Consent-Based Education 101, September – October 2022

I am excited to run the Consent-Based Education course again this year, starting in September. The course will have two parts: 6 online sessions via Zoom over 6 weeks, and a weekend in-person workshop at the end. It is an introduction and launch pad for those seeking to better understand, integrate and practice in consent-based ways.

You can book either just the online part, or the online and weekend workshop. The course will be assisted by Sarah Stollery and Max Hope.

What is the course about?

As family culture and education seeks to evolve beyond the traditional patriarchal, authoritarian model, and people make the choice to live together in more respectful, authentic and socially just ways that acknowledge the personhood and agency of children, essential questions come up as to what this means for our relationship with ourselves and others, and our outlook and interaction with the world around us. How can we be with ourselves and the children in our lives in a new way?

Consent-Based Education is a response to this tension. What happens when authoritarianism/patriarchy, the basis of all our existing systems, is stripped away, and we become more curious and individually empowered in our own lives, and desire this space for the children in our lives too? What does it look like to move beyond patriarchy, power-over and coercion, to embrace our own personal power, agency and autonomy, and question the education and social norms and values that we’ve experienced until now? What does consent mean to us, and how does it relate to experiencing authenticity, integrity, self-actualisation and healthy, honest relationships?

Who is this course for: This course is designed for parents and people who live and/or work together with children, who want to explore and go deeper into their understanding and practice of Consent-Based Education, for their own personal development and practice, to support their own and others life-long learning and growing in a consent-based way.

This might include: Unschoolers, feminist/social/environmental justice/decolonising oriented parents and educators, founders and facilitators of self-directed and consent-based education settings, home educators interested in children’s rights.

The online component of the course is made up of the following six sessions:

Session 1: What is Patriarchy, its impact and effect?

Session 2: Breaking Cycles – the Process of Change 

Session 3: What is Consent-Based Education?

Session 4: Love and Relationships, Boundaries and Freedom

Session 5: Living and Learning, Creativity and Flow 

Session 6: The Bigger Picture

Each session will last for two hours, and include the following:

Agreement making (how we are going to work and play together), 

Check-ins, 

Me sharing on the theme of the session,

Chance for reflection, questions and deepening the inquiry, 

Exploring putting the theory into practice,

Check out. 

The time and dates for the online sessions are as follows:

Time: 7-9pm (GMT)

Dates:

Tuesday 6th September

Tuesday 13th September 

Tuesday 20th September

Tuesday 27th September

Tuesday 4th October

Tuesday 11th October

Weekend Workshop:

Following the Zoom calls is an in person weekend, which will be a chance to meet, consolidate what has been covered on the Zoom calls, and go further in helping you to experience and learn practices key to consent-based education. The weekend will be held in Furneux Pelham, East Hertfordshire.

The two days will include:

Day 1: Stepping into Your Power: This work is activism, and it requires activism spirit and energy to have a chance to come to life. In order to do this, and to hold a new shape of consent-based education, we need to become aware of our own energy and power to do this work. This ability is also crucial to our experience of consent-based education and self-direction. We need to learn how to care for ourselves, as activists, and how to support our own healing journeys. This day will be focused on the physical and emotional experience of this, and will be a deep breath of oxygen to the embers of your own power and activist nature.

Day 2: Practical Tools: On day two we will explore and practice together practical tools that support the creation of a consent-based education. This will include: how to hold a meeting (can be adapted for a meeting of 2 people up to a meeting of a group), conflict navigation, setting up a consent-based ‘frame’, how to share and make risk management agreements, boundaries and identity work.

The in person workshop days will be held in a consent-based and self-directed way, similar to how we hold the day at the Cabin and the Lodge.

Dates for the Weekend Workshop:

Saturday 29th October and Sunday 30th

Communication during the course:

Once booked on to the course and before we begin, I will add you to a private Facebook group, which we will use for the duration of the course, to share the resources that lead in to each session, to use as a community space, and to post links for the Zoom calls. Before each session, a set of resources are shared for you to explore in whatever way you want to.

An important note about the transformational nature of the course:

This course has a transformational quality to it. It is designed through the lens and path of my own journey, practice and experience, which has been profoundly transformative and impactful to every part of my life. Every time I have run this course cycle so far, it has been a positive disruptor, has had a deep impact on my life, and been catalystic of change. This has included the ending of important relationships, changes in family relationships, personal growth, loss, grief, the emergence of new things, experience of self-actualisation and deep personal and spiritual alignment. I have witnessed this also happen in the lives of those that have taken part. You will be encouraged to manage your participation in the course in the way that you feel ready for and is right for you, however it is important that in booking on to the course you do so knowingly of the impact it may have, and that change may be catalysed as a result. 

To book:

There are two options for booking this course. You can book just the online part, or the online part and the in person weekend.

For online: £288

For online and the weekend: £468

Please note: Breakfast and lunch is included on Saturday and Sunday for the in-person weekend, and there will be an option to join for dinner on the Saturday night. Overnight accommodation is not included, please ask if you need advice on local options.

This is a small group course, with a maximum of 20 spaces available.

If you would like to book or have any questions about the course (including around payment plans or access needs regarding the course cost), please contact me at: hello@sophiechristophy.com

My first piece of education activism… age 6.

My first piece of education activism – activism in the traditional sense of the term ie direct action – happened when I was 6 years old.

It was during my second year in primary school. What had happened was, we were spending a bunch of time on writing practice.

The writing practice made my arm hurt. I don’t remember what I thought about it – whether I enjoyed it intellectually or was interested in it in other ways for example, but the issue was, regardless of that, it made my body physically hurt.

I reached a point of thinking this wasn’t a good thing, that doing something every day to the extent it that made my body be in pain probably wasn’t the best idea. One day during break time, I asked the other people in my class if writing also made their arms hurt. It was impossible to tell during the class time itself, because everyone just had their heads down and was getting on with it as far as I could see.

So I asked everyone – Hey, does all this writing make your arm hurt too? And the answer was a yes, other people in my class were also in pain because of the writing practice.

It’s not like I didn’t like picking up a pen at all. I totally did. For evidence, here is a picture I drew of my own accord age 3 whilst filling in time at my dad’s office. It’s not like I was anti-mark making or anything, I was just anti-doing it to the point of being in pain:

Anyway. I as I said, I asked the other folk what was going on for them, they said it hurt them too, so I said, what shall we do about it? There was a general sense that we couldn’t do anything about it, and I said, something along the lines of, that not being good enough and we had to do something because carrying on as we were wasn’t a good option.

I suggested that the next time we were in the class and writing practice started, that we stand on our chairs, and say: “Writing makes our arms ache”. That this might get the teacher’s attention, and then she might not make us do it anymore, or at least not as much.

Yes, ok let’s do that, was the response from the others.

So there we were, back in the classroom again. Nervous anticipation in the air. Knowing that if the teacher started us up with some writing practice again, that this opportunity for action lay ahead of us.

The teacher instructed us to start writing practice.

People got out their notebooks and writing tools. They began to write, and just in that moment of commencing, I stood up on my chair, and began the chant: “Writing makes our arms ache”.

And no one else moved a muscle. Not one, single other person, also got up on their chair.

The teacher I think was pretty shocked, baffled, by this scene.

I mean, look at me, not exactly the image of a super rebel:

But I believe I was pretty badass that day. I was also supremely let down by my classmates that kept their heads nicely tucked under the parapet. I was standing on my chair! Seriously! And they left me hanging, to face my fate alone.

There wasn’t really any fate. After a little while, the teacher just asked me to sit down again. And the writing practice continued. Due to lack of support, my action was stopped in it’s tracks, and I gave up on that method as a means to affect change. I gave up on my classmates too. Maybe other people didn’t care as much as I did. Maybe they weren’t really bothered and were ok with the run of the mill and their experience within that. Maybe that just wasn’t the kind of action that worked for them. I don’t know.

I do know that the teacher could have listened and backed off the writing practice a bit, or at least asked me if I was ok.

Gay Stories

Seeing as we’re in Pride month right now, I thought it might be a nice time to share with you some of my own stories and journey as a queer gay woman.

I haven’t ever felt closeted, I also didn’t feel like I was gay when I was younger. As a child and young person, I had a strong sense of my own sexuality and sexual energy, but I would have said at the time that it was the person/energy I was drawn to, rather than their specific gender identity or sex. I suppose, if I had been given decent sex and relationship education when I was growing up, I would have had a better idea about the range of sexuality and relationships that were possible as part of the human experience, and I may have identified as pansexual for example. But, because my schooling happened during the Section 28 era, different sexualities and identities were completely erased, sex ed was rubbish, and there was so much general homophobia and transphobia and fearfulness about these things, that I had massive language and knowledge blindspots as a result. I sincerely hope it’s better for young people now, I believe that it is, and certainly it is in the settings that I work in.

