The Big Five (life skills to make a difference)

Oo! That’s A Bit Racey! is an anti-racist blog. It’s designed to open up conversations about race and racism. But it’s impossible to focus solely on race, because every one of us is human, so each of us has layer upon layer of defining characteristics.

So today’s blog is about how all of us can support individuals.

I spoke with wise friend and fellow activist, Adam Brett, in a fascinating interview. Between us we came up wth what we think are the five key skills we can all develop to support everyone.

Adam is an educationalist, currently a SCITT Hub Lead for teacher training with Inspiring Leaders and a Secondary teacher. He’s in the final throes of his PHD, “Changing the narrative: a photo elicitation study of LGBT+ secondary school teachers in England.” (He’s a pretty smart guy!) He also co-hosts one of my favourite podcasts, Pride and Progress. It’s full of inspiring people who are making a difference in education, particularly when it comes to the LGBT+ community.

In a nutshell, we concluded that there are just five skills that can make the world of difference.

Number one. Empathy and self-awareness – two sides of the same coin.

We all like to think we’re good at putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but it’s not always that easy. This is especially true when we feel threatened. The fight or flight response erupts and our barriers go up. It’s also tricky if we’re going against the things we’ve learnt, or if our social circles perpetuate a certain behaviour. It can be easier to go with the flow of “banter” or societal “norms” than to stop, think, and put ourselves in another place.

Empathy is a skill. And like any skill, it can be acquired and it takes practice.

Self awareness – the other side to the empathy coin. If we’re going to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we also need to be aware of our own shoes (excuse the strange extended metaphor…you get what I mean.) Reflecting on our own situations means we become more aware of the biases we may hold (through the media, the things we learnt at school, dinner table chat….) and what makes us who we are.

The phrase “check your privilege” comes in here too. And I absolutely include myself in this. Privilege is not about having it easy, or being born with a silver spoon, it’s about the absence of barriers that put an individual at a disadvantage due to their personal characteristics.

Empathy and self-awareness go hand in hand. As Adam put it, you may not know what it feels like to be Black, or gay, or trans, or disabled, for example, but you may know what it feels like to be the only *something* in a room. (Have you ever been the only male on a girls’ night out? Or the only vegetarian at a barbeque? Or the only person who can’t speak the language on a trip abroad? Maybe you turned up to a party overly dressed up when everyone else was in jeans and trainers….) Chances are you know what it feels like to feel different, or misunderstood, or lonely in a room full of people. So putting yourself in the shoes of someone who is more marginalised isn’t too much a reach for any of us.

So here’s a question….where you on this wheel? I bet you appear in more than one position. There are those layers I refered to earlier.

2. Critical thinkingunpick the stitches

If we think about all of the influences we’ve absorbed during our life time, there are many, many reasons for our personal prejudices. It could be the “comedic” portrayal of a man in a wig (Adam referenced a scene in one of his favourite childhood films here….you may be able to guess which one), or the white saviourism of our school history lessons. From a young age we’ve been taught to think a certain way about certain people. These act like stitches in our conscious and unconscious minds. Learning how to identify and unpick those stitches is crucial. It’s all of our responsiblity to do the work here. Read a variety of newspapers, listen to diverse voices, open our minds to alternatives.

Once we build up this skill, we can start to recognise the structures in society that cause people to be marginalised, the behaviours and systems that cause inequalities.

3. Communication skills (two in particular)

The two elements of communication that make the most difference are listening, properly, without defensiveness, and challenging effectively.

This is a constant work in progress for me. If someone says or does something that shows prejudice or puts someone else at a disadvantage, my fight or flight responses kick in again, usually in the form of anger or upset. But to educate ourselves and others’, we need to try our hardest to master the skill of challenging effectively. It’s about “calling them in” when they need some coaching and “calling them out” when they’re hurting others who need to be supported.

4. Self-educationthe key to all of these

Speaking personally, having invested time to learn more about people, human instincts, behaviour and culture over the last year or so, I feel better able to understand myself and others. I’m able critique the media I consume (this can get annoying when I’m trying to watch a Hollywood blockbuster with a glass of wine on a Friday evening). The knowledge I’ve gained has helped me to engage in conversations in a far more meaningful way.

So I’m a huge advocate for self-education. For me, this is the most important skill in the list.

Something that can intimidate people, but is a really important part of self-education is learning the language.

People are terrified of saying the wrong thing. And they see terminology as a minefield. But there is a common language out there, and it’s something Adam and I discussed at length.

People will make mistakes – we all do – especially when we’re learning a new language. If you’re worried about getting it wrong, have faith that if you take the steps listed here, you’ll build trust with those you’re trying to support. And once trust is established, mistakes can be forgiven, because we’re all learning together. And honestly, we’d rather you try to talk about it than avoid it.

Finally. Number five. Keep taking steps along the ally continuum

If you’re working through the above, you’re becoming an ally. It’s an iterative process and it never really ends.

When I asked Adam what his advice would be for people who want to support others, this is how he explained it. We’re all on a journey – a continuum – and if we can each be 10% braver ( an expression Adam and I are both familiar with from the WomenEd network) we will move along the continuum. All of our individual circles of influence will grow, and together we’ll make a difference.

So that leaves me with my second and final question to you – what are you doing to move along the ally continuum? Whatever it is – good luck, keep going, and thank you.

A huge thank you to Adam too, for his time, insight and the work he’s doing.

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