Eyes Wide Open



Our Creative Producer tells me it’s important for me to blog, she tells me she reads, remembers and feels tone. Sometimes it feels like a luxury, Open Clasp is very quick and busy, but I love writing and need to give myself permission to, and if it’s useful for others then that’s also good.

My first thoughts are about the young women Jess Johnson and I worked with in HMP Low Newton in June, we ran a two-week Arts Award course. Those who know me, know I’ve struggled with the Arts Award, trying to see how it fits, not wanting to do something to tick a box, but it does fit. Every day we met with 7/8 young women, all under 24, some serving long sentences, others have been in prison or secure units since they were 16. They participated in the company’s methodology, watched and reviewed Key Change, interviewed and led on workshops. I’ll just stop for a moment to explain how surreal it was watching Key Change with them.

Back in 2014 we had worked with women to create Key Change in the very same chapel we were now watching the film of Key Change. Jess and I could hear the echoes – could remember every conversation, where in the chapel they took place, how they rearranged the chapel to resemble the prison wing. We could remember when they shared their experience of domestic violence, how some had ran for their lives, others being so frightened they wet themselves. You could hear their laughter and feel their courage. Four years later and we were sitting with young women watching a show created by women who had been sitting in the very same seats; surreal. They related to the experiences up on the screen, reflected on their time in jail and talked about ‘what next’. They reviewed Key Change and shared this with others, made a display board, facilitated others to give their feedback on the review. They interviewed me and Jess as people who inspire them. There were young lesbians in the group and they asked direct questions about sexuality and coming out. There were moments of stillness, when we were working on log books, sitting chatting and big questions would be asked e.g. ‘is it ok for your boyfriend to tell you what to wear?’ AND ‘what happens if it’s because your skirt is too short, isn’t that ok?’ Also ‘can a perpetrator change?’.

The course ended with them leading on an activity, this for me was the highlight, but that’s hard to say, as so much of it was like finding gems and roses growing out of concrete – ‘roses’, this relates to the brilliant Jess Johnson, as part of the course they had a session on creative writing led by Jess. Jess read poems she’d written and others that had inspired her. She talked to them about her life experiences and she inspired them to write and share their words and hearts. I can’t tell you how special that session was. One young woman, when being helped to write her evaluation, was struggling to say what she was feeling, and I asked, ‘what is it?’, she said ‘I’m thinking of Jess and the words spoken and it’s making me feel sad.’ I suggested she was feeling empathy, and she said she’d been told she only has two feelings, happy or angry and that she’s not able to feel empathy, and there she was holding empathy.

They were incredible. But it was hard to see young women who have either been in prison for a long time already or are facing a long sentence. It made me think about the ‘what next’ when you get out, and how I would like to see society support young people and communities. It’s hard to be on your own, to have a job where you know you’re just there to make someone else rich. It’s hard if you don’t have someone to help you think through why you won’t let yourself feel fear, when you don’t work through how you felt fear till you were 14, then you turned that fear into anger, felt so much rage you burst open and then at 20/22 you find yourself in jail and if there is nothing outside to help you, you will find yourself back there.

I thought about when I was 20 and I was a Greenham (and for those you don’t know it was a massive women’s peace camp). I remember moments, before and during that time, of meeting people who helped me become aware of the world, raised my consciousness (old fashioned way of saying my eyes were opened, and I ate knowledge and felt powerful). I thought about how if there are no or limited services or support on the outside, then maybe the best chance would be to have the whole prison go through conscious raising, through building self-esteem, confidence and becoming Safe4Life. There should be classes looking at the history of the working class, oppression and incarceration. Knowledge is power, and that can make change happen.

This got me thinking about what makes Open Clasp work and for me it’s the politics. When you are facilitating, if you don’t know about sexism, homophobia, racism, have no awareness of discrimination and entitlement to power, then how do you facilitate workshops, discussion and debate? I’m not sure I’m being clear, but I’m clear that when thinking about who works for Open Clasp, like the teams with Key Change and with other shows, your politics matter, your awareness of issues and the wider context are key to the work. The shows created come out of a methodology that is feminist and democratic. We’re not about ‘othering’, we are about standing in solidarity and making change happen.

I’m 55 now, and I’m thinking about where I and the company will be when I am 60. This will be another blog, for another day though.

Catrina McHugh MBE

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