Free seminar on ‘Father figures’: register now!

There are still some places available at this seminar. To register, email:

Hsc-Research-Admin@open.ac.uk

Seminar invitation screen shot

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Reflections on the American Men’s Studies Association Conference

I arrived home on Monday from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I’d been attending the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association. It was a rather different affair from last year’s conference in New York City. That was a big, high-profile event, coinciding with the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and featuring celebrity guests such as Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and Sheryl Sandberg. It was deliberately aimed at gender equality activists as much as researchers, and as such was certainly a heady and inspiring few days. However, it  could be argued that academically it was somewhat less satisfying, and specifically that there was little in the programme to appeal to those from a humanities background.

Flag pole on the 'Diag', University of Michigan campus, Ann Arbor

Flag pole on the ‘Diag’, University of Michigan campus, Ann Arbor

This year’s conference was smaller, more intimate, with a greater emphasis on academic research, and an explicitly interdisciplinary focus. From such a stimulating programme  it’s perhaps invidious to mention only a few presentations. However, highlights for me included the opening plenary in which three literary academics talked about masculinity in American novels, the keynote lecture by linguist Scott Kiesling discussing the ‘masculine stance’ in language and the history of the word ‘dude’, and a couple of fascinating papers analysing gender relations in popular television programmes. The poster presentations were very good too: I was particularly pleased to link up with Tawfiq Ammari, a PhD student at Ann Arbor, who is researching the use of social media by fathers, including some of the British ‘dad blogs’ that I’ve started to follow.

Preparing for the panel on fatherhood

Preparing for the panel session on fatherhood

My own paper, analysing faith, fatherhood and masculinity in the letters written by my great grandfather to my grandfather during the First World War (see my last post), was part of a panel session first thing on Saturday morning. I was presenting alongside Joyce Lee, another Ann Arbor PhD student, and Carol Watson-Phillips, a retired researcher from Massachusetts, both of whom were examining aspects of contemporary fatherhood. Despite the early start, the session was well-attended and the questions were intriguing, even if being asked to extend my analysis to my relationship with my own father was somewhat challenging!

Networking at the AMSA conference

Networking at the AMSA conference

The School of Social Work at the University of Michigan were excellent hosts, and I made some useful contacts and had plenty of memorable and stimulating conversations. Ann Arbor itself was a fascinating town to explore: not just the university campus itself, with its imposing architecture and impressive art gallery, but the Art Deco theatres, the multitude of bookshops and restaurants, and the impressive collection of memorabilia at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library. The weather was (we were given to understand) typical of Michigan: spring sunshine one day, biting wind and snow showers the next (though not the deep drifts we had to contend with last year in Manhattan).

I don’t yet know where AMSA 2017 will be held (somewhere warmer perhaps?), but if the programme is as interesting as this year, I hope I’ll be going.

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The First World War and Modern Masculinity*

Next week, all being well, I’ll be in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association. The title of the paper that I’ll be presenting is ‘”With prayer from your loving father”: faith, fatherhood and masculinity in one man’s letters to his son during World War One.’ The paper shares the results of my analysis of letters written by my great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb, to his son, my grandfather Arthur Ernest Robb, in early 1916, when the latter was a Private in the Royal Fusiliers, awaiting embarkation to the Western Front in France. I’ve written about these letters in earlier posts on this blog (start here and work forward), and I spoke about them at a seminar on fatherhood organised by the Open University’s Centre for Citizenship Identities and Governance a few years ago.

Coincidentally, one of the other presentations at next week’s conference is also about First World War writing, though of a rather different kind. Lowell T Frye will be speaking about the treatment of masculinities, war, and trauma, in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. As preparation for attending the session, I’ve been reading the novel, something I’ve meant to do for a while. The action takes place in Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, where shell-shocked soldiers were sent for treatment. Among the central characters are psychiatrist William Rivers and two of his more famous patients, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War (via bbc.co.uk)

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War (via bbc.co.uk)

I’m about halfway through the novel at the moment, and I’ve just reached a passage which I suspect will find its way into the presentation at next week’s conference. Rivers is reflecting on a patient saying that he sees him not as a father figure but as ‘a sort of…male mother’:

He disliked the term ‘male mother’. He thought he could remember disliking it even at the time. He distrusted the implication that nurturing, even when done by a man, remains female, as if the ability were in some way borrowed, or even stolen, from women – a sort of moral equivalent of the couvade. If that were true, then there was really very little hope.

