Post written by: Erin Walcon
Now that we’re in the final two week stretch of the Resilience Web project, I’m feeling reflective. It’s a kind of a nostalgic, look back at all the Hard Work, but more importantly, it’s a looking forward at The Work That’s Yet to Come But Needs Doing.
The last six months have been a wild, wonderful experiment and our small creative team is tired but inspired by them. We had a reflection session on Monday of this week, and gathered our collective learnings together around my kitchen table. Mostly, we learned that young people are amazing imagineers (imagination + engineer), inventors, storytellers, dancers, performers, songwriters, musicians, thinkers, and creatures of play and joy.
Mostly, we learned more from them than they learned from us. This is not a surprise.
We began the process of devising Grit and Crossing the Threshold with a mild interest in how you nurture resilience with children and young people, especially knowing that our young people in Torbay grow up in exceptionally adverse circumstances.
Brace for statistics: A quarter of children in Torbay grow up in ‘official’ poverty. In some neighbourhoods, this number is closer to 40%. In addition to this, Torbay leads the nation for families ‘on the edge’ of poverty – in other words, working families who are just about making it, but who are only one bill or one paycheck away from not making it. 37% of Torbay’s families fit this category, and support services for these kids are much more limited.
What does that have to do with resilience?
Well, it’s just this. Some of the major projects into resilience in the UK – and there are some great ones – are developed within a social care or mental health framework which understand that children growing up in poverty have a need to develop resilience. Amazing inspiring, work, like that done by Boing Boing UK creates training and skill-sharing sessions for social workers, teachers, and mental health professionals to develop resources to support resilience. We had hoped that our Resilience Web Project in Torbay would expand learning about the value of arts-based methods of resilience support, particularly through theatre and drama. It did, but it also raised some critical questions too. We’re still sitting inside these. They’re big questions. There is room to sit inside, and we’d like to welcome some more friends in and have a party.
One of the key questions is this:
In supporting resilience, we are encouraging young people to develop a centre of gravity, to overcome obstacles, to stand back up when life knocks them down, to be bouncy.
But if you happen to have been born into a life that knocks you over a lot more than the other 5 kids down the street, you get tired. If you happen to be born into a life where you don’t get as much to eat, or as many opportunities or as many bedtime stories as most other kids. And maybe… just maybe… it isn’t fair that we’re asking that kid to get extra bouncy. Maybe it looks a bit like victim-blaming? Asking them to get better at surviving a life that is hard and isn’t likely to get any easier? Accepting their fate and just dealing with it better? That doesn’t feel ethical.
So our conclusion?
You can’t just work on resilience – not just that. At the same time, you have to create space for revelry and laughter and joy. At the same time, you have help to nurture a healthy sense of resistance – of speaking up against the systems which can cause endemic injustices with regard to poverty and deprivation. Resistance and resilience must go hand in hand – in a way that feels strangely reminiscent of Augusto Boal and Paulo Freire and a 1970s style of idealism and political activism and conscientization and critical consciousness.
And we, the Doorstep team, would argue that within that, there MUST be space for revelry in this work too. Joy is an essential part of the work – and children who are facing more difficult lives need laughter as much as any other child, and sometimes in their life situations, laughter can be particularly hard to find.
So that’s 3 Rs I think we’re advocating for. A bit like school – the 3 Rs of ‘Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmatic’, right? Except our 3 Rs are ‘Resilience, Resistance and Revelry’.
But we just had a chat today, Meg and me and we think maybe there’s a 4th R in there. (At risk of over-killing the alliteraton, I know, sorry.)
That 4th R is pretty important too… without personal risk, and healthy risk-taking, it’s hard to live a full and whole life. And artistically, without risk, the work is bland and uninteresting and stagnant. Risk is scary. Brene Brown speaks eloquently about the power of vulnerability, and I would argue that being vulnerable is about laying yourself open to the risk of being hurt – but that risk also opens up the possibility of joy and love in a life. Being vulnerable is part of being human, part of engaging with the whole juicy orange of life. Taking risks is something we learn to do by trying.
Artistic risks may have to do with picking up a guitar for the first time and trying to strum a chord. Artistic risks may have to do with devising a show in an entirely new and untried way. Artistic risks may have to do with singing by yourself in front of 250 year 7 students. Artistic risk may be attempting something very brave in a very short time frame with a very small budget. All of these risks have just been taken in Torbay through this project.
Personal risk may have quite a lot do with being a teenager – or a child – who is stepping out into the world and doing things for the first time. Going to your first drama session, with a bunch of strangers you don’t know is scary and vulnerable and risky. You might not make any friends. You might not like it. You might get put on the spot. Or… not. You might find a home, a family, a set of friends, a safe place to imagine and to be yourself.
So much of adolescence is about necessary risks – proving yourself, testing your limits, feeling out the edges of your potential, rites of passage, adrenhaline-laced adventure, silly choices, and growing up.
What drama spaces offer is a safe space in which to do some of this work… fictional stories in which we can try out risky behaviours, faces, voices, selves, and then discard them again without consequences. Drama spaces offer stories and characters who can go on journeys of our making, and we can go with them.
When the 22 young people who devised Grit took the title character Tess on a journey to alien worlds, we all went with her. We all found our own strength, and determination, and were forced to name our fear and show that we were scared and accept it anyway. Tess took us all to a place we needed to go, and in journeying there and back again, we emerge back into our worlds a little bit more resilient, a little bit bouncier, a little bit more centred. (And tired, because touring a show is hard work.)
But I think we all came back from our Grit journey a bit more resistant too. In singing a song about the ethical problems with standardized testing TO a full school group, we were resisting some of the general acceptance of testing as an acceptable form of monitoring child progress.
In doing that through an original song, in an original devised production, we were demonstrating that ‘testing’ someone’s potential can look a lot of different ways, and that filling in bubbles with a No 2 pencil is only one of them… how do you measure a young person’s limits? How do you measure their potential? Not with multiple choice questions.
We need much bigger questions than that.
Big ones we can all live inside, and with space to play.