Updated: Sep 20
A while ago we got invited last minute to an event by Big Change, a group we got connected to through our funders. The event was a filmed ‘Big Education Conversation’ with George the Poet and Holly Branson. We said yes without giving it much thought because we didn’t read the email properly :p we went along to the day to see what was going down. We had some cool conversations but refused to be in the video. Everyone at Big Change wanted to engage in conversation and listened to our concerns about being in the video although they were keen on persuading us. We said we would talk to the team and work out a plan.
Many things were important in our decision to not take part- from youth co-option to the impossibility of radical change within capitalism and the evils of wealth inequality- you can read some of our thoughts on these in the email copied below!
If we're being fancy we'd say we didn't wanna work with them because we want to challenge the NGO industrial complex (good explainer of this here) - because in the words of Ella Baker:
“I’m very much afraid of this ‘Foundation Complex.’ We’re getting praise from places that worry me.”
If we're being dramatic we'd say we didn't want to work with them because we refuse to be complicit in out our dehumanisation.
If we're being angry we'd say we didn't wanna work with them because fuck Virgin and big business.
We wanted to explain why we refused- because these conversations are really important, because we need to actively challenge these issues and because all the people we met were really willing to engage in conversation and that's really cool and important opportunity to maybe shift some people's views.
What follows is our email conversation with them over the last few months.
“Hi Caireen and the others at Big Change,
Was great to meet you all yesterday. We appreciate the time that was put into organising the day :0) Thought we should catch you up on our feelings about the video as promised.
Radical Restart met as a team yesterday to discuss the video and our thoughts on consent for it- and unanimously came to the decision to say no to being in the video. But we wanted to explain more clearly why to you all, because we recognise that this makes your lives more tricky, because we feel like it's important to any Big Education Conversation, and because we want to continue to talk across these differences of opinion rather than just pull out and disappear. We hope you take the time to read this and that it
provides some insight into our feelings. Feel free to forward to anyone in the team/from the
day who would like to read :0)
We don’t feel comfortable being in this video because we feel the way Big Change approaches change doesn’t align with what we are trying to put out into the world. For sure we all have some similar ideas, and should keep talking- but the way you guys are comfortable with big business for example is too much of a difference in ideology for us to want to appear in a promotion video for the BEC campaign. We come to the conversations about school from the starting point that we live in a violent system that is heading in a suicidal direction- thinking about global inequality, patriarchy, racism etc , and the climate crisis as a huge deadline which is going to massively exacerbate all inequality and violence. We talk about schooling because we see it as a key cog in the machine that allows things to continue as they are/ reduces the chance of change - stopping young people from challenging how things are and working together with their communities to bring the transformative changes that we so desperately need. So in conversations about school we are wanting to bring this understanding - the need for radical and urgent action.
From this position you can see why it feels a bit hypocritical to be in a promotion video for a campaign launched by an organisation that affiliates so closely with the Virgin conglomerate. Just since the pandemic, Richard Branson has been accused of multiple outrageous practises and abuses of power. For example, in March 2020, thousands of Virgin Atlantic staff were told to take 8 weeks unpaid leave, while the multibillionaire demanded a £8.5 billion bailout from the government, saving on losses to his personal shares. Virgin money giving was also accused of taking a cut of donations to the NHS made during the 5 for 5k challenge, while Virgin Healthcare was labelled ‘parasitic’, accused of fragmenting the NHS for private profit. Living on his private island, Branson has paid no personal income tax for 14 years, despite being the 312th richest person in the world, and continues to sue small businesses and charities, including a non-profit, volunteer run education charity Las Virgines, for use of the name ‘virgin’. We feel that any organisation which claims to stand for positive societal change, but fails to see the systemic underpinnings of global injustices upheld by families such as the Bransons are not only disingenuous, but part of the problem. This isn't to say we don't want to be in conversation with y’all, just that we don't want to actively support pieces of work that seem to ignore something that we see as so fundamental to how the world needs to change. It's important to note that this isn't just a theoretical conversation - people around the world are dying and many more continue to do so every day that we don't hold those at the top to account, and come together to challenge these oppressive systems.
