Before collaborating on My Castle Gateway project, Phil Bixby and Helen Graham worked together on My Future York. More than once they’ve been asked why use ‘my’ (rather than, say Your Future York or Our Future York). Here they discuss the various reasons and how ‘my’ signals the distinctive approach to engagement taken in the My Castle Gateway project.
Helen: I’ve never been sure I especially like the feel of the ‘my’ in My Future York or now My Castle Gateway. I know from talking to people that the ‘my’ sometimes lands oddly in their ears. At first hearing it has the potential to call to mind the ‘Me Generation’ and to seem like an encouragement to the self-involvement and narcissism often associated with our age. But there were very particular reasons we decided to use ‘My’ for My Future York and, actually, they are all based on core principles of participatory practice.
It is personal
Helen: The first reason for ‘my’ was, I think, that we needed something to indicate the approach we were taking was personal, it was about exploring how to bring into being the future of the city starting with lots of different people’s lives, knowledge, hope and dreams from their perspectives. Whatever we decided to call what we were doing, it needed to be clearly different from more technocratic initiatives and ‘my’ does some of this work.
Phil: I also thing pressing people for a personal view is worth it because it actually forces a process of honesty and imagination. It gets to people’s values, and asks them to articulate and express them. Also taking a ‘my’ approach is numerically accurate – if you get ten people saying they want to do something, then you know you’ve got ten, not ten people each saying they think “everyone” would want to do something. You can extrapolate, but at your own risk, not theirs. I’m also personally okay with a selfish ‘me’ as long as it is brutally honest. As a society I think we faff around a lot of the time trying to be vaguely nice and unselfish, and as a consequence are dishonest about our needs. We need to get this more honest conversation go as part of the My Castle Gateway process.
Not ‘on behalf of’ other people
Helen: While we may live in a self-centred age it is actually incredibly hard, when you are talking about the city and its future, to get people to speak only for themselves and not to try and speak generally about ‘what’s good for the city’ or about ‘other people and their needs’. In one way it is lovely, people over 40 thinking about teenagers, teenagers thinking about people over 70, people who think of themselves as well off thinking about those they perceive as less well off, people with homes thinking about those without…but such an impulse is not great either from a participatory perspective or in design terms. Taking participation seriously means we aim to speak to as many people as possible directly, going to where they are and using as many different and responsive approaches as we can muster, this commitment means we can free everyone from having to act as advocates for other people. And from a practical design perspective, taking ideas from any ‘on behalf of’ contribution for the My Castle Gateway brief could lead to some very bad outcomes that are simply not usable by the people they were supposed to be ‘for’.
Phil: The need to avoid ‘speaking on behalf of’ is crucial. It would be lovely to think people do this through care for others but I suspect it’s mostly somewhere on a spectrum between laziness and a belief that I/we understand how everyone else thinks, or worse still should think. So for example the idea that kids should all like skateboard parks, because that’s tidier than not knowing what on earth they want and therefore having to cope with a city which allows for that uncertainty.
Any ‘our’ has to be built and can’t be assumed
Helen: I know it might have felt less jarring to call our project ‘our’, it is more cuddly and seems more collectivist. But ‘our anything’ is quite a claim. Often claiming something is ‘our’ is simply the enrolment without active consent of many other people, it is just as exclusive as ‘my’ but takes for granted other people in making the claim. Instead, using ‘my’ is a way of showing we know that any ‘our’ or ‘we’ has to be earned through discussion and through being challenged to see this place and its potential through other people’s eyes. You can see the legacy of my close interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement and 1970s consciousness-raising here!
Phil: Starting with the ‘my’ still opens a door to the collective, but ultimately in a more honest way. ‘I think there should be street parties!’ is lovely; we probably all do. But ‘I’d like there to be a street party’ opens up a subsequent ‘and I would do this as part of it’. I believe collective things are collections of individual things in a supportive context. Without the individuals the things don’t happen.
Helen: So the ‘my’ is a pathway to ‘how’ and therefore how any person might take responsibility for making whatever it is, street parties, pop up cinema, gigs, happen – which is a direction we hope to explore in our Step 2. Ultimately I suppose I do hope we can get to some kind of ‘our’ Castle Gateway but it needs to be an ‘our’ that is real not a weak ‘on-behalf-of-people-I’ve-never-met-but-probably-need-this’ kind of ‘our’. This ‘our’ would need to be an ‘our’ that still has a lot of space for individual and group responsibility-taking …and in any case any ‘our’ has to be built one ‘my’ contribution, one post-it and then one conversation at a time.