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Across the pages and between the worlds

As part of this year’s Engage 2014 conference in Bristol, there are a number of different streams of delivery style. The theme is Captivating places; Captivating ideas; Captivating people: Unlocking the potential of curiosity-driven engagement and the the conference will offer seminars, workshops and storytelling sessions.

I am delighted to have been invited to do a storytelling session, and I’ve created a piece specially for the conference, which I hope delegates will enjoy!

Storytelling is a fascinating tool for exploring themes and ideas and has been used for generations as a means of opening up issues to explore their depths. Stories shape our perspectives and our understanding of the world around us – from creation myths through to the Brothers Grimm, up to modern storytellers such as writer/director Joss Whedon and author Suzanne Collins. Stories use allegory and metaphor to raise issues which are sensitive, challenging or emotive and allow us to explore these issues more objectively. They also allow us to ‘play’ with the elements of the issue or subject being explored: what if the hero didn’t rescue the princess? What if there wasn’t a wicked witch and the victim was just being foolish? What if we changed this aspect or that character? How would the story be different then? Stories enable us to explore themes and ideas more openly, without putting ourselves or others on the defensive, which can so often be a hindrance to creative problem solving.

A pop-up book showing various pages

A pop-up book showing various pages

As a child I used to love pop-up books. Not just the story itself, but the actual artefact: the intricate and complex paper engineering that went into creating the book in the first place. As I raised the page the picture seemed to come to life, the characters interacting with each other on the page. And as I closed it, they seemed somehow duller and smaller as they folded away to make room for the next page.

It occurred to me recently that as a practitioner working with the university and with the community, I am someone who travels across the pages and between the worlds. In a pop-up book you might find the Fairy Tale Kingdom on one page and the Deep Dark Wood on the other. They are two separate pages and two distinct worlds. But community partners travel across these pages and between these worlds: they try to speak the languages and navigate the cultures of both these very different places, even though this can be challenging and at times baffling and frustrating. Saying that, it can also be immensely rewarding and worthwhile. The challenge of breaking down barriers of perception and culture, whilst also valuing each different context in which people live and work is a tricky one, but the benefits to both worlds can be substantial. Storytelling is one way of helping retain the identity of the different groups involved in community engagement, whilst also creating a space where contentious issues can be explored more sensitively and thoughtfully.

Incidentally, I’m not saying whether I think the University id the Fairy Tale Kingdom or the Deep Dark Wood – I’ll let you decide for yourself!



Keeping a distance…

On the whole I tend to use this website to talk about projects I’m involved in, but occasionally I will stray ‘off topic’ and write an article about something I feel passionate or excited about. This post doesn’t really fit the ‘excited’ or ‘passionate’ categories, but I do believe it is important.

As I write, the media is in a swirling frenzy (when are they not, you might ask?) about the actions of Isis: Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In recent weeks Isis has made bold and sweeping moves to take over sections of war-torn and embattled Syria and Iraq, with the ambition to set up a ‘caliphate’ or Islamic State. (Islamic states, or those subject to Shari’a law already exist in certain areas of Nigeria, Indonesia and most Arabic countries but the media seems to portray this as a ‘new’ thing). Their move for territory and to establish themselves has been swift and terrifying: systematically targeting non-muslims and threatening them to convert to Islam, pay extra tax if they choose to stay in the area or simply to flee. Many have chosen the latter, including Muslims themselves. Some of Isis methods have been designed to shock and intimidate, including recording the beheading of foreign nationals.

It’s very easy to see what Isis are doing: to watch clips on the TV and to start to believe that every Muslim is capable of such wanton violence. The news outlets and newspaper corporations want nothing more than to sensationalise and horrify in their effort to drive up sales and viewer figures. I don’t believe there is an ‘impartial’ view in the media these days, which makes it very hard to form any kind of objective view.

