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Farewell diversity group

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 17 Nov 2016, 09:26

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve been caught up in the middle of something called the group tuition policy. August and September of this year proved to be my busiest ever at the university. I have, however, found the time to write a short article for the associate lecturer magazine called Snowball (I’ll publish a version of it when it has been released). This post isn't about the trials and tribulations of the group tuition policy, but I'm sure I'll be writing about that another time.

Not long after joining The Open University in London I joined something called an ‘equal opportunities and diversity’ group. I soon learnt that the group was a throwback to an old university wide project that aimed to increase institutional awareness about equality and diversity issues. When the original project came to an end, the London group decided to continue for the simple reason: equality and diversity was considered to be an important issue in our capital city.

There was another reason why I joined: I started to self-identify with people who have disabilities (I have a stutter). Even though I’m a middle class hetrosexual white man, I started to realise that it was important to get involved. Firstly, I realised that my perspective might be one that may be of interest. I then formed the opinion that it was important to build and find allegiances with others. There was another perspective, and this was: the E&O group pretty fun group to be involved with.

This blog is, in some ways, a farewell to the group. The group is disbanding since the university has decided, in its infinite wisdom, to close the London office.  I leave the Camden office with a whole bunch of good memories.

Diversity events

Although the E&O group in London didn’t have any official powers within the university, it was charged with doing two things: representing the views of staff and students through the links that the staff have with different parts of the university, and running a ‘diversity’ event every year.

For those who prefer The Daily Mail over The Guardian, this kind of initiative might seem something of an anathema. The ideals are simple: the university has a responsibility to offer education to anyone who walks through its virtual doors. To educate as effectively as possible, we need to know about some of its students. To educate effectively, we need to become educated ourselves. The help Open University students to succeed, we need to have open minds regarding the perspectives of others.

The first event that I was involved with in 2011 was about travel. It was about sharing thoughts and impressions about places that everyone in the London office had come from, or had a connection with, or had visited. A map was put up in the café area and we were encouraged to deface it positively with string, pins, pen and photographs. Our stories and journeys criss-crossed the globe; almost every continent was touched.

The following year saw an event that was about winter celebrations and memories. We shared photographs and had a competition. The event for 2013 had a slightly different tone: it had the title ‘creative aging’; a topic that was thoroughly embraced. One reason is that our students can be of any age (and, of course, we’re all getting that little bit older).

The 2014 event had the title: ‘Open Minds: Mental Health and Diversity Matters’. This event had two different forms: a participative display that was placed in the café area, where we could share experiences and knowledge about mental health issues, and a lecture about staying mentally healthy. The lecture was given by our university mental health advisor. The message was simple: ‘we’re encouraged to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day to help with our physical health, so why are we not thinking about things in a similar way about our mental health?’ It’s a compelling point. When we’re so focussed on doing things and dealing with day to day challenges, we can forget to take time out. During the lecture, we were told about an idea called MindApples, which is a London based charity.

Although I enjoyed all these events, the next one was, perhaps, one of my favourites. The 2015 event was entitled: Jokes, Language and Diversity. Humour is a really interesting topic. A good joke or a humorous story can unsettle us and challenge our prejudices (and make us laugh, of course). Humour can, of course, allow us to explore taboos and understand different perspectives. During the event, a series of different performers talked about issues relating to sexuality, race, disability and language.

The final event had the title: Equality and Diversity: Past, Present and Future. This event was centred on another participative display. As well as being a retrospective of all earlier events it also touched upon the subject of utopia: what it meant to different writers and what it meant to the different people who worked in the London regional centre. In some ways, this subject represented another perspective: diversity of thought and diversity of opinion.

The wider perspective

Even though our London diversity group unofficially dissolves at the beginning of 2017, the university has a number of informal staff networks for ‘diverse’ members of staff: there is a disabled staff network, a BME network, a LGBT network, and a women’s network. I was a co-chair of the Open University disabled staff network for a while until I got mad with the ‘network’ scheme and threw all my toys out of the pram.

The reason for my departure from this set of networks was pretty simple: I didn’t feel that the groups were talking to each other, and I felt that the senior management were not taking issues of equality and diversity very seriously. There was another difference: the London diversity group was just that: diverse; it wasn’t a silo: we could talk about anything, and we could challenge each other.

Another reason for leaving the network was down to time: I felt that I could use my time more efficiently by being outside a ‘network’ than within it. Here’s an example: I’ve been lobbying for the university to provide an equality analysis in response to its ongoing restructuring programme (which is a polite way of saying ‘redundancies’ and ‘closures’). This said, I’m not saying that a ‘network’ isn’t useful or important; they may well be very useful in terms of giving voice to some members of staff. My point is: an institutional diversity programme should go further than just having a small number of homogeneous groups.

We learnt some good things in our London group, did some good stuff, and we had some good times. I'm sad that the group is disbanding and the London office is closing (which is something that still baffles me). The success of this group reflects what is really important in the university: its people.

