Use or be used: Skills, technology and the future of work

By Dr Frederick Harry Pitts, Lecturer in Management at University of Bristol

When people imagine the future of work, their minds often jump to AI replacing jobs and machines taking over the world – leaving humans in an age of widespread unemployment. But in reality, automation is more likely to replace individual tasks within jobs than the jobs themselves.

Indeed, we already coexist with machine learning in the workplace using everyday processes like predictive text. This shows the future of work lies more in the augmentation of human labour with technology than its replacement by it.

This augmentation could alienate workers, rendering them what Marx called the mere ‘appendages of machines’. But it could also liberate and empower them to apply their skills and knowledge to the active control and mastery of technology.

Far from something that arises naturally and automatically, technology is a human creation subject to the social and political conditions in which it’s developed. But, without workers’ freedom to wield power over the tools and devices they use in their work, these conditions often mean new technologies can take on a life of their own.

Whilst policymakers and commentators get caught up in grand schemes to adapt to robotised worklessness or fully automated luxury, a more urgent imperative goes overlooked. This is the need to regulate and organise the world of work as it stands now, in order to bend technology to our will rather than the reverse.

Empower, not dominate

This centres on skill. We might think of skill as the capacity to control and shape the world around us. Whilst it’s popular to speak of skill as ‘talent’, this isn’t true – as the term might suggest, it’s not something innate, but something learned.

Economic, social, political and cultural contextual factors can impact the learning conditions necessary to attain skill. And just as technology adoption and implementation is influenced by these factors, so too is investment in the skills to use it.

Several factors impact employers’ and governments’ decisions to invest in the skills needed to thrive in a technological world of work. From wages and contractual conditions to wider political-economic, regulatory and legal structures, these environments often add to the challenge.

Where precarious, low-pay work arrangements are the norm, as they are in the UK today, there’s little incentive for employers to invest in the technology to make that work better and more productive. Specifically, developing the skills necessary for workers to experience technology as an empowering rather than dominating force.

Whether a warehouse, an office or an Uber, new technology being imposed to manage workers in a workplace often goes hand in hand with a ‘wild west’ regulatory regime. And this is unlikely to have any sense of longevity or commitment on the part of employers or employees.

This culture leaves little basis around which workers and employers can share in the gains of greater productivity – whether that’s through skills, training, better pay or terms and conditions.

Somewhere in the augmentation of human labour by technology, there’s a real opportunity for a new mission of skilful mastery that turns technology to human purposes. This can’t be achieved through the supply of skills in education alone. There are wider political-economic constraints on the capacity to innovate and develop that need addressing at other levels.

What’s the solution?

Increases in minimum wages may help. This would force employers to seek more from workers at the bottom end of the labour market and invest in productivity-raising technologies and the skills to use them. But this could have unintended consequences. Although employers might gain in profits, workers won’t necessarily have an equal gain in skills – or a fair share in the benefits of greater productivity.

Rather than tweaks to pay alone, the best solutions rest in the legal and regulatory environment of work. Increase in trade union membership and collective bargaining would help grant workers the voice to protect themselves against rapid change. This could also drive wages upwards and incentivise investment by employers at the same time.

By forcing employers’ hands to the fire with increases in wages and bargaining power, this could help replicate some of the gains of the twentieth-century industrial compromise. This was when managers and workers had a shared interest in increasing levels of productivity in workplaces.

At the time, the interest was much more likely to be based on skilled, secure and fulfilling work where humans used technology to their ends. It is, however, the reverse that’s the reality of work for too many today.

It’s too often the case that the human power to shape the world around us slips by the wayside in discussions of technology. The latter is commonly presented as developing autonomously, with skills shifting passively in response.

We are constrained by conditions that are ever-changing – and not always of our choosing. But skill is the measure of our ability to bend technology and the wider world to our purposes and determine the direction it takes. It is up to us to use it – or be used ourselves.

Dr Harry Pitts is speaking at RSA Bristol: Future of Work on Thursday 7 November. The text is based on a talk given at Millennifest Bristol. Millennifest’s organisers, the thinktank Common Vision, will also be publishing a version of this blog.