I did know that people could be different from just the heteronormative model, because my own close family was more diverse than that which I am grateful for, but I didn’t have the experience of growing up in a proud queer family, or remember having affirming and open conversations about these things (my family situation was very complex). So, I was largely living in a super straight world, with a super straight youth experience and peer group. Even girls kissing girls was framed within a male gaze and as a part of a provocation for the boys. There was no queerness to be found in my peer group. No one was out, in fact, from school through to the end of uni, none of the young people around me were out. It wasn’t until after uni that some people I knew dared to come out – it makes me sad to think of what they might have lost because of that, but I understand that it was for their own protection.

Anyway, despite feeling that it was the ‘person’ that I was attracted to rather than a sex or gender, there was definitely a bias in my sense of attraction when I was younger towards masculine cis men. I wasn’t holding out for the girls at all, and I didn’t know any gender queer folk, which is probably also why I didn’t feel closeted. If had been in a more queer context, perhaps I would have explored more or noticed more, but I was happy dating and being in relationships with cis men, and straight relationship felt good to me and compatible with the sense I had of myself at the time and in my perceived future. From the age of 17 I had relationships with straight men, including getting married in my 20s.

I would say that it wasn’t until after my youngest child reached just about 3 years old, that I started to question my sexuality, or how I was experiencing it at that point. Around the same time as this, but for reasons separate to it (believe me), my marriage was falling apart. This was truly devastating, and not something I had ever imagined or wanted to happen. I was desperate for my marriage and family to remain intact, but it seemed that that was an impossibility, which will always be one of the the greatest traumas and tragedies in my life.

At that time, I was in a process of questioning many things. I had already been on a de-schooling journey for quite a few years by this point, and was questioning almost everything in my life, and in culture and society. It was a time of a lot of flux, reconsideration, opening up and falling apart. My work around consent and consensuality was also really reaching a peak point too, which had a massive impact on my sense of my own lived experience, and led to me questioning how much of my current lived experience felt consensual to me. The answer was, not very much!

Some way into this, I met an amazing gay woman, who I felt totally attracted to in a way that woke up my whole sense of myself and life. After years of sliding further and further into a lived experience that didn’t hold me, meet my needs or nourish me, I started to feel alive again. I started to wonder whether my sexuality was undergoing some shifting process, and that honestly is what I think was happening. I’m inclined to believe that for me, once my youngest child was no longer breastfeeding or so dependent on me in a physical way any more, that something in my system did start moving and evolving, and that this included my sense of and experience of my own sexuality and attraction. I was in relationship with her for just over 2 and a half years and I am so grateful for that time.

I felt very much as though my own sexuality swung far away from straight cis men. Perhaps some of this was a reaction to my marriage breaking down and the experiences within that, but it also felt true in its own right. I strongly felt that I was gay, a queer gay woman. I would say I was also feeling more gender queer than I had before, I think the early years of motherhood and maternity had pulled me into a strong feminine energy. Now I feel like I am in a feminine and masculine energy balance, where at different times I lean more into a feminine energy, and at others more of a masculine energy, some times it feels very balanced between the two. Again, I don’t feel like I’ve been in any kind of gender closet, I just think that my sense of myself is growing and evolving over the course of my life in a way that feels really natural and empowering.

It’s wonderful to feel that my whole energetic range is available to me in this way, through shades of masculine and feminine energy, and that I can play with it and explore it as feels right to me and to the situation or environment that I am in. In terms of my sexuality now, I would probably still say what I said as a young person, that it’s the person/their energy that I am drawn to, so perhaps pansexual is the right label for me. But, in some ways it doesn’t feel like that label says enough. I do think it is the person, but think I also do need that tension, or friction, I’m not sure what the right word is for it, of same sex/gender bending queerness. I can describe myself as a gay woman and it feel like a fit, but I don’t think it quite says enough either because my gayness is a more queer than that! So maybe queer gay woman, or even queer gay person, is the best mash up – it can depend on how I’m feeling or what is happening at a given time.

What I know is that I am really happy for myself, to have this experience, to be queer and in a queer, gay relationship. To be able to live my life publicly and in a proud way – something that has only so recently become possible for people not in heteronormative relationships, and can still feel and be out of reach for many. I am so grateful for all the activists and change makers of the past who have pushed and fought for social change that has made my experience today possible. Who have made it safer for me and my family, and for other people that I love and work with – I am committed to the continuation of that work. I have the joy of living with my partner, Max, who is brilliant and wonderful and so good for me, who I get to love, live life with, be creative with, collaborate and work with. To be a family with. I am so proud and happy to be with her, to be queer, to have a family that I love. To have what feels like broken free of the shackles and barriers that confine traditional notions and lines of sexuality, gender and relationship. To be in a liberated space where I get to live an expanded life every day.

If you would like some Pridey viewing and more gay stories, I recently watched Heartstopper and Rebel Dykes and loved them both.

What is it with the wild? A dialogue between Sophie Christophy and Max Hope

 Authors: Sophie Christophy & Max Hope. This piece of writing was originally published here on Write On Changemakers

Sophie Christophy and Max Hope love being outdoors and connecting with wild places but are curious about whether their experiences of ‘the wild’ and ‘nature’ are the same. Sophie is a feminist and children’s rights activist, an unschooling parent and Co-Founder of The Cabin and The Lodge, two self-directed and consent-based settings for home educated children. Max is Director of Rewilding Education, co-facilitator of Call of The Wild and co-lead at The Lodge. They are activists and partners in work and in life. In this exchange of emails, they explore the overall theme of ‘what is it with the wild’? and debate what it means to feel deeply connected to nature. 

This dialogue follows on from two previous ones: the first on Rewilding and Unschooling and the second on Creating Radical Changes in Education.

Sophie:

Max, at the end of our last piece of writing, we were exploring the question of where we put ourselves in the process of change and activated work. In part of it I mention the “self-healing through nature-based experiences” aspect of your work. You make reference to the Mary Oliver quote and question: “how will I use my one wild and precious life?”, and in our first piece of writing together we dove into the query of whether rewilding and deschooling (and then unschooling) are theoretically and experientially comparable.

I can’t help but think of the phrase ‘going out into nature’ – words we often say, often in moments where there is a need for relief – and how that idea shows up in our work and lives. I’m interested in what this means to you, because it is such a strong inspiration and constant theme. Why do we care about this? What does it mean to and for you, for us? It’s easy to say the words, but what is the story behind them for you? How is it defined, significant? Can you maybe tell me how this all began for you?

Max:

Let’s start with language. Nature. Going into nature. Nature connection. What does it really mean? I’m going to come clean here. Although I am surrounded by folk who use the term ‘nature’ and ‘nature connection’, and I sometimes use it myself, I don’t like these phrases very much. I far prefer talking about the wild. That’s my language. The wild. Rewilding. The wilderness.

What even is ‘nature connection’? I do like the distinction between ‘nature contact and ‘nature connection’. Going outside and walking up a hill whilst wearing headphones and looking at the ground is an example of nature contact. We are with it and yet not in it. We are not really engaged, not connected. Nature connection is deeper than this. It is about seeing, hearing, paying attention, caring, being impacted, and so on.

Having a relationship with the wild implies reciprocity. It is not a one-way relationship. It’s not about using the wild as a resource and taking, taking, taking. It’s not simply about saying ‘being in the wild makes me feel better and so I’ll do more of it.’ I mean, it’s great if being in the wild makes me feel better, of course, but what does the wild get out of this? How can I have a relationship, a real relationship, with birds and animals and rocks and the sea and the sky and the elements? What does this mean?

I have been lucky to have had some profound experiences in the wild. I remember lying on the earth one night, as part of a wilderness solo, and hearing the earth breathing. I have shouted for the wind and the elements and asked them for help in lighting my impossible-to-light fire and watching in amazement as the flames burst to life. I have slept next to a river (yes, the beautiful River Dart) and waited as the water connected directly with my soul.  Crazy huh? Must be my imagination playing tricks on me. Must be the influence of tiredness or illegal substances. No. Really, no. I have come to know and see and believe that I am a part of the wild, a small part of a deeply interconnected ecosystem. This is not a cognitive or intellectual realisation. It is a felt sense, an embodied experience. It’s real and it’s important, to me anyway.

I find it so hard to explain. I get the sense that some folk know what I am talking about. They know. They feel it too. They have a yearning, a deep desire, a longing, a longing to be part of the wild. Other do not. They might enjoy being outdoors, going to the seaside, walking in the countryside, but not in the same way. These folk enjoy the outdoors, but they enjoy lots of other things too. For me, this is about finding the place where my soul can be still, where my mind can settle, where I can zoom out and find a different perspective. I go into the wild when I need solitude, when I need support, when I need to find myself. My inner compass is strongest in the wild. I can hear myself. I can tune into my soul.

What is the wild like for you Sophie? How do you feel when you are in the wild?

