Monday, March 7, 2011

The beginning of something great

Last week we short listed ten of the Upstarters, based on essays that they had written for this purpose. On Wednesday, we called in the children who ended upon the short-list for an interview. I think that, for most of them this was probably the first time that they had to take part in an interview. And there was, of course, a fair amount at stake, since only six out of the short-list of ten would make it onto Upstart Radio! The whole time, I kept thinking about how I hated being the one who would crush their radio dreams.

The thing about interviews is that the interviewers want to get to know you. Yes, there is some degree of wanting to see if you are ideal for the job, but that doesn’t mean you’re meant to put on a persona. I had the impression that these children felt a need to be smart and give the right answers, which is understandable, given that they were competing for positions on the radio team. But you could still see through their performances, to the real children, full of vulnerabilities and anxieties. It was so sweet watching them walk in to the room, not sure where to sit or what to do with their hands. My approach was to smile, and to try to make them feel comfortable. The names I put forward after the interviews were of those who I felt were best able to be themselves and engage with us. I didn’t consider how well they performed but rather the degree to which they were able to talk engage and talk honestly with us.
From our brief interaction, I got the impression that the team members that we choose will perhaps be able to express themselves properly, in their own terms, once we have establish a space where they can have the freedom to do this . Shireen Badat, Upstarts project manager, sat through the interviews with us and I remember that when she stepped out briefly, the boy we were interviewing engaged a little more with us. One reason for this was that, without Shireen there, we were able to ask him more of our own follow up questions that gave us a better sense of who he is. He also seemed to ease up, speaking a lot more about himself. Tom and I are not too far off from their age group so we will need to find a way to use this to our advantage, remembering to remain relevant to their age group and helping them feel like equals in the process of creating the radio show.

We had our first session on Saturday afternoon after a disappointing turn out on Friday which was the day we had originally scheduled to meet. In designing this session, Tom and I tried to keep in mind that the Upstart Radio team members come from about four different schools.  This means that they are not very familiar with each other, never mind with us, so it was important that from the first session we would work at getting to know each other. Our session was planned in such a way that everyone would interact with each other. Before we officially began the session I noticed how the team members all sat quietly, like well behaved children in a classroom. There needs, of course, to be a level of respect for each other but the last thing I want is for them to be coming to the sessions every week and raising their hands before they speak. We want to create a space that allows everyone to feel comfortable with each other, and also for them to own the process as equal contributors to the show and the creation of knowledge that takes place in the radio labs.
But, as much as we want to create an environment where everyone feels like they’re an equal, I think that Tom and I still need to acknowledge that, as Rhodes students, we are older and more experienced than the Upstart team, and play a different role to them in this process. As a related point, the workshops are run in the journalism department which is a space that Tom and I are familiar with, whereas the Upstart Radio Team is not. I could see, during the workshop that because of this, there are already uneven power relations at play and it’s going to take a lot more than ice breakers and chatting about ourselves to make the Upstarters feel like our equals. I think that once we start producing content, they will begin to feel this as some of the content will be about topics that they themselves are well informed and interested in such as hero’s in their neighbourhoods.
I also think that at some point, Tom and I will need to visit the team members at their schools or homes.  This will perhaps help with the issue of power dynamics, since; we will then be placed outside of our comfort zones.  Maybe being in a place where they are at home will somehow balance the scales and make them feel like they are co-producers of knowledge. That’s how it all plays out in my head at least and I hope that things will get better in the coming weeks.
Our first exercise in Saturday’s workshop was an ice breaker in which we all stood in a circle, throwing a ball back and forth. The idea was that everyone would throw the ball to someone else and say that person’s name and ask them a simple question which they must answer. We went around about five times and by the end I was confident of everyone’s name and even the pronunciation. I got a sense from one of the team members that names are important to them. I already know this for myself, but someone proudly stated his full name about three times when they first arrived and I think that this points to how his name is part of his identity. These are the small things we will need to pick up and respect in order to gradually come to a place where we can comfortably say we know each other.
There’s so much I enjoyed about the session, but I have difficulty writing about it in this space because of the importance of confidentiality.  We established in our session that what we discuss in the radio labs would remain there. I think that once we established that as a rule, people began to loosen up. This brings me back, I guess to the point about power relations. I remember that moment in those initial interviews, when Shireen stepped outside and the boy we were interviewing seemed to loosen up a little more and engaged with us. His answers weren’t any different when Shireen stepped back in but there was a lowered level of that put-on “respectability”, for lack of a better word. I could feel that respectability again when they arrived at the journalism department - and that’s the layer we have to find a way to peel away so that we can start having fun and creating a fun show.

Over the weekend I drew up two session plans for the upcoming training programme, and I realised we are actually trying to achieve too much in a limited time. A key problem is the restrictions that we face in terms of contact time with the team. Our problem is that the team members don’t seem to have another common day where all of them are available to meet with us. This means we only have four sessions remaining with them for the preparatory phase of this project. After that they need to be ready to go on air! Drawing up the session plan I had to adjust the times to try and fit everything in. I think we are going to have to go back to the drawing board and find another day to work with them. If we don’t, I can see ourselves struggling to fully realise the weekly goals that we set ourselves and the team not learning as much as they need to in order to put on a good show. I’m thinking about what else needs to get done and I’m beginning to get nervous.


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