Council Estate Academics: Take Pride in Your Roots
Written by Dr Jessica Eaton
20 May 2019
I was desperate to escape my council estate. I used to dream of the day that I ran away and lived somewhere ‘nice’. I fantasised about becoming rich and successful so I could afford the things I needed to live. I hated that council estate so much by the time I was 18, that I continued to be ashamed and embarrassed of my roots until I was at least 26 years old.
Only a few years later, I see it as one of the most important and influential experiences I ever had. Living in poverty on a council estate in a deprived area made me who I am today. It made me.
Maybe you’re reading this as a fellow academic from a poor background. Maybe you’re reading this from your council house right now. Maybe you’ve never lived in poverty or on an estate and you’re reading this wondering how any of us could be ‘proud’ of our roots.
I want to share my 5 reasons for pride and the way my thinking has changed over the last few years; which has transformed my thinking from hating my roots to loving and respecting them.
I also want to explain how I went from telling myself that class doesn’t matter and doesn’t affect me, to truly understanding the way our perceived or real social class is affecting us every day – and affecting our research, career paths and experiences in academia.
1. Being brought up on a council estate provided me with experiences that I still draw upon to this day
Walking down to the shops and bumping into like eleventy people you know. Dragging your sofa out on to the front of your house in the summer and sitting in the street or front yard. Pointing your stereo out of the front room window and blasting music. Walking down the alleys you’re not supposed to walk down. Reading who is fucking who on the graffiti walls on the way to school. That shop that sold cigarettes to kids cos they had gone past caring. Sitting on the park til 1am talking about what you’re gonna do when you finally get rich or become a famous footballer. Turning up to school with the wrong uniform on and being ‘told’ to buy more like you had the money. The estate stray dog whom everyone loved and fed but no one knew who owned him. That bloke who always asked you for 20p for some extravagant lie about his dog being trapped on a train and he needs 20p to save his pretend dog, even though you knew it was for heroin. Sitting on the garages throwing stones at the ‘No Ball Games’ sign. Going round your friends’ houses and eating literally everything in the cupboards. Playing knock and run for hours. Hedge hopping. Getting chased by police for climbing on top of the school roof. White dog shit everywhere for some reason.
Yep. Growing up on a council estate sure gave us some life experiences. People say experience shapes us, and I totally believe that. We are an accumulation of everything we’ve ever seen, done, heard, felt, experienced and thought.
Growing up poor is hard. I’m not here to romanticise the shit we all went through. Like I said, I hated my estate. But I am definitely in a different place mentally, now.
See, as a psychologist, an academic – and as an activist in feminism, I need these past experiences every day.
I need to remember the feeling of hunger. I need to remember the danger. I need to remember the drugs, the drink and the stupid shit we did. I need to remember how normal it was for one of our mates to turn up covered in bruises. I need to remember how romantic we thought it was for that 21 year old bloke to pick that girl up from school every day. I need to remember how normal it was to sell a bit of weed to keep you going. I need to be able to remember the logic that caused me and my friends to carry knives and weapons in our socks or trackies.
I need to remember the good times too. I need to remember the hilarious laughter. I need to remember sledding down the snowy hills on a car bonnet some lad had nicked off his Dad’s car cos he heard it goes faster. I need to remember the long conversations about whether we believed in god or aliens or afterlife whilst sat on a slide and a swing at 1am. I need to remember the time when my mate got cut out of a baby swing by the fire service. I need to remember the long summer evenings spent around a £10 BBQ, next to a paddling pool full of beers to keep them cool. I need to remember the carnivals and the summer fayre. I need to remember the years we spent playing in the stream and in the woodlands. I need to remember the tarmac melting so you could shove your fingers in it and write your name with a rock.
We convince ourselves that we can leave our poor pasts behind and reinvent ourselves as these new, successful, educated, accomplished people.
But underneath it all, underneath your degree and your new accent and your code switching – aren’t you just the kid who used to stick transfer tattoos on your face and tell everyone your Dad was harder than my Dad?
The reality is, ignoring, denying or abandoning our roots will hurt our practice as academics and as professionals working in research, practice or policy. If we can’t even be true to who we are and where we are from, what fucking use are we to the people in need, who we are working with or conducting research with? If we are spending our days hiding our background or our dialect, why should communities believe us or trust us when we go to work with them or advocate for them?