Sophie:

I’m going to write in response to two of the things that you mentioned: language, and your last question. Language is important, and at the same time, I also hear myself saying “I don’t care about language”. I think this is because there’s two things going on at the same time for me: one is a desire to clearly express myself and be understood, and the other is a desire for a better shared language to start with – one that doesn’t require to mop up the mess and expend energy on clarifying difficulties in understanding caused by our patriarchal, coloniser belief system constructed language starting point – our shared language is so problematic from the start that it’s hard to communicate when you are speaking from a place that is trying to exist out of that culture. And then it gets fatiguing to even bother trying to get on the same page and understand each other, which is where the “I don’t care about language” thing. I care about feeling and communication, but wrestling with the inadequate expression and depth of the English language and dominant culture feels like a waste of my energy.

My definitions of nature and wild, just so it’s clear what I mean in using those words:

Nature: true essence

Wild: undomesticated, untamed spaces and experiences

What is the wild like for me? How do I feel in the wild? I think that really depends. I don’t have a romanticised view of the wild. I understand it as a space of life and death. I know the feeling that you speak of, the sense of interconnectivity, of being part of an energetic system, an eco system, grounded and bigger than just our selves. I know the sixth sense of feeling intimately connected to shall we say, plant and land nature – feeling connection to and kinship with trees, earth, moss and lichen. Wanting to feel aligned with the birds, and animals, and have a sense of understanding and rhythm with them – to learn from experiences and witnessings.

I also know the feeling of loss and death, and near misses, that I also associate with the wild. The most extreme until now probably having been the experience of giving birth – that for sure was my wildest experience to date. I wanted it to be unmedicated, as ‘medically’ unassisted as possible, I knew strongly on some level that it was important to the transition to feel every aspect of that process and be present for it, as part of my own transformation and initiation to motherhood. I trusted I was held in it. It was also the closest I have ever felt to my own oblivion, the most extreme and intense physical experience, something that felt ‘to hell and back’, that took me to edges I didn’t know existed. Some people do die in that process – is there anything wilder than that? Nothing is the same after that. And maybe in other ways, being caught in a huge storm where you feel and think that you might die, could be equally personally catalystic. But maybe not just a storm, what about the ‘wild’ experience of a separation, an intense grief. But also, nearly drowning in the sea, or feeling lost somewhere and not knowing if you will be found or can find your way?

What do you think about these different edges of wild? The potential for holding and feeling of connection, but also the near death and the breaking down?

Max:

Is there anything wilder than the experience of giving birth? Wow, What a question. Although I have never given birth myself, as you know, I am sure you are right. The way you describe it is so visceral, elemental, connected, at one with the universe. And yes, so life and death. Mothers die. Babies die. Just like they do in the wild. As humans, we believe that we have got to a stage where we can control everything, control life and death, medicalise and intervene in every process but of course, we can’t. I wonder whether the process of giving birth connects you to your own nature, your own wild? And does it make you feel connected to all the other species, especially mammals, that also share this visceral life-or-death experience?

Your story has also taken me down a different train of thought, and that is about women and their wildness. It hadn’t occurred to me until a couple of years ago when someone told me that they thought a ‘wild man’ was to be celebrated and yet a ‘wild woman’ was to be feared. What they meant, I think, is that wild women are characterised by a particular energy: an undomesticated, untamed, dare I say uncontrollable one. Taming wild women, controlling the wildness within women, is therefore a function of patriarchy. Wild women are colonised, their bodies are controlled, their experiences are diminished or belittled. From the moment that girls are born – or more accurately, from the moment that they are allocated a gender with a set of social expectations about passivity, gentleness, nurture, kindness, care – they are tamed. And yet childbirth, as you describe, is not always controllable, not always containable. Wild women burst forth.

I fear I haven’t answered your questions. Your writing was not just about birth. You also mentioned other ‘extreme’ human experiences that might bring us closer to our wildness. Drowning. Feeling lost. Possibly having a near-fatal accident. Being stranded somewhere overnight without food and with no certainty of rescue. The authentic feeling of being in a life-or-death situation. I haven’t had any of these. I mean, I continually get lost, as you know, and it can at times feel as if I will never find my way back, but I think that somewhere, even in my panicked state, I do know that I will survive. It’s not really life or death.

I am thinking about the growing interest in creating (or recreating) extreme experiences in the wild. Vision Quests. Rites of passage adventures. Trekking up Mount Everest. Camping out amongst wild animals. Some of these are designed in such a way as to take the human experience to an edge, with fasting, sleep deprivation, deliberate severance from routines and day-to-day resources, all with the intention of intensifying the experience of nature and bringing us closer to our wild selves. I wonder if these experiences are trying to take us closer to the life-or-death experiences that you mention. I have chosen to sign up for some of these experiences. I have done Vision Quests. I have done solos in the wild. I have camped out in Alaska amongst wolves and bears and lynx. I can attest that my senses were heightened. I did feel more connected to the wild world and to myself. These were powerful, transformational experiences. They give me something different, some visceral, that everyday life does not.

I’ll end for now. So much to say. So many questions. I invite you to go down any of the paths I have been exploring here, but if you do want a particular question, I would be curious to know your thoughts about wildness, gender, and patriarchy?

Sophie:

I’m so happy that this writing has taken this turn. It feels really good and juicy, and to the point, which I love. I’m going to reply to the question “whether the process of giving birth connects you to your own nature, your own wild? And does it make you feel connected to all the other species, especially mammals?” Yes, is my answer. It felt very animal, and very wild in the sense that it fragmented all that is culture and containing of our deepest energy. Giving birth felt very animal to me, and it felt very sacred at the same time. It felt deep and important in that it reached all the edges and went beyond. I felt forever blown apart and changed. My body also felt very animal, all of the things, the fluids, the fur, the skin, the membranes, the breastfeeding, I was like an animal mama with my animal baby.

And yes, your question about wildness, gender and patriarchy. Patriarchy is a process of control, dismembering and dominance. Just look at what happened when patriarchal colonisers encountered indigenous community and culture – they sought to sterilise and destroy it in equal measure. Patriarchy is a violent fuck up, as is its false notion of a gender binary and binary gender based socialisation. Boys are tamed out of their wildness of heart and care, out of a large amount of their emotional range and experience. Out of their bodies and boundaries too I think to allow them to receive and deliver violence. Out of their own feminine leaning energy. Girls are socialised out of their strength, confidence, leadership, loudness, bodies and boundaries too. All are conditioned to please and achieve through domination or withdrawal. The impact of patriarchy goes on and on. Wild women are feared, for sure. Wild men are rare, maybe, adding to their allure, perhaps because of the hint that they might be both strong and emotionally connected too. Unless by wild men it is meant violent men, but that is surely something other than what we mean here. I don’t know how many truly wild men and women there are, given the culture we marinate in and contexts accessible to us to meaningfully explore this. It’s a tough path back to wildness and nature.

I wanted to write also about something else that you mentioned, this idea that you shared that you haven’t been in a life or death situation, in an ‘extreme’ human experience. And I want to ask you, was it not like that when you came out? Didn’t that feel like a tightrope of life and death, the risk of telling? We can feel the risk of death in different ways. Feeling rejected, that you don’t belong, that you aren’t approved of, or ‘ok’, that need to belong, to be loved, that being threatened can feel like a life or death situation – I think that’s why people stay closeted to a certain extent, there’s a fear that to come out would be tantamount to dying. Or causing the death of the person that other people think you are, and not wanting to do that. Do you think that coming out counts as a wild experience, like the ones we are talking about here? There are some many ways to come out in a patriarchal culture. I think it’s all pretty wild to cross those lines, but what do you think?

Max:

Is ‘coming out’ a wild experience? Hum. I’ve never thought about it in that way. My coming out happened a long long time ago – over 30 years ago – which was way before I thought much about wildness. Or, I should say, my initial coming out, my first coming out, my most important coming out, the one to myself and to those closest to me. Coming out is not a one-off experience in our world, as you know. But let me think back to that time.

If we consider wildness as an internal process, as you have described earlier, as a return to self, a return to our own true essence or nature, as a connection to authenticity, then yes, accepting myself as queer and then choosing to tell others about this was indeed a part of returning to my wild self. For me, denying this would have forced me to live a deeply inauthentic life. I couldn’t – or chose not to – do this. Coming out was about my own alignment.

But is it life or death, an extreme human experience? What if we look at it though this framing of wildness, like surviving a storm or getting lost in the wilderness? Yes, I guess it is in a metaphorical sense although I don’t want to exaggerate my own experience. Many LGBTQ+ people face a real danger in coming out. They are disowned and diminished, and they face physical, emotional and sexual violence. They are murdered. This really is life or death. It was not like that for me, and even in my darker moments and most disturbing fantasies, I did not envisage an actual threat to my life. I knew I would be OK. I knew I would survive. And I did. But the fear of what might happen was real. The fear of being cut off, shut out, of being a disappointment, of not living up to expectations, of losing family and friends. The fear was real. And some of those fears did play out, yes. And so, I think it is probably right to say that it was an extreme experience. An unsettling, life-shattering, life-changing experience.

