This is Me
Diversity is a word we hear so much these days that it almost loses its meaning through overuse. But what does it actually mean to celebrate diversity? To pursue diversity? To elevate diverse voices?
Programmes, initiatives and drives that focus on visual identifiers like gender, ethnicity or age are relatively common, familiar and, of course, welcome, in the workplace, community groups and even government. However, how does one access the stories, perspectives and ideas of those whose lives may differ drastically from our own, in ways that encompass but also go beyond the visual? Equally, how can stories of hope and resilience be shared, to the benefit of the listener, whoever you may be?
Drive Forward Foundation’s forthcoming exhibition, This is Me, invites you to experience the lives of eleven young care leavers, through their own words and portraits. Over six years of frontline work supporting a severely disadvantaged client group into work, our staff have been consistently enlightened and humbled by the stories of these young people. Many of them have suffered incredible hardship; their lives have been subject to a wide array of stresses that no child or youth should be forced to endure. They have found themselves navigating a complex world with a rare degree of independence, sometimes from a startlingly young age. Whilst individual experience and situation may differ, the road to adulthood has not been easy for any of them.
Discourse around care leavers, who make up just one per cent of the British population, is limited in general. What comes to the fore most prominently are statistics on life expectancy, unemployment, crime and mental health. The young people we work with have revealed to us again and again that their unique circumstances and the multifaceted nature of their identities often feel to them to be misunderstood and lacking articulation. Many of them say that they encounter stereotypes of care leavers and stigma almost anywhere they go, which drags them down emotionally and disadvantages them as they try to progress with their lives.
In response to this, and out of a desire to elevate their stories, we developed This is Me in collaboration with the young people we represent. We invited participants to choose a location in London that is pertinent to them – fascinatingly, many of them immediately and instinctively identified a place. Their relationships to their chosen places span intricate, ambivalent and traumatic associations, to simple and joyful celebrations.
Photographer Juno Schwarz was directed by participants to shoot their portraits in a style chosen by them. From Stoke Newington Police Station to London Bridge, Richmond Park to the Houses of Parliament, London locations are brought to life through the stories and musings of young care leavers. The final photographs will be exhibited, accompanied by an audio soundtrack composed of a patchwork of material generated from interviews by Ruby Lawrence. These free form conversations are extraordinary explorations of participants’ identity, touching on topics including racism, Britishness, perseverance, love, nature, relationships with social services/the welfare state and, most importantly, hope. Despite all the challenges they had to face, all the hurdles continuously put into their way, all of these young people have shown an extraordinary amount of resilience, persistency and willingness to succeed.
We believe that this exhibition is an embodiment of diversity, both in terms of the demographics of the participants and our creative process, which allows their myriad experiences and perspectives to be articulated without us, the charity, placing an overarching structure or narrative on top. Their aim in taking part has been twofold – both to make the world more aware of who they are, and to pass on ‘a beacon of hope’ to anyone struggling as they have done. In sharing their stories they show their own strength, and their choice to do so is generous.
To finish in the words of one of the participants, ‘I think of society as a library, and the people are all books. What if nobody reads the books?’
This is Me opens on Monday 11 September at Waterloo Action Arts Centre, open daily 11-7pm and running until Saturday 16 September. You can find a full programme of free events, including live reading from author and care leaver Allan Jenkins, music-jam workshop with Drive Forward’s Zach Stouchbury-White and a Q&A with participants and filmmaker Rebecca Southworth here.