Benny Web V2

Do you see me?


Place2Be President Dame Benny Refson DBE reflects on the pressures of social media on young people and the different ways in which we are ‘seen’ by the people we meet.

How many likes did your latest selfie receive on Instagram? I didn’t realise until my grandchildren told me that you could buy likes, and at the same time if you don’t receive enough you can remove the image. Body image, cyberbullying and social media pressures are issues that often come up in the classroom and many schools that Place2Be works with tell us that it’s getting worse.

Over 20 years ago I had an experience – far away from the world of likes and selfies – that taught me a lot about how we are ‘seen’ by others. When I first visited a very remote island in Greece with a population around 80 who had endured occupation during both wars, earthquakes, bombardments and evacuation and ensuing poverty I learnt a massive life lesson which has stayed with me since.

Walking around the very small bay I felt a very real sense of isolation and not belonging. I was known by the locals as the English Man’s woman. Along with that came none of my life history, what I did, what I knew, what I had, where I had been and what I had learned. What came with me was the only thing I could bring: myself. Without any trappings and without a CV, who cared? What difference would it make to anyone?

It was then I realised none of those things would help the residents trust me, accept me, include me. What mattered was how I lived and loved the island, the contribution I might make to the future and how I treated everyone I met despite the language barrier. However I made an assumption that what I looked like and what I wore – my metaphorical “cloaks” – was seen and how I physically presented myself did play a role. This brought me some comfort as it was tangible and within my control. 

Fast forward to June of this year, when I visited a mentoring project  LOOK-UK, a charity that provides support and services for visually impaired children and their parents and carers. There yet another important life lesson took place. On the 3 hour train journey home I couldn’t understand what I was feeling… it was very uncomfortable and surprising, and took that time to work out.

I had absolutely no previous experience of being in a group of similar young people. I could see them but didn’t know if they could see any part of me. We ate lunch together and one blind young mentor who works in IT in Manchester said he had decided to become a mentor because he wanted to give back, he felt so fortunate for having had the education and opportunities he had received. Lesson number one, humility.

Then I realised what I was feeling.  Based on the lessons learnt 20 years earlier, here was another layer. What I wore didn’t play any role in the relationships, though my physical presence did but not in the same way as on the island. This time it was the language, the tone, and the genuine eagerness to learn more about their lives.

So stripped naked from my “cloaks”, another important lesson is how we relate to each other, how we sound, what message our tone of voice gives out, and importantly on both occasions, a profound appreciation for who they all are and what they have done to get to where they are – confronting their difficulties but determined to overcome them.

I am grateful for those lessons and I am sure there will be more to come. Being ‘seen’ isn’t about getting likes on your Instagram selfie, or receiving recognition for your past achievements. It isn’t always about how you are physically seen either, though that can definitely play a role. It’s about knowing that people support or share your vision and hopes for the future – and children and young people need to be ‘seen’ just as much as the rest of us.

This blog was written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the organisation.

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