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Author Archives: philippajwatts

A plea

Let’s be honest, I’m pretty political – increasingly so, over the last few years. I think it comes with the territory; you can’t work on social justice issues and not be painfully aware of the wider factors and systems that impact on the people you are working with.

I’ve actually tried to keep relatively quiet on the whole election front. There are very few people in my personal network who aren’t on the same page as me in their political leanings, and we all learnt from the Brexit vote quite how dangerous it can be to feel confident that the views of your own echo chamber are the views of the majority. If you’re reading this from my Facebook page, odds are that we are in agreement.

So I suppose this really is a plea to those whose voting tendencies I can’t be sure sure of, which I think boils down to my family. So here are some thoughts for them as the 8th June draws closer:

Last week, it occurred to me that at the end of this next parliament, the one we will vote in on Thursday, I will be 30. That really hit me, not so much because of my age, but what that will mean for my situation in life. The big thing is that I may well start thinking about having children then, which suddenly throws this election into sharp relief. As I imagine the future that we are heading for, it feels increasingly dystopic and, in a word, scary.

I imagine the day my first child is born, under the smiling painted face of Richard Branson which presides over the Virgin Health maternity ward. One exhausted midwife, nearing retirement, struggles to support multiple women and their partners because of the ever-falling staff numbers.

Some years later (let’s gloss over the whole childcare situation because right now I don’t even want to consider being forced to give up my career because childcare is too expensive), I will have to make the decision of whether to stand by my principles on fair education or send this child to a grammar school for a superior education at the cost of their peers’. I suspect the answer will depend on which is in a better position to spoil the children with luxuries such as government-funded toilet paper. Either way, they can look forward to a childhood full of testing and stripped of music, art and theatre.

But I rush ahead. I have assumed that my child will get the full set of functioning genes that I would anticipate from its parents, and that they will grow up healthy, able-bodied and neurotypical. If not,  the future looks even bleaker.

A reduction in autism diagnosis will mean that more children than ever will grow up misunderstood,  bullied and isolated with a lifetime of consequences for their mental health, self esteem and employment opportunities. Whatever the issue, pressures on school staff and a reduction in resources may push my child out of mainstream into special schools,  whether they need it or not. Their social opportunities will be dictated by the local government’s purse, ever shrinking, while those who work as TAs or in respite struggle by on minimum wages. As they get older, they will be pushed into a humiliating and degrading system of benefits which sees them as a body rather than a person, of limited value in society.

Whatever their own situation,  I would do my utmost to bring them up as open-minded,  tolerant and welcoming – a struggle in a world where those in power (political and economic) seek to create fear and mistrust.

I could go on. I could talk about the crushing weight of their university debt, the restriction on their international travel or the pressure to be interested in STEM subjects, but we’ll be here all night if I do.

I don’t fear North Korea or terrorism. What I fear is the impact on our society of we continue to prioritise funding war over health and education, and how reductive black-and-white thinking seems to prevail over critical analysis. I worry about supporting leaders who limit human rights far more than supporting those whose human rights have been contravened. I want to be part of a population which reasons,  shares and explores than one another, understanding but intolerant of intolerance.

The long and short of it is this. We can either carry on as we are,  ostensibly saving money but really only exacerbating the problems of poverty, disability,  mental health etc. and pushing them further down the line. Or we can choose to try something different. There are different choices for what kind of different, but really that’s dictated largely by where you live – do your research into the most viable alternative where you are.  Choose different, choose a positive outlook that puts longterm human progress above short term policy wins. I won’t tell you who to vote for,  but whoever you choose, please don’t vote Tory.


Human Rights, right?

We all have human rights. We know that. The right to food and water, to a roof over our head, to freedom from violence… it’s a very long list and this blog is not the place to go into them all. We also all know that every single day, human rights are ignored, rejected and actively repressed. And you must be living in some sort of fairyland if you think that doesn’t happen in the UK at the behest of our own government as well as because of individuals.

