Networks of hope

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

Two women enjoying a cup of tea at the Labour Women's Development Programme
Two of the participants of the Sheffield Labour Women's Development Programme 2019

Last year I attended the Labour Women’s Development Programme in Sheffield. The key aim of the programme, funded by Labour's NEC, was 'to encourage participation at all levels in the Labour Party to help address under-representation'. My personal motivation was to meet local women and form associations with like-minded people. Run by a private coaching company, Real Clear, the programme looked interesting and promising for developing political networks locally. The free programme was available through an application process to women from and around Sheffield. Membership of the Labour Party was not mandatory, though respect and support for Labour Party values was important. It ran for 6 half-day sessions, on a Saturday morning and was attended by up to 20 to 30 women each week.

Lisa Reed leading the Labour Women's Development Programme in Sheffield
Lisa Reed led the programme with a charming combination of professionalism and personal warmth

At the introductory session we met the person to whom we owed the pleasure of being there. Terry Barrow, a local Labour councillor, told us how she had mounted a concerted campaign to get the programme funded. A passionate advocate for women's empowerment Terry felt strongly about investing in a professionally delivered programme rather than relying on unpaid volunteers. The sessions were organised and delivered by Lisa Reed, a well-qualified professional coach and trainer. Following its tremendous success and popularity in 2018 this was the second iteration of the programme a year later. Two women from the original programme attended the first session and spoke in glowing terms about how personally rewarding and empowering it had been for them. This set us up for an inspiring start.

Terry Barrow, the organiser of the Programme

After explaining the background to the programme, Terry spent some time talking about her own life history. It was from this moment that the whole programme came to life and became one of the most stimulating and nourishing events I have ever attended. Terry’s candid personal narrative set the tone for the rest of the meetings. I am certain I was not the only one in the room who immediately warmed to the intimacies Terry shared with us. This not only provided the kind of insight one needs to forge deep connections with others, it also signalled to everyone in the room that this was a safe space in which to open up and share experiences.

Lisa Reed then outlined the aims of the programme which were primarily about empowering and enabling women to achieve a ‘goal related to the Labour Party’. Since these goals were very generic to any progressive political agenda, it did not seem like a very partisan agenda. The goals included the following themes:

· Creating an economy that works for all

· Negotiating Brexit

· Towards a national education service

· A fair deal at work

· Social security

· Secure homes for all

· Healthcare for all

· Safer Communities

· Leading richer lives

· Extending democracy

· A more equal society

· A global Britain

A safe and supportive space to share and learn

I attended five of the 6 sessions and regret missing that sixth one because of ill health. In every one of the sessions Lisa highlighted a particular objective and took the group through various related exercises to embed the learning. Lisa’s leadership of the sessions was informed by theory and experience of training people in diverse organisations including trade unions and university academics. Although her experience and expertise on the topics was unquestionable, Lisa also brought to the sessions a diffident and easy kind of humility. This allowed the diverse group of attendees to warm to her and engage confidently in the probing and sometimes challenging tasks Lisa set. Each session was themed with the aim of developing a key set of skills and knowledge – the first one was about ‘understanding personalities’ and others included ‘emotional intelligence, confidence, resilience, public speaking, decision making, goal setting and managing challenging behaviour.’ After providing some information and background on the themes Lisa would ask the women to work in groups to carry out tasks that applied the theory she had introduced.

While the content of the sessions was interesting and informative, the real value for me was in meeting and befriending the diverse group of women who attended. Many of the exercises Lisa asked the groups to engage in were designed to enable positive communication and learning about ourselves and the other participants. Lisa’s presentations were frequently interrupted by questions and comments that opened up the conversation to a whole new world of meanings, stories and debates. This was partly due to the competence of the facilitator in provoking thoughtful dialogue but also because of staggering levels of diversity within the group. Attendees included experienced councillors, educators and activists as well as political novices, housewives, office workers and young students, ranging from retired people in their 60s to teeangers who had just finished their A-Levels. The only common factor seemed to be the shared experience of being a woman. I could not think of another public space in which I could have encountered and enjoyed the company of so many different people from so many varied walks of life. The way in which the sessions were organised allowed for everyone to participate. Quite soon there developed a culture of common empathy and shared passions that elicited revealing accounts from the women, drawing from their rich lived experiences. The women shared histories, ideas and opinions that spanned several generations and continents. As the sessions progressed it felt like barriers kept coming down and new and more authentic forms of communication began to evolve. Inevitably some dominated discussions while others listened intently, hiding in the back row of seats. With gentle persuasion, Lisa ensured that the less assertive got their say too.