How can the wild – the external wild – help us with these experiences? When people choose to go on a Vision Quest, it is often framed as having three stages – severance, the quest, and the return. The first stage is a deliberate separation from the things that tether us to our everyday lives. This includes identities, societal expectations, gendered roles, family dynamics and so on. A death – or a death of a particular aspect of the self – might be a welcome outcome of a quest. This includes gender identities. I have heard stories of people who have gone out on quest with one name and gender identity and returned with new ones. That’s powerful. The fact that they go through this transition alone, cut off from other humans, whilst held in a wild space, is significant here. The wild can hold us and be with us in many ways. The wild does not have the same expectations as our selves, our families, our communities and so on. The wild just lets us be.

I am reading a book about gender identities, and it contains this short poem:

In a forest

With snow

Down a path.

I ask,

‘If a person is alone in a forest

Do they have a gender?’

(Mina Tolu in Non Binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities).

For me, having an LGBTQ+ identity leads to interesting questions when I am in the wild. Do I belong here? Can I see my experiences mirrored in nature? What can the wild tell me about myself and the way I live my life? What can it tell me about human constructions of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and so on?

Sophie. I would love you to tell me more about what you think in relation to these questions?

Sophie:

I would love to start by adding more to what you have said about death. I’ve said before, that I feel like I’ve “died a thousand times”. These haven’t been physical deaths, but deaths and ending of sorts. My experience of death in this way, is when you feel and let everything shatter around yourself, radically let go, in order to do what needs to be done, what you can feel inside is the right thing to do. Even when this is against the dominant culture. Even when this should be a recipe for shame and rejection. Even when this feels like entering an unknown and unforecast existence. 

This might sound dramatic, but I’m not talking about big moves necessarily. I’m talking about small and silent deaths, and more obvious and visible ones. The experience of “stepping out alone” can feel like a death in a world where we mostly try to belong and conform to one extent or another in order to be safe. Now that I use tarot cards and other divination tools, and am keenly aware of my own intuition and spiritual connection, I can understand these deaths and their purpose in that context, in their necessity. Being in and feeling connection to nature and it’s cycles, also normalises this as part of life- in fact, not accepting and being embracing of death and change seems unnatural and counter intuitive when you can witness the cycles, rhythms and movement around you.

The snake that sheds its skin. The creature that transforms from caterpillar to butterfly, with a melted stage in the middle. The cycle of deciduous trees that gradually emerge, are lush and bear flower and fruit, then turn to brown, wither and shed to rot back into the ground. The waves, and movement of the tide, rushing in, rushing out, being high, being low, being still, being in storm. 

A bodily death is inevitable to us all, but there are many other deaths to experience on the course of a life time, and many accompany a path of self-liberation and rewilding when you live in a culture with a violent history of patriarchy, coloniality, disconnected from all that is and instead based on fearful coercive and controlling power over dynamics.

For me, what nature can do for us, and this is coming back to the questions at the end of your last writing, is open up that space for questioning, for difference, for the crack in the door. In nature we can see diversity and difference, we can see changes, cycles, rotting, rebirth. We can see options. We can see all kinds of behaviours and non-verbal expression. We can slow down and find ourselves in the mess of it all. And perhaps from there, we can look back at the rest (our lives, the dominant culture etc), and decide what it is we want to do with that. What do we keep, what has to go. The wild doesn’t tell us what to do or how to live. But it can create the space for us to hear those questions for ourselves, and look around us, and see that there are options. It can potentially still our nervous systems enough, for a little while, to move out of personal coping, defence strategies and survival behaviours, and into something more grounded, free, centred, and connected. Maybe we can actually hear ourselves. And if we can hold onto something of that when we return to ‘life’, we’re in a more powerful place to accept and even initiate change, for ‘death’, for our own liberation, for an ecosystemic experience. 

What is it that you find most difficult to hold on to, when you return from the wild? 

Max:

The wild has everything. When I allow myself the time and space to slow down and pay attention, it is easy to see life and death, gentleness and ferocity, nurture and destructiveness, and everything in between. What I see, most of all, is all beings – animals, plants, mosses, birds, soil, wind, rivers, seas etc – just getting on and doing their thing. They do not seem overly preoccupied with what anyone or anything else is doing. Although they operate as part of an interconnected ecosystem, they do not seem to worry about the bigger picture. They are just living, existing, surviving, thriving, living, dying and so on.

When I am in the wild, I slow down, and I can see myself in this same way. One small being, just doing my thing, doing my best, operating as part of an interconnected ecosystem. Living and dying. Surviving. Thriving. I can feel myself letting go of many everyday preoccupations and allowing myself to still my mind and body. My nervous system calms down. I can hear myself, I can feel my own internal compass, I can become grounded. It is a deeply nurturing and calming experience.

This is where it gets hard, and this is where I come back to your specific question. As I return from these experiences in the wild, whether they have lasted for a day or a week or longer, I can become overwhelmed by noise. I don’t mean the traffic noise and the sounds of human voices. I mean the noise that accompanies the lives of many of us. The noise of emails, of text messages, of people. The noise that is associated with a routine and a job and a family and friendships. The demands that are put on me and that I put on myself. The expectations that I have internalised about what it means to be a good person, a sibling, a child, a colleague, a friend, a lover, a partner and so on. All of that. Do birds and animals do that? Do they feel that pressure? The louder it gets, the harder it is to keep hold of myself. In my view, human beings have developed a way of being and of living that is very complicated. We are socialised to think, feel, and behave in particular ways and it is exhausting. For me, anyway. To try and peel back some of those layers – as you are so good at doing Sophie – is a continual process and it is hard work. In the wild, the caterpillar metamorphosises into a butterfly in the way you have described above, but with humans, this does not feel like a linear process. It is back and forth, one step forward and two steps back, slowly edging towards a more authentic and truer expression of ourselves.

The wild helps me to come back to myself.

Returning from the wild presents a challenge in keeping hold of myself, of being able to hear my soul calling to me.

My question for you, Sophie, runs the risk of anthropomorphising the wild world, but I am going to ask it anyway. Can you see yourself in the wild, and in particular, is there a creature or plant or other being that you feel a particular resonance with?

Sophie:

I loved reading that Max, and I’d love to answer your question! Yes I can see myself in the wild. I think I am the wild and so I can see myself all over the place! I think I see myself, and I also see difference to myself, and actually it’s in those spaces of contrast that I find the wild deeply helpful as it opens a question and a challenge. For example, when I see a fern growing out of a rocky wall, seemingly with no soil or traditional place to grow from, I see myself, my own resilience and ability to grow out of what looks like nothing, almost a mystery to the onlooker to understand: how does she do that? A beautiful mystery that must be being nourished and meeting it’s needs somehow. Then when I see the snail, and how it moves along at its slower pace, tracing this line, slowly along the surface, I think “Wow, I could be like that snail”. I could slow down, let everything fall away, go slow, leave a slippery glistening trail, let myself be led and inspired by that snail. And that helps me learn how I can be with myself in different ways and give myself the things that I need that don’t necessarily come to or occur to me in my usual way of being.

When I see a big strong oak tree, old as hundreds of years, that has been here forever, thick of trunk with deep roots strongly anchored in the earth and strong branches that can with stand any storm, staying strong and true and centred in its treeness, I think: yes, I am an oak tree, strong in the face of it all, an anchor for the eco-system around me, able to withstand the hurly and burly of the elements and time and the human made world, certain and secure. But then, when I see it’s thinner branches, and leaves, waving in the breeze, a sense of swaying and flexibility, a movement, response and softening to the wind and changes around it, it reminds that as well as being strong and anchored and secure, I can be an oak and also find some of that movement, that flexibility, that ‘give’, which ultimately is what helps the tree to endure and truly be strong over time. How both are needed in order to continue.

I guess in the wild I look for sameness and resonance, and difference and therefore opportunity to learn. Where can I see myself and feel connected and affirmed in my own nature and wildness, where can I see difference and potential and opportunity that might otherwise not be in my awareness as an option and possibility to explore, experiment with and potentially grow into.

The creatures in the wild that I am most drawn to are the most quirky and unusual (and perhaps often misunderstood): snails, bats, shrews, rats, woodlice, moles, frogs, sea horses and leafy sea dragons for example. The scrappy creatures that are funny and amazing and different, with special talents and intriguing ways of being. I love marsupials and platypuses in Australia – I have links to Australia and I think since childhood a connection to those animals that has formed some of my experience of wild life. I love them because they’ve survived with their quirks seemingly against the odds, and they strike me as creative and inspiring. I like possums and koalas and echidnas – animals with pouches! I breast-fed and put my babies in a pouch, so it’s no wonder really that I feel an affinity with these creatures. I’m grateful for the animals that remind us all that there’s lots of ways to look and be, so many different definitions of ‘cute’ and ways to exist in the world beyond the traditional, mainstream perspective.