Low carbon, high inclusion: Economies of the future

By Professor Martin Parker

Confronted by today’s problems, it’s easy to imagine there’s nothing we can do to help. Climate change, gigantic global and local inequalities, the rise of a politics that positions the ‘people’ against the ‘elite’. It’s all too much to deal with, and not surprising that many people turn away in despair. Standing in front of a tsunami, what is the point of gluing yourself to some railings? We can see the problems, but they’re too big to deal with in our everyday lives.

Yet the amazing thing about this city and region is just how many people are already organising new ways to think about the problems that face us. These are people already trying to build a low carbon and high inclusion economy. In just about every area you might think of – whether its food, transport, energy, media or housing – new businesses are growing which are turning standard economic assumptions on their head.

The economy is the answer

For the last fifty years we’ve been collectively persuaded that all businesses need to have leaders who are motivated by huge salaries. Or that efficiency just means saving money by making people work harder for less money, and that shareholders deserve super-normal returns on their investments. Or even that it’s OK if a business arranges its affairs so that it doesn’t pay tax, or it creates waste and social problems and then lets the rest of us clear it up.

But all these assumptions are wrong. Climate change is caused when businesses emit carbon to make products or sell things that require us to emit carbon to use them. Inequalities are caused by concentrations of wealth within and between nations which in turn have been caused by past and present businesses.

Our political tribalism reflects the problems of de-industrialising parts of the UK in places where local well-paying industries are long gone, and replaced by McJobs, precarious employment and Amazon warehouses. Whichever way you run the argument, if we want to face the tsunami, we need to have a different way of doing business – a new economy.

That’s why we have started the Inclusive Economy Initiative at the University of Bristol. It involves a team of social scientists from various disciplines who are interested in working with local alternative businesses to grow the new economy we all need. We’re already talking to co-ops, green companies and organisations like Bristol 24/7’s Better Business network.

What can we do?

There are three things we need to do to make a new future. One is to decarbonise all aspects of business practice, from cars to burgers, and do it as rapidly as possible. The second is to make sure these changes produce economies which are inclusive – they should reward everyone who lives in Bristol, not just those from the leafy north and west.

Finally, we think it’s really important that all workers have more control over their workplaces, and ideally they should have meaningful ownership too. A practical experience of democracy at work will help us restore a sense of democracy in our city and country.

This would produce an economy which doesn’t damage the planet, doesn’t discriminate against people on the basis of gender or skin colour, and which gives workers a sense of shaping the places that they work. These might seem like utopian ideas, but unless we make them real, we will all end up the poorer.

Contact the University of Bristol’s Inclusive Economy Initiative on

Professor Martin Parker

More than a building

By Professor Guy Orpen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for New Campus Development

In May I wrote about the experience of seeing the sun rise from Platform 15 at Temple Meads for the first time since the 1920s, following the demolition of the former Royal Mail Sorting Office. This week the University of Bristol has published new plans for that site.

Importantly, alongside two major buildings, these include major public spaces leading to a new Eastern entrance to Temple Meads planned by Network Rail. That entrance will be under the selfsame Platform 15, on the level of both the site and the thoroughfare running under the platforms.

The planned site has plentiful seating and is greened by trees sheltering those walking and cycling across it. The harbourside frontage is envisaged as having many more trees to create a green corridor linking the existing Totterdown basin waterside and neighbouring spaces. The sustainability ambitions of the University are manifested in a building that provides its own energy and links to the city’s district heat network – all while harvesting rainwater and solar energy across its roof.

The designs portray what a day in the life of the new campus at Temple Quarter might look like – from the dawn light through the glazed panels of the interior gardens to the twilight images of the public space passing under and through the main building. This reminds us that this is a part of the city that could and should be lively and used out of hours.

While the consultation is about the physical redevelopment of a site that has lain derelict for a generation, the bigger story is how the city, its enterprises and communities and the University can work together there to develop their futures for the better.

