From the 12th to 14th of April about 60 representatives from the ARCs [Action Research Committee] of Fairmount, Lotus River and Zeekoevlei set off for the Rocklands campsite in Simonstown for a life and school transforming weekend.
These are not the kinds of topics you can expect on most camps and fortunately BottomUp doesn’t run a camp like most camps. Always raising the bar and creating expectation while providing relevant resources and experiential learning, the crew of BottomUp hit the ground running in their Friday evening sessions.
Encouraging the young people to approach various forms of media [adverts, songs, story, news, art] with a critical [as in ‘one that approaches to critique and question’] approach saw them asking questions about the What, the How and the Why these different media represent. What messages are hiding behind certain choices of image or word? How is this piece of media presenting a particular bias and what are the messages behind the obvious message that you see at first glance. Why was this word chosen over that one? Why is this sentence highlighted? Why are there only white people in the advert? And so on.
In the second session the learners were invited to build from their framework of Critical Literacy by means of an experiential look at Internalised Oppression making use of a method known as Theatre of the Oppressed.
Through exercises and activities which got the learners to experience their bodies and space [inspired by Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’] and then an acting exercise where learners took a story from a newspaper and dramatised it for the rest of the group. One of the ideas being explored was that people who don’t necessarily have access to the platforms and mics and stages can find creative ways to tell the important stories that are happening around them.
After all that heavy brain work we decided the learners needed a bit of fun and so in teams they ran around the campsite with torches taking part in an excellently organised Scavenger Hunt which we renamed Icon hunt. Each team had a map with various phone icons on it and had to head for the one on their envelope and perform a task and then move on to the next icon. Lots of fun and laughing and competition and energy being expressed and a good end to a great day.
The level of education and challenge the learners received, even in just those first two sessions, feel like so far ahead of anything most learners receive in a whole school career. The members of BottomUp are consistent in challenging the learners they encounter to ask better questions and to try and understand and see the systems and structures and causes of many of the symptoms around them. It is so incredible to be allowed to play the smallest part in being part of this.
The second day saw us dealing with the topic of Adultism (or youth-oppression) specifically with a focus on the classroom where much of the time one set of expectations and consequences happens for learners and a different set for teachers.
Using really creative exercises which involved the learners again responding to various media and critiquing assumptions and statements and hidden messages, we discovered some things about Adultism together.
Charlton led an amazing session where a makeshift classroom had been created and he invited learners to share things they had heard from teachers which were written up on the board. There were some extremely heart-breaking words and phrases that we were left looking at. We looked at why the class is set out the way it is [where is the power located?] and what implications there might be of some of the messages delivered from adults to children in those spaces. That session was such an eye-opener for me in terms of hearing some of the hectic things some of these learners have to put up with which are completely abusive and soul-crushing.
We even pulled apart the education mantra ‘Enter to learn. Leave to serve’ which you can see on an actual plaque on the walls of many schools across the country. Who is it that is learning? Just the learners or the teachers as well? How do we see that serving take place? So very helpful to take a statement that they see every day and really dive into what is being said and assumed and followed up on.
One of the comments that we heard a few times was teachers making reference to pupils ending up as cashiers. What was SO great in that moment was BottomUp members taking it a step back and suggesting that part of the problem might be how we have collectively decided that being a cashier is something to frown upon and diminish. Once we change that narrative the whole story can start to look different (We can also start to think about why cashiers being paid such exploitative wages?).
The afternoon saw some much needed free time [Critical thinking is tiring work, yo!] with the pool being a favourite location for most of the learners while the trampolines were also in full swing.
This was followed by team games styled around Survivor/Fear-factor which consisted of a number of activities all around the campsite from Frisbee catching to cup balancing and a whole host of different skills from speed to strength to stamina to precision were put to the test. This provided a lot of fun and used up a lot of energy and just got the learners to be able to largely rest their minds and just have a bit of a blast.
After an amazing supper [Rocklands always delivers] it was on to Class because we just don’t take the easy road in BottomUp. On previous camps we realised that we had attempted too many topics to really do the deep work required and so for this camp the aim was to work on some foundations, re the Critical Literacy and Internalised Oppression, and then focus that on two topics which feel relevant at the moment, namely Adultism and now Class.
This was a tougher session as the learners had already gone through so much, but they did for the most part soldier through and once again the presentations and group work were so varied and creative that it really engaged the young people where they were at.
One activity involved having a number of pictures on the walls of the room [Kim Kardashian, someone sitting on a park bench, Jeff Bezos, a McDonalds meal] and the learners had to rate them from ‘Extremely Rich to Quite Rich all the way through to Extremely Poor. During the feedback sessions it was interesting to note who had perceived what and how when you compared one perception on one picture to the same perception about another picture sometimes you realised you needed to change your answer.
Class was focused on wealth and access and living standards and there was a mix of presentation from the front and group work wrestling on individual aspects of the topic.
Let it Glow
At the end of another long and challenging day it was important to have an activity to just let it all go and BottomUp did not disappoint.
The Glow in the Dark Olympics involved each of the four teams receiving glowsticks in their colour and a flag which they had to decorate. We then had a processional entry into the sports hall which was totally darkened but with black lights and were treated to a series of games or challenges from Duster Hockey to ten pin bowling where aspects of the challenge were also glow in the dark.
So much fun and energy and entertainment and pretty much ended in a chaotic but exuberant dance off in the middle of the hall. And then to bed.
BottomUp made a brilliant decision to be less input focused and more creativity minded on the Sunday morning. The idea was to work in different spaces [from Song-writing, to Cartoon-drawing, to T-shirt stenciling, Upcycling and Poetry] using the input from the weekend as inspiration. Special guest and local cartoonist Andy Mason aka N.D.Mazin was on hand as a volunteer to lead the cartooning workshop.
I was in the Poetry session led by Thandi and so didn’t get to see all of what everybody else created, but that time was absolutely phenomenal. In just two and a half hours each participant pretty much wrote and shared and commented on two full poems – and they were GOOD! Some of them were really amazing for such a short time.
Our final thank-yous and goodbye session gave us all a chance to see and hear some of the creativity that had been produced and then it was back in the buses for the ride back home, dreaming of possibilities and challenges that lie ahead.
More than the insights gained into Adultism and Class, the work done on teaching these young people how to think critically and to be alert to Internalised Oppression will see them benefit far beyond the time they are at school. But the hope is that as BottomUp continue to engage with them and the ARC members continue to do work in the schools that some things can change in these three schools in the Cape Flats.
There is hope for those who will follow in their steps.