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I Want To Live Here

Ark-T is a charity that supports anybody, but mostly young people, with their mental well-being by using creativity. It was set up originally by a man called James Grote. He really recognised the value of art being accessible to anybody. I met him because I had a friend who worked with young boys with autism, and he asked if I'd come and do an art workshop, because I love to make. I didn't really know much about autism, but I thought ‘Alright, well, we'll just see how it goes.’ That's pretty much been my philosophy in working, although I may be aware there may be certain labels that are used, I'll just meet people where they're at.   


So, I made some giant flowers and vines in the workshop that were exhibited, and James invited me into his little office and asked me to talk about myself and then said, ‘I'd like to offer you a studio space.’ At the time it was one of the tiniest sheds you could get, and I was like ‘I've got no money’ and he went ‘Oh no, basically do some labour in return.’ I often work on my own and so being in a space, it was like my tribe, people who believe the same as me and really seem to care about stuff and talk about things like empathy and compassion and all those things. I feel so privileged because I love my job.   


I trained to be a primary school teacher and did four years of training and full teaching practices and realised I love working with children and I don't like school! I just felt like I'm not able to be the kind of human being I am essentially, or teacher that I want to be. I think we live in this world where we have two parallels running, we tell children all the time how to behave, and then as adults don't follow those rules ourselves. What sort of examples do they see around them of adults in the world?  


The big philosophy at Ark-T is to encourage young people to feel empowered, so a lot of my work is kind of encouraging leadership. What happens when you give kids leadership? They take over. I'll make a session plan, but I never know quite where it's gonna go or what conversations we're gonna have, and there's an awful lot of talking we do in our groups, and a lot of laughing. It's a bit of a joke with the young people that every time I write my session plan, it goes out the window.   


My attitude to my work has always included the therapeutic side, and it's felt like that's what Ark-T has been evolving as a charity more and more. We've gone through difficult times, because like every charity we've really suffered with Covid and I'm so grateful that we've managed to survive, because we are so necessary. The young people that I engage with on a regular basis have got so much going on for them. The adult world knows that young people are really struggling, and yet we don't really seem to prioritise it. Big organisations like CAMHS, which is children and adolescent mental health work, are just completely overrun. So, the experience for a lot of young people is they're just on waiting lists and then they'll get a referral, maybe, somewhere down the line.  


What is therapeutic and what is helpful? It can be so intangible. It can be just being really decent with a kid who's spilt paint. Not blowing your top but doing handprints on the floor because the floor was covered in paint anyway. That’s the joy of the work I do. I think play for everybody is essential, probably adults need it more than anyone. There's so much healing we can give each other just by listening to each other, just by bothering to be with each other. Just being fun.  


I made a thing called an 'emotionometer', and it's got all these little faces. It starts at 'furious' over here and ends up 'joyful' over there, and 'sadness' is somewhere in between. I'm not an art teacher although I love doing art. I'm more interested in the conversations we have, in getting them to recognise what they feel, because I think for a lot of people, both young and old, you don't know what you feel or you're feeling so many emotions, you're numbed out. You're not happy, sad, or angry, there aren’t just three emotions. One of my main drivers is encouraging emotional literacy because I think if you've got that, you start learning that it's okay for people to be different.  

There's a lot of warmth and a lot of trust and a lot of love here at Ark-T. I guess, essentially, because they know I like them. I'm trained to be a teacher and I’ve got a huge amount of respect for the profession, but there are definitely some people who shouldn't be teaching, and definitely their attitudes are more around power and control. I think it's our culture in this country. We have a class system and we've got this kind of pecking order mentality in our head, and even when we don't think we have, it somehow lurks there, it sort of pervades, so I think we really have to throw that off. Only respect people who deserve it!   


There's so much stuff coming at young people all the time, to make them feel bad about themselves. I think it's harder with social media. Bullying seems to come up a lot as an issue and of course, if you're scared, you're not going to be learning, are you? You need to feel okay, at the very least. Our school system really doesn't serve everyone. It's so unfair, this notion of ‘Sit down, shut up.’ It's so archaic, and it just doesn't work.   


If I had to kind of go ‘Right, I'm gonna fix the education system’, it would be around personal issues first. I think all the academic stuff can wait right now, because it isn't going to mean anything if we don't have a society where people are decent to each other. That's why I feel so happy and privileged right now, because I feel that I'm able to not compromise myself and be challenged and have really stimulating conversations at Ark-T.   


I'd like to see more conversations around healthy relationships, more modelling of healthy relationships. More conversations about emotions. Less desire to control other people in any shape or form, how they present, who they love, all of that stuff. A lot of the young people are definitely part of the LGBTQ+ community, so we have a lot of conversations around that. One of the things that I cherish about them is their openness within the space of Ark-T, where they talk with each other, and there's a lot of solidarity and a lot of support they give each other. And the educative stuff that occurs as a result like ‘I'm not gay, but I like that person. They seem to be talking sense’, and any prejudice stuff that they've been taught just melts away.  


I’m blown away with quite how amazing they are, and how smart they are, and what they know. And they keep coming back, even at exam time, saying ‘This is a downtime space, this is where I get a bit of nurturance.’ 


I absolutely love my job. One of the young people said yesterday ‘I want to live here.’ I'm very lucky.


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