As I write this column, I am attending a conference debating the value of universities to the cities, regions and society they are in. It is a debate that reveals a range of great work going on in cities around the world. There is strong recognition in the room of the merit of engaging with the people and organisations in a place and to do so with respect, to create mutual and sustained benefit. Some at the conference referred to the value created by student and staff volunteering, others to the opportunities created by positive recruitment, living wage and responsible procurement policies – all things we do here in Bristol. In discussions, we sought to define how universities could learn from and discover with their civic partners and be fair, respectful and relevant in so doing. The new campus building offers venues such as the Story Exchange and the Bristol Rooms just for these cooperative activities.

In this consultation with our city, we want to hear what you think of our development plans. We will want to sustain the dialogue over the years to come, because we will not only develop the site, but be there to live, work, play and learn with and for our city over the decades to come.

You can see our plans, share your view and find more details about our consultation events here.

We Are Not a Single Species: Behind the scenes

Paul Hurley, one of our artists in residence, has created a collaborative film investigating the heritage of Temple Quarter and the human and nonhuman communities that inhabit the area. The piece will be on display 20-21 September at SPACE6 West Street, Old Market. 

There are many things that connect us in Bristol – different worlds, experiences, identities and perceptions bridge the gaps between us. Paul’s creation is designed to unpack this and introduce us to a new way of seeing our world. 

“We live in entanglements of human and nonhuman worlds, of pasts, presents, and many possible futures. My approach to the residency was to explore some of these, to tease out some of the tangled threads that connect different worlds to a new university campus in the city.” – Paul Hurley

Cinemadography: Barney LaBeija filming on a GoPro

While filming, Paul spent some time around the University and at the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus building site. To capture the nonhuman perspective in these areas, his four-legged companion Barney donned a GoPro and set off exploring. Often led by Barney’s nose, Paul captured footage he might never have chosen himself. He said, “There were elements of a situationist dérive, an artistic drift around the city, unsure where we and the camera were being taken.” 

As part of the piece, others were invited to collaborate in ‘walk and talks’ with a nonhuman of their choice – human participants included university staff, members of the public and people living and working near Temple Quarter. Recording the conversations, they walked with a range of nonhumans from the weather and Carlo the cat to Siri and the plants of the University’s botanic garden. 

Paul explained that by combining the dog-filmed footage with a collage of audio from the walks, our expectations of looking at the city were disrupted.” In the exhibition on 20-21 September, each visitor will experience a unique combination of sound and visual – reflecting the serendipity of the filming itself. An audio track of the ‘walk and talk’ conversations together with three screens showing individual videos are all different lengths, creating intersecting spirals of film instead of loop. 

They operate like the layers of conversation, history and experience that accumulate in articulating the world (or worlds) of the Temple Quarter. These worlds, like us, are multiple, they are separate but entangled. We are not – and can never be – a single species.” – Paul Hurley 


‘We are not a single species’, by Paul Hurley. Film by Paul Hurley and Paul Samuel White, cinemadography by Barney LaBeija, copyright Paul Hurley 2019.  

With thanks to all human and nonhuman participants.

From rubble to research: Share your view

As you can see from Bristol City Council’s timelapse video, demolition of the former Royal Mail Sorting Office building is complete and we’re looking forward to the next stage of development for the Cattle Market site. From 9-25 September, we’ll be sharing our latest plans for the detailed design of the academic buildings and public spaces for the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus as part of the next stage of public consultation.

The new campus will provide inspiring spaces to meet, learn and make new connections and include public spaces for all to enjoy. It will help create a new inclusive city district in Temple Quarter, contribute to economic growth and job creation and join the city centre to the east of Bristol.

From 9 September plans will be published online for comment. In addition, there will be a number of ways for you to see our plans in person and share your views.

Public meeting:

  • Wednesday 18 September, 5-7pm at Hillcrest Primary School, Cemetery Road, Totterdown

Drop-in sessions:

  • Wednesday 11 September, 6-7:30pm at Engine Shed, Station Approach, Bristol BS1 6QH
  • Thursday 12 September, 5-7pm at Barton Hill Settlement, 43 Ducie Road, Bristol BS5 0AX
  • Saturday 21 September, 12-2pm at Windmill Hill City Farm, Philip Street, Bristol BS3 4EA

The plans will also be on display at:

Engine Shed, Station Approach, Bristol BS1 6QH
University of Bristol, Beacon House, Queen’s Road, Bristol BS8 1QU

You can stay up to date by subscribing to our newsletter or visiting our website.

