Here’s the full transcript of the talk Ignite talk I did at Liverpool Makefest in June 2018.
My talk starts at 6:18
Hi, I’m Helen and I’m a Co-founder of Little Sandbox, which is a Kids Tech club here in Liverpool.
When Chris and I first started talking about kids tech, it was initially inspired by the impending skills shortage in the tech sector.
That same year, the Government recognised the problem and added computing to the national curriculum, which we thought was great, coz it meant kids would be introduced to tech from an early age.
But we realised 2 things, firstly, tech needed to be seen as exciting in order to attract kids who might go on to be the future stars of the tech sector.
Secondly, girls need to be encouraged as much as boys because when only 16% of the workforce is female, it’s a bit of a no brainer to make the sector more accessible to women in order to meet the demand for skilled workers.
Coz trust me on this one, girls are brilliant at this stuff, they just need to be encouraged to try it.
But then it occurred to us that there’s already a load of kids into tech, we just don’t see them because they prefer to be alone with a computer than in the company of others.
Their interests aren’t stereotypical, they’re not into football, or dance or drama. They get labelled: nerds or geeks by kids who think that’s an insult – which is silly, we all know nerds are the coolest.
They feel uncomfortable at social clubs, and find it hard to fit in.
As a child, I didn’t fit in. I preferred my own company. I used to spend my breaktimes alone reading. So I was one of the weird kids. And I didn’t want to be a weird kid, I didn’t want to be one of the nerdy, swotty kids, the clever boring kids. I wanted to be a fun cool kid, so that the fun cool kids would stop picking on me.
I made a conscious decision to try to fit in, I stopped trying so hard in lessons, I played with the other kids, I pretended I was enjoying myself when inside I was wishing I could just slope off to a quiet corner by myself.
In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t, I wish I’d followed my instincts, embraced my intelligence and realised that relatively speaking school is such a short period of our lives and there’s so much more beyond it.
And I hope that the kids we work with will be inspired, knowing they’re not alone, to continue to stay true to themselves.
We realised that rather than wanting to encourage normal kids to get into tech, we actually wanted to support those nerdy kids who are a bit different to the others, who have a hard time at school, and help them find their people and realise that who they are is just fine.
One thing we’ve found, which hadn’t occurred to us when we started, was that our club is quite popular with kids who are on the autism spectrum.
Because the documented traits such as photographic memory, recognising patterns, and requiring specific information makes some people with ASD ideally suited to programming.
But one of their barriers is social anxiety and finding it difficult to work as part of a team. Which is potentially a huge loss to the tech sector.
But Several of our parents have expressed surprise at how quickly their kids settle at Little Sandbox, they engage with the activities, work with others and they’re making friends. And it helps that they’re surrounded by tech, computers, things that are unambiguous, thst either work or don’t work, are either on or off. It’s feels like a safe space because they can hide behind a computer until they feel comfortable enough to speak to the kid next to them.
The key thing about Little Sandbox is that everyone is welcome and everyone is free to be themselves without fear of ridicule. And parents have told us that they can feel that, as soon as they walk through the door.
Maybe that’s because both Chris and I know what it feels like to not fit in, so we make sure no one else feels like that when they’re at our club.
And here’s the thing about diversity: We’re all digitally connected through social media. We can all hide who we are behind an avatar and an online persona. And we are quick to like people we’ve never met and know nothing about.
Why shouldn’t that translate to real life? It matters not, their age, gender, race, ability, sexuality or even if they’re a massive nerd, when they’re hidden behind a computer. So why should it matter in person?
It’s the one thing about which I’ve always thought “not a chance”. The idea of knocking on doors asking people to vote, filled me with dread. Mainly because, I hate it when people knock on my door unexpectedly. If I’m not expecting a delivery from Sizzlas then it can only be someone trying to get me to switch energy supplier or support a charity. “Hello, saw your cat in the window, I guess you’re an animal person? I’m from the Dogs Trust…” Well I’m specifically a cat person, goodbye! (Not that I don’t want to support charities, I do, I just want to choose them for myself, also, I prefer small, local charities rather than big national charities, if you have the capacity to knock on doors asking for donors, you’re probably not as much in need as a local community centre, feeding and clothing people and providing much needed support that this sham of a government has taken away from us).
So the thought of being one of those people, disturbing someone while they’re watching Corrie or putting the kids to bed, causes a spasm in my cringing pipes. I just couldn’t imagine doing it.