What continues to shock me on an almost daily basis is quite how oblivious most people are to the extent of these rights, and what they actually mean in practice. I work with a demographic who are doubly, or event triply for the girls, vulnerable to having their rights left unfulfilled. This has been recognised by the UN and on top of the human rights that we all have, they have extra protection through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Excellent stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

And yet if I mention these rights in a meeting, people look at me like I’ve turned up to a conker match armed with a rocket launcher. Everyone gets defensive and suddenly the atmosphere is as if Somebody Mentioned The War. How dare I make the suggestion that rights abuses go on in the sacred halls of this hallowed isle? These children are fed, aren’t they? They’re healthy, aren’t they? They’re hardly the stuff of famine relief adverts from the 90s.

No, they’re not. They go to school, they having loving families, they’re (hopefully) not going to find themselves living in a conflict zone. But that isn’t everything. Human rights are, by the UN’s definition, indivisible. This means that you can’t pick and choose, they come en masse – if you are going to respect rights, you have to respect all of them for everyone. And yet, I go to these meetings and I hear things from people in positions of authority saying ‘but you can understand why we’re not going to consult with children, can’t you?’ and ‘obviously we want this project to be inclusive, but we do have to be cost effective which means we cannot include transport [for disabled children to participate]’

So I pull out the rights card and everyone goes goggle-eyed. ‘I understand you’re on the children’s side, but you have to see it from our perspective too.’ No, I don’t think I do, actually. While they are wonderful kids in their own ways, I’m not really ‘on their side’ as individuals, but rather on the side of their right to… well, rights, I suppose. I can’t help thinking that if all councils and decision-making bodies had a position of Rights Research Officer to flag up when a decision contravened rights, this country would be in a much better position, and this  and this  wouldn’t have happened. Though as one of my colleagues said when I mused on this in the office, their working lives would be made miserable and they would have no friends.

Well that’s fine, because I don’t want to be friends with people who don’t value rights. For now, I’m quite happy to be the stone in the shoe, the thorn in the side, knowing that my small voice has the weight of the UN behind it. I can be fairly safe in the knowledge that I’m one of the good guys, right?

We will only be great when we all think bigger

Today, I marched alongside somewhere close to a million other people in protest, and in celebration. It seems that a lot of people haven’t really understood what the march was about or trying to achieve (although there is an official guide to this), but for me, what made it so great was that it was somewhat undefined and unrestricted. While everyone had their own reasons to march, I think that overall it was a display of our inter-connectedness and our determination to remain open and accepting in a world that is increasingly nationalistic and introspective.

Those who want to ‘get our country back’ or make anywhere ‘great again’ have forgotten that we are an international community. Here in the UK, we have made solemn promises to protect the rights of children, of the disabled, of refugees, and of women through UN Conventions. Ditching the EU will not end these promises – we agreed as a state, not as a bloc. (Though just because we have agreed, doesn’t mean that they are respected *insert link to hundreds of examples*)

So here in the UK, and in many many other countries, these can be what we hold the government accountable to. But what about the US? Our American friends in power have not got round to ratifying these (apparently they can only consider one at a time and they can’t decide whether women are worth it), but even they have signed up to the SDGs.

If you haven’t heard of the Sustainable Development Goals, I’m not particularly surprised. Unless you have a professional or academic interest in international development, they don’t really come up. The fact that 193 countries (including you, US of A) have agreed to achieve 17 key goals by 2030, including:

  • 1: No poverty
  • 4: Inclusive and quality education for all
  • 5: Gender equality
  • 7: Affordable and clean energy
  • 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions

They’re not perfect, but they’re better than previous attempts. They were developed in a more collaborative way than ever before, with voices from the global south overpowering those from the global north who thought things were going just fine (looking at you, David Cameron). This is more than focusing on what’s wrong with ‘poor countries’, this is about everyone playing their part in being better.

Why are we are not talking about these? Trump can argue that the US never fully agreed to protect women’s rights, or those of the disabled, or children, and he’s right. They didn’t. But they did say yes to this.

This is how we look beyond our borders at what is best for the world.

This is how we hold individuals and states alike to account.

This is how we say ‘you promised to…’.