How about you? What do you see of yourself in the wild?

Max:

I am drawn to the wolf. The symbolism of the wolf and the actual wolf. Wolf as the ultimate representation of the wild. Wolf as the domesticated dog gone feral (or is it the other way round?). But do I see myself in the wolf? Am I the wolf? The answer is no.

Much as I would love to see myself in the totem animals, the wolf and the bear and the lynx, the lion and the tiger and the whale, I have accepted that I am not these beings. I am a part of the ecosystem, along with everything else, but I am small. I do my thing in my own way, working hard to survive and thrive, but often I am unseen. When I had this realisation, whilst sleeping on the ground under some towering trees, I initially felt some sadness, but quite quickly this feeling was transformed into relief. As human beings, we are often burdened with a pressure of needing to ‘make an impact’ or ‘change the world’ and I have spent a lot of time worrying about whether my impact was enough, whether I really could change the world. Now, we could debate for hours about what impact I might or might not have had during my time on this earth, but for me, the acceptance that I was only a small being and operated as part of an interconnected system was significant. Pressure off. Ego in check. Focus on the here-and-now rather than the legacy that might be left behind. A tiny being. A blink of an eye. One gust of wind. A worker bee. One garden bird. A single fish. All important, of their own way, but only because every being is important. That is where I see myself.

Having said that, I picture a flock of birds where one is flying slightly differently, a school of fish where one looks as if it is carving out its own route, a cluster of trees in which one is standing apart from the rest. I see myself in non-conformity, in not fitting in. I see myself in beings which are surviving and thriving in unexpected ways. Queer ducks. Gender-bending clown fish. I see myself in the nature stories which are unreported and invisible and must be sought out.  Stories which are hidden within the dominant discourse of male dominance and survival of the fittest. Stories which are deliberately ignored by those who can only see the world through their own patriarchal lens. These beings are out there, in their thousands, and I see myself as one of them. The wild is diverse and if we want to see ourselves in the wild, we can find ourselves in that diversity. We just have to look more closely. We just have to pay attention.

Sophie, you started this piece by citing Mary Oliver, who asks “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (Poem: A Summer Day).

In the same poem, she also says:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

And here, Sophie, is my question to you … but one for another day and another piece of writing. What for you, is a prayer?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Booking open: Soul Fire Writing Retreat inspired by Mary Oliver, Fri 16 Sept – Sun 18 Sept 2022, Start Bay, Devon

I am really excited to be co-running another Soul Fire Writing Retreat in September with Max Hope. There are very limited number of spaces available, info and the link to book are below:

What is the Soul Fire Writing Retreat?

The Soul Fire Writing Retreat is a space for changemakers and activists to get together and reflect, imagine, and co-create. We have booked a fantastic venue in Devon – the Start Bay Centre – which is a short walk from the coast and a nature reserve. There will be writing, cooking and eating together. We will have fire and circles. We will offer two interconnected strands of activity, woven together: one carving out a space for individual and collective creativity and writing, and one to support healing and self-liberation work. The combination intends to bring us to our soul’s fire and most authentic expression. We will co-create a piece of writing that we can publish at the end of the weekend, something which speaks of our time together. We experimented with such a co-writing challenge at our first Soul Fire Writing Retreat (held in March 2022) and the final piece – a chain letter – can be found here.

For this retreat, we are taking inspiration from Mary Oliver (1935-2019), an American poet who has a reputation for work inspired by her connection to nature, poetry and prose, which is full of wonder, humour, and a profound reverence for the wild. Poems like The JourneyWild Geese and The Summer Day are well-known as being transformational poems and are characterised by her tendency to ask deep and searching questions about ourselves, our life choices, and our soul’s purpose. Being inspired by Mary Oliver’s writing and life will inform aspects of the retreat, particularly being outdoors and in close proximity to the natural world, the way writing provocations will be offered and the themes of those provocations – such as inviting poetry, prose, playfulness, joy and sadness, and by invitations to slow down, to be in solitude, and to connect deeply with the wild.

For more info and booking details, click here.

Honesty and Consent

Making a choice to be honest, with our selves and in our lives and relationships, is crucial to anyone who wants to live a consent-based life, and who also wants this to be possible for the people around them.

Meaningful consent needs to be informed and freely given. Therefore, if you want to be in consent-based relationships with other people, you have to be open and honest, so that they know what it is they are consenting to by being in relationship with you.

If you withhold information, give a false impression, try to protect yourself by sharing half-truths or hiding things that you are worried about sharing, you are limiting the possibility of being in consensual relationships with others. We need to be open about and mindful about sharing things that we know will affect the other person in some way, or could influence things if they were to know about it. Especially when that feels hard to do or risky – that’s the sure sign that this is something that is important to share. Information that could change a person’s position or affect the relationships is exactly the kind of information that is going to be important for them in being able to make an informed choice. Where our honesty feels that it could expose a conflict – we must be willing to walk that path to stay on a course of consent-based life. A hidden conflict doesn’t go away, it just is buried to emerge at a later time. Conflict addressed early on can be navigated with much less risk and potential harm that that which has been buried out of fear and avoidance, to inevitably emerge at a later time.

Being honest with others starts with us being honest with ourselves, which also begins with trusting and caring for ourselves. Listening to our own thoughts and feelings and taking them seriously. Listening to our own bodies. Being open to hearing uncomfortable things from our own selves, about ourselves – things that may fly in the face of how we perceive ourselves or what we think our identities are or should be. We have to be open to hearing all kinds of things from ourselves, taking these things on board, and then be ready to make them known to others where that is relevant and important for those relationships.

First: be honest with ourselves so that we can know ourselves and be in a position to understand our own lived experience and navigate it in a honest way. Second: extend that honestly to those around us, so that our relationships can be grounded in honesty, openness, and transparency, so that those around us know who it is they are in relationships with and on what terms that relationship is based, and that if and when things change we can trust to be told about that.

In life, we don’t always know everything about ourselves in an instant, as things emerge over time or become revealed to us in ways that they weren’t before. We can understand ourselves in one way and then at a future time we may evolve, or more may be revealed to us. Our feelings can change, our needs can change, our awareness can expand. Our understanding can change. This is part of life and the human experience of growth and unfolding, and can be especially true when someone is in a healing process and more is becoming understood by them and visible that they may not have realised before.

The important thing to do alongside this, is to resist being in denial about this or hiding it, but when something becomes known to us, once it is revealed to us and we are aware of it in our conscious mind, not to sit on that awareness for too long. The longer we sit on that conscious awareness, and don’t make it known to others when it affects them or may affect them, that is the period of time in which we are actively limiting or sitting on the opportunity of others to be in consensual relationship with us (and us with them). And surely we want that period of time to be as short as possible, as that time period risks causing trauma to the relationship due to the breach in consensuality.

Living in a consent-based way isn’t easy – it calls us into our own honesty, to openness and to transparency. All things that can be frightening in a world where it is normal to lie and manipulate in relationships, where so much is concealed and hidden, and the idea of showing up in a truly authentic, honest and accountable way is counter-cultural. Where our own patterns of coping mechanisms may get in the way of our own authenticity and being able to express ourselves in an honest way, and require us to heal and address these coping strategies that obstruct consensuality.

But this way is the way in which we can know and be known, where we can be our selves and know others, live as close to the truth and our own truth as possible, to be free and in ‘right relationship’ – it is the most loving and respectful gift we can give to ourselves, each other and the world. Without honesty and openness there can’t be consent.

Two in person workshops, July 2022, Devon, UK.

I’m really delighted to have two in-person events coming up in July, taking place on consecutive days in Devon, UK. Here is all the info and details to book:

Holding Consent-Based, Self-Directed Space – Experiential Training Day

Monday, 25th July 2022

9.30am-4.30pm

Nr. Buckfastleigh/Dartington, Devon, UK

This one day training session is ideal for people who either want to run/facilitate consent-based, self-directed education settings/communities, or who want to adapt their ‘one off’ workshop/session practice to be more consent-based and self-directed. This applies to spaces being held for children and/or adults. The focus will be on in person sessions, but what is learnt on the day can be adapted for holding online spaces such as Zoom too. 

The day will include: 

  • Creating your clear invitation, including identifying your intentions, frame, and fixed and moving parts
  • Opening meeting structure and practice, including agreements, check ins, plans for the day/session.
  • Risk management agreements
  • Conflict navigation
  • Facilitator role and identity
  • Closing meeting

There will also be a short theory introduction to consent-based, self-directed education at the start of the day, and the opportunity for trouble-shooting and Q&A throughout. Please bring a packed lunch. 

