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work and experience, part 2: school work experience

I was recently looking for work, and I obviously had to reflect on the experiences I bring to prospective workplaces. It was an opportunity to look back at the history of my relationship with work.

Unsurprisingly, I also had to avoid considering internship positions, which is a bit of a shame, because there are a stack of things I'd love to try out, if i had the chance (read: money).

Especially because I feel like I wasted my chances with that whole idea of gaining 'work experience' - especially when I was in school.

I have never had enough money to take a gap year, or even to do internships - I've always had to wrangle my money - so the school-based scheme was really my only chance at connecting my skills with all the possibilities of earning.

I don't know what it's like here in the UK (or anywhere else in the road), but in Melbourne, we get two weeks - one each year at 15 and 16 -  to spend in a workplace relevant to our careers.

My two weeks

At 15, I was studying Italian, German and Japanese. My mother (and probably my school) suggested that, with those language skills, perhaps I should be an interpreter or translator.

If i could advise my former self, I would suggest other things. However, time has passed.

So I spent a week in June at an interpreter's office, which turned me off the idea forever. The staff were all bored, spoke turkish to each other - a language I couldn't understand - and no-one really guided me through the process. I read a book for most of the week. Perfect experience.

I remember being really disappointed after that experience at the the interpreter's office;
I was completely lost as to how to use the obvious skills I had with languages and no-one in my family, (or seemingly in school), had any kind of understanding as to how to apply them either. I was also at an age where I was having a lot of difficulty expressing how I was feeling. So couldn't really talk about it with anyone.

So I did the best thing I knew how to do: scrapped it and changed tack. I picked up science, headed towards something that I knew I could 'use' and that has some prestige to it.
Except i'm not a scientist and I knew it.
But i didn't talk to anyone about that disappointment or lack of direction.
Not really. So i hid those skills (including my A+ skills at English) and wobbled off into the world alone.

At 16, I was working for a crook in a fucked up situation. I was getting paid and I was on a path of self-destruction. I manipulated the week so that I did 'work experience' with him and spent half the week with my boyfriend.

So those two weeks were my 'introduction to the workforce'.

I don't regret too much about the past, but in the middle of job-hunting and reconsiderations about the nature of my 'work' those lost chances are a tiny sore spot.

Lessons learned

So when David McQueen recently asked his twitter's suggestions for young students about work experience, I remembered that I had a lot of them.

So, here they are:

1. Do as much work experience as you can. We only had to do one week each. At one firm each week. We got paid $5 per day (which was more I'd ever earned before), but it's not really that much of a tester - considering how different high school or even university is from working life.

I would have spent time in a fashion house, at a funeral home, in a school, at a newspaper's office, in a factory, working for a builder or an architect, - in all kinds of places.
Give yourself some real room for real discovery and experience.

And write about it. Or blog. Tweet. Make videos, or songs or whatever it is that you do to express the deeper parts of yourself. Do that whilst you're on that journey. It will help in years to come to look back at that raw reflection and see some truth in it.

2. Play to your strengths.  Go to places not so obviously connected to what you 'want' to do, but that use your skills.

Because it's much easier to love what you do when you do it well, rather than just doing what you love. don't worry about getting it straight away - the happy accidents or the conscious changes we make as adults are invaluable. But it would be nice if you can get a bit of a head start.

3. Think laterally. Search websites for those skills from #2. And then some based on your school reports - even the bad ones will highlight the areas you are skilled at. Even if you're a pain-in-the-arse-class clown, you still hold the skills of holding people's attention, managing a room full of people, being vulnerable, witty and manipulative - skills that are great for management, public speaking, loads of areas of showbiz, teaching, etc. 

4. Actually speak with someone about it before and after. Really - do your best to get some support for it. It will stand you in good stead for speaking with recruiters, careers coaches, counsellors and other people there to help and support your growth.

Our careers counsellor at school was a little bit useless, so I got away with how shit it all was and deserved the lost chance.

But, if you can grasp the great opportunity you have, bookend it with a few different people. Especially with someone who challenges you on your shit. It should be your Mum. or your Dad. But it's also just as likely to be your older brother, or aunty, uncle, favourite teacher.

Try to properly analyse it. Don't just fill in the form (any kid can do that, jeez) - but speak to them. Tell them your expectations, hopes and fears about the job/role/experience beforehand. And then again afterwards.

And use that to create a bit of a plan of attack for the next time you do it. Because you'll do it again.

5. Be strategic. Have a plan of attack. Really think through what you're looking to understand about a workplace. Use the chats from #3.