So one evening, I’d messaged my Walton CLP comrade, Ann (Cllr. O’Byrne) for a bit of advice and she roped me into going leafleting in Old Swan for William Shortall, the candidate in the upcoming by-election. I told her my reservations about door knocking and she said I could tag along with her next time she went, which, as fate would have it was about a week later. In fact, in a shocking twist, completely unexpected, I contacted her to see if she was going out on the doorstep and could I join her.
I know, trust me, no one was more surprised than me by my proactive behaviour. But I decided I wanted to get that first go under my belt so I knew what to expect, and once I get an idea into my head, I’m like a dog with a bone.
So we arrived in Old Swan, met up with a team of campaigners and hit the streets. I followed Ann around, listening to her speech and taking in her approach: friendly, helpful, sympathetic. And filed it away for later. Then she made me do one.
Noooooo… the door opened, my mind went blank, I could feel my heart pounding. I can’t even remember who opened the door, it was such a blur. But I did it. I introduced myself, asked if they had any issues they wanted to discuss, asked them if they knew about the by-election…
At the next house there was no answer so I put a card through the letter box. Ann got talking to someone and I found myself agreeing to do a house by myself.
Again, there was no answer. Then I got my first solo door step…
It was sound. I asked if there were any issues, he grinned, “aw man, I’m sure there probably are. Just can’t think of any.”
I mentioned some issues we’d heard from neighbours, and he agreed, “yeah, that sounds good, put that down.” I laughed and asked him about the by-election. “oh yes, we’ll both be voting Labour.”
Success! I felt like I could conquer Everest by this point and went off to get my next house assigned.
Lots of people had told me how much fun it is, how enjoyable it is to chat to people about things, find out what they think about the party, local council, government, plus the camaraderie of the campaigners.
I found myself with one negative response: “will you be voting in the by-election?” I asked. No. I was quite taken aback, “No? How come?”
“Because I’ve never voted Labour in my life.” oh… in my head I pictured Homer Simpson stepping back into a bush to hide… but I held my hands up and said, fair enough.
And then ran away as fast as my little legs would carry me!!
On the whole, it was a fun experience, I’m quite looking forward to doing it again. And while it is still fresh in my mind, I wanted to recall what I learned, because when you’ve done something for a while, it can be hard to remember what it feels like to be doing it for the first time. So here’s what I learned, and I hope it helps any other first time, reluctant door knockers give it a go…
You’re not going alone. There’s a team. Someone will have a clip board with a bunch of names and addresses. They’ll assign you a house number and tell you the name. Don’t worry if you forget the name, you won’t really need it. Think I’d be creeped out if anyone knocked on my door and said “Hello Helen Stephens…” I didn’t hear anyone else use names, maybe they did, but I don’t think it mattered that I didn’t.
Before I went, I’d been asking people generally whether anyone from Labour had ever knocked on their door and if not, would they want them to? Most said that they would like the opportunity to talk about things and get their thoughts across. So knowing that, starting the conversation by asking if they had any issues they would like me to feed back to their Councillors, felt like I was giving them an opportunity rather than intruding and I felt less self conscious about it.
Say something along the lines of “I’m out in the area with the local Labour party…” It changes your mind set in 2 ways… firstly, it reminds you that you’re part of a team and they’ve got your back and secondly, it takes away the feeling that YOU are knocking on the door because it’s not you, it’s the Labour Party knocking.
More than half the houses I called at didn’t answer. If I got a few in a row, I actually started to get a bit frustrated, and felt a sense of success when I finally got an answer.
A very small number of residents asked not to be disturbed again… but they were still polite and friendly, even though they weren’t particularly happy to see us.
The majority who answered were really happy to chat and seemed pleased to have been given the chance to share their views. Right now, the country is either really interested in politics or really pissed off with politicians. Either way, lots of people seemed to enjoy the excuse to chat about stuff so it’s a really good time to get started.
This week Green MP, Caroline Lucas, made a rather unpopular suggestion of creating an all female cabinet of cross party MPs to prevent a no deal Brexit. To say it fell flat is an understatement. I’ve had a couple of discussions on social media about this subject, but social media can get heated so I want to make clear my thoughts on this subject.
