Vulnerable People Deserve Beautiful Things

Our valedictorian Katie Slee shares the final words of the 2014 GradFest

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This time 2 and a half years ago, I’d just graduated from university. I read Art History at Oxford. My personal statement decreed, and I suppose my sustained opinion throughout university was, that studying the history of art was studying the history of humanity.

I worked slavishly, in all areas of my life. I got up at 6am to row 5 times a week. I dived into my classes and essays. I headed up a couple of committees and sub-edited a journal. I had amazing friends and played with them a lot as well.

I decided then that I wanted to be an academic: it was important to work out ways of communicating the great stories of art to anyone and everyone. I wrote my thesis – 12,000 words a single painting by Mark Rothko! – and thought I’d found my calling.

I was distraught when I got a 2:1.

Feeling that disappointment – however churlish – woke up a part of me. I’d been pretty active outside of my highly theoretical degree and I found starting to do things more full time to be really therapeutic. I moved to Paris and worked as a PA to an evil genius.

After a year I was back in London and wondering what next.

Looking for jobs is a horrid experience, isn’t it? It’s something all recent graduates can identify with: the suspense, the disappointment. The fact that you basically have to commit heart and soul to a role in order to convince anyone to give it to you. I had buried myself into a horrid state of narcissistic pessimism, convinced so hard by the talents cited by my CV and unsure whether I’d ever find a cause worthy of them. I was in a really dark place when I came across Year Here.

Year Here’s a tricky thing to explain. I know a few of you in the audience have been through this. A 9-month postgraduate fellowship in social leadership and innovation … what?!

I guess it’s a bit cheesy but the way I’ve come to think of it is that Year Here is a movement of people.

Rather than seeing social issues as a shame or the responsibility of some abstract being – taxpayers, the state, nonprofits – Year Here says ‘actually, yes there are huge social problems, and giant gaping holes, but what if we reframe them as a challenge and a calling?’

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Nine months ago, we were thrown in at the deep end, at the coal face, into our frontline placements. In hostels, schools and an active age centre, we sought to witness and absorb the everyday challenges and realities facing people outside of our bubbles. We saw and heard a lot of things. A strange bittersweet blend of humour, loss, courage and small victories. I guess a sharper picture of humanity than I’d previously thought.

We sought to see through that teeming collection of voices and images and stories to come up with our own solutions, however humble, to create a change. Sophie’s beautiful Odyssey workbook that reframes the narratives of female victims of sexual violence as survivors, Sarah’s art classes and exhibitions that brought such joy to the Bradbury Active Age Centre in Kingston.

We took these ideas and insights forward, created ventures: Birdsong, Settle, Curiosity Club and the Space Between. More recently, we carried out community research and made recommendations to local authorities about how best to support families in Camden, or how to bolster community groups financially in these times of austerity.

We’ve learnt that the world is vast, gritty and exciting. There is a lot of stuff that we can do, that we will do and that we now feel more equipped and propelled to do.

So what are we facing? I don’t know where to start.

Austerity. Cuts. The rate of homelessness rising every year for three years. An ageing population and creaking care systems. 2 women a week UK dying from domestic violence. London’s housing crisis. London at the expense of the rest of the UK. The Russell Brandwagon. Fucking UKIP.

Earlier today, my year of fellows and I discussed our values moving forward, our manifesto.

We came up with four precepts that we hold close.

The first is very close to my own heart. It’s that vulnerable people deserve beautiful things. Creating objects, workbooks, workshops, systems for people in need of support is an investment in that group of people and can have real impact.

Then, we can see that knowledge is but a match in the dark. It’s much more dangerous to think that you know everything and have people down than admit your ignorance.

How do you keep moving, when you now know you know so little? Well, you do what you can now, and when you can do more, do more.

Finally, and I think most importantly – a leader sees greatness in other people. You can’t be much of a leader if all you see is yourself.

Don’t look for meaning just in a gallery. Don’t look in the mirror or at your feet. Try looking at the view. Actually, humanity is all around us.