Some years ago I used to work for a human rights organisation called Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). They campaigned on behalf of those persecuted for their faith, both Christians and those from other religions. The ‘other religions’ part is important, but I’ll come back to that later. What I learnt is that a lot of things happen ‘in the name of religion’, that don’t always reflect the heart of that belief system. I also learnt that religious persecution is not the sole territory of some sections of the Islamic faith; many different people from different faith groups have been targeted by people of other faith groups over the years and in different parts of the world. In the end, its more often to do with power and control, than it is to do with faith and belief.

And so we watch from a distance as the news shows us carefully selected clips on repeat, designed to reinforce (but not explicitly state, because that would inciteful and against the law) the view that ‘these terrorists’, ‘these foreigners’ are coming into our country, imposing their laws and views on us and threatening our way of life. And it doesn’t matter if someone from the British Muslim Council is trotted out to make a reassuring statement to the contrary – the sheer volume of negative press would drown out the sanest voice.

And then I start to see an increasing frequency of news stories and links in my Facebook feed from people I know and trust, who seem to be saying that the only option from here is to get aggressive; to defend our homeland and our way of life from the ‘infidel’ and the ‘invader.’ I read that these people are going ‘teach my kids to hate all muslims’ and that they’re going to ‘take my kids out of school if they try and teach them any of that muslim crap’. The fact that most of the world religions have been taught in schools since the 1980s doesn’t seem to register here: its the fear. The fear of being threatened, the fear of violence, the fear of retribution from a group of people who hate us simply because we’re different to them.

But here’s the thing: if we teach our kids to ‘hate all muslims’ how is that any different from what we believe they’re doing to us? If we teach our children to hate people who are different to us, are we not doing exactly what we accuse extremists of doing? Children aren’t born hating. Adults teach them how to do that. And history reminds us time and time again that hatred simply fuels more hatred. It’s a simple and horrible truth that with the right persuasion, it’s not too hard to move from fear to anger, from anger to hatred and then ultimately to violence (and no, I’m not quoting Star Wars here). Fear changes us. Hatred changes us. Violence changes us. And the further you go along that line, the harder it is to come back.

It’s easy to hate from a distance. To generalise, assume and make those unknown, distant, stereotyped people into a cartoon ogre which we can mock and deride and launch our vitriol at from a safe distance. But to do so to someone’s face requires something different altogether. It requires conviction and that conviction is often fuelled by fear and anger and belief that what you’re doing is somehow ‘different’ from the actions taken by the person or people that you’ve decided to target.

Last night I was watching an episode of Bones – its a show where a forensic anthropologist and an FBI agent build a team to help solve murder cases. The episode I watched last night was called ‘The Patriot in Purgatory’ and told the story of a homeless man whose remains hadn’t yet been identified. The team of interns were set the task of working out who the man was and how he died. It turned out that the victim was a veteran from Desert Storm who suffered PTSD and had become homeless. He was in the vicinity of the Pentagon when it was hit by a plane on 9/11 and went into the building to rescue people who were trapped. He later died from the injuries incurred from his heroic actions.

One of the interns was a practising Muslim, who regularly went to prayer. One of the younger members of the team wrongly assumed that his colleague would be uncomfortable working on the case because of the circumstances of the veteran’s death. I was struck by the clarity and passion of his reply:

“This was not the work of religion, it was arrogance, it was hypocrisy, it was hate. Those horrible men who hijacked those planes hijacked my religion that day too. They insulted my God. So no, this isn’t too difficult. It’s a privilege to be able to serve this victim, to be able to show him care and love that was so absent that day.” Vasiri

Later on in the episode, each intern recalls where they were when they heard the news of 9/11 and Vasiri commented: “I was at morning prayers… I didn’t believe that day. I didn’t believe in anything.”

