Selenium: My Next Year of connectivity, illumination & energy.

January arrived like a fire with the wind, after 2 years that I can hardly believe, when all of our plans just slipped through our hands. Like paper boats washed out to sea, with us hoping that the things that went missing would come back when you need them. 

It’s my birthday and my next chapter is Selenium in the periodic table.

Selenium, the element that is named after Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon. The image is of a crescent moon against a cratered surface. Something that’s been battered & bruised, but still manages to reflectively shine light given from the sun, stable & reliable. The cratered moon has double the power of the sun when it comes to powering tides of waves and water on earth. 


When I think of craters, I think to a few years ago, whilst in Rome, I saw a painting of the Virgin Mary who I saw curiously, had rock under her feet that seemed to have craters on its surface. It didn’t take me long to find out that the fresco had been painted by Lodovico Cigoli around 1610-11. Mary could have been depicted in any old way, but how to do her dominion? Unsure, Cigoli looked to his friend, Galileo, for assistance. Galileo told him about his very recent discovery of the craters on the Moon, so Cigoli painted a ‘queen of heavens’ standing on a Moon-rock whose surface was full of craters. 


 It’s nice that Selenium falls on this year, from it’s back story of the moon –  reminds me that art involves a great deal of observation (some would argue that art is observation); and science excels at systematic observation. Therein lies a meeting point between two very different modes of representing the world. But both are needed.  


The biggest use of selenium is as an additive to glass. Some selenium compounds decolourise glass, while others give a deep red colour. Selenium can also be used to reduce the transmission of sunlight in architectural glass, and is used to make pigments for ceramics, paint and plastics. 


It both has a photovoltaic action (converts light to electricity) and a photoconductive action (electrical resistance decreases with increased illumination). It is therefore useful in photocells, solar cells and photocopiers. It can also convert AC electricity to DC electricity, so is extensively used in rectifiers.


After a year of the element arsenic (& it did have some poisonous bits in there), it is a warm welcome to have a year that is about connection, energy and action. This elemental year for me is happening behind the back drop of when the Westminster government has no policy for looking after those affected by Covid-19 (in all senses). There’s no home for heroes after this war ends.


It is this power, connectivity and community that will drive my next year. There is dark and light in all of us, and in all of our lives. But if selenium can remind us that we can take kindness, light, hope and convert it into energy… action… for others! This collective resistance can go up against dark things that drain us, or try and take from us. Try and tell us that we don’t care about people (friends & strangers), our communities, the earth, and justice. But if we take note from selenium, we can be resistant to those negative headlines, and in doing so – we can increase our illumination. Light up some of the darkest spaces, to help light up some of the shadows that have engulfed us through this collective grief that we have all experienced over the past 2 years. 


And taking note from selenium, I will try to be better with my sustainability. I will ride my bike more, run a bit more, eat more veggies, recycle everything properly. Buy less shit off Amazon. 


Selenium is an essential trace element for some species, including humans. Our bodies contain about 14 milligrams, and every cell in a human body contains more than a million selenium atoms. This reminds me that I am still alive. In a few weeks time, it will be 10 years since my whole life changed. When I was sat in Site Gallery doing an artist residency, moaning about how poorly I felt. Like a flu that was never-ending. I can still see myself, talking to Abi (my amazing artist friend & collaborator at the time), in the Site Cafe. Chalking it all up to the affects of not drinking Coca-Cola any more. 


It is since then that I never know what to say about my birthday. I think it’s the reason I run off on it (pre covid). I’ll admit, it still sneaks up on me. But I’m still here. Even after the last 2 years of a pandemic (I’m surprised too). 


The miracle of science that pulled my dying body through the labyrinth of disease into a figurative and, in many ways, a literal rebirth.  Losing loved ones, & dear friends far too early, over the last weeks, months, years  reminds me that our days are not guaranteed. They are granted…by the good fortune of the dedication of doctors, nurses, a myriad of incredible allied healthcare professionals, community workers and the revolutionary scientists who dared to imagine that a nearly extinguished life could be restored by the blood of another & many medicines – often made from trees and other plants. And also by the unfair advantage I was given by being born in a country that has free at the point of access universal healthcare. And being friends with people in America who also worked in Healthcare & were also incredibly generous. 


 So many of you have sent me your kindness and well wishes today. I ask you for one more favor, though you owe me nothing.  Think about the science, the research, the ingenuity, the collaboration & the friendships that made this life of mine possible and the many before me who took a chance and broke the ground for all of us who might one day be saved by their bravery and sacrifice. This extends into everything. Not just illness, but public health, and protesting, all of the creative arts, people who help others every single day, in whatever way. 

These are the people who need us now. Tune yourself to the frequency of their peace and regeneration. I think everyone is moving through something. Sometimes it’s manageable and you can go it alone. Other times it’s not and the most subtle act of kindness or understanding is exactly what you need to slow down, get your bearings and find your way through. I guess that is what I am looking for in this year of Selenium.

 Selenium is like this, as it is used as an additive to make stainless steel. This means, it takes out the toxicity of lead and the likes, and makes steel stronger, more agile, more useful, less toxic, it helps other things. I am hoping this next year is more of this stronger, agile, light & hope and connectivity.  

Wherever this post finds you in life, whether you feel inclined to skip it or read it, I send it on with the sincere hope that whatever hardships and beauty you’ve encountered this past year. you find half the hardship and twice as much beauty in the next.


At least that’s what I am hoping for. To sweet Selenium.

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Off-ing: 2021 reflection comic

2021 was the year of “business as usual”, even though we had the biggest wave of COVID-19 and even more deaths in 2021 than we did in 2020. An epistemic harm, if there ever was one.

I, too lost someone very very close to me and a HUGE part of our everyday family. My nan. She didn’t die from Covid-19, but lockdown meant that we couldn’t be with her for 2 months ((she was in hospital for that time, after a massive stroke which left her unable to speak at all. This turned out to be a symptom of undiagnosed (but relatively asymptomatic until the stroke) late-stage pancreatic cancer)) before she died. I keep thinking about how scared & lonely she must have been. And all we could do was Facetime.

And I know that this reflects a vast majority of the population. So many of us have lost so much time with loved ones. Many who have since died or are dying – for whatever reason – and we know we won’t get that time back.