Clarification on Guardian coverage

By Professor Guy Orpen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for New Campus Development and Professor Tom Sperlinger, Academic Lead for Engagement for Temple Quarter

We were pleased to see coverage yesterday in The Guardian of our plans for the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus.  

The article highlights the important work of one of our partners, the Barton Hill Settlement in east Bristol and our work with them on a micro-campus as part of their proposed micro-settlement development.  

The article also includes the experiences of Myla Lloyd, one of our graduates. We’re very proud of her and are committed to working on new ways to create access to our programmes for those who, like Myla, haven’t followed a conventional route through school. 

We’ve received a lot of positive feedback on the plans included in the article. However, the headline – and particularly the phrase ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ – has also attracted comment and criticism.  

This phrase was used in an off-the-cuff way by a senior manager at the University and was intended as a literal description of the location of the new campus, given to a journalist who has limited knowledge of local geography. We acknowledge that the phrase has a range of negative connotations and has been taken as a criticism of areas of east and south Bristol, which certainly wasn’t the intention. We apologise that this phrase was used and for any offence that has been caused. 

We hope it is clear, from the wider context in the article, that we have been thinking carefully about the University’s move into a different area of the city. The Temple Quarter campus will be adjacent to communities, in east and south Bristol, that are complex and some of which experience multiple forms of disadvantage. We want to work with and learn from those communities and we know this will mean creating new relationships in the city. 

That process has started already, and our plans have been informed by ongoing dialogue with a range of partners and communities. We’d be pleased to hear from more organisations and individuals who have ideas for activities at and near the new campus. 

Our aspiration is for Temple Quarter to be a meeting place for experience and knowledge from across society. This includes civic partners and local communities, who have expertise that will be vital in facing some of the big challenges of the future. We want those communities to be part of the conversation at Temple Quarter alongside our staff and students (from around the world and recruited locally) and business, industry and enterprise partners, some of whom will be co-located on site.   

So what does this all mean in practice? 

Here are some of our plans, which are still evolving: 

  • Civic and community partners will shape the big research questions at Temple Quarter. For example, the new Bristol Digital Futures Institute, which will be based there, is working with social enterprise and civic partners such as Black South West Network from its inception. This is vital, as the Institute will be considering the big challenges about how we all live with technology in the future.
  • Civic and community partners will be based with us on campus. The new campus will include a space on the ground floor, called the Bristol Rooms, where there will be hotdesking space for community infrastructure organisations, social enterprises and civic partners to work with us on research, co-designing education programmes, new student internships and big civic challenges.
  • The University will also be part of conversations elsewhere in the city and region. For example, as part of our partnership with Barton Hill Settlement, we’ve been invited to a city-wide Social Justice Project they are working on, which will examine urgent challenges emerging in local communities – including the future of the advice sector in Bristol. This will allow our researchers (and those from UWE) to get involved in research that emerges from the priorities in local communities.
  • Temple Quarter will lead to new educational opportunities. The Guardian article mentioned the flexible undergraduate degree we plan to launch, which will specifically be aimed at local people without conventional qualifications, which builds on our successful foundation programme in arts and social sciences. We are also designing other new educational programmes that will involve co-designing modules and engagement opportunities with local partners. This will put civic and community expertise at the heart of our educational endeavours. 
  • Temple Quarter is also an opportunity to re-think who we are as an employer. We are working with partners in the city on new initiatives to recruit a diverse range of staff to the University – we hope to announce more details on this later this year.
  • The campus will also be a place to meet, learn and socialise. For example, we’re working on a programme of activity called Twilight Temple Quarter, a curated programme of events and activities in evenings and weekends which we hope will bring a range of communities to the campus on an ongoing basis. 

