researchers.

The contribution I found most interesting through the whole day was Nando Sigona’s discussion about superdiversity and its implications. Nando works at the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS). Nando outlined the tension between embracing diversity without erasing inequality. Superdiversity supersedes anything that has gone before. There is a great complexity of old and new inequalities, which are multi-layered. Fragmentation has occurred, so rather than there being a large number of people belonging to a few nationalities, Britain has smaller numbers belonging to a large number of different nationalities. I wonder what the impact of this is on teaching?

Picking up on some of the day’s earlier themes about categories and labels, Nando argues you can’t conflate everyone as Latino or Asian. These are massive categories and have little descriptive power. There is a link between the way we talk and colonialism: white, black, Asian for example. We shouldn’t assume diverse people are non-white according to Nando; we must not neglect whiteness.

Nando argues we can’t reverse superdiversity. An ESOL teacher in the audience observes that her classroom changes with every new conflict around the world. Nando answers that we have to go beyond telling students Einstein was a refugee; we need to explore interconnectedness. Nando sees education as part of the solution and we need to link migration to our history and colonial past, in terms of talking about colonial migration and Post-soviet migration.

Linking to the current rolling back of the state, Nando argues there is a need to bring people together to talk. If you reduce public spaces you reduce the opportunities for encounters, for example through public libraries. What we need to understand is how solidarity can be developed in superdiverse communities. We have to find out how people work together in a fluid society.

So what questions were raised for me?

Lots is the main answer! Each part of the day challenged me and gave me food for thought but these are the more broad brush observations/questions relating to my teaching:

  • In FE, it was much easier to see inequalities and diversity in the student population.
  • My current HE workplace is much harder: students appear more homogenous. You know diversity is there but can’t quite see it or its impact.
  • Age stands out for me because of digital resistance/resilience issues around confidence with technology.
  • Need to think in terms of both teaching practice (inclusion and equality = removing barriers, plus diversity in terms of present and absent identities).
  • But need to look further at access to information etc and how we can be affirmative in this.
  • Importance of identity as students… doctors… nurses… and how does this affect the way our students learn and engage?
  • How does our organisation manage superdiversity?
  • The university as a driver of superdiversity and implications for our teaching?

Useful links:

Equality Toolkit
Teach Northern Identities project
Pride and Prejudice in Education report
Institute for Research into Superdiversity at Birmingham University
Behind the Locked Door Campaign and video (available after making a donation)
Full text of Audrey Lorde’s speech at the Harvard University Malcolm X Weekend


Atkin, S., Robey, C. and Young, R. (2016, May). Pride and Prejudice in Education. Talk presented at the Pop Up Festival of Identities, London.

Barratt, C. (2016). Introduction. Talk presented at the Pop Up Festival of Identities, London.

Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity.

Brent Mind. (2016, May). Behind the Locked Door. Talk presented at the Pop Up Festival of Identities, London.

Eno, Oz. (2016). bLack of Respect Campaign. Talk presented at the Pop Up Festival of Identities, London.

Finch, D. and Griffiths, J. (2016, May). Equalities National Star Way. Talk presented at the Pop Up Festival of Identities, London.

James, K. (2016, May). What if it was different? Talk presented at the Pop Up Festival of Identities, London.

Kline, N. (2002). Time to Think. London: Cassell.

Lorde, A. (1982). “Learning from the 60s.” Presented at Malcolm X Weekend, Harvard.

Mycroft, L. (2016, May). I come from Leeds. Talk presented at the Pop Up Festival of Identities, London.

Sigona, N. (2016, May). Superdiversity and its implications. Talk presented at the Pop Up Festival of Identities, London.

TeachNorthern (n.d.). TeachDifferent: The Identities Programme. [weblog post]. Retrieved from

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