The participation fee for the day is £85. There are bursaries available to subsidise the fee, please contact me if you need this. If you would like to contribute to the bursary fund, please consider paying over the participation fee in order to enable other folk in different circumstances to you to join. 

There are a maximum of 14 spaces available for this training day. 

This event is now fully booked. To express interest and be added to the waiting list, please email: hello@sophiechristophy.com

Wild Power, Pride and Prejudice

Tuesday 26th July, 2022

9.30am-4.30pm

The Glade, Dartington Estate, Devon, UK

  • Have you ever been in a group where you have felt invisible to the facilitator, to your peers, or even to yourself?
  • Have you facilitated a group and worried that you have inadvertently excluded someone, or been concerned that your own social and cultural background limited your capacity to connect with others?
  • Have you ever been in a group where you’ve felt more influenced by group dynamics and peer pressure and facilitator expectations than your own inner knowing and needs?
  • Have you ever facilitated a group and in hindsight wondered about how consensual or ethical your practice was?

By using the wild world as a backdrop, we will explore some liberatory and inclusive ways of leading and facilitating groups. We will talk about consent-based practice as a way of overcoming patriarchal power dynamics and advancing social justice. We will ‘queer our work’ by looking to new networks of elders, teachers, and guides. We will find ways to counter our own fears and prejudices and to work from a place of pride in all that we are and all that we bring. We will invite you to bring your experiences from your own lives and work to these discussions.

This workshop is especially for people working in ‘wild spaces’, such as outside, nature/land based settings, forest spaces etc, and who are seeking to draw on nature connection and relationship to the animal, plant and elemental world in their work. I am co-running this workshop with Max Hope, and it is being hosted by Wildwise. For more info and booking click here.

MicroUMA Jan CBE 2022 – ‘Gap Year’ project, diversion to Ukraine.

So we just had the 5th session of the Consent-Based Education course. That session is called Living and Learning, Creativity and Flow, and as part of it I share the Unschooled Masters project with the group. Then as the optional between session activity to help deepen folks experience of the course, I offer up the idea to do a 2 week ‘microUMA’ – a self-directed inquiry in the spirit of the UMA. I like to take part in this endeavour as well.

If you are reading this because follow this blog, you might remember that at the end of last year my microUMA was all about steel tongue drums. This year it’s a bit different, because at the end of 2021 I decided to go on a virtual gap year. I wanted to take a bit of a break in 2022, and do something playful and new and learn some things outside of my usual range of study. At first I thought I might actually do some travelling, but I realised that wasn’t a good option so I would do it remotely. I wanted to go to South East Asia, as I don’t know very much about that part of the world, and I took the countries featured in Street Food Asia (Netlflix) as the inspiration for my itinerary (I reordered them to make them make sense as a geographical route). For the month of January I ‘went’ to South Korea. In February I was in Japan. I’ve been sharing all of my adventures on my personal FB page.

Anyway, my itinerary had me hearing to Taiwan for March, but just before I was due to go there, Putin invaded Ukraine and it all seemed a bit frivolous to carry on to Taiwan when a massive knowledge gap had become apparent to me about Ukraine. I just couldn’t carry on with my route as planned, in the event of this horrendous situation. So I made the decision to reroute my gap year, to Ukraine.

So, I’ve been exploring Ukraine for March, and this exploration is what I will be sharing in blog posts over the next couple of weeks, as my microUMA for this Consent-Based Education course cycle.

So far, I have been doing some reading about Ukrainian food culture and cooking, thanks to a beautiful book called Summer Kitchens by Olia Hercules – check out Olia’s instagram for info her activism for Ukraine, her brother is a civilian volunteer fighting there now and her parents are there also, and she’s being so generous with her sharing and campaigning.

I also came across Petrykivka painting, a democratic setting similar to the Cabin and the Lodge called One Crazy School, LGBTQ+ human rights activist Olena Shevchenko, and started to get into some history.

When I did my undergraduate degree (before I knew about unschooling and was still on a traditional path), I did my dissertation on Jewish resistance to the Holocaust – it focused on examples of protest and resistance mainly in and around concentration camps. I didn’t realise about Ukraine’s Jewish history, and I’m really interested to understand that better, so that is where my research is going to head. I’d like to understand more about the this, and how it’s intersecting with and influencing what is happening there now. And I’m going to start with learning about the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and this piece too.

Creating radical changes in education … is it more effective to work ‘within the system’ or innovate from ‘the outside’? A dialogue between Max Hope and Sophie Christophy

Max and I wrote another piece together, this time on change making…. (this post was originally posted on Write On Changemakers).

Authors: Max Hope & Sophie Christophy

Max Hope and Sophie Christophy share an aspiration to radically change the education system, but the journeys that brought them together have been completely different. Max started out as a youth worker and spent a decade as a university academic, researcher and lecturer and writer before becoming Director of Rewilding Education and Co-Lead of The Lodge. Sophie is a feminist and children’s rights activist, an unschooling parent and Co-Founder of The Cabin and The Lodge,two self-directed and consent-based settings for home educated children. They are activists and partners in work and in life. In this exchange of emails, they explore whether it is more effective to work within the system or to innovate from the outside and unpick some of the painful decisions that they – and others – must make when deciding where to position themselves and put their energies.

This dialogue follows on from a previous one about Rewilding and Unschooling.

Max: I want to radically transform education. I have spent many years trying to do this. Sophie, you know this, and we share so many of the same values and visions about how we want the world to be. But our histories of how we have done our work are different, and I’d love to dive into some of the debates that we have had about a) what is the most effective way to try and ignite and inspire change; and b) what personal choices we have made – and are still to make – about how we want to use our ‘wild and precious lives’.

My journey started as a youth and community worker for a radical charity that worked with young people who were on the margins of society. That job did not feel like I was ‘in the system’ at all, even though most of the young people I worked with had been involved in (or excluded from) mainstream school. After fifteen years, I left this job and started a PhD. I felt burnt out and exhausted from listening to young people who had been so battered by the education system, and I wanted to get to the root of the problem. What was going wrong with mainstream education? How could it change in ways that would be more inspiring, engaging, and useful for young people? What could be learnt from some of the more radical types of education that were happening in ‘alternative’ settings?

My decade as a university academic felt like I was trying to change the system from within. I spent time in mainstream and alternative schools. I worked with teachers and ex-teachers. I created projects which engaged with students and tried to support them to have increased agency in their schools. And the university itself, like it or not, was a mainstream institution. There were rules and procedures and formal outcomes. I was teaching, researching, and writing within this mainstream system, and trying to push at the boundaries of what I could ‘get away with’ so that I could practice in the way that I wanted. Eventually, I left, and although I miss some of the work that I was able to do, I certainly do not miss the stress and strain of being in that system.

Sophie, we met through Phoenix Education, a charity that has big ambitions about transforming education. At that point, you were home educating your children and had already set up The Cabin. You were firmly rooted outside the system. You were a pioneer. I was still inside the system, working for the university and undertaking research in and with schools. I was excited about all the amazing stuff that was happening outside the system but was still deeply committed to putting my energy into changing the mainstream.

Our lives have both changed. I would love to know where you stand now. What, for you, is the most effective way to operate? Is it as an innovator within the system or as a pioneer outside of mainstream? And what does this mean for you personally right now?

Sophie: For me personally, it is about finding ways to be a change maker that are manageable and sustainable in the context of my own life. Consistent, persistent effort, that can last a lifetime is part of my theory of change, and it influences the work that I do, how I use my time and energy, and how I care for myself along the way. As you said – when we met, it was as I joined the Board of Trustees at Phoenix. I was at the time and still am an unschooling, home educating parent. I’d just co-founded the Cabin the year before and was a few cycles in running the Consent-Based Education courses. I’d spent years before that running community-based projects creating spaces for children’s rights, establishing home ed community in my local area, and prior to that nature based space in the woods for families with young children in London.

I was already writing – a blog, and for the local paper and a local families magazine, about children’s rights in the family and raising awareness of home education as choice. In 2014-15 I had tested out the potential for making change via mainstream politics, by standing as Green Party candidate in the General Election. I had done some speaking and workshops, on change making and the political and personal transition from patriarchy to consent-based culture. I was deep in the experience of motherhood and parenting discourse. In all of this I was also doing my best to love and support my children in staying connected to and in-tune with themselves, to grow in a way that nurtured them and met their needs. That’s no small feat in the dominant culture in which we live. 

I think what I’m trying to say by sharing this is that I was in a period of experimentation, learning, agitation, and high activity. I was desperate at times, and up against deadlines such as the school starting age that put pressure on my activism and work, but I was determined. I always wanted to do right by my own children but not only them. I wanted to do right by all children and for society to change. I wanted social and environmental justice not some time but now, and I was serious. But I was also overextending myself and out of what felt like necessity in a burn out cycle that was not good. 