We are already nearly 18 months in and things are getting worse, not better. So choose your goal and get on it. Check what your friends, workplace and local politicians are doing. Get the goals on the map..

Share the logo, share the video, share the energy.

Leave no-one behind.


Get political?

So, I work with kids with disabilities,you probably know that by now, I go on about it quite a bit. It’s brilliant and frustrating and really rather exhausting – I think everyone’s got how I feel about that now. But the thing is, I more or less knew what I was getting into when I took this job. I had worked with a broad enough range of children and young people with disabilities to have a rough idea of what I was letting myself in for.

I’ll tell you what I didn’t expect, though – the impact of class. My project works in Romford, and the young people and children that I work with come from (what I consider to be) pretty disadvantaged backgrounds. As we get to know each other, and they get more confident, I hear about drug dealers on their streets, fear of their neighbours, parents in prison, people being beaten up… these are so outside my comfortable, cushioned little world that they have been a bit of a shock to the system. But they’re kids, and kids are kids regardless of their background, and I do my best to work with them in exactly the same way as I would with anybody else. I’m on high safeguarding alert, of course, but I try to take their every day existence into the stride of the project.

I chat with their parents, and I’ll be honest, it is very unlikely that we would cross paths in any other situation.  I talk a good talk about being accepting and tolerant and everyone’s equal, but to be perfectly honest, I have to try really, really hard not to pull a face at the incessant smoking, or go into keyboard-warrior mode at the Britain First posts that come up on my Facebook page. It’s a work-only page so I can keep my own digital life separate – every fibre of my being wants to dive straight into a debate but professional boundaries… how far do they go, where politics is involved? I can call out hate speech, though there’s been none of that, but what about views that just make me uncomfortable?

These kids want to be change-makers, they want to make their lives and those of their peers better, and we shouldn’t separate that from making improvements in anybody else’s life. I can’t let them believe that there is a hierarchy of ‘differences’ – that they deserve extra support and understanding when others don’t, but this is what they have come with. They have picked up ideas about refugees and the LGTBQ community that I am not comfortable with. Again, it’s not hate speech, but it’s definitely that everyday level of discrimination which allows hateful attitudes to exist and flourish.

And they are worried about the world. They frequently tell me that Trump, homelessness and war are worries to them. What they don’t see is how all of the concerns that they have are interlinked – partially because they haven’t had the level of education to support in-depth critical thinking (they are still children), but also because their disabilities can make this even more difficult for them. It means as a facilitator, I have to sensitively and gently debunk those beliefs and develop their critical thinking, which I know may put them in conflict with their families, friends and neighbours. By the next general election, most of them will be voters, which makes this ever more important.

This is not my job. It’s not what I am doing this job for. In fact, I’m walking the tightrope of what I can get away with in our sessions – there may be some stern words coming my way at my next monitoring meeting. But we’ve seen what happens if people don’t take these opportunities to educate and stimulate discussion, and it’s really not good. I cannot be on the side of the passive acceptors, so I’ll take the risk to get political (lower-case ‘p’), because I can’t guarantee that anybody else is.

Inappropriate Language

Over the last couple of months, as my group members are becoming more confident and increasingly outspoken (they are far more political than I was at any of their ages), I have come up against a couple of instances of inappropriate language. Homophobic, sexist and racist comments – the kind that get classified as ‘casual’, not intended to cause any offence but definitely not on all the same.

This has posed a bit of a dilemma for me. Usually, I would instantly challenge anyone on that – adults and children – but I feel like this is somewhere else that autism sensitivity comes in to play. One of these incidents was where we were discussing what we did in our free time, and one of the guys (I’ll call him ‘T’) referred to one of the activities as being ‘a bit gay’. Another was the instance where one of the guys (‘M’), was talking about ‘the coloured boy’ in his class. I responded to both of these situations, making it clear that the language was inappropriate, but I’m not convinced I dealt with it in enough depth or touched on the underlying issues. To T, I said ‘That’s not a nice way to put it, can you think of a better way of saying why you don’t like it?’, and to M ‘People don’t like being called ‘coloured’, I think he would probably be happier if you said black’. (Not that I want to speak for that young man either, but he wasn’t there to ask.)

