Forgive me if this feels too confessional. I’ve no interest in being a ‘remarkable’ or even ‘heroic’ individual. I want to make sense of what I do by putting it in the context of a bigger picture and seeing what relevance my personal experience has for others. My work is an ongoing conversation about how we can marry our private and public lives, pursue a fulfilling life, create value, and be valued.
I recently enjoyed an interesting conversation with Mike Chitty where we talked about unconscious and conscious stuff – i.e what we are drawn to DO, and then how not to kill it, the moment we become aware of ourselves. We got to talking about the Disrupting Poverty series of events he’d instigated. I mentioned I’d not felt connected to it when it started four years back, but now I can begin to see the relevance of what we’re doing with Playful Leeds.
I still don’t think of what I do as ‘disrupting poverty’, though. I start with a different question and hope that what emerges brings people of all backgrounds, ages and abilities together. To me, this feels like pure common sense, not something that should be out of the ordinary. I rarely start with: ‘How can I solve deep-seated systemic problems?’ My hunch is that play creates the space where those who ‘have’ and those who ‘don’t’ can be together, without feeling the class disconnect that often makes tribes out of us.
Mike suggested that what we are doing with Playful Anywhere and Playbox is an example of disrupting poverty. Children who come out to play in the volunteer-run common land, Charlie Cake Park, get to play with stuff that’s been donated to the playbox (by myself or others) – with people they may never have mixed with before. But I think these distinctions between social groups, however useful and well-intended, can be a bit misleading. It’s not that simple.
Build bridges with play
At last week’s BBQ, one of the parents who I’ve got to know quite well over the two months that we’ve been there described herself as ‘rough’. I asked her what she meant, and we ended up having a fantastic conversation, essentially about class. I think she was surprised to learn I’d grown up on a council estate, brought up by my amazingly hardworking single mum. We chatted about what had made our paths differ. She said she’d been a bit naughty at school and her parents were always out on the lash, and she was determined that her children didn’t experience that. She fears that living in Armley might drag her son down as there is so little for kids his age to do around here, and his mates are bored and looking for kicks. Likewise, I fear that if I don’t DO something in Armley I will regret not making the effort. I can use my skills to make a difference to the experience of my children and their friends, here. But that’s because I have confidence now: I’m sure of my abilities to convene and collectively nurture a sense of community.
Any ‘data’ analysis of our lives would place us both at the lower end of income and aspiration. She aspires for the best for her family, as do I. Why do I now seem ‘posh’ in comparison to her ‘rough’? Looking back, I feel that meeting and hanging out with a creative, culture-loving family at the cottage at the border of the council estate I grew up on with made a big difference to my life horizons. My mum instilled great ethics in me of hard work and honesty, but she didn’t have time or funds to take me on trips to ballet, museums, theatre and the like. We didn’t have a car, we didn’t have a colour TV until I was 11, and we didn’t go on many trips abroad. But I never ever felt poor, not until I had free school meal tickets – and even then I didn’t really feel hard done by. I never went without. But I was surrounded by people on that estate and on the edges who gave us love in spades, who took us camping, threw great parties, baby sat. I feel blessed, and in fact as I write this tears are streaming down my face as I realise just what that proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child‘ means.
So, if it helps aid understanding, this is what I search for in my work and family life. My creative impulse is to recreate a sense of family, to create spaces for those who aren’t as ‘privileged’ but not to label this as ‘helping’ or ‘solving problems’. All of us are blessed with unique gifts and talents, I believe deeply that I wish to pass on the ‘open house’ spirit I experienced growing up to the community I live within. Not just a neighbourhood, or a postcode, but a place. Our place.
I’m not making a speech from a podium, but I hope I take time to thank all of those people who probably didn’t think they were doing very much at all, other than being welcoming, warm and kind. For tolerating my odd eccentricities, for not judging my mum, for making life one of endless possibilities, not barriers. I want to thank each and every person who performs small acts of kindness, who have donated stuff, and who have taken the time out of their day to listen to me, play, and help guide the endeavours of Playful.
Play matters to me because I think it’s the way in which we attempt to resolve the challenge of togetherness whilst understanding we are unique. It’s my tool for turning my frustrations and feelings of futility when raging against ‘the system’ into a way to create bridges.
We are not helpless
I’d like to make a plea to those ‘tasked’ with solving problems to stop trying to ‘help’ people like me and my mum, or the ‘helpless poor’, and to seek different ways of bringing out the best in people. Convening together will be for the betterment of society, not polarising – which just causes us to turn in on each other. Unquestioned social conventions like these just set up arbitrary rules, making it more difficult for people to come together.
For me, Play is a brilliant trojan. How can we deny people the right to fresh air, freedom and kinship? Street play* and green spaces need to be encouraged ahead of selling off public assets to private profiteers. Austerity might be forcing a fire sale and demolition of public assets, but think what legacy we are creating for the future generations of residents if we don’t reclaim our common spaces and demand better for ourselves. If we truly care about ‘raising aspirations’ we should be bringing people together, not seeking to ‘cure’ them.
*There are some great play facilitators in Leeds not least Scrap Leeds, Better Lives Leeds, Leeds Play Network, Let’s Grow, and many more I’m probably not yet aware of.