Now, I’m super 100% pro keeping people as safe as we can. (I obviously have an invested interest in keeping covid cases low as I am clinically vulnerable too). But I am not pro all of us – as a nation – all having lost something: a job, a home, a livelihood, a person. And society giving us no time, no understanding, no space, no language, no place to grieve. We all have to carry on, like we’re not missing something or a bit broken. I wish we had grief doulas.

In my year where I had to teach my first proper university studio-crit group, all on zoom, having never met my student’s once in person even though I got them to graduation. I had to run an election campaign as a 1st time, relatively unknown candidate in 2/3rd’s lockdown conditions, and I had to do my nan’s funeral in lockdown so we did the service outside around her grave instead, with only her closest friends able to come. I kept around 5 jobs going at the same time (all various levels of activity). Occassionally I have like a grief-spasm. Where a wave of it comes out from nowhere, for no reason. But goes almost as quickly and dramatically as it came. I get these same grief-waves when I read the news and government policies. No acknowledgment at all of everything we have lost. If we all stand so close to death and pain/suffering, collectively, like we have – we can not deny that we have not been changed.

So it was no wonder I went a bit quiet this year. I carry a pang of guilt that I’ve been fairly absent in a good chunk of my amazing friends’ lives, or not as active as I would like to be. Partly lockdown & that I still feel unsafe when in big groups, indoors. The in-joke is that I take 10 business days to reply a text (if you’re lucky). Instead, I had to find spaces of quiet to try and deal with the grief that I haven’t had space, or time, to deal with. I couldn’t do my normal running off for a roadtrip abroad somewhere, which is my usual grief technique. So I learned how to do it here, at home in the UK. A map exploring the spatiality of mourning.

This comic is all about this. I hope it will help you give yourself space too, if you see yourself and your own grief in these words.

Ultimately it concludes in a reminder (to myself, mostly) that if you pay enough attention to the present, you can see the future. You can learn, adapt, and allow space to be prepared for a world reshaped.

Thank you friends so much for your patience, support, understanding and love. It means so much to me. I hope I will be a better friend this year. With endless gratitude, always. Your friend, Smizz.

My 6+ Months Wrapped of Being a Councillor

One of my favourite things around this time of year is the Spotify Wrapped reflection of your year. The types of genres you listened to, how many new artists, what your top genres/songs/artists are. This year it even included your music’s aura! (Mine was upbeat & positive FYI & my spotify 2021 upbeat wrapped playlist is here if you fancy dancing out!)

So I thought, lets do it (Smizz style) for my just over 6 months as a councillor.

6 months as a councillor and 113 + individual cases

Things I’ve learned in the 6+ months is just how varied my weeks and casework is. Whilst I considered myself pretty political before I decided to run as a cllr, I was fairly naive to the sheer breadth & type of work you get to do *as* a councillor. And even how the council functions in its processes. Unlike many of my peers, I haven’t had anyone in my family be engaged in trade unions, or activism, or local council (officier or member) or government work. And whilst that is indeed a bit of a curse, it is equally a gift because i get to wonder why things are the way they are.

One day I am getting emails about people not picking up dog poo, the next day I am at an emergency CCG meeting with MPs about primary care access. One day I am planting trees, the next I’m reading a 300 page report on what the council’s quarterly outcomes have been.

I came into being a councillor as the youngest in my ward, and the newest. A first time runner. So I am a new face. Despite this, I’ve had *at least* 113 new individual case work since middle of May 2021 (more that i’ve not written down in my notebook). I don’t know if this is a lot or very little. But it’s enough to help me settle in.

That works out around 4.5 (round upto 5) cases a week. All through multiple different channels (email, social media, phone, letter, in person). It doesn’t sound like a lot, but at least 2 of those are often quite complex issues (like housing) and I am still learning where things are located (environment? highways? public health?) and who to go to? Then when you figure that out, you have to wait. Wait for a reply, and that reply often doesn’t answer your question, so you have to ask again in a different way. And wait. This makes the work add up.

Some weeks I’ll get 2 pieces of casework, some other weeks I can literally get 15 issues. You can guarantee these will happen when I have the world’s busiest work week or I’m working away (I also have like 3 different part time jobs on top of this).

This is on top of site visits, resident meetings, appreciative enquiry work, trying to mobilise groups, attend community events, responding to emergency events (which happen here far too often) and all of my council training and labour/council/chair meetings about meetings (as my bro likes to laugh about).

I thought in thinking about what matters to my residents, I would colour code each casework I got with a theme. And these are the biggest themes from May, and what I guess matters most to my residents. Or our biggest challenges as a ward/demographic?

I get soooo much about the environment. People love their parks grass to be cut, very regularly and to a very high standard. And why shouldn’t they? i do believe covid has helped people appreciate and notice outside spaces more.

We have a massive housing crisis happening across Doncaster. This is something I want to do a deep dive into next year, as chair. My heart sinks whenever I get housing emails for STLH house need.

Arguably Anti-Social Behaviour is the thing that my community talks about a lot. But they don’t report it officially. So then the cops say they can’t do anything. It really annoys me that they say that because they choose to not value my voice (the reason i exist as a councillor) as legitimate data. What is the point? Knowing how crime and community are nuanced, they should be open to more qualitative forms of data/evidence. Rather than the 101 system, which is flawed design-wise as well.

It was a sharp learning curve for highways, and their laws, when they put in a terrible road diversion system & sent endless of HGV trucks, speeding up, very small, busy residential streets with speed bumps for 3 weeks. That 3 weeks was hell. Esp because I lived on 1 of the streets affected. Massive trucks & oil tankers, and lorrys that carried 10s of cars getting stuck and honking at each other or resident car owners to move their cars. At all hours of the day. That story will be going in my future book 😉

A big chunk of my case work is drivers driving like dickheads. Or too many cars on the road. But then also cycle paths wind people up too. It’s tough work. And I wish I could stop drivers from being unsafe. There’s far too many on the roads across the country atm. Another police issue.

And then there’s the super varied! It goes from kids telling me swimming costs too much, to planning permission nightmares living in a conservation area, to listening to people’s stories of their experience with adult social care, and the council building stuff and not. anD So much more in between.

What a privilege!

When I first started this job. I knew nothing about flood design, drains, trees, highway laws, asset valuing, the localism act 2011, integrated care systems, balancing reserves, cycle lane engineering, planning laws (esp about fences), enforcement, (re)wilding, how to do a (political) motion, and a million other things.