My point is that distance makes it far too easy for us to judge and blame and accuse people of attitudes and beliefs without really knowing the truth of how they feel. It’s easy to hate from a distance, without a real person in front of you. Yes, some Muslims may hold extreme views. But then so do some Christians. And Hindus. And Sikhs. And those who claim to hold no faith or belief system. We are all capable of dreadful things and though many of us don’t act upon on our hatred or anger in violent ways, to declare ourselves beyond reproach is hypocritical at best. The character of Vasiri gives voice to many Muslims who were devastated by the events of 9/11 and continue to feel the repercussions of it, even though they were not involved or even supported the actions taken.

And as it was intended: the violence begets more violence. The terrorists fuel more terror and instead of reacting with love we react with war. Don’t misunderstand me: these conflicts are complicated and I understand that military action is needed sometimes to arrest the tide of violence and persecution. But that decision is not without cost or consequence.

My time with CSW reminded me of something important: that if I want to be respected, and to have my faith respected, then I need to show the same respect to others. If I want to live in a tolerant society, I need to show tolerance to others – even and most especially if I don’t agree with them. Tolerance does not mean being a doormat, far from it. It means sharing a space with other human beings and acknowledging together that we don’t agree on everything, but we choose to try and find a way to live together as peacefully as we can and not impose our views on others. Tolerance is not easy; it’s costly and requires work to maintain it. But without it, we would almost certainly sink into a dictatorship where anyone who expressed an opposing view would be considered ‘intolerant’ and thus against the society of which they were a part. Dissenting voices are usually silenced. That’s not the kind of place I want my family to grow up in, so, although it’s hard, I’m going to stick with respect and tolerance. It’s got to be better that hatred and fear.


Playscheme story Day 5: Here and There and Back Again

It's loom-tastic!

It’s loom-tastic!

Sarah thinks she might be able to give the T.O.I.L.E.T. more thrust, but will it be enough to get them back to where they need to be before the universe unravels?


This is the final part of the story specially created for this year’s Playscheme. North End Playscheme is 21 this year and seeks to serve and bless families in the North End area of Portsmouth. Its almost entirely run by volunteers, many of whom are from local churches, who give up a week of their time to help provide a fun, safe environment for children to play and learn in.



Playscheme story Day 4: The Shoo of Shooliness

It's just a grubby white trainer...or is it?

It’s just a grubby white trainer…or is it?

Sarah discovers that Doctor Woo has taken a very special object as a souvenir, but something terrible is happening as a result!

(This is part 4 of a 5 part series specially created for North End Playscheme)

Playscheme Day 3: Aunt Marge and the Myriad

Aunt Marge's cottage garden

Aunt Marge’s cottage garden

Doctor Woo and Sarah are pursued across the galaxy by the beetle people, but it seems only Aunt Marge can explain why…

(Part 3 of a 5 part series, specially created for Playscheme)

Playscheme Day 2: The KnowsNot

WooToo, the KnowsNot

WooToo, the KnowsNot

Doctor Woo and Sarah find themselves on another planet, which appears deserted, until a strange and forgetful creature rushes up to meet them…

(This is part 2 of a 5 part series created specially for North End Playscheme)


Playscheme Story Day 1: Sarah meets the Doctor

IMG_20140811_184630This year at Playscheme I have the delight and privilege of telling the story for the children each day. Linking in to the 21st birthday theme, I’ve created a brand new story about time travel and Playscheme’s past, featuring new characters: Sarah and Doctor Woo.

For the first time this year I hope to record each day’s story and then share it online, and through Playscheme’s Facebook page. Although the onsite recording didn’t work quite so well, here’s a retelling of the first part of the story, which I hope you’ll enjoy!


The Shoo of Shooliness

teaspoonIt’s that time of year again and North End Playscheme is just around the corner!

Now in its 21st year, this amazing children’s activity week returns to Mayfield School field to welcome over 100 children with a range of sports, craft, fun and games. The scheme is almost entirely run by volunteers, many of whom are from local churches, as well as parents and young people who give up a week’s holiday to come and work alongside children from the local area. Some of the parents who bring their children used to come along as children themselves and its amazing how time flies when you’re having fun!