[…] 

(F)athering, like mothering, takes many forms beyond the biological. Rivers had often been touched by the way in which young men, some of them not yet twenty, spoke about feeling like fathers to their men. 

[…] 

One of the paradoxes of the war – one of the many – as that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was…domestic. Caring. 

[…]

The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down. 

These extracts provide an interesting link with the topic of my own paper. In analysing my great grandfather’s letters, I’ve been struck by the way in which his Methodist Christian faith provides him with two distinctive registers for his practice as a father, and his identity as a man. One, clearly drawing on the puritan earnestness of nonconformist Christianity, is a register of moral exhortation, emphasising effort, courage and persistence in the face of temptation – traditionally ‘manly’ virtues. But the other register is drawn more specifically from Methodism. The historian of masculinity, John Tosh, has written about the ways in which Methodism provided a language that allowed Victorian men to be emotionally expressive, with its emphasis on the love of God, a personal relationship with Christ, and an almost feminine image of Jesus.

However, it’s difficult to disentangle the influences on Charles’ performance of fatherhood and masculinity in these letters. How much can be attributed to his religious faith and how much to his personal biography? For example, I know that my great grandmother had died eleven years before these letters were written, leaving Charles to bring up their children (including Arthur, who was only seven years old at the time) on his own. To what extent was my great grandfather a ‘mother’ as well as a ‘father’ to my grandfather, and how might this be reflected in what he writes in these letters?

Then again, what does it mean to say that a man is ‘mothering’ his children? In what way is a man’s parenting different from that of a woman, if at all? Is William Rivers, as characterised in the novel, right to protest at the way that ‘nurturing’ is seen exclusively as a female virtue, and that men who nurture (whether children or other men) are simply ‘borrowing’ female characteristics? To quote the title of Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet’s book about fatherhood: do men ‘mother’?

These are questions that continue to intrigue me as a researcher working on issues of gender and caring. In what sense is the care that fathers offer to children different from that provided by mothers? And is it possible to talk about these differences (if they exist) without falling back on stereotypes about men being responsible for setting boundaries and women as providers of emotional support? These questions have become particularly pertinent in the past few decades, as men have been urged to take a greater role in the day-to-day care of children, both in the home and professionally. For those who believe that gender is simply a social construct, the apparent ‘differences’ between men’s and women’s caring are simply the result of cultural conditioning and will disappear as relationships between the genders become more equal. For others, such as the psychologist Wendy Hollway, there is something irreducibly different about women’s ‘capacity to care’ (to quote the title of one of her books), because of the bonding that takes place between a mother and child before, during and after birth.

An image of masculinity from a WW1 propaganda poster (via www.nationaljournal.com)

An image of masculinity from a WW1 propaganda poster (via http://www.nationaljournal.com)

As for the claim, voiced in the last paragraph from Regeneration quoted above, that the trauma of the First World War somehow ‘unmanned’ men, and even changed the nature of masculinity, that’s a question beyond the scope of this blog post. Certainly, it could be argued that the straitjacketed, stiff-upper-lip masculinity of Victorian and Edwardian England expired on the killing fields of northern France. But the evidence in his letters of my own great grandfather’s masculinity – on the one hand patriotic and nationalistic but also anxious about the corrupting influence of the army on his son, morally earnest but at the same time loving and warmly emotional – suggest that ‘traditional’ masculinities may have been more complicated than we sometimes think.

*My title is a nod to Paul Fussell’s classic book The Great War and Modern Memory.