You asked about whether it’s more effective to innovate from inside or outside the system. I would say it’s most effective to start innovating from the exact place of where you are right now. To first experiment with yourself. To learn and understand as much as you can about your own values, and to try to live them in every small moment, action and thought. To understand your strengths and skills, to understand your gaps for learning and do that learning. And then use those skills, that learning, and yourself, to be impactful in your exact current circumstances. Wherever that is. And test that as far as you can go, until you know it’s time to start trying to do something else. What do you think?

Max: My drive for wanting to transform the education system didn’t come through my own experience of having my own children. I didn’t have to make a personal choice about whether to put my own children into school or to choose which school might be the most suitable option. Would I have been prepared to move house? Would I have home educated? Would I have set up an alternative like The Cabin? It is all hypothetical because my life’s path did not lead me to having to make those choices or to act from that place.

Instead, I encountered dozens and dozens of other people’s children in my role as a youth worker. I learnt so much from them and from my experiences of trying to develop innovative ways of re-engaging them with learning again. We had to create exciting, relevant, and fun activities that did not, under any circumstances, remind people of being ‘at school’. What I learnt, and this felt important, was that it was really not that difficult to find ways of engaging even the most ‘hard-to-reach’ young people if the relationships between us were respectful, genuine and trustworthy. Young people could smell inauthenticity. They knew when they were being conned. And, by contrast, when they were trusted to self-direct their own process and make their own decisions, they rose to the challenge and were eminently capable to doing so.

To me, this was not hard to understand. It was not rocket science.

I continued to be shocked that the mainstream education system continued to get it so wrong. Year after year, young people would tell me the same stories. Young people being bullied for being gay, sometimes by their own teachers. Being disciplined for wearing the wrong shoes. Kicked out for talking back. Forced to do certain subjects because they were not in the right group to choose other options. Made to stay in isolation booths for the whole day. On and on and on.

That was in 2007. That was where I was at in my own life. Tired and frustrated and angry.

It felt like a deeply personal move to leave youth work and head into a university. This was not about my career or professional journey or anything else. This was about wanting to make an impact in the lives of children and young people. I genuinely believed that this was my best chance to do that, and I never lost sight of that aspiration.

Sophie, you say that “it’s most effective to start innovating from the exact place of where you are right now.” I agree – and I don’t. I agree in that we can start from where we are at, whether that be as a parent, a youth worker, a policy maker, a politician. We can all do something from the place we are, and it gives us a sense if agency to know that. We can all do something – and we can often do more than we imagine we can. So yes, I do agree with that.

Where I disagree is that I also think that we can choose to position ourselves in a place where we believe we might have the greatest impact. I can choose to position myself in a university, a school, a policy institute, a picket line, a home education setting. I can be an anonymous blogger, a teacher, a journalist and so on.

We don’t all get to make the same choices.

This isn’t a competition.

But we get to make our own choices from our own unique circumstances.

Right now, I am choosing to co-lead The Lodge with you, the new setting which flows on from The Cabin. This is outside of mainstream and is aimed at home educated young people aged 10-12. This positions me as ‘outside of the system’ and I am finding it energising, refreshing, and healing. I love it. I am still holding an ambition that our practice might, in one way of another, influence mainstream practice but I am no longer fixated on trying to make this happen.

When I look at Two Loops Theory – which you introduced me to whilst we were at Phoenix – I can plot my own journey. As a youth worker, I was in a ‘hospicing’ role in that I was picking up casualties from a broken system and trying to help them get through. At the university, I was trying to innovate within the system itself, whilst also trying to shine a light on the work of pioneers in the hope that it would influence the mainstream. I am now more removed from the mainstream and less preoccupied with it and am instead focussing on pioneering practices which take place in the new paradigm, outside of the system.

I find it more energising and less exhausting to be outside of the system. There is a breeze out here and it feels hopeful and optimistic. We are creating and inhabiting the world that we want to see.

But Sophie, sometimes I also feel guilty.

Most children and young people are within the system. They cannot get out and play with us over here.

If we want to change things for a larger number of young people, don’t we have a responsibility to try and change the mainstream?

Sophie: You feel guilty? Why do you feel guilty? You haven’t done anything wrong or anything to feel guilty for as far as I am aware. I don’t feel guilty. I’m not going to carry the guilt of a system that was never built to respect children. That guilt deserves to sit elsewhere. I don’t feel guilty for making difficult choices at personal cost including extreme experiences of loneliness and isolation at times, in order to do what I thought was right for the health and well being of my children, just because I couldn’t extend that same opportunity to all children. I sure have tried to open as many doors as possible to other folk to make their own choices that included not participating in schooling. To create community other than school, which is one of if not the main draws of school for many people – a sense of belonging and the chance to be around other young people.

The fucked thing about this is the level of denial around the issue itself. It’s hard for people to stare in the face of the coercive and controlling dynamic of traditional schooling, the cruel methods of behaviour management, the marginalising and degrading of young people that don’t ‘fit’ for whatever reason, and let that sink in when they are part of it or dependent on it. Perhaps that comes as a reaction to the scale of the issue and the seemingly insurmountable challenge to create meaningful and lasting change, the sense of powerlessness that is felt. Some of it is because the system as it stands, despite being fundamentally unethical, still meets many needs of the people that are in it, and of parents and young people, that are hard to meet otherwise. The relationship between teachers, families and the education system continues, even into depths of unhealth and dysfunction. Each person propping it up in their own way.

Writing about this has made me feel upset inside. It provokes pain in me which comes out in harsh and confrontational tone. And that is because it is a painful thing, that just keeps ticking on, and on, year after year. You asked if we have a responsibility to try to change the mainstream, and I would say yes, we absolutely do. Not out of guilt, because I believe we are working hard and doing our best and shouldn’t take on guilt for that which is not our doing. But because everything else is peripheral, and what we ultimately want to see is widespread change and transformation, and for that to happen mainstream culture has to be moved. How that happens though is through a radical tapestry, a patchwork, of many, many activated change makers, all throughout the Two Loops Model. So the key is to reflectively position yourself always into the place in that process in which you can have your own maximum effect. And the best way to do that in my opinion, beautifully, is to inhabit consent-based and self-directed principles, in order to navigate to the right spot to be lined up for the unique contribution that you are designed to make.

What do you think the mainstream needs most from those of us innovating and experimenting outside of its limitations?

Max: Phew. I can feel an exhalation and a sigh of relief.

When you say that ‘the guilt deserves to sit elsewhere’, I can totally see that. I did not create the mainstream system and I do not do anything to deliberately reinforce it. To the contrary, I have worked to challenge it and change it, and now I am putting my energy into the creation of innovative new models which are healing and restorative. Isn’t it interesting how my default is to somehow feel responsible for harm and damage which is not mine and which I cannot control? I wonder if that is part of the how the system upholds and replicates itself? How many teachers and other educators are within the mainstream because they feel responsible for trying to make it better, for reducing the harm that such a system inevitably inflicts?

Now I have stepped away from directly trying to change the mainstream, I feel a renewed sense of enthusiasm to exploring the alternatives from the inside-out. Actually, when I say ‘alternative’, it might give the impression of ‘different but equal’. That is not what I mean. It’s not like ‘dairy milk and alternative milk’. Or ‘conventional medicine and alternative medicine’. What we are investing all our time and energy into creating is not simply an alternative. It is a new paradigm. We must find some way of explaining that in a more convincing way. Sometimes, alternative is better, and we need to be bold about that.

What do I think the mainstream needs most from us? First, I think that people in mainstream need to be respected and supported because many of them are genuinely doing their best within a system that works against them and their own values. Next, I think that we need to encourage mainstream folk – especially leaders and policy makers – to radically rethink their educational philosophy and values. What I mean I that it is not enough to simply tinker with the system, to make incremental changes, to go for small improvements. The scale of the change that we need is far bigger than that, and it needs to happen quickly. We need to rethink our whole concept of education and ask some searching questions about: a) what are schools even trying to achieve anyway? b) how can schools be reconstructed so that they are underpinned by a deep respect and trust in children and young people? c) how can teachers and other adults be in honest, authentic, and open relationships with one another and with children and young people?

This is, of course, where the role of schools and learning communities which operate within the ‘new paradigm’ come into play. Mainstream folk will often struggle with answering the questions I have outlined above because they simply cannot imagine how things could be different. In my experience, they tend to say things like, ‘this sounds great, but it would never work in practice’, or ‘it might work for certain kids but not for the ones that I have to teach’. We need to be able to hold up real-life, practical examples as case studies. We need to show them the new paradigm so that they can start to dream differently about their own settings and their own practices.

What would you say to a teacher in a mainstream setting who was choosing to stay there but also wanted to bring in consent-based and self-directed practices? I would love to know whether you think this is even possible, and if so, what your words of advice might be?