The amazing officiers in the council have taught us newbies so much, and will continue to do so. I am in awe at their knowledge & experience, and how they juggle it all and then how they adapt to work with us as well.

We get sent emails of things that require a certain level of knowledge, to sign off on or to question. My knowledge is building up enough now that I can pull things out. Less things go by my nose. And i’m less nervous/anxious to ask what things are (my brain always makes things sound more exciting than they really are).

When I got elected, I had HUGE plans. However, I had no idea how many small tiny fires are happening across my ward in all different ways. And floods, mudslides and tornados damaging people’s properties. So the last 2 months I’ve been, finally, after finding my feet and putting many fires out or learning how to handle them, or spin multiple fires at once – i’m beginning the real good proactive stuff I wanted to become a councillor for. To get a sense of community feeling heard and going. And the best thing is… it’s STARTING TO HAPPEN. I can’t believe it.

We’re writing half a million pound business plans to save our heritage buildings, waiting to see if we get 100k for a new playground grant, developing community gardens in an area that people wrongly say wouldn’t be engaged, working to make our parks a future green flag park in the future. We’ve helped people make many community groups. And there’s so much more, and much more yet to come. Good and bad.

Sometimes I have really bad days. Where I feel powerless. Like what-is-even-the-point? Then something happens. The smallest of small wins, a nice email, a gentle but deep conversation with a resident. You can hear it in their voice when they feel heard. It just switches everything. On those bad days I think, gosh if I feel powerless in this system, no wonder our communities are sometimes apathetic and disillusioned. So it reminds me to keep ongoing. That’s the main goal of this 4 years. Is to help my community feel heard. feel less apathy. to feel like things are happening. And they helped make them happen. That’s the real joy.

So all in all. 6+ months wrapped. In my novice beginners mode. I don’t think it’s been too shabby. And it’s still an absolute privilege. I still pinch myself when I’m in the chamber, I still can’t get used to being referred to as councillor or cllr smith. I still get dead nervous before any scrutiny. And i never take any part of what I do as a given.

I have been lent this opportunity to serve. I will continue to take every opportunity I can to keep on learning to be better to serve those in need. And I am humbled and grateful all the time for this experience.

Thanks for all your trust, patience and reaching out residents of Adwick & Carcroft ward. Y’all amazing.

Here’s to the next year, taking this learning and applying it wider and faster.

Waves, Currents & Time: Lessons from nearly a decade living with pain.

A few days ago, it was the 9th anniversary of when my life dramatically changed by an illness. It feels weird calling it an anniversary, and it feels weird monitoring the time that has passed, and making a note on what’s happened since. It keeps me grounded, a reminder that we are owed no time. But it also feels necessary. I think as humans, we need stories/narratives to help us understand things. And this helps me deal with the after currents of that fateful time.

When we were younger there wasn’t any classification of time beyond tenses, however, for adults, over the years time seems to get categorised along a new dimension; that of quality. Since I now live a life that’s likely to be much shorter, I wonder a lot about time. But I think categorizing time is the wrong method.

We delude ourselves into thinking that spending ‘Quality Time’ is the best way there is. As an effect, we end up spending significantly less time and miss out on countless beautiful moments serendipity would have presented to us.

After that fateful illness event & everything it encompassed, my life fractured hard, time was broken.

My timeline branched for me.

In one timeline, I went on living in Sheffield and NYC, building this proper some-what self important/self-absorbed/ego-based art practice, that was my life.

But in the new timeline, the one I’m living in today, I spent months in hospitals and in bed at my mom’s house in the Donx, going through various tests & treatments and feeling more pain than I’d ever felt before, unsure if I’d ever get to leave or live.

I had 100’s of people rally around me and literally saved my life — something I think about every single day. A literal second chance. Months… nearly 2 years later, weak and hobbled, I was forever changed.

I kept coming back to this question in my head: What’s a meaningful life – and whether I had one? Because is there any point in saving my life if it wasn’t a meaningful one?  

I couldn’t get my old life back, even if I wanted to; because it didn’t fit anymore. But I was gifted a new one. Back here in Doncaster.

I can tell you those were the most painful months of my life, and even though I am still living with the legacy of chronic illness today, I know I’m in the right timeline, in the right multiverse.  

One where time suddenly became way more important, and my “where/why” had changed.

It is now a where of friendship and love. Not just one of loss. For me friendship is a tool of social activism. It’s about the renewal of our imagination about who we are and who we wish to become.

It’s about being in a discourse and engaging in things about others and us. To be or want to be entwined in allegiance!

I came out of that time with a list of things I’d always wanted to do, terrified of being back in the hospital in a year or two with regrets. So I got going.

I retrained & graduated top of my class in radiotherapy & oncology & won a bunch of awards for my patient care & research. I adopted a border collie dog. I did more inner work, took bigger risks – like going for councillor and I travelled to a ton of places around the globe on my fuck it list.

One thing on that list was surfing.

And here this taught me more about time, and living.

The surfer is never done surfing.

Each wave can be completely different from the next. The ocean is the definition of chaos and power.

Some waves are slow and crash quickly. You might get a lousy wave and manage to pull a few tricks out of nowhere and impress the judges. Other times, when you get that perfect wave, but you mess it up.

In surfing, letting the present moments pass to seize on supposedly better time ahead is a waste. A reminder that however hard we try, we can’t plan or wait for raw emotions to show up.

Each wave is different.

But the wave you get is the wave you get. And that’s life.

There’s always one more wave to catch. A community is never truly done.

I wonder if surfings purpose is to teach me to be patient.

You have to realize at moments that you’re on nature’s schedule. And nature’s schedule is never perfect or convenient. There is no substitute for being there, and there is no way to schedule the most important moments of your life. They just happen or, if you’re not there, they just don’t. It doesn’t go according to some predetermined plan. Epic surf days, piss poor ones, and average ones are all part of the journey.

The communities and artists journeys are the same. Much like the surfer has to be patient enough to develop their style, the artist and community has to be patient enough to develop a voice.

If you do either of these things for long enough, you’ll realize that waves come in sets. Unfortunately, the only way you learn to avoid the impact zone is by getting caught in it. It’s a lesson in timing. Like falling in love, it’s just right or just not.