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Presenting our research at the Houses of Parliament

Yesterday Brigid Featherstone and I gave a presentation at the Houses of Parliament to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fatherhood, on ‘Beyond Male Role Models’, the ESRC-funded research study that we worked on with Sandy Ruxton and Mike Ward (with support from Anna Tarrant and Gareth Terry) between 2013 and 2015. The study, which was a collaboration between The Open University and Action for Children, explored the role of gender in work with vulnerable young men.

David Lammy MP talks to participants at the APPG meeting

David Lammy MP talks to participants at the APPG meeting

The presentation seemed to go well and prompted some interesting questions from members of the audience, who included policy-makers, practitioners and service users, as well as other researchers. We also received many requests for further information – the pile of reports that I’d brought with me certainly disappeared very quickly – and we made some great contacts in the networking session at the end of the meeting. It was also good to see friends there from Working With Men, one of our other partners in the research, including some of the workers and young service users who had featured in the film we made as part of the project (and which you can view here).

Perhaps the most challenging question came from David Lammy MP, who chairs the APPG. In our talk, we had emphasised that the young men we interviewed valued the personal qualities of support workers – including respect, care, consistency and commitment – far more than their gender identities. David wondered whether we thought that the young men who used services needed to earn respect, rather than simply expect it. I think we acquitted ourselves well in our answer, in which we argued that unless workers offered unconditional respect to young men, many of whom have been treated with a lack of respect by professionals in the past, then it would be difficult even to begin to form a productive working relationship, in which young men’s behaviour could certainly be challenged further down the line. Anyway, we were encouraged that David Lammy asked for more information about our research, and by the suggestion that it might find a place in the review that he is carrying out, at the request of the Prime Minister, into young black men in the criminal justice system.

With Brigid Featherstone and Elina Einio (the blue shadow is because I was standing in front of the screen)

With Brigid Featherstone and Elina Einio (the strange blue shadow is due to the fact that I was standing in front of the projector screen)

There were two other presentations yesterday besides our own. Elina Einiö from the University of Helsinki in Finland shared the findings of her research into mortality rates among men who had been young fathers. Her large-scale population study certainly showed a connection between young fatherhood and early mortality, but it was difficult to draw conclusions about the precise causes. Was it because young fatherhood produced additional economic and emotional stresses, diverting men from investing in their own wellbeing? Did it mean that more support should be offered to young fathers, or conversely did the research demonstrate that early fatherhood should be discouraged? It was interesting to hear about Elina’s findings in the context of the conclusion, from our own study, that young fatherhood could actually have a positive impact on the lives of vulnerable young men, acting as a catalyst that helped them make the transition to a ‘safer’ and more responsible adult masculinity.

The final presentation, by Shane Ryan from Working With Men, reported on moves to establish a new Fathers’ Development Foundation. I attended the first meeting of the foundation at Kings Place, London, back in February. At the moment, the group is really a loose coalition of individuals and organisations with an interest in fatherhood matters, but the hope is that it will coalesce into a body that can have a positive influence on public policy, particularly in relation to the most marginalised and disadvantaged fathers.  According to the foundation’s website, an official launch is planned for next week.

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IMAGES of men: a report from Vienna

Last week I was in Vienna, Austria for a consultative meeting organised by Promundo, the international organisation that promotes gender equality by engaging men and boys, as well as a number of other international agencies. The purpose of the meeting was to share the findings from IMAGES – the International Men and Gender Equality Survey – and to discuss possibilities for extending the survey to other countries. There were about thirty of us at the meeting – representatives from countries that have already implented IMAGES, as well as researchers and activists working on gender equality issues across Europe and beyond.

