Pulling in the excluded happens…

We refuse to be what you want us to be, we are what we are, and that’s the way it’s going to be.
Bob Marley, Babylon System

In this blog series on communal leadership and social justice in our schools, I have focused on relational leadership and how this turns on our understanding of relational power, relational trust, and our willingness to truly engage with, listen to, and have authentic dialogue with all members of our school community.

In my last piece (Blog Post V) I explored the notion of ‘community’ itself. In saying that school leaders should be looking to exercise communal leadership I problematized the term ‘school community’ and the idea of ‘partnership’. I asked whether in seeking ‘partnership’ with parents/carers and the local community we are barking up the wrong tree. Is it the case that school leaders should be paying more attention to community capacity building?

In this, the sixth blog in the series, I look a little deeper at community capacity building, returning to the field of critical pedagogy and how that impacts the concept of social justice in our schools. A return to those introduced earlier in this series of blog posts: Paulo Freire, John Smyth, and Henry Giroux.

I believe the dominant paradigm of school and community ‘partnership’ is a pathologising one that is deficit driven; what is wrong, and what is required to fix it? Community capacity building, however, starts from the viewpoint that all communities have assets, skills and resources, but they also have constraints that limit what is possible. John Smyth (2011) contends that these strengths and constraints are not universal but differ from person-to-person and are highly context dependent. Contexts are as important as the individuals that inhabit them. Capacity building approaches provide space for those most affected at the ‘grass-roots level’ to identify the constraints they are experiencing. And so, the adoption of ‘co-learning’ and ‘problem-solving… dialogue among equals’ (Eade, 1997) trumps the idea of ‘experts’ administering to those deemed inexpert. This is what Smyth terms a relationship-centred and dialogical problem-solving approach.

I am going to reproduce here, in full, a comment posted as feedback on Blog Post V by a parent who was a member of a discussion group formed at a school of which I was head teacher.

Hello there all.

Not sure at all how to start this but I am ruminating on all of the above. It’s a sticky consideration the notion of community, amplified excellently by Jeremy Bent’s ‘It (community) includes, embraces and empowers, but it also excludes’

How true and obvious upon being revealed and yet I had never considered the complexities. So what can I say on this issue? Only that which I myself experience.

I am a Me-ist, by which I mean my life has always been and still is all about me fundamentally. Questions such as:-

1. Who am I?
2. What am I doing?
3. Why am I doing it?
4. What is this I?

And on and on and I wonder a great deal about this whole I-ness, this whole Me-ness.

However, the Me-ist trip appears relevant to the topic. “Me, Me, Me” is hammered home to us all constantly via many various mediums. Think about it.

“Because I’m worth it”
“I’m loving it”
“Your M and S”
“Just do it” (What, Who, Where? maybe it means me?) etc and I am sure you will find many more examples of your own.
On your own.

Hmm, so this ‘I’ seems to be the thread I am following, this sense of isolation, this sense of me being all alone and yet always talked to, always advertised at, always being tricked and deceived into imagining that I am part of a community, as long as I am prepared to pay. And play along.


So, what Simon has done, did do for the Big Me was to regularly invite me and others into the school to discuss ways in which we could, collectively, consider what we all would like to see happen within the school so as to best improve the conditions for learning far all the children, as well as for the teachers providing the learning. He also would put forward proposals to us all and then let us all hammer out our reckonings. Gently I found the Big Me being humbled due to encountering all the other Big Me’s. We were asked on one occasion, teachers, deputy head, and parents, sitting at mixed tables, to respond to questions such as ‘What do you think school did for you?’ and when the various answers came out it was to me astonishing how similar, collectively, the individual tables of people shared the same story. By that I don’t mean to say ‘We all shared the same story’ I mean to say that within every grouping there was more or less a balance it seemed to me of positive memories and negative memories. The beauty of the proposals was that they were open ended and therefore all present waxed lyrical about their lives, their experiences and lots of laughter and agreement ensued.

Wonderful to behold for Big Me, I ain’t so different from everybody else! We all had stories that coalesced and diverged and coalesced again and it never appeared to be about agreement or lack thereof, it was just story-telling, the telling of our stories to one another.
It felt like community building to me on reflection, wonderfully so.