Sophie: I would say to them that it’s like beating a drum. But first, there is a need for people to be open to learning. To letting go, opening up, and being willing to learn something new from other folk actually doing this practice. Egos need to go to the side, and they need to be willing to admit what they do and don’t understand, and what they do and don’t need to work on to have integrity and authenticity in this work.

If they are willing to do that, and are committed to change, they can find out what their space of change and opportunity is in their lives and places of work, and then they need to start beating this new practice like a drum. Like a heartbeat. A strong, regular beat, with integrity, with commitment, with consistent repetition. It’s OK if the beat is quiet and light to start off with, but it needs to start. There needs to be a high level of conviction because this practice is standing against the tide of the dominant culture of school. Like trying to keep your footing standing in the middle of a river swollen and rushing with some kind of downpour. So they need to think about what they need and what they can do to protect and withstand that.  

Then you start to beat your drum in a determined space. What I mean by that is you try to create a space that is separate to and different from the rest, whilst still within that place. Call it a club if you want, a society, an extra, or a designated part of your week, but it must be marked as different to the rest, with its own set of ways. This is key to the new culture having a chance of integrity and surviving. Once you get you drum beating and the culture rolling, it is contagious. I have no doubt in that. It’s like you can’t unsee what you have seen – it’s hard to accept coercive control and dominator culture when you can feel and know that something else is possible, that it is a choice and not necessary.

So, the key is to getting it going and digging in. Understand why you are doing it, understand and believe in how important it is. Understand it as an ethical imperative and the right next step. There needs to be pride in this work, pride, and strength. And then you’ve got to keep beating that drum for as long as you can.

And there has to be an acceptance that there will be break down as part of this process. Transitions and change hurts and it requires facing up to things including dark and painful truths. So be ready for difficult and painful situations, within yourself, as a practitioner, and in your situation with others. Have a strategy for how you are going to deal with that, how you will process it so that it doesn’t trash what is happening.  Dominant systems try to protect and maintain themselves, so you need to have the resolve to be ready to deal with that.

I recently got a steel tongue drum. It’s healing. This drum of this practice is healing too.  But healing journeys bring up all kinds of things, including pain and trauma that needs to be processed and released.

What would be your go to first thing when working with someone in the mainstream system? What do you think the first step is in supporting them in this transition?

Max: The first thing?

For me, the burning core is about relationships between teachers and students. Some call it student voice. Others call it agency. It’s all kind of things, all wrapped together.

I would want to invite mainstream teachers into a conversation about the connections they have with students in their classes. We know, for sure, that small things really matter to students. Remember their names. Pronounce their names correctly. Use their preferred pronouns. Look directly at them. Smile at them. Connect with them as human beings, and more than that, as equals. Be interested. Ask them what they think. Listen to them. Care. Pay attention. Do whatever you can to respond to what they tell you. Do not assume that they all think the same thing. Do not assume that they are consenting because they haven’t said otherwise. Think about whether there are ways in which you can develop threads of authentic connection with them whereby they can start to feel seen, known, understood. Trust them wherever and whenever you can.

This may seem small, but this stuff really matters.

In your Consent-Based Education course (CBE course), you talk about Covey’s circle of concern and circle of influence. This makes a lot of sense here. Mainstream teachers have many things that concern them, but they get overwhelmed with the size of the task in radically transforming education. You know this. They get exhausted and they get lost in the problem.

Sometimes they think they have no control and no influence, but this is not true. Even people in the most difficult of circumstances have choices to make.

When people get overwhelmed by all the things in the wider circle of concern, they can feel helpless and hopeless and burnt out. I have been in this place myself and I still work hard to not fall back into it. It is not a healthy place to be, but more than that, it is also not an effective place from which to try and be a radical practitioner. As you said earlier, ‘the key is to reflectively position yourself always into the place in that process in which you can have your own maximum effect.’

For some people, being in the mainstream and working from that space of influence is a deliberate choice, and it can be a powerful place to influence change. I am grateful to all the folk who are choosing to position themselves in schools, in universities, in colleges and in other formal settings. There is no doubt that we need good people – radical people – to choose to be there. These folk are often hidden to the wider world as they are just doing their own things in their own places, frequently hidden from view.

But Sophie, where are you? What are your reflections on the place where you can have maximum effect, and does it help to circle back to Two Loops Theory in exploring this? You introduced me to this theory, and I am really into it right now as I think it is a brilliant frame for exploring these types of questions. Over to you.

Sophie: I think Two Loops theory is great. Not only because it can help people to identify where they sit in the process of change, but also because it clearly shows this process as a paradigm shift, with all that that entails. The old paradigm, and the care that needs to happen there as it descends. The walk out folk – those setting away from the old paradigm to investigate and innovate the new – and the ‘grey zone’ that they inhabit as they unlearn, unfold, deschool, deconstruct, reform, restore, and create the new paradigm. I love how Debbie Frieze talks about what is needed in this process also, around support and connections. Consent-based education is both an alchemy for this change and the change itself.

For me, my main place of residence in the Two Loops Theory is as deep into the new paradigm as possible. Inhabiting it, living it, breathing it, being immersed in it, in the practice, in the life. Making it normal life. This is how the new paradigm comes into being anyway. By being it, it becomes manifest. The more folk that make it to that place, the more along the process things become, the more we move through the diffusion of innovation process. The stronger, more robust and capable of carrying the transition the new paradigm becomes. I’m in deep, with good reason. My heart, and body beats that drum, and it’s what gives me integrity in my work and what helps me be of use to others and to create culture in community. I’m in the core. Your work exploring education through the lens of rewilding, and self-healing through nature based experiences, has inspired and been very permission giving to me to explore and use metaphors and examples from nature to make sense of and explain myself and my work.  I came across the word ‘caldera’ recently, it’s the bowl created after a volcano partially collapses after eruption. That’s where I want to be. I want it to hold me too, so I can rest, and feel held myself.  

From that place I can hold the frame and shape of the new way. It makes me useful to others, including in the mainstream, because such a solid grounding enables folk to trust in what is a precarious process. It’s stable. And that’s what people need when they are stepping through this – some kind of sense of anchoring in an intangible process of power transformation and reconceptualization of so much that is believed to be true. It makes me useful to mainstream leaders and folk, and those building outside. I hope it makes me a touchstone, that can feed oxygen to so much change.

I also know that no one sits in the process alone. The change is ecosystemic, and my ability to have an impact is massively supported and enabled by relationship, collaboration and community with folk inhabiting their own space in the process. I hope I can be a strong heartbeat, alongside other beats and commitments to build the new.

How about you? I love collaborating with you.

Max: I love collaborating with you too.

You are right that achieving the type of change we are striving for needs to be ecosystem. It won’t be achieved through just one person or one group of people. We need to simultaneously put pressure on the dominant system across multiple fronts. This means we need to share our visions and practices, to be willing to collaborate, to build a sense of solidarity and unity, and to keep communicating.

As for me, what will I be doing? Where will I position myself? How will I use my one wild and precious life?

Right now, I am playing with the idea of being a rebel academic alongside being a practitioner and an activist. A prac-ademic. A pr-activist. Playing with the words. Mucking about. I don’t know what words to use really. What I mean is that I want to integrate all that I know and all that I am and bring it all together. I don’t want to save one set of skills for one context and keep them separate from another. I want to feel whole.

My decade as an academic was super useful for what I do now. My time as a youth worker shapes my perspective every day. My experience as part of our home educating family adds such a lot of depth to the things that I already knew and believed, and also challenges me to think and think and think again. Life is rich and learning is lifelong. You know this. Life is about reflecting and changing and pushing and challenging. Always trying. Always fighting.

I don’t know whether I will choose to return to the mainstream. I suspect not. I am not saying that I won’t work with folk in the mainstream, or even that I won’t do shorter-term pieces of work for mainstream institutions. But full-time? I can’t imagine making a decision that would put me back into that energy. I will gladly work alongside folk in the mainstream but I don’t want to be there myself.

The place I stand right now feels good, and healthy, and sustainable. Being freelance, running my own projects, working with people like you, co-leading The Lodge. This is a good life, a wild life, a precious life. I’ll take it.

SOUL FIRE WRITING RETREAT – 18-20 MARCH 2022, DEVON, UK

I am really excited to let you know that in March I will be collaborating with Max Hope to host and lead a writing/activism retreat, at Selgars Mill, a beautiful setting in mid-Devon. The retreat is bringing together two projects, Write on Changemakers and Soul Fire, is inspired by the work of bell hooks, and will be run in a consent-based and self-directed way. We have put together a plan for the weekend, which includes guiding writing provocations, healing and liberating ‘deschooling the body’ and ‘find your power’ sessions, as well as fires, food, and circling.

There are a limited number of spaces available, you can find out all the details here. Would be great to see you there!