We hear the frustration you guys must be feeling, as we agreed to the event but then pulled out- but we feel that the real conversations we had yesterday were valuable. The success of the day should not be judged in capitalistic terms, valuing ‘productivity’ of the time and the output of video content, but rather exchange of ideas and human connection. Our overriding concern is the hours of conversation that happen amongst people with good intentions that never lead to actual change because the biggest questions aren’t asked of each other, and people don’t want to get uncomfortable. I realise that we didn’t say all of this on the day- but it is hard when you are invited to an event you don’t understand at the start, to then show up and derail the good conversations they are trying to have, especially because none of this is about attacking individual people.
If you are wondering why we came along to the session when we knew that for example Holly was going to be there, and that we’re skeptical of the ways Big Change is working, then the answer is that we were just a bit unorganised and confused. I (meg) saw the email asking us urgently whether we could come to an event to have a BEC with George and some young people and Holly (who’s name I didn’t immediately connect with who she is). I said yes without thinking too much because it was urgent and sounded cool, and then was extremely busy over the next 3 days and the only headspace I had for it was to confirm who was coming because you guys needed to know! We sat down on Sunday evening as a team to discuss how we wanted to approach the day and decided we wanted to come along to meet other young activists, and have co-creative discussions though we were hesitant on consenting to the promotional video because we didn't really know what our voices would be edited into saying, the purpose of the film or the format of the event. Rather than cancel last minute we thought we should show up and have a chat. It might have been considerate to share our concerns with you before the day but also we felt that we had some important things we wanted to say, and if you guys really want BECs then you would want our thoughts! But we realised through the day that this wasn't really what the event was about and that we felt really uncomfortable with how things stood- and you know the rest! So, apologies for our lack of clarity, but also we think this was a pretty human response of us and that us being unorganised isn't the biggest conversation to be having- arguably it is a lot more annoying that Virgin owns an airline (when the U.N. climate report and subsequent reports have warned us that global carbon pollution must be cut in half in the next 10 years for us to avoid catastrophic, irreversible damage to our planet, and the International Organisation on Migration estimates that up to 200 million people could be displaced by climate change by 2050) than that we all spent a morning discussing whether or not me and Joe wanted to be in this video! Not trying to say that we shouldn’t have made different choices, but that to us it doesn't feel like the greatest issue in the situation.
A last point we wanted to make is about the idea of consent and youth co-option. We’ve been talking about consent a lot recently in our work and how it is a radical concept outside of just sexual relationships. In school for example, the idea that consent could be used for young people having more autonomy over their learning. We don’t see consent as a laying out of specific options and asking for a yes/no answer- we see consent as an active negotiation, on equal terms, fully informed and free of pressures or threat of consequence. We understand the fact you guys were all busy and rushing for the event to happen- but it would have been much cooler for us to have been involved in conversations around the consent forms and to be fully informed around the situation rather than handed a page of writing and asked to sign! It feels like it was just a formality so you guys could use us for your video, rather than an opportunity to dialogue about what we all needed and wanted from the event- if me and Joe hadn’t kicked up a bit of a fuss you would have just gotten us to sign and in our books that isn’t really consent. This comes as part of a bigger conversation around coercion where young people are included in events for their voices and ideas without being on equal footing as the other adult attendees- for example not being paid or included in decision making. Final point- I wonder how many times George or Holly got congratulated on being articulate after the conversation- I know we heard it from almost every adult in the room.
I hope this made sense or resonated with some of you, and if you have any questions, comments or thoughts please get back to us- an invitation to get a bit uncomfortable and challenge all our ideas :0) We didn’t intend to be annoying, and actually it feels really important for us to address this situation- how can you be talking about young people’s futures if you work alongside massive polluting corporations that are driving us towards global collapse? I think that’s what we feel the need to say for now!
