This reflection has been prompted by my experience working with the amazing Charmaine Kwame from the NHS Leadership Academy on Reciprocal Mentoring Programmes. I get to work with some amazing people, both ‘faculty’ and participants, on these programmes and the work feels like some of the most important work that I do. It connects with me on a very personal level. And it forces me to reflect. To think and to listen. I am not an expert in this field. I am the student. And I think that approaching the work with a ‘beginner’s mind’ might just be helpful.
I have been in the education, training and development profession now for almost 40 years. During my teacher training in the mid-80s tackling discrimination and inequality in the classroom and the education system were a major priority. Reading lists on race, class, gender and to a lesser extent disability were mandatory and I just ‘connected’ with the importance of this work. I still do. I am just not sure why. It is a gut feeling I have, an intuition that it is important.
Almost 40 years after I first engaged with the academic literature on diversity, inclusion and power we seem to have made little progress. So perhaps some reflection and a change of tactics might be called for…
On the way back from a Reciprocal Mentoring event in Birmingham Charmaine, Tina Deen and myself were talking about working in Arabic cultures and I was asked how I reflected it in my work in Oman and Qatar. I mentioned how I use Rumi and especially his poem about two kinds of intelligence. He talks of the first kind of intelligence being to do with learning and books. It is hard to maintain and quickly ages. It is seated in the brain and is the kind of intelligence that brings material power and gains. The other kind of intelligence is the intelligence of the heart or the soul. The intelligence that is like a babbling spring of fresh, clear water that just pours out of you – once you have found it and released it. It needs no maintenance. It just is. The intelligence of intuition and gut feeling. The intelligence of love.
I talked about how so much of what we do in the world of leadership and organisational development is about the first type of learning, the book knowledge, and not enough is about finding and expressing the babbling stream that springs from the soul. The authentic self I suppose. We have allowed our heads to overwhelm our hearts and souls. Our intelligence to overwhelm our intuition. And I think the recognition and inclusion of ALL of the babbling streams is at the heart of our work on inclusion.
On the journey home I started to reflect on why I found the Reciprocal Mentoring work to be so demanding, risky and crucial. It feels like a part of my babbling spring. It feels intuitively right for me to be doing it.
I was born in 1962 in one of the most privileged villages, in one of the most privileged counties in one of the most privileged countries in the world. Virginia Water in Surrey, England.
The place is famous for being on the edge of Windsor Great Park, having a couple of world class golf courses, and the Holloway Sanatorium. The Wentworth Estate was the home of choice for stockbrokers and bankers from the city, celebrities (Bryan Forbes, Nanette Newman, Bruce Forsyth, Elton John and 5-star were all residents, alongside General Pinochet for a while when he was on house arrest). Average house prices in Virginia Water? £5m
This is where I was born and bought up for the first 18 years of my life. But these were not my people.
Because I was born in Trumps Green, Virginia Water. The estate at the bottom of the hill, built with a view to housing ‘the servants’. The people who would maintain the golf courses and gardens, clean the houses, chauffeur the cars. My Dad built lorries and my mum typed up hand written manuscripts for a couple of local authors and doubled up as a school dinner lady. Later on she became Headteacher in the same school in an amazing story of ‘social mobility’. From dinner lady to Head. My first jobs were working on the ‘big gardens’ and servicing the ‘Colonels’ Mercedes Benz’.
So from a very early age I lived in a divided community. Those that lived on the private estates, with ponies and summers in Tuscany and those of us that lived in Trumps Green whose parents rented the milkman’s caravan in Selsey Bill every Summer for a week. We didn’t get to mix with the Wentworth Estate people very much. They had their own private schools and their own private estate. Their kids went to drama and ballet school while we played football in the park. Yes, jumpers for goalposts. There was us and them. And we were overwhelmingly white British.
When the two tribes did come together it would usually be at the ‘top shops’, he parade of shops closest to the Private Estate, where Bryan Forbes owned the bookshop and the Genzianis’ ran an Italian restaurant.. Occasionally we would need something that we couldn’t get in the ‘bottom shops’ and I would walk the short distance up the hill. Often there would be a moment of excitement as a Rolls Royce, Jaguar, Aston Martin or Mercedes Benz pulled into a parking bay and the door would open and out would step ‘one of them’. Usually a faceless banker, but occasionally someone you recognised ‘off the telly’. I still visit Virginia Water often as mum still lives in the house I was born in. I still get this weird feeling, 50 years on when a Range Rover, usually with blacked out windows, pulls up at the top shops and out steps one of ‘them’. Now much more likely to a Russian oligarch but still we get the occasional celeb.
As a kid growing up I would imagine the privilege that folk enjoyed behind their private signs and their security fences, with their villas ‘on the continent’, their polo matches, swimming pools and tennis courts. I used to hang out at the top shops hoping to meet them. To join them. To be like them. Because as a kid I thought they were better. And I was envious. It took me a good while to grow out of it…perhaps, I never fully did.
The only other place where our paths cross were at Wentworth Golf club, where there were a number of opportunities to make a few bob. Firstly you could hang arond at the caddies shed, and hope that one of them would pay you to carry their clubs around and advise them on the course. As the sone of lorry builder and dinner lady whose only knowledge of the game was from watching it on the telly and who had never held a club, I was seldom chosen. More reliable income for me was from collecting ‘lost’ golf balls and selling then back to the players as they went to their car on the way home. I would spend hours scouring the ‘long rough’ in search of these white spherical cash cows. I can’t remember what we used to get for them, but a new ball, with no splits and the right brand name was a precious find.
We also knew several places on the golf course where the players would take a driver from the tee and their balls would roll out of sight over the brow of a hill. We would hide in the bushes at the side of the fairway, waiting for thwack of the drivers. We would watch the balls come to rest and then grab them before running back into the bushes. We would then wait for the players to come over the brow of the hill, suppressing our giggles as they searched for the balls. After a few minutes of cursing their luck they would drop new balls and go about their game. This wasn’t stealing. It was wealth re-distribution.
Our other money maker was to wade into the water hazards, usually at night, feeling for golf balls in the silt. Water damaged balls were less valuable than pristine ones, but if you got the timing right you could come away with dozens of them.
I think these early experiences of class, wealth and difference and what I learned from them really gave me a sense of injustice, of us and them, of othering. It was a dynamic that I had experienced for myself for the best part of 20 years and it is dynamic that is still easily triggered in me. I am not equating it with other forms of injustice and oppression, and I am not saying that I am not privileged, because I am. I am just reflecting on why THIS work feels so important, so personal and so challenging.
At the root of much of our work in leadership and organisational development are the psycho-dynamics of othering. For me this means using differences, almost any differences as a reason to see people as different and then to use this difference as a way of blaming and rejecting. Instead of seeing our common humanity we see often superficial differences and use that as a mechanism for distancing ourselves, defining ourselves. I realise now that I had become an expert in this by the time I was 5. I was sensitised to class based differences and had become an expert. A large part of my journey into the world of inclusion must be to recognise and come to terms with my own social conditioning.
Othering is such a powerful psychological force. A means for the ego to defend itself and to justify itself. A way of defining and claiming its existence. And a way of building some connections while sabotaging others. A fundamental denial of the wholeness, the oneness of all living creatures.
This takes us into the realms of the spiritual and the existential. Back to the babbling stream of the soul. And leadership and organisational development territory where apparently ‘there be dragons’.