I work in a sub-sector of the voluntary sector that has a partly justified reputation for being the preserve of retired middle class white people.
A few years ago when I was relatively new to it I was working on a project that happened to have a lot of young people and women involved in the running of it. I went to a conference of other people working on similar projects and virtually all of the 50 or so attendees were over 60, although there were a lot of women present.
The start of the event was like an open discussion where people raised issues they wanted to get advice or feedback on. One of the first people to speak started talking about their project’s struggle to get young people involved. Already I could feel eyes turning to me as one of the only “young people” present. The person facilitating the event, who knew me and my project, immediately turned to me and said “so Joe, your project has been really successful in getting people from a broad spectrum involved, why don’t you tell us a bit about how you got young people involved?”
Now the truthful answer, and what I should have said, was “pure luck, it just so happens that the people who have gravitated towards the project weren’t all old”. But I am still and was particularly then not comfortable with public speaking, especially when put on the spot. I guess I also wanted to make an impression and sound like I had relevant, interesting stuff to say.
So my first attempt at an answer was a pretty bland and meaningless waffle about making an effort to engage with people broadly, which apparently didn’t cut it with the facilitator who responded asking me to expand on the process of How To Get Young People Involved. Again I gave a waffley response basically avoiding the question and just describing the people running the project.
At this point I’m already part way to wanting the ground to open up, merely because I’m not really saying anything and everyone’s looking at me.
She still wouldn’t relent, and pressed me AGAIN, “but how did you get young people to get involved?”
I can’t explain what I said next or what I was trying to say, but these are the words that came out of my mouth:
“Well I think one of the first things the people who initiated the project did was to identify the fact that as a small group of women in their 60s they didn’t have the skills and experience to make the project happen and then they actively recruited more people who did have those skills”
I went immediately ashen and silent, as did the facilitator who quickly moved the discussion on. I wanted to interrupt the next question and immediately retract and try to explain what I had just said but I was frozen in shame, didn’t even have an explanation, and pretty soon it was too late to go back. I remained frozen for the rest of the session, and when it was time for a coffee and networking break I hid in the toilets.
Later in the day when everyone was sitting quietly waiting for the afternoon session to start, a very kind woman in her 60s sat next to me and jokingly chided me for the incident, giving me the opportunity to renounce everything I’d said as loudly as I could, and explain how uncomfortable I was being put on the spot like that. It broke the tension a bit but nothing will ever redeem me or banish my shame.