Deconstruct your own narrative before judging others.
Let me begin by sharing part of a narrative training exercise that I have developed and often use. First the large group is divided into groups of about six who are seated around tables. I ask them to create individual representations of a successful student/employee they have known. They then share the stories of these people with the others on their table. The groups of six then identify any patterns or similarities in these successful people and create a composite representation/image of 'The Successful Individual.' I then ask them to all think of a student/employee that they knew who failed, who fell through the gap, who they still think about. They create a representation of this person and share it with the others in their group. I then tell them we now have the chance to save these people. We will create a bridge between those who succeeded and those who failed. However I tell them that in their group they can only choose three individuals to save. They cannot save all of them. This will often cause complaints or comments such as - "How can we choose?" I point out that this happens every day in their organisations, they lose people/pupils. Here, in this moment, I am giving them a chance to be conscious of the feeling that they often are not aware of, but carry with them all the time - the feeling of letting people down. They then start to identify the differences between the 'successful' and the ones that 'failed' but who we will now save.
I then start a carousel exercise whereby each group chooses a storyteller who is responsible for staying at the table and sharing the story of the individuals and the differences represented there. All others in the groups switch tables and listen to the designated storytellers.The new group offers solutions to the problems/differences that have been identified between the 'successful' and 'failed.' They are written down and placed on the table. This new group then choose a new storyteller to stay at the table and share the story, the rest of the group move again. This process continues until people arrive at their own table. (not everyone will be there at the same time as many will have been storytellers and have to stay at a table to tell before moving on again.) Here they are told their repeated story back. Then everybody goes back to their original groups and shares what has happened to their original stories.
What often happens is that one of the 'failed' individuals disappears out of the story completely. I point out that if we cannot keep everybody's story present in the room for a 40 minute exercise, it shows how easy it is for people to slip through the net. It is a profound moment. This is the first part of a longer narrative process, so why am I sharing this and what has this got to do with deconstructing narratives?
I was recently working using this exercise, with a group of very diverse staff from a wonderful school. There were teachers from Somalia and Chile and Bangladesh and many more countries, a rich mine of cultural narratives being brought together to weave a fabric of support for the students who attended the school. However, what soon became apparent was the differing narratives surrounding education, success, and failure and also the type of behaviour expected in a school. For some there was also a narrative around hierarchies with some staff seeing themselves as 'higher' than others and therefore, they perceived, more important. It got me thinking about what is conjured up when we use certain words and phrases and how different the meanings can be.
When I delivered PlayWork Training in Birmingham I did an exercise around inclusion and diversity, where I asked groups of people to work together to create stereotypical images of certain people, disabled child, muslim woman, Caribbean father, white, working-class mom etc. I told them it did not have to represent their views but just depict how these people are often seen or portrayed in the media. The images that came out were highly detailed and would be classed as very offensive. Though everyone was at pains to say that the image was not representative of their views, I pointed out that those images were in their heads, those stereo-types lurked there in the shadows of their consciousness and if we are not aware of their existence, we cannot control them or harness them when they spring out and send our judgements reeling. We need to be aware of what bricks construct the wall of our 'normal.'
So back to words and meanings from the narrative exercise: success and failure - what do these mean to different people from different cultures. In the area I grew up in, a big marker for success was the ability to fix a car or own a car, (preferably a red capri.) Getting qualifications at school was certainly not a marker of success, more a marker of difference from the community.
A good student or a good teacher - what do these concepts mean to people from different cultures. In Northern Ghana where I lived between 1989 to1992 a good teacher was one that often taught by rote and demanded absolute respect from the pupils, in some cases using a cane to help things along. No child would question the teacher - in fact it was very similar to my education in the UK during the 70's.
For me it is important to be aware of the stories we carry and know how they were created, who created them and why. We need to deconstruct these walls of meaning and interpretation into the individual bricks that form them. It is only when we do this that we can truly start to understand those who we perceive as different from us because the wall no longer stands in the way, rather the bricks are now forming a path of communication.
I think it is a wonderful metaphor, especially in the present time of division, separation and wall building; to think of diss-assembling those walls and using the bricks to create pathways of understanding and communication. To build roads that lead us to each other.