This year the story links together the 21st anniversary of Playscheme with the notion of time travel, looking back at key events, both large and small, that have shaped history. At the time perhaps those events didn’t seem all that significant and its only when we look back that we realise what an important moment it was.

As a taster, here is a specially recorded prequel for the Playscheme story this year. I hope you enjoy it! If you’re lucky enough to be able to come to Playscheme, then you’ll be able to hear the whole story but if not, I am going to try and record each episode each day as I tell it, live to the children, so maybe you’ll be able to hear what happens after all!


Top tips for heritage education

This image comes from the 'Onions & Bunions' project, Warwick Museum service

This image comes from the ‘Onions & Bunions’ project, Warwick Museum service

As you know, I’m rather fond of heritage work – not least because it’s so much to do with people and their fascinating stories!

I am across this article today via the ‘Creative & Cultural Skills’ newsletter and thought it was worth sharing 🙂



Read more here: Tips for heritage education

The Potting Shed – why and how?

Alas my potting shed is still a 'virtual' one, but maybe one day...

Alas my potting shed is still a ‘virtual’ one, but maybe one day…

I have a page on Facebook for my freelance work called The Potting Shed – Home of Apple Seed HQ. It’s not a real shed (although it ‘exists’ as a place on Facebook) but rather it’s a virtual shed. Given that my website is apple-seed and that I’m all abut growing great ideas then it seemed logical that a planting, nurturing, creative growing space should need a shed in which to house all these baby ideas!

I update the Facebook page regularly and its a quick way to link to the various projects I’m involved in, so if you want the latest news, its a good idea to look there:

Someone sent me a question via that page recently, and I wondered if some of you might also be interested in the question she asked and the answer I gave.

So here it is. It kinda sums up my raison d’etre – the reason why and how I do what I do.

If you’d like what you read and would like to find out if I can help you out, drop me a line:

Sharon, I completely love the sound of everything The Potting Shed does. How did you get into doing that? What is your background? (if you don’t mind me asking!!) xx
Thank you very much! I don’t mind you asking at all!
I’d like to say that it’s part of some kind of carefully planned career path…but that would be a complete lie! The reality is entirely more haphazard and accidental.

My background is in youth & children’s work. I’m a qualified teacher and youthworker, but I have a real passion for heritage, arts, communities and storytelling.

This means that I tend to get drawn to projects which touch on those kinds of areas…Children and young people are part of communities and they interact with and affect each other (whether they know it or not!) Heritage is about the story of a place and the people who have, or are currently living in it, and the arts (such as storytelling) is how we can share and explore the locality and community where we live and begin to understand our place in it.

I think my core motivation is around valuing people: I believe everyone has inherent value, because each person is unique. Our DNA, our fingerprints, the combination of character, personality, skills and experience are not to be found anywhere else, or in anyone else.
That makes you uniquely valuable and irreplaceable.

The work I’m involved in – which has come along haphazardly and sometimes almost by accident, doesn’t bring value or worth to the people or places I work with…but perhaps some of what I bring helps to draw out the value of what’s already there?

Does that make sense?

I love what I’m doing, even though at times it feels very stressful (like now when I’ve got two chaplaincy visits this week and an exhibition opening on Friday!!) and I miss being part of a team with other people. Being freelance can feel lonely and isolated at times and I sometimes feel like I bear a heavier responsibility than if I were an employee in a bigger company. There are times when I feel like I’m dangling on a string above a rather cavernous ravine, and it wouldn’t take too much for the string to snap…

But on the other hand it’s a tremendous privilege to be able to work with people and make a big/small difference in their lives! Who can say that they get to do that? I love the variety, the creativity, the opportunity to direct and hold and shape things…And it means I can be very flexible around the needs of my family, which is the most important part.
So that’s kind of it really….!
Got any more questions…do send ’em my way

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