Someone I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is a woman called Jane Jacobs. Who was an urbanist philosopher, writer, activist. She was famous in her lifetime across many disciplines and after she died her colleagues and followers in Toronto wanted to honour her legacy by setting up a festival called Jane’s Walk on the weekend that marks the anniversary of her birth every year. An organisation I have outside the University is called Walk Colchester, I brought it to the UK for the first time, it’s in cities and towns all over the world but it had never been to the UK previously, and we are just going in to our 8th year. She is a woman who greatly inspires me, her ideas and thinking of the urban environment and our social interaction with it and our responsibility as citizens to shape our own environment and get involved in planning.
There is another woman, Phyllis Pearsall, who was responsible for the development of the London A-Z. She walked every single London road until she finished. That is incredible isn’t it?
My organisation is concerned with the promotion of walking and the design of the walking environment. Specifically but not exclusively inclusive approaches to walking, I’m a wheelchair user myself so somebody might see an irony in the fact it’s called Walk Colchester, but I think of walking as just the simplest way of getting around. When I first became a wheelchair user it was really odd to me that the language around walking was suddenly lost because it made people feel uncomfortable, but it was unnatural to me not to continue using it so I’ve always used that terminology. So we all understand what it means to go for a walk and it’s not simply the act of putting one foot in front of the other. It’s getting out, taking in nature or the urban environment depending on where you are, but it’s more than just that physical act.
Mapping is still a focus and it is still my intention to create a really decent walking map for Colchester. But actually there are three main projects it’s responsible for. One is the Jane’s Walk festival in May; one is the Colchester BOMA project where we bought a motorised go kart to Highwoods Country Park which is available for mobility users to use in and outside of the park.
I was a research worker working in prisons up and down the country, doing research on HIV risk behaviours, behaviours associated with HIV in prisons. So that included drug injecting, tattooing using dirty needles and sex between men. It was a time limited project for two years, set up by the Institute of Psychiatry, National Addiction Centre and the Home Office as a jointly owned project. So I spent two years with a base in London but up and down the country working in prisons interviewing men, who all consented to the interviews.
At the end of that project, in fact it was coming to an end and we were working around the clock to pull the report together, my paralysis happened out of the blue. So I came back to Colchester, kind of reluctantly, but it was a mixture of relief and reluctance. Relief because I was anxious about life in a chair and I knew Colchester very well, but reluctance because I had committed myself to continuing the path that I was on in London and I couldn’t really do that.
My background was in social and political sciences at university, I’d been working in social issues and then my sister saw this job and sent it to me in the post. It just seemed to be a job with my name on it and that’s what brought me to Essex and this room.
There are lots of things that kept me here, I have freedom to initiate new adventures and shape it to what I see as student needs and their expressions of interest. It’s a lovely position to be in really, to be helping student’s access education, which I regard as more important almost than anything else in our world. I’ve got a poster on my wall which says, “Don’t be a victim of your environment, overcome through education” and I really believe that. And to help an increasingly diverse student body in their different ways have an equal stake and equal access to education and to watch their confidence developing and help them progress as thinkers and writers, that’s a wonderful position to be in.
When I’m at risk of doing something bad or inappropriate I have what I call a Mandela moment. I do think to myself, ‘what would Mandela do?’ would he admire? Or would he be respectful of what I’m about to say or do? So I do have a Mandela moment, but it’s embarrassing to say out loud.