So, ‘But it also excludes’ being the final statement of Jeremy Brent’s deeply insightful sojourn into the nature of community has been the ‘Pull’ for me into this discussion. ‘Big Me’ found itself pulled into a ‘Big We’ (All urinary jokes or puns have been pre-considered) and do you know what, one of the excluded suddenly found themselves included. Over many meetings organised by Simon I found out that we matter, that we are part of something outside of our subjective selves. And that we all know that truth through the love we have for our children.
Pulling in the excluded happens, I tell the tale of my own experience by way of example and I am glad to state it so and it is an ongoing journey.


What Ste has to say on this through his experience engaging in the sort of dialogue he describes offers a hugely valuable insight from one (parent) who would commonly be excluded, as he says.

Ste picks up on my reference to Jeremy Brent in Blog Post V. I drew on Brent’s work because I believe that Brent is better qualified than most to offer perspective on community. Brent worked for 30 years as a youth worker on the Southmead Estate, Bristol, starting in 1975. He took a Masters degree in Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1992, and went on to complete a PhD at the University of West England, Bristol in 2000. Tellingly, Brent said:

Ideas can give you the run of the world – action is limited.

He argued that community is best understood in terms of the processes by which it comes about. Community isn’t something that is given or can be relied on. Rather, the idea of community is attached to different forms of collective identity that have actually to be created. I recognise just what Ste is saying in Brent’s words.

John Smyth’s (2011) relationship-centred and dialogical problem-solving approach hangs on the premise that if change is to be sustainable then what has to be engendered is ownership, and producing this means being patient and flexible in the way in which relationships are created and sustained around authentic trust, respect and notions of mutuality and reciprocity. What this means is the creation of a shared reading of context around a central defining agenda that is worked through in dialogical ways (p.115). So we end up turning conventional views of school and community partnership building on their head. Those who have historically been construed as ‘objects to be manipulated and controlled’ are treated instead as ‘creators of a learning’ which has an open ended worldview that is subject to contestation, debate and negotiation (Mitchell and Sankey (2001). Note Ste’s perception (one I share) that the discussion group’s central defining agenda was how we might best improve the conditions for learning for all the children in our school.

Smyth tells us that Freire’s central notion is that ‘hope’, as an idea, ‘is rooted in our incompleteness’, and that what makes us human is the ‘constant search to feel more fulfilled. This is something we pursue collaboratively, something that is at considerable variance with the dominance of neoliberal ideas today, in which the overwhelming emphasis is upon individualism, materialism, consumption and personal acquisition. Note Ste’s troubling over ‘Me’and ‘I’. Smyth cites Ira Shor, arguing that this applies to all western societies:

With our deep roots in individualism… [we have a] devotion to ‘making it on our own’, improving yourself, moving up in the world, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, striking it rich by an ingenious personal effort.
Ira Shor, 1980, p. 110)

Henry Giroux (2011) urges us to rethink education as ‘the practice of freedom’. Writing on Paulo Freire’s legacy, Giroux says that hope, for Freire, was ‘a practice of witnessing, an act of moral imagination that enabled progressive educators and others to think otherwise in order to act otherwise’ (p. 161). Hope demanded an anchoring in transformative practices, and one of the tasks of the progressive educator was to “unveil opportunities for hope, no matter what the obstacles may be” (Freire, Pedagogy of Hope, 1994, p.9). Underlying Freire’s politics of hope was a view of radical pedagogy that located itself on the dividing lines where the relations between domination and oppression, power and powerlessness, continued to be produced and reproduced.

Giroux concludes that ‘Far from instilling propaganda in students, I think critical pedagogy begins with the assumption that knowledge and power should always be subject to debate, held accountable, and critically engaged’ (p. 172).

