We were thrilled to host the first Real Talk event last week, a brave space for women to explore the myths and barriers that plague feminism, equality and liberation for women today. The series is convened by Janice Gittens, a teacher, therapeutic coach and activist from Islington.
Janice opened the space by setting the context, which can be summed up by this quote:
“Women have a lot to say, and this is the space to say it.”
Joined by the Hub toy elephant, she invited everyone’s elephants into the room, to be discussed with openness, curiosity and compassion.
Janice was also joined by poet Tolu Agbelusi, who read two poems from her collection that touched on her experience of frequently being ‘othered’ as a Black woman in Britain. In an open conversation with Janice, Tolu shared reflections from her professional experience as a barrister. She talked about having to assert herself in previous jobs to confront the repeated false assumptions colleagues would make about her capability, her education and even the language she used to express herself. She is now bolder and more daring and has ultimately stopped caring about matching other people’s assumptions and expectations who they think she is and should be.
Tolu’s reflections were followed by Janice reading a few pages from a piece that we believe should become a memoir. In it, Janice recounted her experience of arriving in the UK as a Caribbean immigrant child. Her assimilation process into British society involved many challenges and began with being mocked by her accent and looks every day at school and punished by her teachers for defending herself. Janice shared the challenges she faced living between two cultures, the specific constraints she experienced as a woman of colour in the UK and recounted the time she brought her school before the Race Relations Board, aged 11.
In the context of the Windrush scandal exposing the scale and prevalence of systemic racism in UK government institutions and society at large, Janice’s story was particularly resonant, and many participants in the room shared similar experiences.
To hear from everyone, we broke into small groups for a World Café style conversation around the following questions:
- How has your race, faith, class and culture shaped who you are today?
- What has limited you in expressing who you are?
- How did you overcome these limitations?
As there aren’t light topics, Janice shared some key values for the conversation and encouraged everyone to bear them in mind:
Each group had plenty of pens and snacks on their table, and people were encouraged to doodle away and record anything that struck them as relevant during the conversation. To the right are a few quotes from one of the group conversations.
We could have carried on for much longer… And we were stunned by the courage with which many women spoke about experiences they’d had with regards to their womanhood and its intersection with their race, faith, class or culture.
The conversation was rich, deep and felt very connecting, particularly following Janice’s call for women to “stand shoulder to shoulder” rather than competing with one another. There was also lots of laughter – it’s rare to find this kind of joy and humour alongside the difficult and uncomfortable stuff!
Janice says she is very much exploring what this group could become, treating the first three events as a space to discover and scope the issues and topics that are close to women’s heart that can often remain hidden and unheard. Her vision is to build a community of women who want to actively shape society and get behind other men and women who are already doing great things to amplify their voices and stand shoulder to shoulder with them. What exactly this will look like will emerge over the next couple of months, but one thing that’s clear for Janice is this:
“We cannot repeat the same paradigm and expect things to change. We need a new paradigm.”
All images by Janice Gittens and Julia Oertli