Thanks, and here’s to some big change,
Meg, Joe and the RR team”
They got back to us thanking us for the email, and after a few weeks this is how they replied🙌 I've copied in the whole email as they gave consent for us to share whatever we wanted from our chats, and because I don't want to paraphrase their reply.
"Dear Meg and Co.
Thanks for your prompt this morning. I was literally in the process of writing this reply!
Since receiving your email we have also taken time to reflect as a team. There's some specific action we will be taking. In particular, we are iterating our process for consent to ensure that there is sufficient time and space to ask questions, discuss and clarify things. It mustn't feel like a tick box exercise. We need to get better at factoring a proper conversation into timelines for events and projects, especially where our relationship and mutual understanding of our work and priorities aren't already well established.
I take personal responsibility for not making the time for that in this case and will not make the same mistake again. I apologise if you felt under any pressure at all to take part, either on a personal level or as a team. That was never my intention but I know that it may not have felt that way to you.
As an organisation and team we're pretty good at reflecting and learning from others. We think a lot about our way of being and acting in the world. We've chosen to play a bridging role to catalyse change which means consciously working across and between stakeholder groups - including employers, parents, young people, and the wider education sector. We're going to think about how to communicate this and also how we develop new and existing relationships, especially as we broaden our work to include more and more people in the conversation and in taking action to transform education. We totally respect approaches and ways of working that are different from our own and will stay open to challenge.
The aim of the day was to host a filmed conversation with people who care about big change in education - surfacing different perspectives, issues and opportunities - with the intention that the content would be used as an invitation to encourage more people across the country to have this conversation. Working with George and Holly, who both care deeply about this agenda, provides an opportunity to engage with wider audiences than we as an organisation or any of the individuals involved could manage. And as a charity we just don't have big pots of resource to spend on comms. It would have been really tricky for us if we hadn't managed to achieve the creation of the final content as we had already committed charity funds and time towards organising it, but fortunately we have some great videos to share and the conversation itself was, as we had hoped, a really interesting exchange of perspectives for everyone involved. An endorsement in itself of the need for big education conversations to happen! On a personal level, I want to thank both you and Joe for what you contributed. Your perspectives and your take on the key issues, especially on the problematic ways that school shapes people and society, were refreshing and new to me. I honestly hadn't heard these ideas expressed so clearly and persuasively before - from anyone of any age - and have thought and talked a lot about it since. I've also reflected a lot on your challenge about reclaiming space and youth needing to lead and facilitate dialogue, inviting the adults, and shifting the power dynamic. I'd love to talk more about the ways in which you think this should happen and how it could be enabled. Obviously, I'm still disappointed that we can't share your content as an invitation to encourage more people to have brave and challenging conversations. But I get it and am appreciative of you giving your time on the day and in follow up. In that spirit, would you consider us utilising your contributions to the conversations in the following ways?:
I'd love to share the audio recording of the conversation with Jo Wells from the Blagrave Trust. She connected us to you in the first place and I know she would find it really interesting.
Could we please use anonymised quotes as insights to inform the next phase of our work?