And anyway, what example are we setting for kids and adults in poverty if we all pretend we ain’t from the same estates they are from? How will they ever see that we turned out alright if we hide who we are?
Use your experiences to connect with people. Remember who you are.
2. I understand and believe in the strength, potential and abilities of people in poverty and oppression
One of the things that hit me the hardest when working in practice and academia is the way communities and individuals in poverty or oppression are perceived as a bit stupid, unable to become anything and destined for a life of shit.
That’s not how I remember it. That’s not my truth and that’s not the truth of many council estate kids and adults I know.
There was a girl I grew up with whose family had never been able to own a car, so they had never left our town. Never been on holiday. Never even been 20 miles up the road. She’s a lawyer now.
There was a lad I grew up with who was constantly seen as thick. Bottom sets for everything, lived in poverty, never going anywhere. Works in education now and is easily one of the most successful people I know.
Another girl I grew up with on the estate lived a life similar to mine. Sexual exploitation. Drugs. Alcohol. Pregnant as a kid. She’s a very successful, bilingual professional working in technology now.
These aren’t one-offs. These aren’t tokenistic rags to riches stories. This shit happens all the time. Don’t get me wrong, some of the kids we grew up with are dead or in prison right now. We don’t all make it out alright.
But generally, these kids that we are sidelining and ‘predicting poor outcomes’ for, will go on to be happy, healthy, successful parents and/or employed people in thousands of different roles in our communities.
Second, it takes some serious ingenuity, intelligence and determination to grow up in poverty or whilst being oppressed for who you are. These people are some of the most equipped humans you could ever meet – they know how to navigate life and they know how to keep themselves fed, housed and alive by any means necessary.
By any means necessary.
Loads of us who grew up in situations like that, know what that sentence means.
People who are being oppressed or are living in poverty are just as capable and have just as much potential ahead of them as anyone else. The difference lies in the opportunities granted to them by society and authorities, not their abilities.
This realisation as I got older, has changed my practice, my thinking and my theories. It’s not that what I am saying is revolutionary or hadn’t been said before – but I had never thought it before. I was always told by teachers and others that us kids on the estate we ‘never going to be anything’ – and why wouldn’t we believe them?
If you make it out or up – or whatever you wanna call it, you have a responsibility to pull others up with you and to never allow people in your new circles to stereotype or derogate people in poverty or oppression.
3. The grass isn’t much greener on the other side
So many of us dreamed of the perfect life away from the estate. We fantasised about how nice everything would be once we had enough money to pay the bills. We imagined our nice new cars that worked. We dreamt of friends and family around our posh houses. We thought about all the amazing jobs we could do when we were big.
We told ourselves that anything HAS to be better than this shit hole.
Well, it’s not. Not really.
Money solves some of your problems, like being hungry or having debt collectors trying to force their way in to your house all the time. But it doesn’t necessarily give you the emotional and social things you wanted. The higher you climb, the more you’ll notice how cut throat it is. How individualistic everyone is. How materialistic everyone is. How people are comfortable fucking over the little guy to step up the ladder. How unfair the world is, even when you think you’ve ‘made it’ to the upper echelons. How much you will be discriminated against in the academic world once they figure out that you’re not one of them.
When you’re poor as fuck, you imagine that being wealthy or educated will solve all of your problems and you’ll be happy. That’s what society sells to us all. The dream of education, property and wealth. Until you’re so happy you look like the happy couples on the DFS advert on their new recliner sofa reading magazines or the people making amazing meals in the Magnet fitted kitchens you have only ever seen on TV (and promise yourself one day you will have a Magnet kitchen).
The grass is rarely greener on the other side, and as a person who grew up in poverty or being oppressed – you are not going to ‘fit right in’ in academia or in powerful institutions. This can often lead to people feeling alienated or outcast – as a number of people researching working class academics have learned.
Don’t try to be them. The grass is not greener. Be you.
4. To understand poverty, crime and oppression – you have to LIVE IT
I wouldn’t normally say something like this. I wouldn’t say ‘to understand rape and work in sexual violence, you have to be raped first’, for example.
However, there is something about poverty, crime and oppression that no one can ever understand until they have lived in those environments and situations. You cannot possibly imagine what it is like to have no food and no way of getting any food, if you have always been fed.
You have no idea what it feels like to be oppressed by a powerful group of people who see you as inferior and non-human, until you have been the oppressed people. You have no idea what it means to be forced to do things you don’t want to do because you owe someone money or someone is exploiting you.