And if you decide to take the journey, you should be ready for the ride of your life. But catch one good wave and you’ll be hooked.

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Surfing, like art, is thrilling precisely because of its unpredictability. Its about depth, and as a lifelong practice.

Being an amateur surfer makes me realize that sucking at something where the stakes are low can lead us to a better place.

Seeing ourselves repeatedly doing something we suck at — no matter how trivial — might make us a bit more sympathetic to how hard so many things really are: trying to navigate health issues, listening to our neighbours, or changing hostile cultures.

By exposing ourselves to the experience of trying and failing we might develop more empathy. If we succeed in shifting from snap judgments to patience, maybe we could be a little more helpful to one another — and a whole lot more understanding.

We forget that the deepest conversations, emotional moments, instances of intimacy that grow a relationship are often unplanned. Also, you get to learn more about yourself and others on such regular occasions.

Here in this branched timeline, I devoted myself full-time to living as if I was on borrowed time.

It’s easy to answer the question, “How would you spend your time if you only had a few years left?  Or what would a place be like in a parraell universe” It’s much, much harder when you don’t know how much time you’ve got or don’t know how to create change.

At a quantum level, we have  probability waves, instead of particles of solid objects, describing the various positions that could potentially be occupied. Surfing waves of energy gives us new belief that we can create some sort of change.

The most fundamental change in this new Doncaster multiverse is that I no longer act like our time’s infinite. That’s our default mindset, but it’s a lie.

I only have so many hours or days with my mom or my dog left. I can only read so many more books. I only get so many more christmases, or surf sessions, or birthdays, or phone calls with friends. So I’d better choose what matters to me.

I have learned that there’s a BIG difference between being alive, and FEELING alive. So it really drives home whatever time I have left, I have to “own” it.

I’m a believer in the ordinary and the mundane, something we forget to enjoy. Money is circulated, time is spent – we can always get money back – but we can’t ever get time back.

As i’ve said over the last 8 years on here, I have some time, and if I use it well, it will be more than enough.

We can’t stop the waves, but we can learn to surf.

You don’t “find your calling,” you fight for it.

Today, after a full on week of work & activity, I woke up with an age old pain. It’s a reminder that I can’t take things for granted. But that also time has a way of putting things back where they belong. Love has a way of breaking the silence.

Every Where Is Some Where

Throughout our lives, we will come to find ourselves in a lot of different places

a lot of different rooms

a lot of different corners

a lot of different wheres

those wheres will be unexpected. they will surprise us, scare us, change everything, change nothing, and break our hearts.

when i was younger, my father made us homeless (it was really complicated but basically us fleeing a violent domesticated living situation.) My mom, my bro and i left our home, a banged up car packed full of suitcases and some boxes. i don’t remember the packing, but i do remember the leaving. it was chilly and wet in Doncaster. In the middle of a blistery November.

The interesting thing is, when you’re made homeless – the act of being homeless doesn’t naturally give you enough points for a council house (extremely flawed, something i still detest now). So we were officially homeless.

the plan was to move in with my nan and her 1 bedroom house, and later friends whilst we figured it out. We ended up sleeping in the car a few times, and ended up in temporary accommodation which would change daily across South Yorkshire for 6 months – all whilst I was doing my GCSEs/AS Levels at school.

I remember pulling up at my nan’s super small house. There was heavy air when we parked the car in a new driveway. my mom and i were both crying, for different reasons, but also some of the same ones. and then, as sure as the first hand clicks from 12 to 1, it all seemed insane and hilarious — the clothes we brought with us, the rain, the escape from a shitty situation, the stupid little banged up car.

‘we’ll laugh about this some day’ my mom said and we both laughed. because even though it was hard to leave many (too many) years of an awful domestic violent relationship, and a home we had invested in and had happy memories too, and terrible to be soaked with rain and confusing as to what would happen next and where we would live, we were alive and together.

and at that moment, our “where” changed. it became a where of friendship and love. not just one of loss.

experience is subjective. we get to decide what’s devastating, what’s beautiful, and what we do next.

When I fell properly sick and ended up with a devastating diagnosis – whilst working at Summer Camp no less. I was put in this same place.

I wasn’t sure how long I would be around, I wondered about if I would ever be remembered, what I had done to the earth, if I had tried to make things better, if I was an OK person or not… I worried and wondered about this stuff a lot. I still worry about it. But it does make my trajectory to where I am now – make more sense.


It has long been believed that there is a fundamentally human need to have a dream life. It’s why we have fables and fairy tales, where the stories we both tell and hear – wishful and fanciful, if by their very nature apocryphal endure precisely because they appeal to a fundamental human appetite for wonder and mystery, illusion and fantasy.

At the same time they feed our craving for a kind of moral certainty, an established bank of truths. At it’s core, all storytelling is perhaps a form of fantasy. piquing the senses, provoking the mind, feeding the imagination.

Having the opportunity to listen to, re-write, present and create and make these stories for myself has been the best reminder that the best way to grow – as a maker/artist/designer/HCP/person/councillor ect is to keep on doing things: to look closely, really listen – really pay attention – to try and think both objectively with intuition and compassion: – to ultimately imagine fiercely.

Einstein once wrote that: “knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

I feel like it’s my duty, as an artist and healthcare professional and now cllr, to try to begin to map the future, to invent and make the things we need to better the world (together, collectively), things we can use to improve quality of life and time.

but along the way, i’m reminded that the process is as valuable as the product, the method as potentially revelatory as the motive.

in the books of our lives, we are both protagonist and narrator. and narrators have incredible power.

in writing this, i thought a lot about the places that shape us, and how, in turn, we shape those places in our minds. as human beings living on earth right now, we find ourselves in a very particular where. the planet is getting warmer, the internet is getting bigger, social care is perhaps one of the West’s biggest challenges, poverty is always on the increase, the stakes are as grave as ever.

Every once in a while, i get to stop and smile and get to hit pause, just because. When the clouds get darker, and the rain pours down, we need to take a moment to gather a seat on the ground.

every place, every where, is just some place, some where.

i think you can understand the fact of your own smallness in this world while still celebrating the very particular singularity of who you are and where you happen to stand. look down at your feet and decide what that means.

instead of being afraid, i’m going to try to be brave.

instead of feeling regret, i’m going to focus on getting better tomorrow.

and instead of hoping that someone else will say it, or move it, or mean it; i’ll try and do to do it myself.