All the best
Caireen and the Big Change team"
I replied with:
*Apologies because I thought I sent this a few weeks ago and just saw it in my drafts! *
Thanks for your email, and apologies for the really slow reply, it's been a chaotic few weeks with 3 of us getting covid and lots of people moving house! We read your email and were all appreciative of and inspired by your genuine reply. Thought I'd get back to you with some thoughts and responses :0) It's really cool to hear that you guys are looking at your consent processes. That thing about space and time for discussion is crucial. We would be happy to support/look over where you guys get to. To share some more of our thoughts around it, I think this is a change that has to come alongside an understanding of the power dynamics that we have in our society around age. Young people have been consistently patronised and dehumanised - and massively internalised the idea that we don't have as much to bring to the table as adults. It is super important to actively challenge all ideas that adults know what is good for young people than they know themselves, or that young people shouldn't make choices for themselves. We feel that school is a big culprit in this and so it all is very linked! To challenge the education system we have to also challenge the problematic societal narratives it perpetuates- and what better way to do that than by doing it ourselves- as Paulo Freire (Brasilian educator and liberation theologist) and Myles Horton (American Educator, co-founder of Highlander Folk School) wrote "we make the road by walking". And in terms of your position on working across stakeholder groups, thanks for taking the time to explain. We definitely see the importance of that role. I think the key thing for us is that big business is so actively an enemy of young people- it doesn't feel possible for us to be talking about our futures without challenging people who own airlines given that it won't matter that much what our exam system looks like in 30 years if we are facing irreversible effects of climate change. We 100% agree that it's important to have conversations across differences of opinion, and it feels key to us to talk about that difference and not avoid tricky conversations/conflict, because that's where learning really happens- hence all this emailing and wanting to engage with you guys and Holly on the day! It's cool to hear that the things we were saying made sense and landed with you :0) It's interesting that you felt the need to say that you hadn't heard this stuff put so clearly/persuasively by 'anyone of any age' - just because it includes a tone of surprise - but anyway! We are very happy for you to share the audio with Jo, and to use quotes to inform future work. In terms of moving forwards, we would be down to talk more about the things you mentioned, though our capacity is not that high! One thing we are developing is a set of workshops for adults on deschooling, looking at how school shapes us and how we can unlearn the things that get in the way of us working for change. It would be very cool to see some Big Change people there as a place for some co-learning and conversations, and we can send you an email about when it's launched if anyone would be interested :0) Wanted to thank you again for the sincerity, humility and consideration in your reply- it's really cool, Meg and the RR team "
We then got this reply:
"Hey Meg and team
Will we ever get to a point when we are not apologising for the delay in sending email responses?! Not sure I will. Covid definitely a contributing factor for all of us and just recovering from it myself so I feel for you and the RR Team. Not nice at all. I hope you're all fully recovered.
I really want us to continue the dialogue we've started, and let's commit to that not being just by email. I would love to take part in one of the sessions on deschooling and could definitely bring others to that (from Big Change and beyond) if that would help you. It would be a very good learning opportunity for me on what the youth created and led spaces for dialogue you've described need to look like and what it feels like to be a participant in that.
I very much like how attuned you are to language and phrasing and what might lie behind it. You picked up on me saying "from anyone of any age" which was a genuine effort on my part to communicate the significance of hearing new things when you've been part of dialogues about education change for as long as I have. It wasn't supposed to be about surprise, but I can see how it came across that way. The reality is that however open-minded I am or how committed I am to youth leadership and agency, I am also a 44-year-old woman and mum of two teenage sons who hardly want to look at me, let alone engage in healthy debate. So I guess that all plays in too to how I engage with other young people :)
Thanks for agreeing to share the recording with Joe and to use some quotes. As and when we get to that I will send them to you to check how you want to be attributed and let you know how we plan to use them.
I had noticed that you'd shared your original email with me as part of a blog. Were you thinking of sharing more of our dialogue to give the full context?
Since this we've exchanged a few more emails, talking about the main tension between our groups- theory of change and the possibility of dialogue. In RR we don't feel able to ignore the fact that Big Change works alongside the Virgin brand, so we suggested having a dialogue around this. Talking across difference is importance and we'd have lots to learn from building a relationship with Big Change. They have shown up to these conversations with sincerity and openess. At the moment we are working out our capacity for this. For us the question is this: do we spend out time and energy working to dialogue with Big Change, or is this energy better spent elsewhere? This is a broader question for 'radical' groups to work out in relation to big NGOs and liberal organisers. Do we build relationships and challenge their ways of working, understanding that these groups often have good intentions and hold a level of social power? Or is it a slow process of co-option and watering down of our energy that ultimately upholds the system as it is? Arundhati Roy wrote it best: https://www.pambazuka.org/governance/ngo-ization-resistance