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  • Writer's picturePhil

Why the name "Not Neutral?"

Back when I was a teenager I use to crash over a friend's house in South Croydon after nights out clubbing up in town. His mum was a paid up liberal with a cupboard full of cause supporting mugs. A copy of The Guardian would always be open on the kitchen table when I came down the morning after and drank a cup of tea, inadvertently displaying support for the Sandinistas as I did so. She was the kind of person lots of people, including me at the time, judge poorly but for whom I now have a deep respect.

On the wall beside the staircase in their house was the poster pictured here, and I never forgot the quotation, although for years I thought it was from Voltaire.


The person who actually wrote it, Paulo Freire is a Brazilian educator and philosopher who has left a lasting legacy in his home country and on the field of education worldwide. His book Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a classic.


When my family and I relocated to London in 2017 I wrote this quote out on a piece of flip-chart paper and stuck it up on our study wall. As a provocation to myself and my family. As a reminder of our responsibilities, especially those of us who are educated, affluent and in a position of relative privilege and power, to all our fellow humans.


Its core message speaks so clearly to me, articulating something I know but prefer not to admit. None of us are neutral. We all take sides in the struggle between justice and iniquity. A few people do so consciously, actively. The vast majority of us do so by default. Reading this quotation forces me to face up to my wilful blindness.


The original flip-chart paper version didn't last that long, but I rewrote it a few times before graduating to internet download printouts. The latest of those is still on our study wall, regularly provoking and challenging me, especially this year when working from home has meant I see it every day.


Through that time it's a quotation that has become an emblem of my gradual process of awakening. Of the increasing imperative I feel to more closely align what I do with my time and energy with my worldview and my values. That process led to me finishing up my work of 12 years with the wonderful ?What If! last week, leaving the seeming security of full time employment to become an entrepreneur again.


I'm building a new enterprise. One focused on applying the skills I've developed as a coach, an innovator and a transformation specialist to help leaders work through how to pivot their companies towards a better, more holistic, way of doing business. One that regards its ultimate concern as being what it contributes to the sustainable growth of people and planet, with financial profit a means to that end.


As I do so it's a different Freire quote that's serving as my compass. Helping me navigate my way through a multitude of options and possibilities and find my path to making my mark:


"The educator has the duty of not being neutral."


Now, educator is a noun I struggle with. It has associations with a one way transfer of knowledge, of someone who knows all the right answers patronisingly looking to guide their students towards them. These associations do not sit right with my experience of how we learn, of how growth and change really takes place. But, setting all that baggage aside, if it means someone who's role it is to help others learn and grow, to assist them in their journey to finding their way to change the world, then I can be proud to call myself an Educator. And above and beyond that, however I choose to describe myself and what I do, whatever form this enterprise ultimately takes, whatever solutions it offers, my commitment is that it will be actively yet compassionately not neutral.


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