It's not always easy or appropriate to ask questions, so be as observant as you can about things like time, goals, visions, accomplishments and relationships:

How do people organise their time? How do they treat each other? What are the ways in which they celebrate success? How do they speak about expectations.

6. Don't do the work experience where you already work. Even if my 'job' wasn't shady-as-fuck, I would suggest this. You already know how that job works. For all the reasons above - this is a chance to really research and uncover the good, teh bad and the ugly about a role.

It's better than speed dating, even.


why are black boys' ears not the same?

Last Saturday, two things happened on the same day that prompted me to write (again) about the intersection of listening and race, and sound in public.

Firstly, the Florida jury judging the murder case against Michael Dunn were unable to decide that he was guilty against jordan davis. 

They were unable to believe, without reasonable doubt, that a middle-aged white man armed with a gun did not commit murder by shooting an unarmed teenager because he felt his life threatened by the boy's loud music and defensive manner.

Jordan Davis' death is, among other things, linked to listening in public to loud music. Black music. Music that black boys listen to in cars. Loudly.

In terms of sound in public space, this is a case which sets dangerous precedent. In terms of my interest in the rise of headphones and the changing ways we listen in contemporary times, it's full of important things: It connects to the rights of the listener, who has privilege over those rights and even the racial difference between the ways of listening.

In this case, the ears of the white man are privileged over the black boys'.

Michael Dunn's ears were offended in public. So his life was threatened in public. 
His defensive actions were found, in the public realm of the law, to be justified.

The ears of Jordan Davis were ignored in public. So his life was ignored in public.
His death was found, in the public realm of the law, to be justified.

For obvious reasons this bothers me greatly.
It is racism, white privilege in the eyes of the law and the ears of the listener.
It pushes the relationship to sound into the area of law.

It is also an example of something that i'm coming to see as the dangers, the real consequences of the racial differences between listening. ie: the fact that white people don't listen*.  or actually, the way in which white people colonise listening (connected to the way in which white people colonise everything else.**)

This realisation was driven home that same day at the Pharaohe Monch gig.

I'm a hip hop fan. I've made artwork about hip-hop and I have to acknowledge the privilege and problematic aspects that puts me in. So I am not above my own criticism at all - I am part of this colonial white listening crew too.

And back to the hip-hop gig: 

The main support band were four white dudes wearing masks, with great beats (a great producer/DJ) and the same old boring shouty rhymes over the top. 

At first they seemed OK - like i said - killer soulful beats, and full of energy and crowd-pumping. But after the first 2 songs, once I realised that all the songs essentially sounded the same, I was bored, started to see a bit of a pattern, and applied it.

These four white boys took the parts of hip hop culture that they learned/borrowed/shared with their black brothers and sisters, mashed with it, applied their 'i have something to say and people need to hear it' agenda that is (we have to admit) part of the typical white-with-a-mic pattern.

They took the form of rapping/preaching over bass-heavy, soul-heavy music, without an experience of these things, or an understanding of the more subtle aspects to hip-hop. 

These guys, all four, wrote a verse, all sung four choruses together, found some phat beats and sticky taped them together - interwoven with occasional 'when i say X, you say Y: X, Y, X, Y' blah blah, and a bit of a stand against the legalisation of marijuana (because you know, white kids are crowding the UK prison system on pot charges.) just shouted at us.

Seriously, the whole set sounded exactly the same. It was cut and paste.
There was no real connection between their lyrics and the music. Just an approximation to rhythm, but no actual marriage, no understanding. No years-of-it aspect that is present in so much other music.

It was like these four white guys have never really listened to music, hip hop,  or even to the soul music they were riffing on.
Or preachers. Or performance poets. Or maybe even people in general.  Not with their hearts. Or souls.
It has never truly kept them alive.

Perhaps, as white folk, the desire to manipulate and use the material is too strong.

And the privilege is to high - like we've never really had to hold onto music, because we know that at least the jury will believe us, we'll eventually get work we qualified for, the bank will probably loan us the money eventually or we can always 'go home'.

Because the difference between their set and the Pharoahe Monch set was huge. Monche and DJ had an actual connection with the music being played, with each other, with the audience.

He has a deep connection with listening. An identification with the sounds of music, of people, of rhythm and therefore and understanding and connection.

