Start with care – the rest will follow

Grace reflects on the role of internalised and systematic ableism and how to create a culture of care in facilitation.

If I were to distil UNPACKED’s many hours of learning, laughter, and connection into just one word, I’d pick care. Care is simple and complex, vast and easy to miss. To me, a lot of what we learned was about the different ways we show care and accountability- to ourselves as trainers, to our teams, and to the people we are training.

A central principle of UNPACKED that encompasses this is the “4 knows”- four areas that educators should consider. Know:

  • Yourself: your style, hooks, needs, identity as a trainer.
  • Your team: how you work with co-trainers supportively.
  • Your group: understanding the needs, goals or learning style of who you are training.
  • Your content: the learning aims and how you can be adaptable.

The categories may not seem like tools for care at first, but my understanding of them has become inseparable from it. Knowing these areas takes time, effort and commitment- it requires care.

Where I put my care has shifted since I first started facilitating as a teen, but most noticeably throughout UNPACKED. Historically I was pragmatic to a fault (and often to my own detriment), turning up over-prepared and trying to hold everything myself. Getting the content across was my primary focus. I thought the best thing was to give people the hard skills, and the rest could wait. This is definitely a colonial view I learnt in school, valuing practical intellectual knowledge first.

Over the years I’ve made a conscious effort to build in more creativity and flexibility. UNPACKED grew my confidence and skills in this area- we’ve played games, competed in challenges, and even had a talent show- all as ways of learning! It also helped me embrace all types of wisdom and shifted me into being accountable to the groups I’m training as opposed to the session plans. I’ve found a balance between knowing my content and knowing my group. It sometimes means taking a longer route, but the process is richer and the learning is more profound and long-lasting.

However “knowing myself”, turning that attention I show my groups and content inwards, has been harder. As a disabled person, I have a complex relationship with care. When I was younger care was an unwanted necessity, and more recently I’ve begged for it in our decimated healthcare system. My strained relationship with self-knowledge and self-care has many roots, but the biggest culprit is ableism, both external and self-directed. I have struggled with accepting my conditions and haven’t been invested enough in myself to actually want to know myself. 

In this sense, the first week of UNPACKED had perfect timing. I was mid-flare and using a mobility aid, so embarked on the course with my often-hidden conditions made easily visible… But that didn’t stop my self-avoidance from pretending I didn’t need anything! I kept this up for a few days, banishing it from mind when doing reflections or pushing myself when really I knew I shouldn’t. Unsurprisingly it didn’t last. 

Midweek we played a game designed to highlight our cohort dynamics. During this it was impossible for myself or the rest of the group to avoid what it meant for me as the only visibly disabled person in the space, and in the process exposed years of my repressed experiences.  

It was in the subsequent conversations, reflections, activities, and tears (on my part), that I first named out loud the ableism I directed at myself, and the double standard that I would never treat my disabled peers the same way.

Something had to give. My approach was unsustainable both personally and as an educator. 

So I went back to basics. 

I poured time into knowing myself. This meant trying to accept me fully, disregarding years of ableist conditioning. A seed was planted in that first week together which continued to grow throughout the year, and the culture of our group shifted. I’ve learnt to cut myself slack, rest, ask upfront for needs to be met, and be less apologetic for my disabled self. Taking a step back and working on “knowing myself” opened up more opportunities for growth and learning. I feel like I am doing my best work as a result. It’s a truly transformational process. 

This year, I’ve learnt that if you don’t lay safe foundations of care and connection, then the real work won’t happen. You need to create a culture of care for the groups you train, which hinges on creating a practice of care for yourself.

Over summer I was lucky to work long-term with a new campaign group.  The pandemic had magnified their oppression, and many were struggling under lockdown. Starting a campaign at this time is hard, and I was very aware of how it could impact our work together. It was also my first online group, and I was conscious of creating the same engaging experience as I would in-person.

But if UNPACKED had taught me one thing, it was that if I didn’t centre care and my values of disability justice, we weren’t going far. So I made sure our very first conversation was one of needs, access, and community. We worked together to build a group culture that reflected this, and our process evolved over time. And it worked! The training was really successful and the group is out there working on the campaign right now.

In short, I trusted in my own key learning from UNPACKED: start with care, the rest will follow.

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