Every day is a fight against the status quo if you truly want to make it better.

You don’t “find your calling,” you fight for it.

A Fortunate Kid: a clerk of records for the people

One of my favourite books is John Berger’s A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. In my mind, it is perhaps the 2nd best of John Berger books and yet most of my (art or healthcare) friends have never read it.

To me it is a masterpiece of witness: a moving meditation on humanity, society and the value of healing.  The subject of the book, Dr John Sassall, emerges as an individual deeply committed to inner reflection as well as to his vocation as a physician.

I’m not even a month into being a councillor, my first time, but there’s lots to learn. People keep asking me what it’s like and if I like it?

I’ve been thinking about what it’s like; it’s both strange and really familiar. It seems to be all the roles I’ve ever had before, but mashed together. A bit like being a (social engaged) artist – meets being a radiotherapist/healthcare professional. (things I already am). It’s all about listening, really truly hearing and seeing people and their lives, and being unjudgemental about it all. And then some of that is coming up with solutions/actions and overseeing ways of delivery to making things better.

It still feels weird being called Cllr Smith. I don’t think i’ve ever had anything with such prestige before. Having spoken to/visited in-person around 15 people so far, more including those affected by flooding, I realize that it feels like kind of an old school role. Most people invite you into their homes, give you endless cups of tea, apologise profusely about their house when it’s fine and clean. You see where they live and how they live. You don’t just find out what’s bothering them, but a life story always emerges. Clues in their environment helps to tell their story too. Most people don’t want to contact you but you’re the person they come to because they’ve either exhausted all options or have no idea where else to go.

It *feels* like what i remember my very early years living here in my community. in the late 90’s, early ’00s. In a crisis, people all come out together. They keep everyone effected updated, and when you visit – they all come outside into their gardens. Chatting over garden flower beds and washing lines.

When explaining it to friends I say, “have you read John Berger’s ‘Fortunate man’? because it’s a bit like that!” They say no of course, ha!

A Fortunate Man is an homage not just to the doctor but to a way of practising medicine that is disappearing. Dr Sassall has made a Faustian pact: he is rewarded with endless opportunities for experiencing the possibilities inherent in human lives, but at the cost of being subject to immense and, at times, unbearable pressures.

Now, I’m not writing this about the inherent, unbearable pressures side of that book, but about the community care part. That primary care physician running around the community might be dying out due to the ever changing demands of healthcare & complex disease profiles now and processes. But the councillor role feels like it’s still the same when it comes to the people.

The book opens with a series of “case studies”, though that term is a bit too clinical and doesn’t reflect the emotional subtlety of Berger’s word. They are glimpses of the situations Dr. Sassall responds to every day.

The thing it reminds me most of the councillor role is how these “case studies” also show how powerful an influence the landscape exerts on the community and its stories. Berger writes in the opening pages: “Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place.” Within that landscape the community looks to Dr. Sassall as a “clerk of records”; the figure to whom they tell their stories: “He keeps the records so that, from time to time, they can consult them themselves.”

Berger and Mohr follow Dr. Sassal through these parallel landscapes – the physical landscape of rural England and the metaphorical one of his patients’ lives.

Now, I’m no doctor. And the only thing I’ve contributed/completed so far is helping to move slippy, thick slurry off paths at 11 o’clock at night and got someone a new green bin replaced… for free! I know, exciting stuff. But, this landscape here – the stories of peoples lives, the complexities, how it all comes together. It’s so powerful, and poignant. It’s basically old school primary care for the civic, rather than the body. Though, if you get it right – it also eventually helps the body too.

Towards the end of the book, Berger tries to make an assessment of Sassall’s contribution to society, but finds that he cannot. A society that doesn’t know how to value the lives of its people can’t adequately account for the value of easing their suffering.  That’s where we are at now. That’s what we have to try and ease and figure out how to make things better, in spite of forever cut budgets and declining living standards + life-expectancy and increase of poverty and all the complex-knock-on-effect stuff that comes with it.

It’s about getting to know people/residents well; caring for them in their own homes and communities; managing uncertainty; gauging when and what to push for. 

I get classed as a politician now. But I’m not quite sure a councillor *is* a politician? By being classed as that, I am now synonymous with a lot of negative stuff: corruption, greed, laziness, not a real person. This does hurt my feels a bit. In our defence I’d argue that a good local councillor & team can be a restorative, engaging and deeply affirming for both residents and councillor. I don’t think people really know what your councillor does and sees, and hopefully this kind of reflective writing widens the scope a bit. I think the UK councillor role is an unique, and valuable one.

It’s a forever dance with the relation between the visible and the invisible between both my residents stories, and our roles as councillors. The (councillor) eye becomes the depositary and source of clarity; it has the power to bring a truth to light.

Just like in my life where I am indeed, many things at once: artist, lecturer, healthcare professional, researcher, patient. A councillor is also many things at once: counselling of listening, resident, social observation, photography, biography, philosophy, policy. It is, ofc, always a work in progress.

What’s it like being a councillor then? Just like the doctor in Fortunate Man, I am now a clerk of records for the people that I live among. And I am grateful for it.

Re-Building Compassionate, Playful and Powerful Communities

8 days ago, i was elected as a local (Labour Party) councillor. 8 days on, I still can’t quite believe that the electorate has lent me their trust and votes. That’s all it is though, a lending. I need to earn it over the next 4 years. I hope, with all my heart, that I will do this.

Any of you following my blogposts over the years will note that i come with a varied skillset and experience profile. I’m an artist (unusual for a “politician”), i’m a qualified therapeutic radiographer – but now work in cancer research (not on the shop-floor so-to-speak). My work here has helped to enhance the communication & experience of radiotherapy for patients and others alike.

My experiences of what it feels like to be chronically ill and its effects on your life has moved this, making me extremely patient/people centred and passionate about (all kinds of) health & social care policy. I’ve also been working in Public Health for the last 3+ years. And I design new health & social care services/things, made WITH the people who use & work within them, get them commissioned, & change their access & experience of care that way (in a positive way). I get to do this in my multiple roles as an artist/designer freelancer.

Outside of this, I grew up very poor, in the most working class home and neighbourhood, and then I experienced homelessness with my family when I was 15 due to domestic violence. I was elected a Donx Youth Councillor just as I became homeless all those years ago.

