Life Maths

It won’t take long for this to become apparent but by way of a disclaimer I will start by pointing out that I am not, and nor do I fancy myself as, a mathematician or a lifestyle guru. I just happen to be enjoying an intensely reflective, taking-stock phase having recently made the risky decision to resign from, what in many ways was my dream, job (and a job I was supposed to be researching as a professional doctorate student).  In the two years I was in post as Orangebox’s founder director we:-

  • Delivered a successful launch weekend
  • Confirmed a constitution for the Youth Board and appointed a Chair and Vice-Chair
  • Appointed independent members to the Steering Group, confirmed the terms of reference and formed effective working groups
  • Welcomed and settled tenants and facilitated monthly Centre User Group meetings
  • Hosted 4 theatre performances, 2 music festivals, 2 enterprise competitions, a silent rave, an open evening, a dance show in the skate park, a digital dance event involving a live-link to Paris, 2 club nights, a roof-top firework display, and the launch of the Piece Hall Trust.
  • Supported 20 young people to achieve an Arts Award (Bronze & Silver levels)
  • Won 2 awards and sponsored a local young people’s award
  • Supported 2 young people to successfully complete Business Administration Apprenticeships
  • Attracted 700 members
  • Worked with partners to offer weekly access to support services
  • Recruited 5 Music Champions to train as studio engineers
  • Established Orangebox as an active member of local, regional and national networks
  • Piloted a commercial approach to running the café with a local  partner organisation
  • Secured 2 two-year Department for Education commissions
  • Appointed and inducted a creative, vibrant team of sessional workers and duty managers
  • Ran a UNITAS summer arts college with Calderdale Youth Offending Team
  • Established a team of volunteers and systems to induct, support and develop this team
  • Secured private sector support from two local companies.
  • Established a system for managing and promoting hires
  • Trialled 3 children’s parties
  • Created a microsite, a strong social media presence and a fully-fledged website.

Furthermore we were starting to develop an interesting organisational culture at Orangebox based on blending the best practice from youth club and cultural venue management.  This was not of course without its tedious tensions especially at times when one practice was perceived to be being emphasised more than the other by some stakeholders.  Ultimately though this was quite a healthy tension as long as I could keep convincing people that Orangebox should be both and more; it could be (and here comes my favorite mathematical/philosophical expression) greater than the sum of its parts! Featured image

Politics aside it was a real honor to work alongside some fantastic young people to get their centre up and running but it has left me utterly exhausted! In order to achieve the activities listed above for me personally it has taken several 12-14hours days per week, rarely having dinner with my partner, missing gatherings with family or friends, ending all my voluntary commitments, irregular exercise, and a desperate attempt to keep on top of my PhD work at weekends. The irony of researching and promoting young people’s wellbeing at the potential expense of my own is not lost on me but if I had to do it all again I am not sure that I would or could have paced myself any differently – any new initiative needs such a huge and disproportionate amount of effort at the outset to get it off the ground.  In short I am really glad that I was able to be involved in the start-up of Orangebox, I had envisaged being there for a lot longer but it will certainly now benefit from some fresh energy to support it through the next phase of development

Featured imageFortunately I currently have enough money in the bank to survive for 4 months without working, so that’s 4 months to solve the problem of how I now earn a living.   So far the concept of time has been at the forefront of my mind in this unfamiliar transition. Initially I have been building a new routine that prioritises exercise, cooking, catching up with friends and family, re-framing my PhD and gearing up to be a useful freelancer to the cultural, public, and charitable sectors[i].

Featured image

I have also had a good long holiday, during which I came to quantify time entirely differently – in Spain 7.5 hours (the equivalent of the supposed average working day) can simply = 2 swims, 2 snoozy sunbathes, 2 meals and a couple of chapters (or a snooze) with no internet or social media to fill the gaps.

Featured imageIn stark contrast it scares me how much I expect to attempt to cram into exactly the same time-frame on a working day. When you have the luxury of some time it is not long before your musings on how short a day actually is turn to the brevity of a lifetime itself! As such I find myself overwhelmed by just how much human beings achieve.  Given my heightened awareness of time I am now more convinced than ever that human achievements are rarely made by any sole individual, rather it is collective effort that shifts and changes and progresses (or regresses) things. It’s back to my favorite mathematical / philosophical concept – greater than the sum of its parts!

Of course neoliberal champions don’t want us thinking these sort of thoughts. They want us to celebrate the power of the autonomous self, they want us to believe we have all we need in ourselves; that we can be our own mini-enterprises and (conveniently) solve all our own problems. Neoliberalism celebrates a heroic model of leadership rather than a distributed or facilitative approach and reduces the concept of anything public to an ugly and bureaucratic idea rather than one associated with togetherness and support. I can just about see how some uber busy, seemingly self-sufficient people might unwittingly buy into this but when you properly stop for a moment you really do sense the infrastructures that support our eating, heating, transportation, education, health, security, communication and realize the true extent of our interdependency (and incidentally that is why I think all of the above need to remain public matters and public systems). The structures that support social and relational aspects of life are equally hidden and undercelebrated at the moment but essentially the staff and volunteers of our charities, schools, cultural venues, and youth clubs are channeling their physical and mental effort on a daily basis to sustain and promote our interdependence.

And for those of you more scientifically orientated let me remind you that the latest developments in the world of nutrition revolve around the notion that even biologically we are not wholly independent. “Contrary to what most of us have grown up believing”, writes Raphael Kellman (author of the popular new Microbiome Diet), “ we are not autonomous, independent, self-regulating beings, free of dependence from any outside systems or organisms. Instead we are interdependent ecologies responsible for safeguarding the extraordinary world that lives within us.” And that is where I shall leave my ode to our interdependence; our shared humanity, because if you have found my maths shaky then you really don’t want to know about my science!

[i] I am currently available to support with creative and charitable endeavors!  I have particular expertise in creative and cultural education, applied theatre, change management, partnership working, action research, and young people’s participation.  I bring 14 years of professional experience in community arts as the Founding Director of Orangebox Young People’s Centre in Halifax (2012-2014), Development Director at CapeUK (2010-2012), Director of Creative Partnerships West Yorkshire (2004-2010), and Community Director at Interplay Theatre (2000-2004), I am a former board member and chair of the arts development committee at The West Yorkshire Playhouse (2010-2013), Chair of Chol Theatre (2008-2012), Governor at Guiseley Secondary School (2007-2011), and Trustee for the Manav Kalyan supporting a special school in Gujarat, India (2006-2012). I am currently undertaking a part-time PhD at the University of Manchester researching applied theatre and young people’s spiritual wellbeing.

About madiirwin

Madeleine Irwin is a PhD researcher in the Drama Department at The University of Manchester. Madeleine is also an independent consultant specialising in creative education, applied theatre, partnership working, action research, and young people's participation
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2 Responses to Life Maths

  1. Pingback: Life Maths | madeleineirwin

  2. amcchisholm says:

    Hi would love to talk to you about new project I’m working on in Leeds for young and emerging artists. Have also recently taken plunge of leaving a dream job to pursue new paths (and work out how to earn a living while doing so). I’m contactable on

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