On the surface I quite like the idea of an all female discussion because having sat in many board meetings over the last 10 years, I have witnessed first hand, time and time again, that women don’t engage as actively as men. Men are generally very confident in their own beliefs and opinions and have no fear of sharing them with an air of authority. Women tend to listen, take on board the opinions and views of others and understand where their opinion has come from. Often they hold back on sharing their own opinion because it feels unlikely that it will be understood in the same way and there’s a chance they’ll be argued with or patronised in some way. The feeling that if we don’t agree we must be wrong, is enough to keep us quiet. I am not speaking for all women at this point. It is definitely what I feel and I have observed many women in meetings, holding back from sharing their views. On the flip side I’ve been in all women meetings where everyone has felt able to talk, we’ve shared our opinions, even if they differ, we listen and understand each other’s position and we find ways to compromise. So my initial thought when someone told me that Caroline Lucas had suggested bringing together female MPs from all parties to discuss preventing a No Deal Brexit was “What a great idea that is”.
Of course, at that point I hadn’t read the article or the letter that had been sent out and I hadn’t seen the list of women who had been invited. To say it’s not the most diverse group of women would be an understatement and I’m sure in hindsight Caroline Lucas will look back on this as a huge error of judgement. It’s shocking that in putting together a list of women to represent the UK, it doesn’t doesn’t appear to have occurred to her to include BAME women. While in some cases she invited the leader of the party or the only female MP of the party, that explanation doesn’t hold up in the Labour representation. Alongside Emily Thornberry, she could have invited fellow shadow cabinet members; Diane Abbott, Dawn Butler, Valerie Vaz or Shami Chakrabartit, all of whom are much more senior than Yvette Cooper.
Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has said she won’t enter into a coalition with Jeremy Corbyn. That’s a whole other subject, but I mean, come on, Labour is Labour, the leader is just one person who is answerable to the members. People need to stop getting their knickers in a twist about Jeremy Corbyn and come to terms with the fact that the vast majority of Labour members believe in the policies and direction Corbyn has taken the party. If you want to work with us, that’s what you get. If Jeremy Corbyn steps down, the membership will vote in another leader with the same values and principles because since becoming leader, since unveiling the transformational manifesto, the party membership has more than doubled.
But I’m not convinced that this is just a cynical move to prevent a general election and a Labour Government. Jo Swinson may not want to work with Jeremy Corbyn but I doubt anyone on the left much wants to work with her either… And while I don’t particularly like the idea of working alongside austerity enablers, they do represent their voters and any proposals to prevent a No Deal Brexit, should take into account all sides of the debate… which incidentally means including socialist MPs which Lucas seemed to have also overlooked.
It took a teenager, Greta Thunberg, to make us sit up and realise that climate change has reached the point of an emergency that we need to do something about. And now we’re 2 months away from leaving the EU with no deal in place and a new unelected Prime Minister who couldn’t care less about it. This feels about as catastrophic as it gets and I welcome any bold ideas to find a way through this mess rather than continuing to repeat the same old dance we’ve witnessed since the Withdrawal Agreement was first presented to the commons.
Obviously, Caroline Lucas doesn’t have any authority to bring together a cabinet to lead on Brexit and any strategies such a group might come up with would have to be voted on. So in that sense, the idea is a bit daft. But I do think that bringing together women from all parties to have a discussion is a good idea – maybe not the specific women that were listed and definitely with better representation of all women – because I do think that given the freedom to speak, debate, listen to each other and understand opposing views, women can change the world.
Hands up who watches Derren Brown and thinks “I don’t care what he says, he’s definitely got magical powers’?
I’ve heard so many anecdotes from people leaving his live show, overhearing such comments from attendees.
Why are we so committed to believing the unbelievable despite the evidence?
The thing I admire the most about Derren Brown is that he shows us the trick. All the way along he reminds us that he’s not psychic, it’s just an illusion. In his TV programmes, he explains in detail the tricks he’s using and how they work to manipulate people into believing the unthinkable.
The experiment where he made a young man believe he’d murdered someone was one of the most thought provoking programmes I’ve ever watched and made me question everything about my own emotions and how they’re triggered.
I think Derren Brown is both terrifying and utterly brilliant at the same time. I love watching his shows but I’d absolutely hate to be in the same room as him because I think I’d go insane with paranoia. There was a period of time, after watching the experiments, when I would notice things: words on posters, graffiti, adverts and think “that word again, am I being Derren Browned?” I suppose more than anything Derren Brown alerted me to something very important: we are incredibly gullible and easily manipulated.
This fact has made the marketing industry billions. When radio stations flood the airwaves with the same song, it tops the charts, but who decides which songs get played? Whoever spends the most money.