So it always hurts my feelings a bit when people say “We [politicians] are all the same, or corrupt” or “Labour isn’t working class anymore.” Because it’s obvious – visually, when you meet me – that i am not the same. I can’t even imagine myself as being corrupt – i’ve spent my life trying to bring injustices to light. and I’m as working class as we come. But I just so happen to have a university education now. That doesn’t change these experiences that have made me, and how I still live, my culture etc. And I am still affected by my working classness in how I have to navigate fields/industries that are laced with class issues and inequalities.

I’m a big believer that our life experiences form who we are and what we can do. Being narrators of our own stories comes with a big power. We can get to decide what’s devastating, what’s not and what we can pick ourselves up from or can’t. But some of that, we still have no control of. Just our actions going forward.

Not everyone is as lucky as me (trust me, luck is a huge factor in here). Despite an illness nearly ruining my life, and the sheer stress and danger of growing up in a not safe household – it made me want to stand up. It made me realize that the everyday status is quo, and we have to actively fight to get beyond status quo. which is energy draining.

It made me see the world, from a very young age, and to see that inequality and unfairness isn’t an accident. IT IS DESIGNED.

The action of social justice has always moved me. For fairness, clarity, care, justice and innovation. And that collaboration is part of that. No decision about me without me!

In my new role as a councillor, i am wanting to build upon what Jon Alexander names as the “Citizen Story” where:

‘the role of government is neither all nor nothing, but in between: to equip and enable us, and to partner with us; to share as much information and power as possible, so that we can work together with government and with one another to create a new normal.

It’s about stepping into the power we already have as citizens.

So many people don’t realize that they have the power.

That’s a clear big 11 year project from the Tories that has drained most of our hope, making us feel like we can’t even dare to dream bigger, that we somehow don’t believe we deserve to have our kids education properly funded, or an NHS that’s fully funded. That unknown ideas might become “wasteful” – even tho we know unknown ideas are the things that always drives us forwards.

i’ve seen the power of my community. I don’t know if they can see it themselves though? So that’s going to be one of the things I will be working on, with them.

When Covid-19 happened in March 2020, Johnson wasn’t going to help stop the spread of the virus. It was the collective action of a nation, of multiple 10000s of communities coming together and demanding through their own actions for the government to announce an official lockdown and therefore having to embed support for those who needed it. We’re led to believe, probably by the media, that we’re becoming more and more individualistic. There are people who are, ofc. But they’re still a minority.

This past year & a half, we have seen that we care about each other deeply. We want to work together. We want to be useful. (and i’m one of those people). let’s harness this.

You start with truth.

There’s no single right answer. Everyone has experienced things differently and had different experiences.

everyone has their own story and everyones story is equally important. I hope I can help to make people feel heard.

Throw in laws, other organizations and money into the mix and it gets so much more tricky. If we try and plan out the most perfect plan, and try and ignore the bits that don’t fit your picture – you will be doomed for it to not work, and not in a good way.

There must always be truth, communication, collaboration, co-ordination and conscious learning.

HYPER-LOCAL. Not centralized.

In the Citizen Story leadership model – the central government should give local government more £££ and autonomy. And the local government with the communities/citizens work together what needs to happen with that.

In spite of Local government getting £120+ million LESS per year across each council (thanks to the Tories), the Donx has been developing the community, compassionate, people & earth focused model. It’s super refreshing. And i am super stoked to be doing this with my community.

A great example of where this has worked is Test & Trace centrally didn’t work, so local authorities had to lobby the government to take charge of it in their own areas. Our council did this and it’s been super successful. Imagine if we did that from March 2020 onward. Using our own knowledge of communities, with communities – the picture would have looked a lot different.

In the Citizen story, though, councils are vital. They are citizen enablers, not service providers. When power and resources are pushed down to the local level, they are much closer to us. Whitehall cannot make the places where we live better. We can (with funding ofc). We cannot know our ministers.

We can know our councillors; we can be councillors. I want you TO KNOW ME. Some of you already know me. This is going to be key. I want more people to know that they can, & should, do this too!

A shift from “Us and Them” To “A Larger Us”

Just take any Boris Johnson story over the last year & it obviously has HUGE them & us vibes. They (he) can do whatever he likes without succumbing to the same rules/laws/morals as us. He isn’t affected by anything he does but would disproportionate negatively affect us if we did it. For example: Breaking lockdown rules during lockdown 1, or CCJ debts where a normal citizen would have been hounded or jailed for.

this sentiment lies heavy, that’s why I am branded with the same brush of politicians “always being the same” – because the current government shows this in the most extreme way, than we have ever seen before!

The Citizen story rejects this separation. We are all of us citizens, and some of us for various amounts of time take on the tasks of politics. It is a spectrum, not a binary distinction. My task is to shred this negative baggage of the binary we have created.

Using my art/design and co-creation/collaborative background –  We will be thinking about how to design/give space for dialogue platforms to enable citizens to contribute to ideas more.

These are already happening. Esp in my local community too. To remember that the word ‘government’ is a verb, something we do together; not a noun, an institution that stands apart. 

Alexander talked about a booked called A Paradise Built In Hell, (2009) about human response to disasters through history, where the American philosopher and activist Rebecca Solnit describes how communities invariably come together, developing new ways not just to survive but to thrive, healing old wounds, and finding joy in the process. She also articulates the root cause of a phenomenon where Government can do more harm than good, which disaster scholars call “elite panic”:

“The elite often believe that if they themselves are not in control, the situation is out of control.”

We are seeing this currently in Police Bills that will take away our right to protest, Citizen Identification Rules in order to vote – stopping over 2 million people’s ability to participate in democratic acts/rights. We’ve never had such an elitest government in such a way for decades and decades. Their discomfort with this situation of citizens becoming more active is ironic, given that this group came to power with the slogan “Take back control”: it seems they meant “give us control”, rather than intending for us actually to get involved

So many of us have already done so much for our communities, but far from seeing this as a burden we cannot wait to set down, we have taken joy and pride in doing so. But we are in control, I believe, and are starting to build the institutions, structures and processes that could lead to a very different future.

The Donx has an incredible new team of people focused, citizen grounded councillors with an amazing compassionate, people & earth focused plan and vision.

Together, I can’t wait for us to work to build it locally, reinventing ways on how we understand these structures and radically keep it all open for us all to be part and active within it.