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Mental health awareness day: London regional centre

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 28 Feb 2019, 12:08

Every year the London region equality and diversity group runs an event.  Over the last two years we’ve run an event about ‘place, location and travel’, and have held an event about creative aging.  This year, the group ran an event on 13 November 2014 about mental health and well-being.  The day was split into two parts.

Part 1 : Participative display

A couple of months before the event we erected two display boards in the university café area.  These boards were to form what we called a ‘participative display’.  Each board had a slightly different purpose.  One board was all about sharing stories, experiences and acknowledging the contributions that people who have mental health issues have made to society.  The second display board was all about ‘resilience’; things that we can all do to ensure that we maintain good mental health.  The rear of this first board was also used to share more factual information about mental health issues.  We put up papers and articles.  I remember there was one article from Science magazine about the prevalence of depression.

When the boards had been put up, the group sent an email around the office telling everyone what the boards were all about, and how everyone might contribute.  To get the whole display, a couple of group members ‘seeded’ the display by adding some broad headings, some thoughts and some initial ideas.

The email messages and the ‘seeding’ did the trick.  As the months passed, different contributions were made.  The contributions included information about writers, academics and performers.  Other contributions had a slightly more personal tone; these were stories of people who had been touched, in some way or another, by mental illness.  The board became a catalyst for sharing.

Part 2 : Mental health and wellbeing

On the day of the event, we had asked a university colleague, Emma Greenstein, to come and speak to us.  Emma works for the university disability advisory service as the university mental health adviser.  Her job is to work with staff to help to offer support for students who have mental health difficulties.  I’ve had to chat to Emma a number of times and she has helped me out on a number of occasions.

Emma intended that her talk was to be interactive.  A part of her talk was to bust some myths, introduce us to some facts and terminology.  Emma introduced us to a model called ‘the mental health continuum’.  This was a simple model that had two axes: one axis that goes from 'diagnosis of mental illness' through to 'no diagnosed mental illness' (I should also mention that the model is about rating the severity of a mental illness).  The other axis goes from 'flourishing mental well being' through to 'poor mental well-being'.  (I have read that this model comes from a paper from Tudor entitled, ‘Mental Health Promotion’).  Here's a diagram that is pretty similar to the one that Emma used on the day:

Mental health model diagram

The model enables us to think beyond diagnostic labels, which can easily over simplify things.  A really interesting point that was raised was that we can all experience mental health difficulties.  The term ‘difficulties’ can mean feeling worries or anxiety, through to the experience of feelings of grief or loss.

Another interesting point that was made (and also emphasised) was the differences between people.  Emma said: ‘If you’ve supported one student with schizophrenia, you’ve supported one student with schizophrenia’.  It was a phrase that I’ve heard before, but in relation with students who experience different conditions.  Its use in this context emphasised the importance and need to treat and consider everyone as individuals.

During the session we were shown a short video:  I had a black dog, his name was depression (YouTube).  The video comes from a book that one of my favourite friends had once shown to me.  It’s a book that one of my colleagues had also brought along to the session.

We returned to the mental health continuum where we were asked two questions: ‘where are you now?’ and ‘where have you used to be?’  It didn’t take me too long to identify two points in two different places.  There was an important point here: that we can move between different points on the continuum.

On the subject of change, we were introduced a series of three short films that were made as a part of the recent Time to change campaign (campaign website).  The first film has the title speaking up (YouTube).  There are two other clips: you can recover (YouTube), and stronger, better, person (YouTube).  These videos are pretty short and pretty watchable too.

If we can place ourselves on a continuum, then a related question is: what can we do to promote our own resilience?  We were directed to a site called Mind Apples (mindapples.org) which I understand was created by a web developer.  The idea is really simple: there’s a lot of talk about the importance of eating five fruit and vegetables per day.  (I do struggle to do this, mostly due to the overabundance of cake that there seems to be at the OU office in London, but I’m not complaining!)  If we consider doing five good things for the body, why shouldn’t we consider doing five good things for our mind?  The idea is: what five things make you happy? Or what five things should you be doing that could make a positive difference to your mental well-being?  The website phrases it in a better way by asking: ‘what do you do regularly to take care of your mind?

A point I noted was that our actions and choices are important.

Final thoughts

At the end of Emma’s session, something really interesting happened: colleagues who had made contributions to our participative display were asked whether they wanted to say something about what they had added.  This gave way to a series of amazing impromptu talks about a range of different issues, worries, concerns and experiences.  Everyone took the time to listen. In that space and situation, what was said was both important and interesting. In an atmosphere of respect and mutual support, we began to talk about mental health, mental well-being and resilience.  Suddenly, these subjects didn’t seem so hard.

After the talks, we all broke off for some lunch. The equality and diversity group had made a special trip to the supermarket to buy some bread, cheese, salad, some juices and other goodies to accompany awesome home-cooked food that some of our colleagues had prepared. There seemed to be a consensus amongst those of us who helped to run the event: this had been the best, most challenging, and most useful event that we had run. Our participative display worked.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Emma Greenstein who commented on an earlier version of this post, and all my colleagues who worked on the event and made amazing contributions.

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