(New York, 19 September) — To kick-start a solidarity movement in support of women’s rights and full equality between women and men, UN Women held a special event for the HeForShe campaign from the United Nations Headquarters in New York today. With UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and event co-host Emma Watson called on men and boys worldwide to join the movement for gender equality today. They were also joined by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, senior UN officials, such as UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin and UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, actor Kiefer Sutherland and civil society representatives, participated in a discussion about the central role men and boys can play in the achievement of gender equality. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer moderated the night. Pictured: Gary Barker, International Director, Promundo-US and Co-Chair, MenEngage Alliance Photo: UN Women/Simon Luethi For more on the event, please see: http://www.unwomen.org/news/stories/2014/9/20-september-heforshe-press-release To join the HeForShe campaign, please visit: http://www.heforshe.org/

Gary Barker of Promundo (via promundoglobal.org)

IMAGES, which was created by Promundo and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), is ‘a multi-year, multi-country effort to build the evidence base on how to change public institutions and policies to better foster gender equality and to raise awareness among policymakers and programme planners of the needs, realities and attitudes of men in terms of their health and development’. It was fascinating to hear, from Gary Barker of Promundo (US) and Øystein Gullvåg Holter from the University of Oslo, about the findings emerging from the survey so far, including claims about the impact of childhood experiences on adult attitudes. For example, it was suggested that if a boy sees his father taking a share in household tasks, then he is more likely have a positive attitude to gender equality as an adult. On the other hand, if a boy witnesses domestic violence in his family, or is involved in fights himself, then there’s a good chance that he will grow up believing that violence against women is acceptable. Perhaps the most encouraging message to emerge from the study was the positive correlation between men’s belief in gender equality on the one hand, and experiencing good mental health and a general sense of wellbeing on the other.

IMG_3095

In addition to these general findings, there were two presentations from individual countries that have implemented the survey, both thought-provoking in their own way. One was from Eleonora Grosu from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, where there were certainly some encouraging signs, but also some worrying statistics, such as the finding that 41% of men and 19% of women think it’s sometimes acceptable for women to be beaten. Also intriguing was the presentation by Srjdan Dusanic from Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the legacy of civil war and inter-community conflict continue to have an impact. One notable observation was that men who held ethnocentric or extreme nationalist views also tend to have negative attitudes to gender equality: a case of one kind of intolerance fostering another. Interestingly, the same study found that boys whose fathers had been absent during the war, and had therefore had to help their mothers with household tasks, tended to continue taking an equal share in those tasks in their adult relationships. A perversely positive effect of father absence, perhaps?

The final presentation, from Shereen El Feki, reported on attempts to implement IMAGES with men in the Middle East and North Africa. The discussion offered a fascinating insight into how to work on gender equality issues in cultures perceived to be hostile to the concept. Shireen talked about the multiple and complex influences on men’s attitudes in the Arab world, where a nuanced understanding of contemporary masculinity needs to take account of factors such as widespread unemployment, political disruption, and the worrying rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the younger generation.

The meeting ended with a highly topical exploration of the possibility of extending aspects of IMAGES to the large numbers of refugee and migrant men who have recently arrived in Europe. Recent events, such as the assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, have focused attention on the sexual attitudes of refugee men from the Middle East and North Africa. Is it possible to study these men’s attitudes and the roots of their masculine identities, in a way that doesn’t reinforce racist stereotypes? At the same time, as I noted in a recent post, it’s important that gender researchers and campaigners don’t fall back into a cultural relativism that is reluctant to condemn sexist behaviour when it’s committed by non-westerners. I was reassured by the evenhanded approach advocated by Promundo, which places equal emphasis on getting men to take responsibility for their actions, and at the same time attempting to understand (but not explain away) that behaviour. My own contribution to the discussion was to suggest that one way of avoiding relapsing into biological or cultural essentialism was to focus attention on the impact that the disruption and displacement caused by war, loss and migration might have had on refugee men’s masculine identities.