How? By listening, being there, being an active citizen, building accessibility, dealing with epistemic injustices, investing into people. being creative, playful and having fun whilst doing it.

The arts are a great way to engage, show, raise, do difficult things/topics/issues together. And I can’t wait to give it a go alongside all of my other cllr duties.

***all text images are all from artist Ruth Beale kids club hosted at TACO more info at: https://taco.org.uk/The-Hundred-Club  (its london based – but will like to do something similiar here)

2020: A year meant for listening & learning – but are we doing it?

I’ve spent many years doing this Live Drawing gig. It’s my biggest livelihood maker. I get to draw and learn for most of my living! How cool is that? Alot of people wonder how I can listen and remember and draw – stuff that I might not actually know, hearing the content for the first time – all at the same time! So when the speaker has finished – the drawing is pretty much finished too. It’s live. There’s no space for making post-it-notes and then draw/edit later. That’s not how I do it. Because then that wouldn’t be the real essence of that talk. It would be my memory of the bits I understood the most or stood out. It wouldn’t be the actual talk. That’s not my style. I like to include all the stories and bits in it that a lot of other graphic facilitators miss out. I try to capture not what’s just being said, but the heart and context of it all.

This year, the year of Lockdown, I lost 85% of my livelihood & gigs in a New York minute ( I -luckily – picked up other work elsewhere) as conferences and workshops all stopped. And I am nervous for the future of what that work will look like. But I will adapt, I am sure.

When I was learning this craft of mine; the ability to properly listen became my superpower. Just listening. It gave up space for me to carry on making all these connections, storing it, and drawing — whilst listening to the next new stuff.

It made me realize that a lot of us aren’t ever 100% properly listening (including myself!) When was the last time really listened, without thinking about what you wanted to say next, glancing down at your phone or jumping in to offer your opinion? And when was the last time someone really listened to you? Was so attentive to what you were saying and whose response was so spot on that you felt truly understood… really heard?

We are encouraged to listen to our hearts, our inner voices and our guts, but rarely are we encouraged to listen carefully and purposefully to other people.

The year of zoom/ms teams/skype/jitsi/etc has been a wild one. Social online gatherings with physical lags – conversations staggered, frozen; the worlds most awkward pauses because we can’t see peoples body languages to see if they’re going to say something next. Online and in person, it’s all about defining yourself, shaping the narrative and staying on message.

And yet, listening can be more valuable than speaking. Wars have been fought, fortunes lost, health decreased and friendships & communities wrecked for lack of listening. It is only by listening that we engage, understand, empathize, cooperate and develop as human beings. It is fundamental to any successful relationship — personal, professional and political.

The lack of listening is causing a whole host of issues. A push of misinformation, of people following radically bad groups, of the pandemic of loneliness & mental health issues — and this was before the Covid-19 pandemic… extra not being listened to just exasperated these issues further. as does access to the technology that can exasperate it.

As a healthcare professional, and someone that works in all areas of health & the community, one thing that comes up again and again is experiences of not being listened to. It’s hard to pin-point exactly what makes a good listener – but ask any patient or member of the public about experiences with professionals – medical or otherwise – and they’re likely talk about times when they felt not listened to. the sad truth is that people have more experience being cut off, ignored and misunderstood than heard to their satisfaction.

When I was suffering from never-ending BAD headaches, a sexist neurologist told me it was (in so many words) that it’s mostly young women who suffer from chronic headaches so it’s not serious or a big issue ( was for me, obvs) and that it’s likely from a trauma, but doesn’t have to be a big trauma, just something small like… looked me up and down… and said, “something small like not fitting in.” The dude had properly judged me & thought I wouldn’t pick up on his judgements of words. Of course, in these situations where something is so vitally important – you remember everything. You’re the best listener ever. You pick up on mean bits of language like that, everything else is hightened too – like the sick coloured walls surrounding you, the very garish 60’s furniture. And you remember it. That was 5 years ago.

He told me to go to talking therapy before he’d even do any investigations or prescribe me something. At the time I was exasperated by this, as I was already feeling very much on the edge, after 18 months never ending headache. But you have to play the NHS game. You follow the rules, and TBH I would have done anything to help. If he told me to hang upside down, singing one direction songs for 5 days in a row – I would have done it.

But I was a bit skeptical. I got an appointment a few weeks later. And I spoke to this counsellor dude, who was obviously assessing me and where i’d fit best – into what programme. He asked questions and I spoke. We talked for nearly 2 hours. And at the end of it – he said he didn’t think I needed talking therapy – unlessss I wanted it – but i needed a second opinion from a diff neurologist. He told me he thought that I was incredibly strong with everything I had gone through (this nearly broke me).

It didn’t make my headache go away. But it did make me feel better, generally, in my self — in my soul. And I realized that it was because for the first time – ever? in a long time…. I felt heard and really truly listened too. I can’t actually explain what he did that made him feel like the most exceptional listener – but I think it was in his timing of the questions, his body languages and the words of his questions. The spaces? The time, maybe? I used that service once, & I still tell others to go and use it.

I discovered that listening goes beyond simply hearing what people say. It also involves paying attention to how they say it and what they do while they are saying it, in what context, and how what they say resonates within you.

A lot of listening has to do with how you respond — the degree to which you facilitate the clear expression of another person’s thoughts and, in the process, crystallize your own.

Good listeners ask good questions. I was in the Doncaster Freepress this year, and I’ve since become good friends with the journalist who wrote my piece. And I knew she was an awesome journalist because she knows that anyone can be interesting if you ask the right questions. That is, if you ask truly curious questions that don’t have the hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing or correcting. And she does that. interrogation will get you information, but it won’t be credible or reliable.

I believe as a nation, The UK, we are in a grave position because we have a leader and a government cabinet – picked only for their deficiencies – who can’t or refuse to listen. They are making the same mistakes over and over and over again, making problems even worse. There’s no more excuses. Their inability to listening is deafening. We’ve just got one of the worst deals in modern history with our biggest trade partnering block – all under the disguise of Brexit – a scapegoat by a government who has undercut millions of working class and lower middle class people and told them it’s the EU or immigration. NOT choices by a government that does not or simply chooses not to listen or understand.

How you listen can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you could actually make it so. Moreover, listening to other people makes it more likely other people will listen to you. 