Now I know full well that M was just trying to describe one of his classmates so that I knew who he was talking about (I had visited their class a few months previously). Given where M lives, this is very possibly how he hears people from BME communities referred to on a regular basis. Similarly, I can imagine that at T’s college, homework is quite often seen as being ‘a bit gay’.  But I know and you know  that that’s not ok. And I’m sure we’ve all had conversations with people where we’ve tried to explain why it’s not ok, and utterly lost the battle. There are some people who just don’t see the problem. A large part of seeing that problem is understanding what is actually a very complicated socio-political historical and contemporary narrative of oppression and stigmatisation, which some people just don’t have access to in their day to day lives. Those of us who have been through a critical education system or see the blogs, the comics and the debates on these issues in our daily and virtual lives have contact with a conversation that is not being held everywhere.

It’s complicated enough to neuro-typical people, and when you throw learning disabilities, communication difficulties and autism into the mix, it’s not exactly something you can explain in thirty seconds in the middle of a conversation. If your brain is wired in a very rigid way, something that is not at all your fault, changing your understanding takes a great deal of time and careful support. If you lack the ability to critique and the intellectual capacity to understand the theoretical arguments, I can imagine these debates could just seem unintelligible. If you already have issues around social interactions and communication, it is familiar language that will be at the tip of your tongue.  So in those cases, I think I chickened out, and brushed it off while making an attempt to acknowledge it. As with all my posts, any feedback or recommendations for dealing with these issues in the future is very welcome.

More recently, I was told that ‘women are only good at cooking and having babies’. Now, having thought about how I had dealt with the previous two scenarios, I thought I’d take this one a little more seriously. I made my disapproval clear, but not overly so, and asked the young man to think about the famous women he could name who had done important things. I didn’t see him again for the rest of the session, he got rather upset and sat outside the room, unwilling to talk to me.

So, as with so many other things in this sector, I don’t know what the right answer is, to be honest. Tips and hints welcome!

CATS Conference 2016

The CATS Conference has been on my calendar since I started at Child to Child in September, I had no idea what I would be doing in terms of work when the following July came around, but I knew that from 26th July until 1st August, I would be in Switzerland at (arguably) the world’s most progressive children’s rights conference. Children and adults coming together from across the globe to discuss, share, and put into practice child participation in Caux Palace – what’s not to be excited about?

July has now finally been and gone, and I am catching my breath after a hectic week. In fact, by halfway through the conference I was already exhausted, but everyone was feeding off everyone else’s enthusiasm.  Yet again, I consider how lucky I am to have the opportunity to spend time in one of these safe spaces, where we are all looking towards a more positive future.

Each morning, we start in our Community Groups (CG). I had been put in a francophone group, so my language skills were being pushed to the maximum, but there are also groups in English and Spanish. We also have the support of a phenomenal group of interpreters, who do wonderful work with individuals, groups and full cohort meetings.

The CGs are our ‘families’ for the week. We do some of our activities together, and share our workshifts. Workshifts are a core element of the ‘spirit of Caux’, creating an atmosphere of solidarity and collaboration where everyone helps with the household tasks. Children serving dessert, group leaders washing up, CEOs cooking lunch… everyone has their role, regardless of their background or position. I did a couple of 6.30am breakfast shifts, and they genuinely were one of the best parts of the week.

The CGs are also a space for discussion and planning, relating the work we do and stories we hear to our own lives ‘down the mountain’. And there is a great deal to discuss – this year has focused on the SDGs and the role that children have to play in realising these goals. Far from easy, but of enormous importance if we are going to build a just and stable world.

One of the main ways of sharing these thoughts is in the Together Times, where the whole CATS cohort comes together to learn from each other’s experiences, explore, and share. We have looked at developing viable policy proposals to take home, and at how we as individuals can contribute to the global goals. They are not easy topics, and being engaged for a full week on an intellectual level is hard work for all of us. CATS is not something to be entered into without understanding that, but the value of these discussions between adults and children is enormous. UI have been hugely inspired by the Cyprus Children’s Parliament, to give just one example, and will be looking into how their model can be adapted into a disability context around my project.

