It’s never black or white.

Written by Claudine Lam

“It’s never black and white” is the name of the artwork pictured.  I created this piece at our wellbeing weekend in Rye, as we sat together around the kitchen table.  Every third or fourth MentorMore meeting, we have dedicated time to participating in Karen’s Professional Doctoral research project Finding voice; exploring presence through art making using the MIECAT procedures.  “This project is an arts based research project that brings together a group of women to create art and inquire together into their lived experience.  The researcher is wondering about the value of presence and whether presence can be achieved during art making”  (Szydlik, 2017).  The process is a collaborative and intimate experience; we listen to stories shared by Karen, engage in deep conversation about what these stories mean for and to us, individually and collectively, and then use a range of art materials to create our own responses to these stories.  Drawing on our artwork and documentation of the session, Karen then crafts a multimodal reflection that she gifts back to us.  When considering “It’s never black and white” one of the questions Karen posed was “How many stories can I see in this picture?”  This question has stayed with me.  As a representation of me, this art piece is an embodiment of my stories.  But are the stories Karen (or others) might see in this collage, the same stories I would choose to tell?  Which stories are privileged?  Which ones silenced?  Why?

In our first MentorMore focus group, two of the six key themes identified by participants as critical to ongoing positive engagement for early childhood and primary school educators were; Connections and Learning and growth. Integral to these themes is a shared desire for real and deep conversations with like-minded people that enable the exchange of storied experiences of hope, knowledge, challenges and triumphs.  These themes re-emerged in our second focus group re-contextualised through a wellbeing lens that prioritised creating spaces and relationships that nurture and nourish the capacity for educators to be themselves and feel like they belong.  Amal Kassir (2016,) contends that “the shortest distance between two people is a story” and that in order to find out each other’s stories, we must be “courageously curious” enough to ask questions.  More importantly, we must honour that “the malleability of a person’s story must be self-determined – it must come from the lips of the storyteller”.  However, in order for educators to become the storyteller, to feel confident to express multiple perspectives and have their voices heard and valued, it is essential to foster safety and trust and provide opportunities for educators to:

 

“Practice courage and reach out.  We have to have our own story and share it with someone who has earned the right to hear it.  Someone whom we can count on to respond with compassion.  We need courage, compassion and connection (Brown, 2014)”.

 

A third key theme identified in our initial focus group was Making a difference.  Participants spoke passionately about this in relation to equity considerations such as gender, class, race and Indigenous education.  There was a clear aspiration for change.  This was reiterated in discussions raised in the second focus group, but with a stronger emphasis on explicitly confronting, questioning and challenging taken-for-granted thinking and practices in order to transform educational contexts to be more socially just and equitable.  bell hooks (2010) highlights the importance of this work and asserts that it can be strengthened when we acknowledge:

 

“…the personal is political [and] that experience is to be valued as much as factual information, and that there is indeed a place in the learning process for telling one’s personal story…Story, especially personal story, is one of those powerful ways to educate, to create community in a classroom…When students learn about one another through the sharing of experience, a foundation for learning can emerge…When everyone in a classroom, including the teachers, shares personal experiences, the uniqueness of each voice is heard…Hearing one another’s personal experience in the classroom promotes an atmosphere of cooperation and deep listening” (pp.49-58).

 

Accordingly, storytelling provides possibilities for exploring and sharing individual lived experiences that recognise that the ways we engage with the world are complex, dynamic and open-ended (Watson, 2006; Raddon, 2011; Holligan & Wilson, 2015; Vanassche & Kletchermans, 2016).  While this can allow for deeper understanding of multiple perspectives, counter-narratives investigate how power can operate within normative narratives to perpetuate deficit-based perspectives of children, families and colleagues from minority backgrounds (Ladson-Billings & Tate IV, 1995: Solorzano & Yosso, 2002; Milner & Howard, 2013).  In supporting educators to recognise and disrupt majoritarian storylines, counter-narratives have the potential to promote critical reflection “about opportunities and dilemmas that can arise from diversity and take action to redress unfairness” (EYLF, 2009, p.13).  This is crucial because ultimately, “It’s never black and white” and when we share our stories, when we really listen to each other, when we endeavour to embrace each other’s histories, values, beliefs, cultures and transformations we are reminded that:

 

“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.  It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories” (Haraway, 2016, p.12)