TedxHoP

“Success to me is being able to look in the mirror & know I’m OK”

Lemn and Callie

Lemn Sissay with MOMO Ambassador Callie

The quote above was how Lemn Sissay (poet, playwright, author, broadcaster) opened his keynote at the Mind of My Own (MOMO) conference in Birmingham earlier this month.  I’d been looking forward to hearing him speak again.  I first came across Lemn when he spoke at the Houses of Parliament TEDx back in 2013 – worth a listen whatever your interests.  There were a lot of outstanding speakers that day but he was the one I enjoyed the most – authentic, passionate & with a real story that he needed to tell & which deserved to be heard.

Lemn and MaryMOMO is a fast growing tech for good company that makes it easier for children & young people to express their views & feelings to the people that work with them and the conference was a mix of social workers, care leavers, young people still in care, local authority officers and other interested parties.

Lemn describes himself as a black Mancunian care leaver, although he also wears many, many more hats, including being the current elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a 7 year stint.  He talked to us on the day about the reality of being a young person in care concentrating mainly on the aspects of family life that young people in care miss out on – the constant reinforcements that happen in every family – and the effect this has on them as adults.  What are you going to do when you grow up? When are you going to get a job? Are you going to university? Where are you going to university? When are you getting married?  All the stuff that the rest of us remember hating being asked every day by our extended families when we were growing up. Through that consistent and constant questioning and power of suggestion we learn to improvise and this is something that’s missing from the lives children lead in care.  His own personal story is a heartbreaking one, but it’s one that we listen to and hear because he has a platform from which to tell it.

Closing the gap

Lemn Sissay keynoteI can’t in this blog replicate the passion & authenticity of Lemn’s keynote, although it was filmed so the link will soon be available on the MOMO website if anyone would like to watch it.  I can however collect some thoughts around his key theme which was how to “close the gap” between children in care & everyone else. When you think about it like this, how can it be beyond the collected brain power of all the people that work in and are connected to the care system to make it better and in doing so improve the adult lives of care leavers. He suggested that we need to find a way to fill the hole that’s created by not having an extended family, because even though all families are dysfunctional, they play an important part in turning us into fully formed adults. He described how on his first day back in care aged 12 having been fostered out since a baby, his social worker told him how he couldn’t get emotionally involved in all his cases or he’d have a nervous breakdown. The foster family he’d spent the previous 11 or 12 years with cut off all contact with him.

He talked about how later when he lived in a children’s home with 15 other adolescents, there were 16 red boxes with glass to be broken in case of an emergency.  If a box was broken, the process kicked off & the institution sprang into action – but there still wasn’t anyone who could give him a hug.  Nobody thanked them for not breaking the glass on a daily basis but everybody understood what to do when the glass was broken – “the keys are jingling, the process is in place, the reviews are done”.  The stark reality is that no-one judges their own children by their behaviour, good or bad, on any given day – but that was how Lemn & the other 15 young people were judged.  They lived in an unemotional structure that operated along the lines of “if you do or don’t do this or that then X will happen to you” and they were constantly reminded of how far they had to fall.

Good news for Lemn personally

Lemn Yvonne Jill Mary

Lemn with MOMO co-founders Yvonne Anderson & Jill Thorburn (photo credit Rob Freeman)

Lemn’s own story is a famous one & one that I won’t cover here but the good news is he now has a fully dysfunctional family of his own, just like more or less everybody else, and whilst he hasn’t yet figured out how to make birthdays better for young people in care he is tackling Christmas day for care leavers and you can find out more about how that works here if you’d like to get involved.  Christmas dinners began in 2012 and last year happened on Christmas day itself in 12 cities. Thanks Lemn for the great work you do and for caring about what happens to other people and speaking out.

I realise this is a topic that many people choose not to think about outside of fiction – Harry Potter, Superman, David Copperfield, James Bond, Spiderman, Lisbeth Salander, Pippi Longstocking – but in 2017 there were over 70,000 children and young people in care in England & Wales alone.  Surely between us we can come up with some creative ways to improve their lives.

My London Life – recommendations for places to go & things to do

I find myself telling people I moved to London “the other day” but in truth it’s been over a year now since I’ve been living in central London.  I miss Ireland, I miss the countryside at home in County Tyrone & I miss being in the Learning Pool mothership in Derry at the heart of our team but I’m also really loving my new London Life.  Living here this time around I’ve found London to be jumping with things to do & I’ve found it to be a far friendlier place to live than I remember from last time – but maybe it was me who changed in the intervening 12 years.

This is adrift from my usual business related blog topics but I thought it would be fun to jot down some of what I’ve enjoyed most about the last year in London.  Might be interesting for visitors & tourists.  I know everyone will have their own favourite recommendations so please feel free to add yours in the comments below.  I’ve gone for stuff which is free or low cost & which everyone can have access to.