 If there’s one small space on the campus that symbolises much of its ethos, it may be one we are calling the Story Exchange. It will be a round space on the ground floor, which will seat about 30 people in a circle. It will be a space in which a range of people can take part in a conversation, on equal terms.  

That’s just one space, but it symbolises the way in which we want different voices and perspectives to be heard on the campus. 

We know that some of the major challenges we face as a society are about participation – about who has a say in the technologies and democratic systems and in the crises such as climate change, which will shape all of our futures.  

That’s why we want Temple Quarter to be a place where we can face some of those big challenges together. 

A better digital future for all

By Professor Guy Orpen Deputy Vice-Chancellor, New Campus Development

Last week saw Bristol in the headlines for a huge research award to enable the establishment of the Bristol Digital Futures Institute. With its remarkable facilities, the Institute will be led by Professor Dimitra Simeonidou and Professor Susan Halford at the heart of the new University campus at Temple Quarter. It will focus on developing not just the digital technologies of the future, but how they are to benefit society, people and businesses. The amount of money is enormous. UK Research and Innovation – the R&D funding arm of UK government – awarded the University of Bristol £29m, matched by £71m of private, and industrial support. This is a massive vote of confidence for the concept of the Temple Quarter campus achieved in direct competition with the biggest and best universities and their partners in the country.

The Institute will aim to generate 30 new collaborate projects per year. It has been hailed both as the means by which Bristol could support the development of franchises like Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep (by Aardman) and also achieve breakthroughs in design and manufacturing (by Airbus). The range of partners involved is remarkable – from Babbasa, KWMC and Watershed to Hargreaves Lansdown and BT – literally dozens, large and small, local and global in reach. They all seek to work across traditional divides to understand the potential and benefits of the digital world – whether by partnering the creative with manufacturing, community with industry, or computer science with sociology.

Perhaps today it is easier now than a few years ago to understand how thoughtful we all need to be about digital technologies. When Web 2.0 was first mentioned 15-20 years ago no one imagined that Google, Amazon, Facebook and the like would be the giants they are now. Even less predicted was the way social media would be the means by which US presidents get elected or communicate their policies! Nor did we understand how much others got to know about us as individuals and communities while we use the internet.

The new Institute will have at its heart the ambition to let people and society shape the digital futures that we face, together. It will develop the responsible innovation, regulation, ethics, acceptability and business models for new ways of living and working using the many emerging digital technologies. Whole new ways of operating society are arising almost daily – the potential for doing good is tremendous but so are some of the risks. By directly involving a wider range of people at the time the tech and its applications are being developed, the Bristol Digital Futures Institute will seek to maximise those benefits for all.

Businesses born in the digital age, those born longer ago, organisations and activities that could be digital – many people and parts of society will want to think through how they develop their futures. The Bristol Digital Futures Institute will be there in the heart of our city to help.

Part 3: Looking into the gulf

This blog is the last in a series of three on ethical facilitation by Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol City Poet and Temple Quarter artist-in-residence. Find out what Vanessa has to say about appropriate outreach and engaging with people from different backgrounds in her previous blogs. 

As an artist from the outside coming into a new space, it’s hard to make woolly notions such as art, aspirations, the future and self-expression seem relevant. It’s a similar conundrum for the university as they try to translate the glowing buzzwords of inclusivity, diversity and public engagement into concrete actions that benefit the public. Awareness of the university’s new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus will hopefully increase as its opening date draws nearer and the buildings take physical shape. What’s harder to articulate and get people excited about is the potential for social change that brews alongside it. 

In a bid to connect these dots, I have often found myself working backwards. Instead of thinking about how the university’s agenda fits into the lives of local people, I’ve tried to learn about the many things that Bristol citizens want changed about the city. From there I work out what, if anything, the new campus might offer around their concerns and form my work from that. The issues that cropped up are familiar: better job prospects, cheaper and accessible childcare, more reliable transport links and less stigma around minority groups. Whilst there are some very exciting conversations around technological innovation and research around the new campus, it seems difficult to discuss these whilst many people feel that even an entry-level job at the university is out of their reach. This speaks to how potentially polarising tech advancements might be if they race ahead before we have addressed the deep gulfs in opportunity across class, gender, race and ability.  

