Democracy and voice

We sang at the WEA’s Yorkshire & Humber Region AGM in Leeds today. You don’t get that kind of exuberance in most shareholders’ meetings.

The (fully booked) get-together before the business part of the meeting focused on ‘Democracy, Active Citizenship and the Role of Voice’.  Prof. Stephen Coleman set the scene very engagingly in his William Alderson Memorial Trust Lecture on this theme.

Prof. Stephen Coleman

Prof. Coleman got our attention straight away, saying that, “Voice is the foundation technology of democracy but not all voices are equal.” In a rousing performance, he talked of the need for all sorts of voices that are, “confident, unbound and efficacious”. Quoting from John Milton and Edmund Burke, he went on to describe, “an entire history of disrespect built on prejudice”, with a “spurious connection” between people’s style of pronunciation and their authority to speak.  He warned that we shouldn’t mistake sullen and silent anger in society for civic contentment. Identifying 6 civic capabilities, he showed excerpts from a website at, which he urged people to explore.

Various examples of  ‘WEA Experiences’ followed his lecture. These were impressive in showing how students and volunteers had gained confidence and found voices with the WEA.

Students from an Asian Women’s Sewing Group showed their skills in a stunning fashion show. The soundtrack encouraged some impromptu Gangnam Style moves from several people as well as nods of admiration and enthusiastic applause. The women from Crosland Moor also won the Learning Group of the Year award and were full of praise for Judith Boardman, their ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Tutor.

Award winners’ acceptance speech

In a change of pace and tone, we watched a short film that WEA students with experience of homelessness had made. They described some changes that they would make to Doncaster if they had a million pounds to spend. The film was an excellent practical illustration of people speaking about what’s important to them in their community.

Mark Goodwin and the Bumble Bee Barbarians then had us spellbound as they talked about the triumphs and impact of mixed ability rugby and the creative training that the WEA is building around the sport. Students with a learning difficulty or disability gave a presentation that was both moving and funny. They challenged several stereotypes and managed to make some serious messages entertaining.

They showed how they are tackling inequality, in a very literal way, and finding their voices.

Mark Goodwin (R) & some Bumble Bee Barbarians

Rob Hindle, Nicola Thorpe and Victoria Beauchamp’s presentation about Digability, a WEA Community Archaeology Project, was another example of inclusion that builds on people’s interests. They showed clips from a film about the project. This is available at They emphasised how important it is for organisations to work together and the key role of volunteers like Beth Deakin.

Beth Deakin, Volunteer of the Year

Lindy Gresswell, Yorkshire and Humber Region’s Chair, presented regional awards to even more applause.

As well as the people mentioned already, Lindy presented certificates to:

  • Julie Harrison – Nominated for WEA Student of the Year
  • Jill Iles – Nominated for Special recognition award: Education
  • Janet Driver – Nominated for Special recognition award: Administration and support services
  • Ron Moreton – Nominated for Special recognition: Long Service Award
  • Open Door Hate and Mate Crime Group – Nominated for Most Innovative Partnership Activity

Energy levels were kept high by the WEA’s ‘Easingwold Sings’ Choir. Some of us thought we might be sitting back to be entertained – which we were – but taking part is in the WEA’s DNA so we had a quick singing lesson and found our voices quite harmoniously.

‘Easingwold Sings’ Choir

The high spirits and sense of communal activity were an excellent curtain raiser for the business part of the meeting.

About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn:

7 Responses to Democracy and voice

  1. Andria Birch says:

    It sounds like a great day, the centrality of learner and student voice is what makes WEA so unique!

    As discussed in previous comments I am keen to further explore the impact of social media in widening the conversation. At the risk of a shameless link, I’ve set up a new facebook group for women students, staff and partners interested in getting involved in the WEA women’s learning programme. Please request an invite if you would like to join – closed group but open to all interested in the WLP:

  2. infostocksy says:

    All the time and effort to write this up and post pictures, WELL WORTH IT, what a fantastic read and looks like you had an incredible day, always great to read blogs as they tend to include heart, passion and a real feel of how great the activities were – the singing and dancing sounds like incredible ICE BREAKERS – nice one – thanks again for a great write up.

  3. Judith says:

    It sounds to have been a great day Ann. Sorry I missed it. I will send the link to Sameen who spoke on the day. I should mention that the class which won the Learning Group of the Year award was actually a Level 1 & 2 Literacy Class – men and women. Sameen was in that class last year and also happened to be a volunteer in the Asian Women’s Sewing Class at the same centre.

    • Ann Walker says:

      Thanks for the helpful clarification Judith.

      It was lovely to hear Sameen talking about what a good tutor you are – which we knew! – and how much the students had learnt and developed. They were very worthy award winners. Congratulations to them and you.

  4. jmiskin says:

    Readers should know that the film – Filming My Town – is the work of Russell Wall (Consolidated tutor) and James Guy (WEA volunteer). Together they’ve now made a lot of films which are enabling us to tell interesting stories as well as raising issues for ongoing debate in and beyond the WEA.
    Jol Miskin

  5. Ann Walker says:

    Thanks Jol. Russell and James do some great work.

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