Smyth highlights the work and thinking of the black feminist bell hooks (1990) in her essay ‘Choosing the margin as a space of radical openness’. For her ‘Spaces can tell stories and unfold histories’ (p. 152). It is when marginality is chosen as a ‘site of resistance’ (p. 153), that ‘we move in solidarity to erase the category colonised / coloniser’ (p. 152). She invokes lines from singer Bob Marley:

We refuse to be what you want us to be, we are what we are, and that’s the way it’s going to be

In other words, it is from this ‘space of refusal’ (p. 150) that alternatives are constructed. Let’s hear it for the Radical and a refusal to simply accept the status-quo!

Which takes us back to Ste and his reflection on the telling of stories and histories, in the space that we created…

Wonderful to behold for Big Me, I ain’t so different from everybody else! We all had stories that coalesced and diverged and coalesced again and it never appeared to be about agreement or lack thereof, it was just story-telling, the telling of our stories to one another.
It felt like community building to me on reflection, wonderfully so.

Pulling in the excluded happens, I tell the tale of my own experience by way of example and I am glad to state it so and it is an ongoing journey.


Brent, J. (2009) Searching for Community: Representation, Power and Action on an Urban Estate, Bristol: Policy Press.

Eade, D. (1997) Capacity-Building: An Approach to People-Centred Development. Oxford: Oxfam.

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1994) Pedagogy of Hope, New York: Continuum.

Giroux, H. (2011) On Critical Pedagogy, London: Bloomsbury.

Smyth, J. (2011) Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice, London: Continuum.

2 thoughts on “Pulling in the excluded happens…

  1. Ste Marsay

    Hello there Simon and well, well , well what can i say?

    You linked my comments with Bob Marley. It would be rude of me to not quote my favourite Bob lines which run thus:-

    “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain”. Trenchtown Rock.

    Bobs soul has nursed mine.

    So, on with the journey.

    Building community, developing community, becoming aware of a community being developed and what that can mean.

    I wrote down this (on paper, not online) earlier on “The capacity for the community to become itself and aware of itself ‘becoming’ community, not just people from Thornaby recognising each other as Thornaby folk, or Teessiders, or English”.

    I think i was writing to myself this realising that although I have lived in Thornaby all my years bar a few months here and there and consider myself one of Thor’s children dwewlling in his blessed town, i certainly dont and didn’t feel like I was living in a community. A little personal history will come into play here that I have recognised for the longest time without actually percieving the significance of it all.

    Where I live and when i was growing up, the estate was built entirely of semi-detached either houses or bungallows. We had coal fires, coal bunkers and gardens that were fitted out with concrete posts delineating the garden bounderies, left and right, Strung between these posts were three cables or wires and the total height was three foot, if that. And so, walking out into the garden to hang out your washing or to fill the coal bucket usually incurred an encounter with one or more of your nieghbours.

    “Morning John, Morning Ste, Morning Angie, Evening Wilf, Do you think it’s going to rain Tony, Did you hear or see that” etc. etc. etc…..

    Early seventies up to the eighties and the dividing fences became a little more solid though not neccesarilly higher. Three to four foot larch panelled fences became the norm. Still able to speak and see one another but the walls were being built. Now this is were I get real personal for this happened to me.

    Mid to late nineties our long time nieghbors move out. An Asian family come to look at the house and my mam is like “I dont want pakis next door, i want a higher fence if they are moving in!” I refused to erect it and so she went ahead and paid for someone else to do it. The Asians did not move in.

    Five foot high fences are now the minimum on this estate, six foot being the new norm. If i want to speak to Darren or John the other way, it’s either tip toes or standing on a chair for claritys sake.

    Community breakdown in the alleged interests of privacy and yet it was worse than that, it was much more concerned with ‘keeping up wit he jones’s’ or at least hiding the fact that you were in no way able to keep up it seemed.

    Simon spoke in his blog of “Authentic dialogue with all members of our school community” and it is the term ‘Authentic’ that I gravitated towards. Authentic to me is opposite to guarded, to being open and free (Author and Creator of your reality) as oppossed to being worried and fearfull of condemnation, ridicule and criticism for imagining you could possibly be so (a creator and dreamer in your own right). So the community i grew up in and still exist within is deeply inauthentic, plasic, false, hanging by a non-existent thread onto each other without really knowing each other.