Of course Pharoahe Monch is a high-grade professional. He's crafted and worked hard. He has been doing this a long time. But his whole community have been doing this a long time. The four boys are still just along for the ride.

it is the difference and the privilege of taking up sound space in this kind of gig, which particularly sparked the link to the jordan case. The link between the rights of the listener and the rights of the body are linked through music and a reminder that listening is a political act. 


postscript: i was also a bit sad to realise that nobody did a shout out to jordan davis that night.  nobody acknowledged the public death of a young black man in the hip-hop community and that rap, hip-hop and black music is still a site of much contest that we must all be alert to.

*which may or may not be the title of a much longer essay/book/PhD, etc.

**I would like to spend more time unpacking this case, in relation to listening as an act. It won't be in this post, but it may end up in a more academic-style of essay.

*** btw, angela corey, you have a lot to answer for at the moment.


a new/old/young sizwe banzi

It was my birthday on Saturday, so I took myself to the theatre because I love going to the theatre on my own. It was a last-minute decision after a difficult day, so I was very grateful that, when I rushed in, (late, puffed) and only had enough for a £10 ticket, the Young Vic staff were able to accommodate me. They also forgave me calling the play Banzi Sizwe is Dead. Typical wadjela.

As I was waiting for my late-comers' entrance time, I had a quick run-down: a bit of the section I'd missed - a monologue from Styles about his time at the Ford factory, but nothing I couldn't catch up on. 

And, it was explained to me, the crowd and entrances were segregated. I wasn't shocked. Perhaps I already knew from something I'd heard about last year's season. Perhaps it just made sense, being that the play was portraying South African Apartheid.

The play

Sizwe Bansi is Dead was written by South Africans Athol Furgard, Winston Ntshona and John Kani, deep into Apartheid/National Party in the 1970s. First premiering in 1972, Cape Town, its first season in London (1974) won accolades and connected English audiences to the nature of apartheid (and its UK complicity - noting the presence of Barclays in the South African City skyline at Styles' studio). It has since been performed here in 1977, 2007, 2013 and now 2014. 

The official blurb: 

It’s 1972 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and Sizwe Banzi’s passbook gives him just three days to find work. No work and he’ll be deported. That was four days ago.
So when Sizwe stumbles across a dead body with a passbook, he asks himself – does his identity card really define who he is? Could he give up his family and his name in order to survive?

Typically and misleadingly, Furgard is often touted as *the* writer of the play, however Ntshona and Kani are deeply entrenched in its dialogue - they played Styles and Bansi (Banzi) in the 1972/74 and 2007 seasons, and their names appearing as cameos in the play. Ntshona is the name of a friend of Buntu and (presumably) the "answering to 'John!'" as a subordinate term was not just about the de-nomination of Afrikans/Bantus, but also a reference to Kani.  (Who also played Happy Bapetsi's 'Dubious Daddy' in the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series. Geez, Lauren, what's with that reference? - Ed. )

Background info
Port Elizabeth, the setting for the play, is a White Area on the Eastern Cape outside the sanctioned African Reserve Areas of the Ciskei/Transkei. Highly regulated. And not to be confused with even-more regulated Port St. Johns.

Africans/Bantus require a permit to be in an area outside of their 'Homeland', or another Bantu designated work area, requiring the kind of visa the Home Office dreams about.

I have a little bit more of an knowledge of Townships, Homelands and the business of the book* thanks to some reading I had done last year1, which including the restrictions for working in towns like Port Elizabeth and the legalities of why he would HAVE to go back to King William's Town. 

Of course, I have zero understanding of the system portrayed in the play, but I got a little closer with this play.

The Court Theatre study guide to the play is also an interesting accompanyment.

1. Bantustans - The Fragmentation of South Africa was a disturbing but enlightening publication from 1964 by Christopher R Hill and the Institute for Race Relations, London. I learned a lot about the specific policy of apartheid and the gross financial and econonomic destruction that was behind the ideology, sold as 'solutions' every couple of years. 

This production
Sibusiso Mamba, who plays Sizwe Banzi/Robert Zwelinzima is actually adorable. He brings to the role a solid combination of solemn, awkward and honest - pathos. And this is crucial to playing a man struggling with being turned into someone he isn't: not just his name, but someone who is twisted into dishonesty and manipulation - to fit within the white supremacist system of Apartheid - in order to continue to be something he used to be.

Although I have one disappointment. There is a section in the second half of play -  the crux of the work -  at the point in which Sizwe Bansi becomes Dead. It is where the desperation of being cut into a corner, dehumanised and bureaucratised has built to a point of such frustration, that he is willing to go to any lengths to prove that he is actually who he believes himself to be: a man.

The dialogue is full of tension. 