Getting the group to talk about these issues without inserting my own political beliefs was both difficult and fascinating. We played a game where they each had a job title on a post-it note that they represented – the jobs ranged from social worker, teacher, hairdresser, cleaner, nurse and bin man right through to pilot, banker, computer programer and politician. They put themselves in order of who they thought made the most money, and then who they felt had the most worth in society. I watched them wrestle themselves into fascinating knots with these questions. Their ideas sprawled across many topics: economics, ethics, philosophy, sociology and politics. They had a unique disdain for specific jobs and a deep respect for others due to their culture and faith. One girl jokingly dismissed the career choice of musician or model as ‘haram’. This clash between my liberal, agnostic mindset and their Muslim/Somali upbringing was interesting to navigate. I think I did an okay job of honouring my point of view whilst focusing on learning more about theirs.  

During this game, one of the older, more cheeky and opinionated girls in the group derided photographers and journalists that go to war-torn countries to take pictures, instead of doing something to help. A spirited conversation ensued as to whether these images contribute by spreading awareness or if they merely dehumanise the people in them. As mentioned in part 2 of this blog, this further consolidated why taking constant pictures or videos whilst running the workshops didn’t feel right. 

Ultimately, these ‘groups’ we talk about in our meetings aren’t problems to solve, subjects of voyeuristic photographs or trophies of our liberal saviour complexes. We must remember this when we facilitate – only then will inclusion graduate from a tokenistic process to an integral value system. Whilst accepting that my motives as an artist can never be entirely altruistic, I am trying as much as possible to find a practice that is first and foremost responsive rather than instructive. It takes work, patience and a willingness to constantly unlearn. But through this unlearning, we’re more open to the wonders of the unexpected and tangential – where true art and progress live. 

Part 2: To understand and be understood

This blog is the second in a series of three on ethical facilitation by Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol City Poet and Temple Quarter artist-in-residence. Get up to speed on Vanessas thoughts on appropriate outreach in her first blog. 

As a freelancer who usually runs into creative sessions over a short period of time, there are limits to what I can do without the foundation of long-term rapport. Balancing the desire to make the workshops enriching for the participants with my own personal objectives as a commissioned artist is tenuous. In the creative writing workshops I ran for a Somali girl group in Barton Hill Settlement, I mostly found myself immersed in the task of keeping them engaged and focused. When the thought of recording the progress of the sessions crossed my mind, it felt crass to whip out my camera and start taking pictures. It’s an awkward quandary: I have an employer to report back to and clear reports on my activities keeps them happy. Twice over the four sessions, I took short videos that I promised not to share publicly. Other than that, my camera phone stayed in my bag. Building a strong enough foundation on which conversations and creativity can flower takes time. Constantly recording videos or taking pictures disrupts this and is a constant reminder to them that I am more concerned with the optics of what I am doing. I tried to be present with the group, to allow the process of talking and writing with them be its own ephemeral, worthwhile result. 

So how did the sessions go? Well: these girls were absolute live wires. Loud, cheeky, smart-mouthed and fizzing with an energy that occasionally tipped into insolence. Exactly like me at their age! The first two sessions were pretty chaotic and I struggled to keep them focused on any given task for more than a few minutes. Frankly, I didn’t blame them. I was an unknown entity, encroaching on their after-school club with strange questions and writing exercises that perhaps felt too reminiscent of the classroom. So I abandoned my earnest plans for twenty-minute writing and sharing exercises and focused on games – the quicker and the more physical, the better. The group clearly thrived on this type of energetic play. I tried as much as possible to make the space one of creativity, no matter how lateral my approach. If a planned exercise disintegrated due to lack of focus or interest, I tried to hone in on what the girls were talking about amongst themselves and ask questions about their lives and interests.  