Listening is a skill. And as with any skill, it degrades if you don’t do it enough. It’s something I had to learn to do well for my live-drawing, and something I will worry about not doing as much of it for the future. Some people may have stronger natural ability while others may have to work harder, but each of us can become a better listener with practice. The more people you listen to, the more aspects of humanity you will recognize, and the better your instincts will be. Listening well can help you understand other people’s attitudes and motivations, which is essential in building cooperative and productive relationships, as well as discerning which relationships you’d be better off avoiding. When you experience what good listening is too, you know how to ensure you can try and make other people feel like that too. It’s something I am forever striving to do in all of practices – art, health, teaching, life and beyond.

We are, each of us, the sum of what we attend to in life. The soothing voice of a parent, the sound of the ocean or rain, the guidance of a mentor, the admonishment of a supervisor, the rallying call of a leader and the taunts of a rival ultimately form and shape us. And to listen poorly, selectively or not at all limits your understanding of the world, and can do significant harm like it is doing now.

Let’s start to demand to be really listened to by those in power, or the very least – bin the current government for one that is human, and listened. Let’s start really truly listening. Not hi-jacking, not waiting for our turn to speak. But be present with those around us. 2020 is a lesson in what not listening to people ends up doing.

Somethings Take Time To See

It was around the end of 2011 when my super good friend, and great artist & writer, Paul Harrison and I got together in a Cafe Nero in Doncaster (The only place to get a decent chai-tea latte in the area at the time… maybe it still is) and we talked about how we thought new media art and ‘socially engaged’ art were crucial tools to help enable critical thinking— and therefore —- more openness.  Perhaps it could help enhance a more epistemic justice. Because gosh knows there needed to be. It was a crucial time. The Tories had just gotten into power the year before and their cutting of projects, programs, funding, closing libraries and youth centres and the trippling of universities fees was happening right in front of our eyes. Lots of protests, lots of petitions to sign in the beginning. It felt important to try and provide a place where people could connect – learn – listen – without needing much more than 10 mins. But give it light, give it time, give people a space, and elevate it.

We were sick of the insular systems surrounding the artworld (& outside in a lot of institutions) – who gets to speak and from where? Who always gets a big chunk of the opportunities and the dialogue? What kinds of voices are not as-well-acknowledged and represented as they should be? We also wanted to share people’s passions- unedited. it didn’t need to be a flow funny or deep narrative that’s curated like TED talks are (which they are). it can – and should – just be words that needed to be said. No scripts. Not really a time limit (tho for our art making needed to be around 10 mins & also increase the likilhood someone would have time to listen)

We talked at ends and decided that our individual practices might not be the vehicle for it. So that’s where we decided to create F/o/r/c/e– which stands for Free. Online. Radically. Collected. Education.

The mission: A force for good! In Italian forza means strength. To give voice across to anyone, to give strength – especially to those who don’t usually get to. And we’d create art/videos that would go with these stories/ideas/thoughts/journeys/whatever the person wanted to talk about.

We created it, together. Website, got people to provide us with their loves. wrote a manifesto. found things we thought was F/O/R/C/E-y – and then after our first video I got super sick where fatigue & pain over took my life & it lasted fucking ages, so Paul did a lot of the brunt of the work.

Time went by and then I decided that this experience and the experiences I had gained – was to be in healthcare to deal with the episetmic injustices there but also be one of the people who provide deep listening and empathy with compassion of a persons experience with illness and this treatment pathway.  I went to study radiotherapy & Paul went to Tokyo to work. We had a conversation maybe 2 years ago? Maybe it was a year ago. We weren’t sure whether we should close this project that had only just felt like it had begun, and be able to maybe do something else. I wasn’t too sure myself. Part guilt, probably from not pulling my weight as much as I would have liked back in 2012 and in 2014/5. I said, let’s leave it open. Not sure the action of closing is the right way. We did default on our website domain website payments tho. So now we lost an archive of material somewhere in the web.

And F/O/R/C/E has sat here. With cool videos on our vimeo page https://vimeo.com/user15467645 – a twitter page full of incredible links – archived stuck in a set of time https://twitter.com/FORCElectures (not sure i’ll be able to re-open this account as our email is long dead).

But I realize under this year’s events – in particular (though we did start it in the upheaval of austerity Britain) – we need something like F/O/R/C/E more than ever. We need spaces away from the oppressive & recessive histories and structures that crush voices, that tell people that their thing or stories are that that ones no one wants to hear about.

We need Spaces to document these turbulent times – whether its a pandemic or a call for equity and epistemic justice.  We want to make art with a persons talk – to show that it deserves attention.

The core of most of our problems in society today, whether its care experiences in healthcare, or Brexit, or racism, or kids not paying attention in school, etc – is that people want to feel like they’re being lustened to – and feel valued. that they have your attention. So many of us feel unheard and it’s a harm. These harms come in many forms – either hermunatically or testimonially  (predominately) – and if we keep on ignoring the and changing the structures that keep alowing such harms than i feel like it will continue to get worse.

and I think F/O/R/C/E is one of those many spaces here, and to come, to help house and store and share and platform this stuff / these experiences. It reminds me a lot of how we’re taught these days, and how systems and money is used, that everything needs to be spent by the next finacial year – that courses need to be complete in x amount of months. We give up when we don’t see results after so long. We might be forgetting the joy and the revelations in the long game – and this reminds me that we can not rush things – especially when they involve listening. For listening and really hearing are timeless.

So it’s now my turn to carry most of our next engagements/work forward. I’m going to recollect all our bits together – and the content will likely be slow and steady – but that’s because deep listening takes time. I hope you’ll follow along.

I’ll leave you with Paul Harrison excellent essay post about it from 2014 on the excellent Aesthetics of Protest site:  http://aestheticsofprotest.org/force-lectures/

And I hope you’ll give our Facebook page a like if you haven’t already F/o/r/c/e

Here’s some videos we made for peoples stories/ideas/journey/thoughts/experiences

Ashley Holmes, ‘Nothing To Lose’ F/O/R/C/E from F/O/R/C/E Lectures on Vimeo.

Yvonne Yang Guang – ‘The Stingy Artist’ -F/O/R/C/E from F/O/R/C/E Lectures on Vimeo.

 

More videos here: https://vimeo.com/user15467645

(photos from my wordpress archive in  2011, ha!)