My (ongoing) confidence journey…
I was approached by the team at #UPFRONT to answer a few questions about confidence. It was an empowering and emotional experience pulling my thoughts together, so I wanted to share the unedited version and encourage people (especially women) everywhere, to feel they can take up space and tell their story, and that everyone’s story is important.
Tell us about who you are and what you do?
I run a social enterprise called Street Space, we do community engagement and collaborative design in Barking and Dagenham — in practice that means we work with local people to reimagine their streets and spaces to make them feel safer, bring more joy and increase open-ness to social connection.
I’m passionate about streets as potential mini eco-systems of support and community building — streets are public spaces and as less people in urban areas are owning cars, there’s a huge opportunity to use the space much more effectively to bring people together, connect and support each other and provide opportunities for children to play, walking and cycling — creating more liveable places where we can all feel we belong.
I took a fairly long time to find my thing, going from a degree in Drama and English, working in community development internationally, as a care support worker, in sustainability, community engagement and service design before stumbling across facilitating collaborative design projects with community members to make streets better for walking and cycling. I’m passionate about a lot of things but they usually come back to how to best support people to feel creative, step into their power and shape the environment around them. Creating the conditions for people to feel a sense of agency to tackle things they care about and finding ways to encourage people to be outside and experience the positive power of the outdoors.
What does confidence mean to you?
Confidence means the ability to own your power — (the power we all have inside of us) and not care so much about what people might think. To believe you have a place at the table. I think this is a lifelong project…
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve encountered?
I’ve struggled a lot with my sense of privilege as a white, middle class woman — this sounds ridiculous, I’m extremely fortunate. But working often in so called ‘deprived’ communities be-it overseas or in the UK I see my role as a channel or bridge — amplifying voices that often don’t feel heard and ensuring that everyone feels safe and welcomed to take part in a collaborative design process. However, overtime, I realised I didn’t know what my own story was/is — I started to wonder how I could balance my voice and story in amongst this when I found myself discounting myself as not mattering.
I also struggle with the constant tension of being local vs an outsider when working in communities, and negotiating the power imbalances inherent in many collaborative community shaping or change projects. I firmly believe in asset based community development, but it’s challenging when the people who hold the power (and those who are the ‘target’ of the ‘engagement’) are starting from a different understanding of their own assets, widening a gulf between and perpetuating an ‘us and them’ narrative in all directions.
I’ve learnt a huge amount working on projects with a lot of conflict at their heart — wrestling with the desire to facilitate a truly collaborative approach whilst balancing the top down funding and policy agendas. Managing street design projects to benefit the most vulnerable for example, improving safety or air quality outside a school doesn’t reduce the fallout and backlash from residents who feel, and are being done-to when find their driving or parking routine restricted in some way. Even when done in a temporary, playful and collaborative way, you can’t please everyone and I found this a hard lesson to learn when dealing with transformation in the real world. It’s been challenging but these experiences have helped me to realise the difference between leadership and facilitation and practise stepping in to these at different times. I’m still learning how to clearly identify what I’m able to change and shape and what I can’t take responsibility for.
How did you overcome them? Can you share some of the strategies with us?
This year I started Improvisation classes which has been huge in terms of my own realisation that I have permission to play, to be, to feel how I feel and go with it. I really recommend this — even though it can feel terrifying, I assure you — it’s not about performing but letting go of all the pressure we put on ourselves.
Through play we can find new ways to relate to one another and ourselves again.
Learning more about myself through coaching has really helped me understand and navigate better through difficult times. For example, discovering I enjoy operating in an ‘in between’ space has helped me feel more comfortable with the pain and isolating periods that this space naturally brings with it. Knowing this about myself when I’m between two worlds — bridging cultural or class ‘divides’ either perceived or real, balancing change at the micro level whilst trying to challenge the macro or providing structure for people to engage and participate in a project whilst facilitating and allowing the space for the unknown and unbounded to emerge, has helped me to feel like this is where I’m meant to be.
Surrounding myself with strong women has helped me a great deal — it makes such a difference to be part of inspiring networks such as ‘Urbanistas’ where I’ve seen, with my own eyes, examples of other women running their own businesses, succeeding time and time again — when you see people who look like you achieving amazing things — you allow yourself to think maybe I can do that too. Liane Hartley, the founder’s motto is ‘start by starting’ it’s probably the reason I was able to set up Street Space and start many of the projects I’m working on today.
When I moved to London I couldn’t believe the number of people I met who were hustling their side project, or just confident enough to try stuff out with no money — I’m grateful to my first side project partner Hannah who I started Give A Damn Dating with — this was a key step for me in thinking — woah, it’s actually not that hard to start a company?!
What are some things you have on the horizon for building or challenging your confidence?
Running a business there are constant firsts and new things to wrap my head around and hurdles to overcome — from public speaking and pitching to asking for help (I really struggle with this one) and powering myself on a usually isolated rollercoaster of emotions. I take comfort from wise words like growing is meant to feel uncomfortable (like a lobster out-growing its shell) and have recently started writing some poems to help me let go of my limiting beliefs or just pour out my fears and worries on to a page.
What would your advice be to people reading who want to be more #UPFRONT?
My advice would be to get yourself a mentor — someone who can support you to set goals and help you to articulate what success is for you — I found a mentor through the Aspire network who I’m very grateful for.
Find your way to play regularly and let go — that might be through volunteering, spending time with animals, singing, writing or improv — whatever it is — experience how it feels to let go and give yourself permission to play — you never know what might emerge.
This sounds the opposite of good advice…but I’d also say to say no more. I’ve worked through being a consummate people pleaser and realised that taking time to know if I really want to do something, see someone or go somewhere before answering ‘yes’ helps me to get in touch with what I really want (this again is a big work in progress) but it’s helping me to value both myself and the time I have (this weirdly also helps other people to value you more too — win win!).
Acknowledge what your fears are — by writing them down or speaking them aloud to a friend or colleague often helps to put them in perspective and you can then assess whether they are good fears (something that is scary but will help you to grow or learn — like the lobster) or bad fears (telling you to genuinely avoid something or someone).
Why do you think organisations like #UPFRONT are important?
I think sitting #UPFRONT and all the work you do is very important in supporting women to feel heard, but more importantly to feel worth hearing. I enjoyed the recent #UPFRONT workshop I took part in — meeting other women and giving time to listen to everyone and their stories was hugely inspiring and very confirmatory of the fact — we’re all better than we think we are, all of the time!
My main takeaway — I have permission to feel what I feel, to do what I do, to sing my song — people may listen or they may not. But that’s not going to make me stop doing my thing, speaking my truth. And secondly, I’m going to work at not apologising for myself — for the small things when ‘sorry’ just immediately slips out or when I catch myself making that weird ‘apology for being here’ face. That’s definitely got to go.