This leads me on to a silly faux pas I made that still makes cringe months after the event. I say this in a bid to be transparent and show that we can all mess up and learn from it. One particular girl that we shall call Halimah was initially one of the more dismissive and disruptive girls in the group. To my surprise and delight, she eventually went on to write a stunning poem about Bristol by the fourth session. Whilst the girls were preparing for the final showcase, I decided on a whim to run to a corner shop and buy a few packets of sweets as a small prize for her. In my haste, I grabbed what I felt to be fail-safe crowd pleasers: Malteasers, Smarties and Haribo Tangfastics. After the showcase, I gave her the prize and told her the poem was brilliant. She seemed very happy with her sweets and didn’t mention any problems. It was only on the bus home, reflecting on the four weeks that had passed, that my brain made a sickening jolt of realisation. Haribo is made from gelatin, something a strict Muslim would most probably not eat. It was a small mistake, but one that made me inwardly groan at my thoughtlessness. 

These are the seemingly small but avoidable errors that come from lack of exposure and cultural sensitivity. I think sometimes, in our fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, we don’t attempt to connect with different groups at all. We severely underestimate our ability to understand, and be understood, by each other. So we continue to live in an ignorance that cannot be challenged or broken down, and remain safe in our homogenous bubbles. It’s safe to say that in trying to make connections outside of your circle, you probably will make mistakes. But it’s our job to correct ourselves and keep pushing. Not so we can arrive at a mythical stage of perfect enlightenment, but to commit to the quiet and constant exchange of an integrated society. 

In part 3, Vanessa will examine the opportunity gap for people in minority groups and the importance of Temple Quarter Enterprise Campuss relationship with the community.

Part 1: Nothing about us, without us

This blog is the first in a series of three on ethical facilitation by Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol City Poet and Temple Quarter artist-in-residence. 

How many times have you been privy to conversations about a group to which you don’t belong? It happens often in the worlds I frequent (media, the arts, education: the self-proclaimed pillars of progressive thought). In such conversations there is a lot of academic terminology, statistics and percentages. Faces scrunch up in devastating earnest, heads are nodded, pledges are signed, quotas are made. “Whatever to do about young people, women, Muslims, working class people, BAME people?” Yet representatives from these groups are often not in the room. 

To say these conversations don’t create important change would be overly cynical, but there is something persistently othering in how they are framed. I say this as both the person who belongs to many of the minority groups discussed and also as a member of this ham-fisted group of agonisers. I sometimes catch myself speaking of entire demographics of people in lazy sweeps, as if they were a bloated monolith and not an intricate web of individuals. Is there a way to speak of prevalent trends amongst a group without flattening communities and their stories? I like to hope so, but we haven’t quite found it yet. As the Latin phrase “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis” (Nothing About Us Without Us) succinctly asserts, no conversation around change should occur without those affected present.  

Whilst thinking of how to involve residents in the immediate area surrounding Temple Quarter, I felt it best that I reach out – and even this benign phrase seems to have a whiff of neo-colonial heroism about it! I had a vague notion that I wanted to work with local people in Lawrence Hill and that it would be good to work with young people in particular. After running creative writing sessions with a group of Somali girls in Barton Hill Settlement, I have been reflecting on the ethics and ultimate purpose of outreach work. I am still in the process of acknowledging the shape of my own ignorance, accepting that I am not entirely buffered by my youth, my blackness, my woman-ness, my general liberalism and artistic temperament. Coming in as an outside entity with an ambitious yet vague aim to enlighten a group in some way, there can be dangerous assumption that the group in question must be in the dark. 

This is not a neglected area of discussion; I recently read this brilliant piece on the potential pitfalls of outreach theatre work that has deeply informed my thinking on this issue. I organised the workshops with the help of Travelling Light Theatre that is also based in the Settlement. We had some great discussions on how to do outreach sensitively and the many mistakes made by well-intentioned facilitators. We discussed the importance of not exploiting the stories of others, no matter how pertinent, and not appropriating people’s narratives. As easy as an airtight definition would make our lives, there’s no cut and dry consensus on what appropriation constitutes. It often comes down to the relationship between facilitator and participants and an unsparing consultation with one’s conscience. 

In part 2, Vanessa will delve deeper into her experiences of engaging with people from different backgrounds and the important lessons she learned as a result.