Author: Magnus Gorny (Reaching Out intern)
Last week we have finally held our storytelling workshop that we have been working hard on planning and organising. I arrived a little bit in advance and helped Megan, Caroline and Sonia set things up at our lovely venue, Board in the City.
I really liked the overall atmosphere of the event. It impressed me how many people came to attend, and everyone seemed very friendly and keen to listen and contribute. We sat in several groups on different tables, making sure the staff were spread out (though I did end up at a table with Caroline, but it was nice to have a familiar face around).
My favourite part was the collage task. Before the event, Debs asked us to bring various cutouts, postcards, images and words that people could relate to the idea of community. I wasn’t sure exactly what we were going to do with them, and assumed they were going to be used as storytelling prompts – but it turned out to be more artistic than that. She instructed us to make a collage about what community meant to us, working on it together.
As an introverted artist, I was thrilled but intimidated: I tend to live in my own world and sometimes have trouble making peace with other people becoming part of my process. However, it was actually really fun, and served as a wonderful facilitation for the beginning of our discussions of community stories. We went around the table talking about ourselves and what community meant to us, and then tried to represent those ideas on our artworks. Here are the resulting collages:
Talking to a stranger: the challenging part
We then moved on to a different exercise, which involved a more detailed discussion of our own stories that we could prepare for with the help of some prompts, such as “My community story is…”, “The challenge for me/my community was…” and so on. The idea was for people to find pairs and exchange their experiences for a while with the help of these prompts, then switch around. Later on everyone’s cards were displayed around the room.
This was the part where I got particularly uneasy. During the collage discussion I shared my story of being part of the LGBT+ community, and in particular of coming out as non-binary. I was able to do that because there were a couple of people I knew at my table, and so I felt more at ease than if I hadn’t known anyone. But the idea of the next activity was to talk one-on-one with someone you didn’t know, and that really set off my internal alarm bells.
This made me think a lot about the concept of creating inclusive safe spaces. It is actually a really challenging task to bring together people from different communities in a way that makes all of them feel included and not threatened. This is because certain communities may be likely to hold opinions that are at odds with each other, or feel uneasy around each other.
For example, as an LGBT+ person, I am instantly wary of people who follow religions, because many homophobic/transphobic people justify their bigotry with their religion. I’m sure that other marginalised groups can think of their own examples of this unsafe feeling. This problem is frequently overlooked by those who have not experienced being punished for simply trying to exist as themselves. It makes story-sharing with new people really challenging, even within a friendly context like our event.
Incidentally, the person I spoke to was a Christian man from a deprived area of Southampton. Immediately, as soon as he mentioned his faith, I tensed up. A red flag? Or just my own prejudice? There was only one way to find out, and it was to keep talking. He didn’t know what non-binary was, so I explained it. And I couldn’t gauge his reaction at first, so I got really anxious, but in the end there was no hostility or anything. We had an engaging exchange and hopefully both learned things. It was definitely an interesting experience.
In the end, even though it was a big challenge, I had a very positive impression of the event. I hope that by sharing my story with many different people, I can enable them to spread acceptance throughout society, and that others who have attended felt as empowered as I did. But in order to spread positive opinions, it is also vital to dispel the negative ones. Which is why I feel that events such as ours should have certain rules in place to ensure that people won’t use their voice to harm others. It is not something we have given much thought to before the event, but my experience tells me that it might be a good idea to consider these aspects in the future.
I feel very proud of what we have been able to accomplish, and look forward to seeing what comes out of this event. While a lot of work was put into it, it is only a starting point to our wider goals: to give people of Southampton a voice in healthcare. I am glad to have been able to contribute as an intern, and I hope that I can continue supporting the project and see what fruit it will bear.