You will never understand what it feels like to be told hundreds of times during childhood that you will never amount to anything and that your life is worthless and a drain on society until you have lived that shit every day until you even hate yourself and you are ashamed of where you live and who you are.
You will never understand the feeling of being told your benefits have been stopped or sanctioned and you are being left with no money for the next 3 months and no one gives a fuck if you live or die because you should just go out and get a job.
This means for us academics and professionals who HAVE lived through this stuff, we *should* have a much more sophisticated understanding of poverty, oppression and crime. I say ‘should’ because I know plenty of people from these backgrounds who seem to have wiped their own memory and deny their own upbringings and then use that denial and ignorance to judge people who are just like them.
But we should. We should have more understanding, more empathy and more awareness of societal pressures and contexts when we are working with people or conducting research. We should be using ecological models and contextual models. We should be using social models of theory. We should be looking at wider society, oppression and discrimination.
I’m not interested in rich, privileged white people telling poor, oppressed, disadvantaged, discriminated people how to ‘become more resilient’ or ‘get out of poverty’.
They have no place, no knowledge or experience to be advising any one of us.
5. Our backgrounds as an asset, not as a deficit
For lots of us in academia and other institutions, it can be seen as shameful or embarrassing to be ‘found out’ or ‘outed’ as poor, working class or from a disadvantaged background. This is not a reflection on us, this is a reflection on those academics, institutions and authorities.
I would argue that working class and council estate academic researchers have an incredible amount to bring to the table. Completely different life perspectives and experiences. Usually much more competent at communicating and connecting with communities and research participants. Often looking at the world from a different point of view, coloured by their own experiences of which they should not be ashamed of.
The interesting thing is, these people will be perceived as ‘less academic’ or ‘biased’ or ‘bringing their own stuff to work’.
But the same is not said about the professor who’s dad and grandad were professors, who lives in a £700k house, who brings fucking ‘cultured almonds’ to work in one of those expensive Tupperware things that they stewed overnight with porridge oats from Waitrose.
How come those academics are not seen as biased or bringing their own stuff to work? How come their life experiences aren’t seen as colouring their research or their conclusions?
We know why.
Because our backgrounds are seen as deficits that we had to overcome. And their backgrounds are seen as assets that supported their success and academic profile.
Well I disagree. I would much rather be working with a team of working class researchers who could connect with their participants and work in their best interests than be working with an elite team of well-cited researchers who ask me, ‘How do you actually work with and talk to people who have been exploited though? Don’t you get worried they might find you on Facebook? Don’t you worry they’ll find out that you have kids?’
All the stuff we have lived through, seen, heard, felt and experiences on our estates and in our lives – have led up to this work we do in academia. Never see your background as a deficit – learn to see it as an asset. A rare asset.
Like millions of others, I was fed the myth that if I worked hard and went to university, I could escape my social class and I could move up the ladder in society. It’s bollocks, mate.
Yeah you can gain wealth, you can get your degree or your PhD. You can get that senior lecturer job. You can get that place on the course you always wanted.
But you can’t erase your memories. You can’t deny your roots. Most of us won’t be able to hide our accents or dialect for long (my tip: don’t bother, why should you?). You can’t pretend you have privilege you don’t have. You can’t imagine experiences you never had. You can’t pretend you know what that big word is. You can’t openly talk about how broke you are and how you can’t afford to attend the conference because you can’t afford the childcare.
I spent years running away from who I was, convincing myself I could reinvent myself so people would take me seriously. Only when the penny dropped at about 26 years old did I become the most powerful and authentic version of myself. No longer masking the accent or the colloquialisms. No longer hiding the tattoos. No longer trying to fit in. No longer hating my council estate.
Loving my council estate. Loving what it taught me and what it gave to me. Respecting the people I grew up with and their potentials and abilities instead of seeing us all as broken and poor. Loving my accent. Loving my dialect. Being patient with myself when I can’t pronounce a word I read in books. Fighting the corner of every person living in poverty and oppression – making sure they are not written off or stereotyped. Raising the issue of classism in our research, policies and practice.
Being damn proud of who I am, where I come from and what I can offer the world.
You can take the girl out of the council estate but you can’t take the council estate out of the girl.
Spaghetti hoops is a whole meal on it’s own. End of.
Written by Dr Jessica Eaton