  1. Hang out in any of London’s independent coffee shops and bakeries.  There are hundreds of them and they’re all magic.French-BakeryStay away from the chains.  As well as some of them dodging UK tax they are also as boring as sin, usually packed and they often serve coffee that tastes rotten and is way overpriced.  Locally to me I have the French Bakery in County Hall (south side of Westminster Bridge on the Southbank) & I have the Greensmiths Food Company on Lower Marsh St – the most divine & affordable cakes are baked on site by the chef for their cafe.
  2. If you want to impress someone with a great view & a bit of history then take them for tea in the Southbank Marriott hotel.  I know this is a direct contradiction of my recommendation No 1 but I can’t help being contrary.  It’s the old GLC building and was the seat of London government from the 1920s until 1986.GLCMany of it’s original features have been retained by the new owners including the beautiful wood panelling throughout the common areas.  Don’t miss the photographs taken at the time the building was going up and don’t miss the many period cartoons of Ken Livingstone & Margaret Thatcher.  The tea rooms look out directly over the Houses of Parliament, the River & Big Ben.  My friend Tom Phillips & I called in there recently although we didn’t even buy anything – we just had a look around – no-one seemed to mind.
  3. Eating Lebanese food on the Edgware Road and shopping in some of the local grocery stores.  Magnificent & easy on the wallet.  Completely authentic & cheaper than getting on a plane.  Sights and sounds from afar & waves of aniseed from the outdoor shisha smokers as you walk along the street.
  4. Ronnie-ScottRonnie Scott’s at Sunday lunchtime for intimacy, jazz and a taste of old world glamour.  It’s exactly as I imagine clubs in New York to have been in the 1950s in my mind’s eye.  Red velvet & table lamps, waiter service even if all you want is a glass of water, prime people watching…time travel without the machine.
  5. Last minute tickets to the theatre or the ballet.  We go to see everything that we have time for.  If the show is completely sold out you can queue for returns – you get lucky about 50% of the time in my experience.  You can see shows at the National Theatre on the Southbank for as little as £12 (or even £5 if you’re prepared to stand and aren’t yet too decrepit).  Some plays are better than others of course but they’re all enjoyable.  Going to see live performance is an incredible privilege and it’s just so easy in London.
  6. Joining the curator-led tours at the National Gallery.  These are brilliant, last an hour & they are free.  I’ve been on 4 or 5 so far & have seen different paintings every time.  Having the curator explain the paintings gives you a completely different perspective & insight.
  7. Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel – live art in the making & constantly changing – and I mean constantly changing.Queen-with-teapot  Maeve McLaughlin snapped this picture of the Queen last week and it was gone the very next day – her Majesty had been replaced with a rather rubbishy robot – which again has since been replaced by something else.  Utterly amazing.  Do not miss it.  It looks a bit menacing at first glance but it’s perfectly safe and there’s a 24 hour car wash going on in the middle of all the photography shoots and biker gatherings and film-making and all the other stuff that’s going on.  About 5 minutes walk from Waterloo station.
  8. Visit Parliament for free.  You don’t have to pay.  You just show up at the visitor’s entrance, queue & go through security and next thing you know you’re in Westminster Hall surrounded by history.  Dependent on how busy it is you might even get into the Gallery to observe Parliament in action if you’re lucky and well behaved.  The Parliamentary Outreach team is working hard to make Parliament more accessible to us all so watch their website for the free events that take place from time to time.
  9. Send off for free tickets to BBC recordings.Billy-BraggThe one we got tickets for was in Maida Vale Studio to be part of the audience for a Radio 4 Mastertapes show featuring Billy Bragg.  It was utterly brilliant and so was he.  Look on the BBC website where all their open events are advertised.  All you need to do is email them & you’ll find out a few days later whether or not you’ve been allocated tickets.  Be sure you show up in time on the night as they overbook & you might not get in if you’re last to arrive and everyone else has turned up.  Great fun and completely free.
  10. Sign up for some low cost learning related events.  The two I attended & enjoyed the most in 2012 were Tedx Houses of Parliament (happening again 14 June 2013, tickets go on sale tomorrow 4 March, great lineup again this year, I thoroughly recommend this) and the Mozfest (from the Mozilla Foundation) which will be happening again in late October 2013 in London.MozillaHang out with some like minded people & learn some stuff too – what’s not to like.
  11. Take the riverboat up or down the Thames using your Oyster card.  Viewing from the River gives you a different perspective on the City and you can see stuff you wouldn’t normally see.  If you manage to get as far as the O2, go over to the ExCel conference centre by cable car – also using your Oyster card.  Great fun and not anything like as terrifying as it looks from the ground.
  12. My last one is spending summer evenings in the parks.  The Serpentine Bar & Kitchen was a particular favourite of Team Learning Pool in summer 2012 – we spent the long summer evenings in their garden – eating pizza from the woodfired oven, drinking a few light ales, watching the ducks swim past & speculating about how much fun it would be to have a Learning Pool summer party in a flotilla of those pedal boats.

I’ll finish up with my favourite pic of the boys from last summer, snapped outside of the Queen Victoria in Connaught Village.  London summer evenings are pretty perfect and should be enjoyed outdoors.  London’s a great place to live and visit.  My advice for London Life is keep your eyes open for all the wonderful things there are to see, be friendly to the people you meet and when anyone invites you to stuff – say yes!

Boys-with-beers-Connaught