Shereen El Feki (via the guardian.com)

Shereen El Feki (via theguardian.com)

While its findings are intriguing, the work of IMAGES raises some interesting methodological issues. For example, is it possible to use the same survey, and the same research measures, in countries and cultures that are so widely different? For example, we heard that in Egypt, all research surveys have to be approved by the government. How might that influence men’s responses to the questions? Would they be concerned about giving the ‘approved’ answers in case they faced official consequences? And would they be worried about where the information might end up? More generally, is the whole notion of surveying personal attitudes rooted in the individualism of liberal western countries, where holding your own opinion is considered a virtue? How relevant is such research in cultures where men and women tend to draw their beliefs from collective traditions or religious teachings, rather than individual reflection? And if gendered inequality is deeply rooted in some of those contexts, is it surprising that many women choose to echo their male partners’ attitudes, even on issues such as domestic violence?

Despite these methodological concerns, it was clear from the Vienna meeting that IMAGES has already has achieved some important results that can provide support for promoting gender equality and engaging men. The proven positive correlation between gender equality and mental health can certainly be helpful in persuading men that promoting equality is in their own interest. And the connection between childhood experience and adult attitudes should encourage the growing field of positive work with boys on equality issues. It would be good if IMAGES, or aspects of it, could be extended to the United Kingdom – and it would be fascinating to see how the results here refleced the peculiarities of our national context – and whether they replicated those elsewhere in the world.

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Save the date!

I’m in the process of helping to develop a new research project on ‘social’ or non-biological fatherhood with the Family Matters Institute and the DADInfo website. As a first step, we’re planning a seminar for researchers and practitioners in Milton Keynes on 3rd June. Please save the date – and watch this space for further details!

 

Save the date screen shot

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Inside out: working with offenders

Last week David Cameron made a major speech about prison reform, in which he set out his vision of ‘a modern, more effective, truly twenty-first century prison system’. Although the Prime Minister reiterated his belief that the role of prison is primarily to punish, he was also keen to emphasise that ‘we must offer chances to change, that for those trying hard to turn themselves around, we should offer hope.’ This week, the current Minister of Justice, Michael Gove, and his predecessor, Chris Grayling, jointly published an article highlighting the importance of rehabilitation, arguing that prisoners must be ‘kept occupied with useful activity, whether studying towards educational qualifications or doing worthwhile work whilst behind bars.’

For those of us with a longstanding involvement in the rehabilitation of offenders, this was music to the ears – and long overdue. Government ministers seem finally to have woken up to the fact that investing in rehabilitation makes sense pragmatically – it prevents future offending and lowers the crime rate – but also morally. As the Prime Minister said in his speech: ‘in a compassionate country, we should help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path.’

In at the deep end

My own interest in this issue goes back a long way – to the very beginning of my working life, in fact. Working with offenders helped to launch my career and set me on the path to the work I’m doing today as an academic. However, it came about through a series of accidents. When I finished my first degree, I had to wait a year before starting a postgraduate course. In the interim I applied to do some full-time voluntary work as a Community Service Volunteer. You filled in an application form, went for an interview, and then waited to be sent to wherever there was an organisation that could make use of your skills.

Prime Minister David Cameron Visits Wormwood Scrubs Prison And Makes A Speech On Criminal Justice

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, visiting Wormwood Scrubs prison, London

For some reason, I was sent to work in a hostel for emotionally disturbed ex-prisoners in Worcester. Iris House provided accommodation and support for men who had serious problems rehabilitating into the community. Some had been in secure hospitals, such as Broadmoor and Rampton, and many were persistent and serious offenders. Our job was to house them, feed them and offer practical and emotional support. It was all a bit of a shock for a rather sheltered English Literature graduate from suburban Essex.

We were a small, mostly young team and we worked in pairs, alternating between day and night shifts. The atmosphere in the hostel could be quite oppressive: some of the residents had violent pasts and a few had to be controlled by heavy medication. But there was also a quirky side to the place that was sometimes like being in a dated TV sitcom. For example, the highest room in the hostel was home to a very well-spoken white-haired resident, a former fraudster, who treated the place like a hotel and somehow managed to have residents of humbler origin waiting on him hand and foot.

