The other day I was speaking to my mentor about my personal goals. Immediately I began to speak about the goals I have for the programme I am delivering. Once she pointed this out I realised that in the intensity and excitement of setting Vital Spark up, I had lost sight of what I want for myself and my career.
This is something I have always struggled with. I have always been determined to do well in whatever I’m doing… whether that was school exams, university studies or my career. This thinking has served me well but where my focus will so often be on the immediate future; passing that exam or finishing that project, I suppose I’m less comfortable having to consider what I want for myself longer term.
After a little while of thinking, I was able to give one ‘ideal’ to my mentor. I told her that one day I’d like to be invited to speak at key sector events about the work I do and the views I have around representation and equal opportunity.
For me there is some sense of achievement in making it to these platforms but at the same time as having this as an ambition, I also explained that it scares the life out of me. That I don’t think I’d be anywhere near ready now or in the near future and that I don’t see what I’d be adding to the conversation. So before I’d even allowed myself to dream it I was holding myself back.
We all have our moments of imposter syndrome or things that scare us but for me this seemed to run deeper. It wasn’t that I was too afraid of it, something about the picture in my head felt uncomfortable. Me sat alongside people high up within the sector, talking about issues that centred around areas of representation and equality.
She probed deeper. What were my REAL concerns about being in that picture… a few things came to mind:
- Fear of saying the wrong thing
- Fear of not being able to articulate my thoughts and opinions clearly
- Being asked a question that I don’t understand or have an answer for
All of this came down to my voice and the way I am able to use it. Finally we were getting somewhere but what were the causes of these concerns?
Since stepping in to the ‘professional’ arts sector a few years ago, I’ve felt an unease about me when speaking to people at conferences or large events. This unease is a mixture of feeling outside of the ‘cliques’ (which are actually just people who know each other and have years of history together so no doubt use these events as a chance to catch up, just as I would!) and feeling like the people talking are often speaking a different language; one that’s steeped in long complex words and acronyms that I spend the whole day jotting down so that I can Google them on the train home.
Yet there are times when I feel a need to mirror this same language in the best way I can. On the one hand I recognise that this is a survival mechanism (if they speak like that maybe I have to so that we can communicate) and on the other it frustrates me that I don’t have the confidence to be 100% myself regardless of how that may come across to others.
So this is where the big question comes in… what is my true voice?
To understand this I have to take it back a few paces…
I was born in to a family with a Mum from a town in Surrey, a Dad who was born in Jamaica and moved to London in his early teens, and four siblings; the eldest two who lived in London with their Mum and the younger two who lived with me and our Mum in Sussex.
In our household language and the way we spoke always seemed to be important. Dad, who undoubtedly would have come to this country with a thick Jamaican accent but now spoke very eloquently, would correct any slip up of English grammar particularly focusing on the t’s we would drop in “wa’er” and “la’er” and so on. Meanwhile Mum had an undeniable ‘phone voice’… she could be f’ing and blinding one minute, the phone would ring, and she sounded like she’d stepped straight out of Oxford University.
Then the last eight years of my life have been spent living in the Midlands. Now in Nottingham with a boyfriend who’s accent sits somewhere between Nottingham and Yorkshire. Undoubtedly ‘red hot’, ’y’alright or what’ and ‘in’t it’ have now become a part of my ever mixed up vocabulary.
So does my chameleon like relationship with language and my voice stem from there?
When I’m speaking with people from the sector who use ‘arts speak’ I might feel intelligent and part of the ‘sector’ for a moment but I can easily find myself in deep water when I fall out of context or run out the right words. At the same time I feel a fraud. I worry that people will think I’m something I’m not. That I was privately educated or come from a wealthy family, when none of that is the truth.
When I’m with my friends and people from outside the sector or in community arts settings I’m usually much more comfortable. I’m around people who I don’t feel would care if I don’t have the right words or don’t understanding something.
The truth is, my voice is as mixed as the colour of my skin! It’s a mixture of my upbringing, my family, my friends, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve worked alongside and the people I’ve lived with. I can’t think of a great reference for my voice, no TV show or film that epitomises me because it’s so tailored to my personal experience.
Once I realised this I was able to celebrate the nuance that is my voice rather than worry who I sound like, or more accurately, what other people think I sound like. My strengths are in my mixed up experiences. My mixed up experiences are what make me me whether I’m working in a community setting or on a panel discussing the ‘big subjects’ with a group of fellow arts professionals.
So why is there such a disparity between the two worlds and what if you don’t fit neatly in to one or another? I know that whilst I wasn’t born in to riches, I am privileged to have had an education and grown up in an area where there really wasn’t much to contend with as a teen other than learning the latest Destiny’s Child dance routine. So whilst I can’t speak like I swallowed a thesaurus I recognise that at times, by trying to emulate that, I too may be alienating others and leaving feeling on the outside somehow.
All of this makes me question what my life and career might look like if I didn’t even feel I could even join in the ‘arts speak’ (comfortable or not). Would I have stopped at the first encounter and decided it wasn’t the world for me? Would I have felt lesser than those around me who articulated themselves better and understood every reference in ‘high culture’? I wonder whether this is one of the reasons that the workforce in the sector continues to lack in diversity and neuro-diversity.
By considering how we use language, the words we choose and the acronyms we use, we can reveal the assumptions we are making. What we assume someone will and won’t already know. What we assume someone can and cannot understand. Then we can start to break those back down and invite others in to the room to get a better understanding of what common language looks like if the room isn’t full of people sharing similar life experiences.
Featured image: Street Art in Digbeth, Birmingham