We spend the afternoons in our workshops, looking in depth at a particular topic that each participant has chosen from an extensive list. I chose ‘Making our Youth and Children’s Organisations more Transparent and Accountable’, led by Bijan Kimiagar and Aysenur Ataman, during which we developed tools to use in our organisations and projects to ensure that children and young people are involved meaningfully in our work. I have put it straight onto my To Do list as part of my M&E process.

But it’s not all work and no play. Discovery times each afternoon give an opportunity to make the most of the glorious surroundings or sports facilities, and the afternoon off features a mass exodus from the palace down to the lake for swimming, picnics and even a spot of kayaking. Each evening there are events to relax and get to know other participants, the highlight of which is the talent show. There a huge range of skills amongst the children and adults here, and they’re not afraid to show it!

All in all, CATS is an experience like no other. It’s not yet perfect, the organising team is still learning from children and adults how to improve, but to my knowledge there is no other event which puts the perspectives of the child and adult participants on the same footing. The invited guests have been utterly inspirational, and it is impossible not to leave Caux full of hope for the future, encouraged by the work of others with the same goals and beliefs.

We interrupt this programme…

…to bring you my perspective on Brexit. This blog wasn’t ever intended really to be personal, it was supposed to be about what is going on in my professional life, but I think when you work in Not for Profit (or indeed any sector that is about people, rather than, say, furniture), the two are inextricably linked. So I make no apologies for letting it encroach on my usual stuff.

I feel sick. With shame, with anger, with fear for our future. Last week, I talked about how inspirational it was to be surrounded by positivity and enthusiasm. According to my Facebook feed, all of those wonderful people are now crushed under the weight that 51.9% of the voting population have thrown down on us. I am now just one person in a very angry crowd, a crowd which will no doubt be resentful of this moment for years to come.

For some people out there, the fact that an explicitly united civilisation is crashing down around us doesn’t seem to bother them. When I eventually found the energy to leave my room yesterday, it genuinely was a surprise that people were just going about their daily business, that we hadn’t descended into some sort of flaming apocalyptic wasteland. It was sunny, ffs! I was raging at all of these people, continuing with life as if it didn’t matter that the vote has been received by the far right across the world as a good omen and a guiding light. As if nobody cared that our already stretched economy has plunged to new depths. As if it wasn’t important  that we had sent out a global message that ‘we are better on our own, thanks’. I have woken up today still seething at what I can’t even legitimately call ‘injustice’ because it was ‘democratic’.

There are people out there who are saying ‘Guys, chill, let’s not all fall out amongst ourselves over this. We can still be friends.’ How? How can I even pretend to share anything in common with people who have voted against everything I stand for? Those who have chosen isolation over unity, self-interest over global solutions, fear over reason. How can I try and see their side of the argument when all around me is plummeting around my ears? The crash in the economy means we now face prolonged austerity, which has been a shitfest already (ta, neoliberalism, you bastard), which will have a huge impact on the arts, the kids I work with, our education system – in short, everything I value. The budget for our international project has now effectively shrunk, because of the weakness of the pound. Local authorities will struggle to provide the services that the vulnerable and disadvantaged need, and we in the Not for Profit sector with struggle even harder to fill that gap. I could lose my job. Again.

Last weekend we talked about reconciliation, about being able to come together despite differences. But it’s a bloody long process, and one which I didn’t anticipate needing to put into practice this soon. I don’t know how long it will take for the anger to subside, and to be honest, I am not going to be ready to let it go for some time. Ordinarily, this anger that I feel against injustice is tempered by hope for the future, which results in optimism (thanks, Tony Benn). But now we have encouraged the far right across Europe and the USA, and the country is divided. I don’t want to be a harbinger of doom, but political polarisation does so often lead to war. I suppose all we can do is fight to ensure that it is one fought on political turf, and not the fields of France.