Then there were the two probation officers attached to the project. One was a Salvation Army officer who fancied himself as an amateur psychoanalyst; he diagnosed one resident’s burglaries as ‘night-time penetration offences’ and put them down to sexual frustration. The other probation officer was a rather glamorous Swiss woman, at whose leaving party the project manager memorably, and inappropriately, thanked her for being the team’s ‘sex object’. But that was typical of the sexual attitudes prevalent at the time. I remember a tense house meeting at which the male residents vigorously denied accusations that ‘homosexuality’ was rife in the hostel. And then there was the stash of pornographic magazines kept in the medicine cupboard, which we were expected to hand out nightly with the sedatives.

The experience of working at Iris House was certainly a baptism of fire. It left me with a sense of the emotional damage suffered by many people who end up in prison, and of just how difficult it is to resettle such people into anything like ‘normal’ life. I returned to academia as a PhD student in Manchester with a sense of relief, never thinking that I would ever return to working with offenders. However, a couple of years later, feeling an urge to do some voluntary work in my spare time, I happened upon a literacy project run by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO), just a few streets from the university. Thinking this was an area where I could make a contribution, I signed up to spend an hour or so a week, helping mostly young male offenders with their reading and writing. In the process, I became keenly aware of the fact that a large proportion of offenders (60% of UK prisoners, according to recent figures) have poor literacy skills, making it tough for them to hold down a job or simply cope with the demands of everyday life, and as a consequence making it more difficult for them to stay out of trouble.

Essex boys

My student grant ran out before I finished my thesis, so I moved back home to Essex and began to look for paid work. I took a series of part-time teaching jobs – with the Workers’ Educational Association, local further education colleges, and a memorable spell teaching numeracy to blood-spattered trainee butchers in Smithfield. But then, quite by chance, a family member spotted a tiny ad in a local paper, seeking a full-time course development worker for a brand new education project being set up by NACRO in Basildon, about 15 miles from where I lived. It seemed tailor-made, so I applied and got the job.

The project, based in the local probation office, was one of a number being started around the country, funded under the government’s Voluntary Projects Programme for unemployed people. By coincidence, the scheme’s HQ was in Manchester, just around the corner from where I’d done my voluntary work: in fact, that project was being used as a template for the new centres. I went back to Manchester for my induction and met others who had been recruited to run similar schemes in other towns and cities. They encouraged me to apply for the vacant project manager post in Basildon: so I did, and I was successful.

Eventually we recruited other team members, two of whom – Debbie Amas and Sandy Ruxton – I’m still in contact with many years later, and indeed Sandy and I recently worked together on a research project with vulnerable young men. Our brief in Basildon was to provide basic education classes for offenders – again, they were mostly young, mostly male – who were referred by the probation service. But we also offered volunteering opportunities for the more able probation clients: one of our volunteers was David Akinsanya, who went on to become a successful filmmaker.

To begin with, the project didn’t have premises of its own, so we had to hire rooms in local community centres. Most mornings would find us loading equipment into the boot of a car and driving to one of the outlying estates, where we’d set up our classes. It was often a little chaotic, to say the least, but hugely rewarding when it worked. Again, it was a revelation to discover just how many of those who ended up in the criminal justice system had been failed by the education system. More positively, it was encouraging to see how a second chance at learning could help them to turn their lives around.

A clean break

After a year in Basildon, I found a more permanent job at yet another NACRO project, this time in inner London. The North London Education Project had been set up to provide housing and support for ex-prisoners who had begun to study inside and wanted to continue their education on their release. It owned two hostels – one in Islington, the other in Hackney, where I was based, and where my main responsibility was setting up a new education day centre in the basement of the building. This was partly for project residents, but also for local probation clients, and for local unemployed and disadvantaged people generally. We developed a lively programme of day and evening classes – not only literacy and numeracy, but also computing, cookery, dance, weight-training – even a political discussion group.

