The final residential for the Extend programme took place a few weeks ago in Leeds. It was a chance for the cohort of 2019 to come together one last time. As a group we shared stories about our lives as well as the progress of our group enquiries. We debated, talked openly and reflected on our journeys and connected with one another again.
It felt familiar, warm and supportive. As always, Extend drew into focus artists and organisations who provocated our thinking about what we do and why we do it. Extend do something very special. The team work exceptionally well to curate presentations and work which offers us all the chance to consider not only our leadership but our values, who we are, what we are doing and why we do it. It is a chance to challenge ourselves and take and make what we will of the process. Their own gentle, inclusive style of leadership really shows a brave approach to a new way of thinking. Leadership doesn’t have to exhibit loudness or forthright language. It can be about noticing, communicating, being brave, taking on difficult conversations and connecting with people. I applaud those at Engage Extend for the chance to take part this year. Thank you all.
Challenging conversations was a theme for our last day with Extend. It raised some personal and professional questions about how we collectively and individually develop our thinking around difficult conversations. Our deep rooted thoughts about ourselves and others. From early childhood to adulthood notions about our values, our teaching and who we are take more centre stage. It struck me that for many of us, leadership presents conversations that we collectively avoid. We actively seek out irrational situations to avoid confrontation, interruption or question. We are adverse to upsetting feedback and thinking. We all know that this is massively counter productive to both our professional and personal lives but yet so often we tread this quite often hilarious terrain of distractions in order to avoid difficult situations or uncomfortable conversations.
One colleague of mine from years ago had a boss who insisted that their entire team go running together twice a week as a team. At the time it was felt that this would encourage team activity and productivity. Some people were good at running and some people were not. Slowly and surely over time, people were actively avoiding the days that the run occured. It became so consistent that for some of the month, team members had started to work from home or book out very early morning meetings to avoid attendance. Not one person wanted to explain to the boss person why it wasn’t ok to insist on people running twice a week. For many it was about choice, personal experience, ability or quite frankly desire. There had been no conversation or exchange about choice. The boss took the lack of enthusiasm for running personally and got very angry about what they considered to be a lazy team who they thought didn’t want to be a team. This went on for over a year. It snowballed into a culture of mistrust on both parts…for the longest time… with both camps thinking that the other ‘didn’t get it”…until finally the boss left the company and the conversation. Both parties hurt and angry. Both parties with their own version of the events. Yet a conversation at the start, a debate or exchange about wants and needs would have sorted it all out. The boss could have noticed. The team could have said. Yet, noone wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings or expose their own. What a bunch of weirdos we are.
Then, all too quickly our residential collective gathering was finished and our last moments were filled with emotional goodbyes and hugs. We packed away our things and carried our bags to the station.
I travelled back to Somerset with my good friend Fran Bossom where we shared our often hilarious and complex lives over the last remaining drops of our coffee. Whilst we busied ourselves with insulting one another (one of our favourite past times), we both reflected on the unending struggle to balance everything in our lives through a whirlwind of plate spinning. Twirling and whirling through the minor and the major as we slice up sandwiches for small folk whilst contemplating the health, wealth and wellbeing of all the people around us including ourselves. Worries. All the time.
Time and the urgency of finishing things, completing tasks, making time, creating time, spending time, quality time. Time to watch my daughters legs get longer. Time to cut her fingernails. Time to connect. Time to read. Time for fun. Time to remember who the hell we are in all of this. Time to be creative, to make art.
So, what now that I have completed Extend ? It’s all finished isn’t it ? Some of us may have tidied away our files and notes of the past year with Extend, my notes are still lying scattered across my desk with arrows and circles sketched across my paperwork signalling something developing….
So, what am I working on. Disruptive and questioning I don’t mind if I do.
I have been working in London over the last month drawing brains and collecting stories from like minded folk as part of a piece of work. Years ago I collected lists and photos/prints of people’s hands Lets see about the brain works. Drawing things that no longer exist anymore from people, places, animals and objects. Don’t ask, actually do. Maybe. Much of my focus of late has been centred on Arts and Health and the curiosity of learning through arts as practice to raise our game, opportunity and progression for ourselves as artists but also our communities.
There have been some great write ups lately about the importance of arts engagement, its value and impact. Have a read.
Me, I am off to draw a passsenger pigeon and another Dodo.
Arts as Practice- by Robin Nelson
Natives Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala.