And how it’s making it through a pandemic…
BY EMMA FAY
Been on parental leave? Had a nice time? Fan of mental wellbeing? I have some “return to work” advice for you. There are good times to come back, and bad times to come back. Here’s when not to come back to work:
- Three weeks before a national campaign
- At the height of a pandemic
But, such is life, sometimes we don’t always get to time these things the way we’d like to. So just a few weeks ago, when I returned to Just Like Us in my role as Director of Education, I fired up the laptop for a remote work extravaganza that I certainly hadn’t bargained for when I left nine months before.
The instant that lockdown was announced and GCSEs were cancelled, everything changed. Across the country, teachers’ plans for School Diversity Week (22-26 June) had gone up in smoke – no more events, film showings or in-class discussions. Most importantly, suddenly they had to take care of their own health, their loved ones, and prioritise making sure their pupils were safe and well.
So it became our job to find an easy way for schools and colleges to celebrate School Diversity Week in the “new normal”.
The solution was obvious: as education moved online, so did we. As we did I wondered why on earth we hadn’t done this before – it’s definitely what I would have wanted when I was at school.
When I was a teenager, I spent my life online. And this is over 15 years ago, so things have come a long way since my evenings on MSN Messenger, on a PC as big as our house. I spent hours on a long since gone forum for “gay youth”, and concentrated too much of my energy making gifs of my way-too-embarrassing-to-mention celebrity crush. Sadly, my only relationship at the time was with my Livejournal, but oh how real that relationship was.
I know from my days as a teacher the extent to which that’s still true today – the fact that young people live their lives online (not the Livejournal thing). I had entire classes who would rather read Wattpad than pick up a paperback, I’ve confiscated approximately 1473 phones, and I actually taught one student who at 14 was already an influencer.
So, by going online we could reach more young people, and in a whole new way.
Having access to something like our masterclasses – all free and being streamed on Facebook during School Diversity Week – would certainly have had an impact me and my ragtag band of queers and allies. LGBTQI stuff happened outside of school, not in it. To be LGBTQI and out required a necessary level of courage and/or defiance dressed up as courage (in my case). In the immediate aftermath of Section 28, our teachers certainly weren’t recommending that we attend online sessions on LGBTQI topics, by LGBTQI people. What a difference that would have made.
LGBTQI leaders, role models, experts and generally brilliant people – like those leading our masterclasses – could have spoken to my friends’ struggles in a way that I couldn’t have. One of the hardest things about being a young person was coming up against my own limited ability to support my friends through the toughest of times: depression, isolation, stubbornly internalised homophobia. At the time, there weren’t many relatable or accessible voices using their strength and experience to bring hope. Perhaps hearing people such as DIVA’s own Linda Riley saying “there’s great life ahead … I’m very happy, [but] I would not have imagined that when I was at school” would have helped us to sense a greater perspective, letting light in on a pretty dark time.
It’s no understatement to say they would have changed my understanding of my identity, giving me a sense of clarity which had felt unobtainable. I now identify as genderqueer, and hearing from non-binary people such as Fox and Owl, Travis Alabanza or Sabah Choudrey – each of whom will be running masterclasses during the week – would have given me a language I didn’t have until much later. Back then, I knew what I wasn’t. Today, I know what I am. (And who knows what creativity Travis’s drama workshop “I AM” would have stemmed – goodbye Livejournal! Hello Edinburgh Fringe!). All this to say: representation changes lives.
If I’d experienced School Diversity Week, I would have understood others better too. I grew up in a largely white, middle class city with an ageing population. I’d hardly ever been to London, let alone other parts of the UK, or the world. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.
Lady Phyll says it: “it’s important to remember we are all very different, diverse and nuanced people that must be respected in all of our facets”. At Just Like Us, we’re all about the power of people’s real lives, and though we always want to improve, our school resources aim to include as wide a range of intersectional experiences as possible. As well as our masterclass speakers talking about their own lives and identities, teachers can use our ambassadors’ video stories to start discussions on being an LGBTQI person of faith, being LGBT+ in the care system, growing up LGBTQI in the sticks, to name but a few topics they chose to tell us about.
As my child grows up, I want her to listen closely to those whose experiences are different to her own: I want her to hear them. And School Diversity Week is the perfect time to support educators everywhere in lifting up those voices.
So I stand by what I said – try and avoid timing your return to work at a time of major international crisis. But with an amazing team who can pivot quicker than a ballroom dancer, a whole country of educators working hard to bring joy in these tough times, and Just Like Us ambassadors and masterclass presenters rocking up at a moment’s notice to celebrate LGBTQI diversity, it won’t be so bad. It might even be awesome.
Want to recommend a friend or colleague in education to sign up for School Diversity Week? Go to the Just Like Us website.