The best thing I ever learnt was to be wrong, and I might be wrong about that too

In this blog, Lead Trainer Nim reflects on their experiences as a trainer and educator, telling us the story of the UNPACKED Programme.

A mixed group of people are stood and sat together posing for a group photo
I have been “an educator” in social justice spaces for over 15 years. I support people to learn about a range of things from campaign strategy to movement building, from equity and anti-racism to transformational group culture, from conflict skills to decision making processes. I think about learning
all the time. I live and breathe learning as my job. As an activist, I am always thinking about strategies for educating people to move to social change. 

Educating is a practice. I learn by doing and failing and succeeding and doing again. As I have done this work, I have longed for spaces to learn about learning with other people in social justice educating. Because I couldn’t find those spaces, I’ve spent the last few years building one. This is the story of UNPACKED. 

What is learning?

I have been trying hard to find a pithy way to describe what learning is, but I’ve struggled because to me learning is everything. We are all learning. All the time.

Learning is education, but it is also so much more than that. It is care, it is community, it is accountability. 

There is no life without learning. Learning is abundant. It is a foundational condition of joy.

Learning is about knowing there is no destination, no fixed ‘enlightened’ endpoint – learning is a process of always becoming. Learning is conflict and it is transformation. There is no environmental, racial or social justice without learning. There is no liberation without learning.

Learning is looking at the frameworks, hypotheses and beliefs we have about the world and constantly testing them.

Learning is unlearning; it is a great undoing. 

Education is how knowledge is passed on

When I talk of learning, most people think of schools and classrooms. But education is the structures we create around how we learn: through experience, through mentors, through people with specialist knowledge and so on. We are always learning, we are always educating – ourselves and each other. 

Schools and classrooms taught so many of us that there are people with knowledge and people without; that there are ‘clever’ people and experts, and then everybody else. This kind of education connects learning to shame. It tells us there is always a right and wrong. Either we know, or we don’t. It tells us that it’s other people’s roles to judge which side of right and wrong we are on. This system connects our knowledge to grades and competition, to inadequacy and failure. Ultimately to capitalism and productivity as workers. 

A liberated education

But true education is creating space for people to explore their knowledge and be empowered by information. Empowering education is something which you participate in. It allows us to explore our own knowing, and test information and knowledge against what we know of the world. To allow new concepts to change us, and be changed by us. 

To be always malleable and changeable we are told, is weakness. I believe it is strength: humility, commitment to growth, rejection of fixed ideas about truth and identity. Empowering education is about recognising that we are always becoming.

The best thing I ever learnt

The best thing I ever learnt was to be wrong. To put aside ego and the need to be right. I have felt wrong most of my life; as a trans person, a queer person, a disabled person, a person of colour. Our society has told me over and over that so much about me is ‘wrong’. In formal education, I learnt to compensate for this by overachieving – always being right. To be wrong felt like I was bad, and that connected me to a deep shame. Being right made me feel like maybe I wasn’t bad.

But the fear of being wrong just got worse.

It was only in attending to the shame of feeling an innate sense of “wrongness” that I could find a rightness with myself; a sense of wholeness, joy or belonging. Facing myself and embracing all the ways I’ve always been told I am wrong has liberated me. Reclaiming my wrongness has liberated me. Being right matters to me less now. I have learnt so much about transformative education from learning to let go of that. 

Movement approaches to learning

A group of people in a room standing in a line, with a person sat on a chair at the end of the line. The people are laughing and happy

Social movements are founded on the need to reclaim power from those who wield it unjustly over us. Activists are charged with demanding back what has been taken, and building better futures. 

Shame can be a powerful tool for activists to shock and stop a practice that is unjust. I do believe there are moments that it becomes appropriate to invoke shame. In an unjust world, there are acts of power-wielding which are shameful. But it is a dangerous tool to use. It’s intoxicating because to wield shame, you wield power. But being powerful is not the same thing as being empowered. 