I recently watched The Great Hack, a documentary about Cambridge Analytica and how it influenced the outcomes of several high profile political events across the world.
With digital and social media, data analysis and artifical intelligence we now have something far more sinister than marketing.
Like cold reading on steroids, algorithms collect and analyse all kinds of data, building up an accurate profile of a person: their character, likes, dislikes etc.
Then social media posts, adverts, and memes are targeted at individuals, subliminally giving them information to influence their opinions.
We’ve all had a conversation about something and then an advert pops up on Facebook about that same thing. We’ve paused outside a shop and looked in the window and then adverts for that shop started appearing in our newsfeeds. And we acknowledge that it’s a bit creepy, or we think it’s a random coincidence, sometimes we even make the link between our data but still, we fill in those pointless personality quizzes, giving faceless tech giants more information to help their algorithms send us content that will influence us to do what they want us to do.
This isn’t just for fun, it’s not light entertainment, it’s not something they do and then reverse the trance so the target stops clucking like a chicken every time someone says “breakfast”.
This goes beyond mainstream media’s biased reporting and companies paying for more advertising than their competitors.This is tech giants selling our data to be analysed. This is people losing their ability to think for themselves. This is the people with the most financial power, rigging elections to ensure they retain their power.
This is an infringement of our democratic rights.
The Great Hack follows a whistleblower who explained how it worked, they exposed the con and showed us how entire nations had been manipulated into voting one way or another, or in one case they created a targeted campaign to convince young people not to vote at all.
There is something fundamentally wrong when people are being discouraged from exercising their democratic right.
Technology continues to evolve at a rate that most of us can’t comprehend and it stands to reason that it takes a while for legislation to catch up. But something has to be done to safeguard our democracy and protect the global population from being exploited.
There has been so many head scratching moments in recent years and I fear we’re on the precipice of an apocalyptic catastrophe. And I can’t shake the feeling that the only way we can stop it is if Derren Brown clicks his fingers and we all wake up.
Bit of a cliched title, but last weekend I took part in my first Pride march. To be clear, I fully support everything Pride stands for, but I have something of a fear of crowds so I’ve always avoided anything that attracts large gatherings; I’ve never seen the giants, I didn’t see any open top buses carrying LFC silverware and I don’t go on marches.
But this year, as part of my efforts to push myself out of my comfort zone and stand up for things I believe in, I decided to join the Labour Party Red Bloc for the Pride march.
It was fun. My friend and work colleague, Cllr Patrick Hurley met me beforehand for a coffee and a catch up, before heading to St George’s Hall to join everyone. I immediately spotted members from Walton CLP, Alan & Pauline, the Mersey Socialist Club crew, alongside Cllrs Ann O’Byrne, Paul Brant, Fraser Lake, MP Dan Carden, and Metro Mayor Steve Rotherham. I met lots of other members from other CLPs and our MEP Theresa Griffin.
I volunteered to help carry the new Walton CLP LGBT banner and quickly realised that despite losing 3 stone over the last 9 months, my muscles could use some work. Thankfully, Alan and Pauline demonstrated their vast campaigning experience, each holding up their ends of the banner single handedly and I managed to carry it from start to finish… Four days later and my arms still ache!!
I couldn’t see anything in front of me other than the banner, but looking either side at the crowds of people lining the streets, cheering us on, standing in solidarity with the LGBT community, made me feel immensely proud and a little overwhelmed to be there.
It was my first taste of community activism, except for the Iraq war protest in 2003 – I was living in London at that time and my friend, Collen, traveled down from Liverpool for the occasion.
We live in strange times and I’m fed up of sitting on my sofa worrying, and complaining about it. It’s not enough to shout at the TV. I had been apathetic about it, didn’t believe activism made much difference, but Extinction Rebellion and the schools strike for climate protests have shown that it does make people take notice. The fact Liverpool Council held a full council meeting on a that single subject and declared a climate emergency in the same week, is proof that peaceful but disruptive protests do work.
I’ve heard lots of people complaining that buses were delayed, affecting people right across the city region, people asking why it can’t take place in a park instead of closing roads. Of course, it wouldn’t be a protest if it didn’t disrupt things. But maybe also, a lot of people think pride is a celebration rather than a protest. I had naively thought we had moved beyond discrimination against people for their sexuality, but the recent homophobic attacks, show us that there is still a long way to go, and now more than ever we need to stand up and say we won’t tolerate hate crime. #PrideIsAProtest
Now that I have my first protest under my belt, I’m certain it won’t be my last.