Pentonville Prison (via Getty Images)

Pentonville Prison (via Getty Images)

My job also involved visiting prisons to interview prospective hostel residents. This was both the most fascinating and the most dispiriting part of the job. We accepted referrals from all over the country, but our closest links were with the two North London prisons, Pentonville and Holloway, which were thoroughly depressing places to visit – the former because of its grim Victorian architecture, the latter because it housed many women who really shouldn’t have been there. Many of the women were themselves victims of violence, while others had psychological problems that were only made worse by incarceration. As I was writing this post, I read about the tragic case of Sarah Reed, a woman with severe mental health problems who died in her cell at Holloway only last month, suggesting that very little has changed in the intervening years.

For many of the men and women locked up in these prisons, education classes were a real lifeline – a route to new opportunities on their release. However, the prison education staff worked in very trying circumstances, with classes frequently being cancelled or prisoners refused permission to attend them, at the whim of prison officers.

It was an invigorating time to be working in inner London. Our project was at the heart of a vibrant multiracial community, working alongside a number of other innovative community projects, and we were funded by generous grants from the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority (neither of which any longer exist). As I wrote in another post, it was a rude shock when I eventually moved to Oxfordshire, and found myself working on an all-white rural housing estate, with huge social needs but very little funding.

In moving to Berinsfield, I also left behind working with offenders and moved into generic community education work, and then later to The Open University. However, I never lost my commitment to the cause of offender rehabilitation, and my belief in the vital importance of education as a part of that process. In fact, soon after joining the OU I wrote and presented a programme on Radio 4 about women in prison, which involved revisiting some of the community organisations with whom I’d worked in North London, such as the Clean Break theatre company.

The need for a ‘third space’

My attitudes to crime and offending have inevitably mellowed over the years. When I worked for NACRO I was influenced by the ideas of radical criminology that were in the air at the time, viewing crime as a symptom of social inequality, and offenders as people who did what they did because they had very little stake in society. Perhaps it’s a sign of age, or being a parent, or a property-owner, but these days I find myself more likely to emphasise the role of individual responsibility and the impact of crime on the poor and powerless. I wrestled with these issues in a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post after the riots of 2011.

End-of-award conference for the 'Beyond Male Role Models' project, march 2015

End-of-award conference for the ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ project, March 2015

However, I’d still maintain that we need to strike a balance (as I think – to be fair – the government ministers do, in the interventions I quoted at the beginning) – between emphasising personal responsibility for crime, and attending to the social and relational factors that contribute to offending – and re-offending. As part of the Beyond Male Role Models research project that Sandy Ruxton and I, with other colleagues, were involved in recently, we interviewed young men at a support project for ex-offenders run by Action for Children in the west of Scotland (some of them were featured in the film we made as part of the study, which you can view here). Reading through the transcripts of the interviews took me back to my time in North London and those depressing prison visits, to the projects I worked on in Basildon and Manchester, and to the hostel in Worcester where my involvement in this work began. The stories the young men told were depressingly familiar: a lack of jobs, poor housing, chaotic childhoods and problems of addiction and abuse handed down from one generation to another.

But we also heard more positive stories of young men who, despite their terrible experiences, were beginning to turn their lives around. For some, it was the experience of becoming a father that was the catalyst for making the transition from irresponsible to responsible young masculinity. For all of them, the support project itself was a vital ‘third space’ where they learned new skills and began to see the possibility of leading a different kind of life – rather like the education projects that I was privileged to work on all those years ago.

The government’s new focus on rehabilitation is to be applauded, but as well as reforming what goes on inside prisons, I hope they won’t overlook the agencies and projects working with ex-offenders ‘on the outside’, many of which are facing cuts or closure at a time of austerity. As our recent research and my own experience show, these projects have a vital part to play, to quote David Cameron, ‘to help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path’.

Footnote

Beyond male role models: gender identities and work with young men, the research project that Sandy Ruxton, Brid Featherstone, Mike Ward and I worked on together, was featured this week in an article at the Huffington Post, based on an interview with me.

Posted in Boys and young men, Education, Masculinities, Offenders, Politics, Prisons | Leave a comment