Sometimes this approach to change, alongside deep-seated shaming experiences in education, means we re-create the conditions we hope to fight when we move from activist demands to the long, slow work of organising and educating ourselves and each other. 

When we try to teach people by shaming them for getting things wrong, we also limit our own learning by being afraid of other people grading us; judging us as right or wrong. But, we are all making mistakes all the time. A key part of a liberated life is understanding that being wrong isn’t shameful.  

We must disconnect being right with being good, and being good from doing good. Transformative education orients itself towards empowerment and away from drawing lines in the sand of good and bad, right and wrong, harmed and harmer. 

Doing harm, accountability and fallibility

As a fallible person, I am always learning, knowing that I make mistakes. I take this very seriously as a person often responsible for holding other people’s learning in social justice spaces. When we hold spaces for conflicts, or to challenge and educate on issues like racism, we have great responsibilities and carry a heavy load. It’s all well and good that I want to accept my own imperfection, but my mistakes can, and have, caused real harm. 

I think about this all the time. Accountability is the key. Accountability is taking responsibility for the harm caused, it’s also being committed to my own learning so that I do less harm in the future. How can I hold other people’s learning if I am not attuned to my own? How can I attend to other people’s transformation, if I am not committed to my own? Who even asked me to do this work? To whom am I accountable? 

I will always make mistakes, yes, but as an educator, I have power over the people I am educating. I cannot turn away from that in confronting my accountability. Educators in social justice spaces often don’t hold a lot of power in the wider world, we are often used to being harmed in the structures of an oppressive society. In the confines of the training room, I have a huge amount of power over people: I can say jump and they (often) literally will. But as a trans person of colour, as soon as I walk into the toilet of the training venue, that power dissipates. My power in the world, in general, is very different from the power I hold in a training room as a trainer. It makes me no less accountable in that room, and no more powerful outside of it. That deep personal reconciliation of power and responsibility, of being both harmed and harmer, is a core practice for an educator in social justice spaces. 

Creating the space I’d always wanted 

After 15 years of wrestling with these thoughts in educating work and activism, I wanted to create a programme where social justice trainers, facilitators, organisers, elders, sages and teachers could learn and unlearn and be fallible. To be able to be accountable for our mistakes when we do cause harm. I wanted to build connections based on trust so that we can reflect and be supported in our growth. I wanted to push back against our self-protective reactions of hiding from our mistakes, of feeling imposter syndrome, of feeling like causing harm means we have completely failed. I wanted to lean into feedback as a practice that is not about shame but co-conspiring, support, solidarity and growth. 

So I spent the last few years building Unpacked. A 12-month training for social justice trainers. We are about to complete the first year of this programme. 

I’m still wrong about so much

I have learnt so much in designing and holding this journey. Not least that this work cannot be done alone. To break down hierarchies in learning we must commit to co-creation and co-development, to peer coaching and investing in the teams who we deliver education with, and in the folks who help us learn while we help others.

I have learnt so incredibly much from the participants who are also my peers, elders and teachers. I’ve learnt about new ways to extend care and love to people in struggle. I’ve learnt about leaning braver into difficult conversations and accountability. I’ve learnt about expecting more of myself and less of myself. I’m still falling over messily into fallibility. And that’s the joy of learning. 

I’m excited for you to find out more about what this incredible group of educators has learnt and how they’ve applied it in their personal, political and educating lives. There is lots to learn in their reflections and there is richness in the ways that the skills of an educator are applied to our life and our movement work – I’m excited for you to read about all these ways. 

To continue learning, towards liberation. 

With thanks: This programme wouldn’t have been possible without the sheer sweat, blood and tears that our Programme Manager, Rowan, has thrown into making the programme a physical possibility and a space that embodies the practices of care, community and accountability. I’ve never known a higher dedication and attention to care extended so patiently and thoughtfully. Nor could I have delivered this training and held others’ learning without the coaching, guidance and support of Matthew Armstead, from Training for Change, who pushes me to be more ambitious, creative and attuned to transformation. I am grateful to be in lifelong learning with both of them, this programme would not be without these folks.

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