And, unfortunately, in the performance I saw, it lacked the conviction of that situation.
There is like a very good reason for this (see the next section), probably nothing to do with Sibusiso's acting, but it was still a little disappointing.

Tonderai Munyevu - who I had seen recently in Zhe at the Soho Theatre - is fantastic. He's such a bright light on the stage and brings that cheeky Southern African (specifically Zimbabwean) humour whilst balancing the gravitas of oppression under white supremacy and poverty. I could be making this up, but I felt like he is more Styles than Buntu - more "dapper, alert, thriving', than 'strong, compassionate, willing'  but that's just me projecting it onto him.

The Styles section of the play was exactly what I needed on my birthday: Lots of laughter, lots of humanity, lots of cheerfulness in the face of adversity, and lots of determination.

He also happened to remind me of an ex-boyfriend (also Zimbabwean, also more Styles than Buntu), so sometimes during the performance I may have been smiling when it was slightly inappropriate to be doing so. I hope it wasn't deemed as disrespectful.

Speaking of disrespectful..

The blankes/whites
Throughout the last 30 minutes of the performance, every 10 minutes or so four white, drunk, fairly-young members of the audience tramped and sloshed their way across the bench seats and out the door. Stumbling, making noise, disregarding the action on the stage and being arses. One woman falling up the stairs and clearly unable to manage anything quieter than a stage whisper when talking to the ushers.

When the first two left, I was confused. I thought the preview I was in must have been a rehearsal. And that they were crew making changes. Then when the next person left I realised that they were just being rude. And by the time the last woman left - making the most noise, I was ropable.

Of course, the disturbance was not just that of individuals or the performance itself. 

But it highlighted the disregard us blankes still have for Africans and Black British people and stories. It reminded us that, despite being at a great performance of contemporary theatre, in one of the most diverse cities in the world, racism still exists. 
Overtly. Subtly. Structurally.
Truly, Madly, Deeply.

Theatre-goers aren't some special breed, inocculated against ignorance and bad behaviour. And, in true privileged style, most of us theatre-going white folk like to think we are separate from it, so we also didn't like it when they showed us up. Me included.

And this is problematic, but it was somewhat satisfying to spy one of the girls in the foyer and express my displeasure. Not in an English, passive agressive way, but it in an overt way. As overt as her racist behaviour was. Although I didn't use the word 'racist' - because I'm still slow.  I was also slightly relieved and pleased to hear others telling her and her friends off, expressing their dissatisfaction.  It felt like maybe a step towards a desire for whiteness to not include such disgustingness. Clearly I'm still in denial.

Set for racism
The white supremacy that the characters in the play are railing against is continued in the structure of the performing of the play itself. Possibly intentionally, although given the behaviour of my four ignorant friends, here, I would suggest that it's destructive, rather than enlightening.

The fact that Furgard is still touted as THE writer of the play (especially in London), rather than as one of three equal contributors is a reflection of the way in which whites are still privileged over Africans. And that's not in South Africa, kids.

In fact, the 2013 season of Sizwe Banzi and The Island was often touted in the London press - Time Out, The Guardian, as an Athol Furgard season. Not a Furgard, Kani and Ntshona season. All three writers wrote both these books, by the way. Need I remind you that it would have been the lived experience of Ntshona and Kani that enabled Furgard to even speak of many of these actions.

And of course, with this production, teh segregation is the action of white supremacy. It may not be the intention, but the thing about racism is that it's not about intention. It's about action or effect.  

Back to our drunk mzungus, did it charge the conditions for racist behaviour? White supremacy as a system, causes racism. If the crowd has been mixed, or our differences not highlighted or enacted in such a way - if the system was not replicated, would these people have still done this? 

Probably - because they were disrespectful, drunk and consequently self-absorbed and ignorant (the breeding ground of acting out internalised racism) but I'm asking the question anyway. 

Because I think it's quite important for me to remember - especially as an intelligent, politically and racially-aware white woman - that oppression and racism (see also patriarchy/misogyny, ablism, hetero/cis-normative/homophobia) it is not about individuals and their own actions. It's the awareness that we are a group of people who contribute and that there are systems (designed) that create and perpetuate these destructive actions and beliefs.

It reminded me that it's only the privileged who get to really fuck around with paying homage to oppressive systems in art or theatre or design. It's only really those who have no clue who can cherry pick symbolism, 'reincarnate' or try to bring it to life - because we can all go home, tralalala and write a blog post about it instead of committing suicide or stealing a dead man's passport to stay alive.

image: promo shot pinched from the Young Vic website.