    John Smyths ‘Relationship-centered and dialogical problem-solving approach’ talks of ‘Ownership” and not in the possesive sense, this is mine but, it seems to me in the ‘This is ours’ sense.

    i now see that is what you were up to, thats what you were fostering, ownership of our oiwn ideas (Ideas can give you the run of the world, actions are limited) Brilliant!

    I love the term ‘releationship centered’. I have developed relationships that are still on the grow now, litterally today and will be tomorrow. Through your actions of inviting, incorparating, considering, collating and most importantly allowing us to be there with one another, I have felt and feel me becoming ever more we.

    The story rolls on.



  2. Ste Marsay

    To continue on from the above as I quickly ended the entry last night due to tiredness. I found your blog extremely insightful and wish to add a little more comment on some of the points raised therein, as well as realising what I was striving toward.

    “Hope (as an idea) is rooted in our incompleteness” Paulo Freire, leads onto Ira Shar’s “With our deep roots in individualism” and how by ingenious chance we can make it or words to that effect.

    Both the above qoutes are dealing with ‘roots’, roots being notions so deeply embedded within us that all that flowers from them may be considered to be constrained by the root ‘stock’. These thoughts lead me on into the notions of ‘imprinting’ (the idea that at vunerable developmental stages we can imprint very strange ‘norms’. A young gosling imprinted a ping-pong ball as mother in one experiment apparently) and conditioning which, unlike imprinting, requires constant repetition and does not hold permanently, mostly.

    As described above in ‘The tale of the ever increasing in size fences’, I now see that as a metaphor for what I am now beginning to glimpse as community or collapse thereof. And yet i have always had a ‘sense of community’ firmly lodged within. Rooted it would seem and yet it is only through these discussions Simon engaged me and others in that i have started to realise how impoverished my notions of community were and are still.

    Yet such notions are improving thankfully with thoughtful consideration and engagement with ‘others’, those strange folk living as close by as next door. “Love thy nieghbour” the old stories advised but having as Ira Shar understands ‘deep roots in individualism’ thy nieghbours are easily cast out as things seperate from me. i am quite convinced on consideration that a hell of a lot of social engineering fosters this reality, this me isolated and seperate from you and yet as a mist cleared by a gentle breeze, through Simons engaging with me and others and most importantly anchoring the whole affair, clarity becomes restored and hope renewed.

    We are completely complete within ourselves and within our multiple selves, our community.

    To conclude, this is how i wanted to end the entry last night by way of example.

    I did not know Paul and wouild not have got to know him most likely were it not for the fact our kids are at Simons school and Simon invited me, paul and others along on many occasions to discuss ‘Things’ and to play with ideas. I live at 18 on our road, Paul at 17 directly across the road and i would not have got to know him without Simons help. I now know Paul very well and have grown to love him as a genuine friend. Thats my truth stated.

    So yesterday evening, my youngest had put the electric window down in the back door of the car. The only window that opens and closes correctly is the drivers window. This truth is very common when you pay only £200 for a car. So, having hit the same problem before I phoned Alan, the family mechanic who sorted it last time and he was off to Scotland.
    Oh dear i’m thinking but he explains about how to take off your battery from the car, connect a wire to the earth and then with the positive probe the other connections on the switch and see which one will raise the glass again. “Its just a fault with the switch” he leaves me with.

    I try that and it doesn’t work. I go and knock on Pauls door to see if i can get his battery off his car and hes like yeah and long story short, after an hour or so and pooling our resources we crack it and the window is now up. Permanently, I have disconnected the switch.

    During the proccess we talk of other matters and I realise Paul can help me and another friend out with a project and we are going ahead with said project next week and it all ties in with the school!

    The friend of mine is a games developer and he had given Simon a couple of board games to try out with the kids. What did Simon do with the games? He gave the ‘naughty’ kids them to try and figure out how to play them and by his own admission, they loved the games. What better research and development for a games designer and what better way to deal with kids who need help, not punshment?

    “We refuse to be what you want us to be, we are what we are and thats the way its going to be’

    Robert Nesta Marley, half cast son of an absent English sailor brought up in Trenchtown, basically the gutters of Kingston Town, Jamaica. A full on Human being, a state we all share, collectively and individually.



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