Writing a ‘Values Poem’: a Workshop with Bristol University Collaborators

Writing a ‘Values Poem’: a Workshop with Bristol University Collaborators

By Sian Ephgrave, 30th July 2021

Workshop Process

Challenge, empathy, freedom, care. These are some of the core values of the Connecting Through Culture as We Age project, as expressed by collaborators from the University of Bristol.

The members of the Bristol Uni Connecting Through Culture team hold a wide range of interests and expertise. I was excited to be asked to facilitate an online workshop with the aim of bringing these interests together into a shared statement of values. The group did not know, at the beginning of the session, that the finished statement would take poetic form, so it was a bit of a ‘magical mystery tour’ for them! I was grateful for their trust and openness in embracing the process.

The workshop I was offering up was originally designed during my doctoral research as part of a creative methodology exploring teacher wellbeing. It uses a combination of: private reflection; identification of feelings; conceptual thinking; creative writing; and collaboration.

The different elements of the workshop are brought together via a communication philosophy and practice called Nonviolent (or Compassionate) Communication (NVC). NVC was developed by the late Marshal Rosenberg. He describes NVC as ‘a way of communicating that leads us to give from the heart’ by ‘reframing how we express ourselves and hear others’ (Rosenberg 2015:3). NVC uses a deconstructed communication process – I like to compare it to a deconstructed apple crumble – to arrive at what is ‘alive’ for someone in a given moment. This helps to get to the essence of what truly matters to that person, rather than focusing on: moral judgement; intellectual understanding; or, emotions. As with a deconstructed dessert, with NVC the different components of our usual communications are separated out to arrive at something (hopefully) a little more refined and beauty-full. (By the way I have nothing against traditional apple crumble, it’s just by way of illustration!) You can see a five minute introduction to the practice here.

I first began learning about NVC in my early twenties and I have found it immensely helpful in my personal and professional life. I mainly learned NVC from two fantastic teachers, Jayaraja Dh – who offers a series of six free videos on NVC here – and Dorota Godby who works locally and remotely with Highly Sensitive People, helping them to deal with overwhelm.

In the workshop, I asked the Bristol Uni team members to reflect on a recent experience that had affected them in some way. They used these reflections to arrive at a concept or – in NVC terms – a need that was relevant to that experience and also in some way relatable to the Connecting Through Culture project. From here, small groups were formed in Zoom breakout rooms and collaborative writing methods were used to create sections of a poetic ‘Values Manifesto’. (You can read the finished manifesto at the end of this blog post.) Collaborative writing can feel strange for people who are not used to it. It requires a certain level of vulnerability in exposing how we think and write. We are not normally taught to do this, but rather to present a finished piece (except in Maths where showing ‘workings out’ is more openly encouraged). As a teacher of English, I have worked with students of all ages from 11 to adult, and I have found collaborative writing to be a great way to share not only ideas but also ways of thinking things through.

Before I leave you to enjoy the finished piece from the workshop, I’d like to offer a short note on the idea of poetic manifestos. When we hear the term manifesto we are likely to think of political writings such as Karl Marx’s Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (Communist Party Manifesto). However, manifestos are written for ‘myriad reasons … some are personal, some are political and others are written with aspirations to high cultural ideals’ (Lack 2017:xiii). The word manifesto has its roots in the Latin manifestare, which means to ‘make public’ or ‘make obvious’. Challenge, empathy, freedom, care. All of these ideas are universally recognisable in some form or another. But they are difficult to define, to pin-down. Such is the nature of an abstract concept like ‘values’; it can be difficult to define our own values, let alone the shared values of a group. Creative expression, such as poetry, can be more useful in getting to the essence of subtle, abstract concepts than trying to break the thing down into ever smaller, measurable minutiae. (This is one of the most important findings from my own research on wellbeing – another concept that is universally recognised but ‘lived out’ with infinite variance.) The aim of a poetic manifesto then, can be said to make subtle and elusive ideas more obvious in their essence. I hope as you read the one below you will gain a sense of the shared values of the Bristol Uni Connecting Through Culture team, and their aspirations for the project.

Connecting Through Culture as We Age Bristol University Team’s ‘Values Manifesto’

There is a need for challenge.
It’s competitive, as a word.
Standing in front of us
like an obstacle.
Landing in front of us,
a gauntlet thrown by life,
but fun, doable, an invited battle,
sometimes self-imposed.

Doesn’t have to be big, but
I’ve won the Olympics
and no one, except me, knows.

Adrenalin fueled courage,
a surfer’s wave, a climber’s mountain,
coming over that peak,
reaching that hold,
confronting injustice.
Getting through the day.

Standing on the podium, trophy aloft.
There is a need for challenge.

There is a need for empathy.
See the other side,
building bridges with a brew.
Do not let it boil!

This is how I feel:
Hold the mirror to your ear,
I’ll try to see you.

Walking in your shoes,
though not my style at all,
Our strides synchronise.
There is a need for empathy.

There is a need for freedom.
Standing on the brow of the deck – wind in the hair
a green light.
We’re going places,
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.

Standing on a hill – open horizons,
independent thinking,
thoughts and bodies flying in opposite directions,
then back together like murmurations.

Who gets to choose?

To surf, feel at one with the waves,
light, buffeted by the sea breeze
feel the weight of four walls crushing possibilities,
heavy bodies and minds.

Searching for home sweet home
with cousins and family or friends
live alone in the bee-loud glade.
There is a need for freedom.

There is a need for care.
Caring for, caring about, caring with,
Where caring for and caring about meet,
putting something beyond your own needs and desires,
engaging with something outside of yourself
– that’s more than giving.

Giving and receiving
give and take
sacrifice on both sides.

Resonance – resonate with, resound, reverberate or echo,
but can be pulled apart and put under pressure.

A balance, the different weight of responsibility.

Listening powerfully,
not paternalistic (or maternalistic).

A practice,
part of what
makes us animal
makes us human,
more than human.

A deficit and an abundance of care is always clear,
carefree but not careless,
a complex intertwining of your inner worlds.

and care go hand in hand
but there’s something cynical about it –
care in the community.
A caring infrastructure and distribution of resources.

There is a need for care.


Lack, J. (2017): Why are we ‘artists’? 100 World Art Manifestos, Milton Keynes: Penguin Classics

Rosenberg, M. (2015): Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, California: PuddleDancer Press.

About the Blogger

Sian Ephgrave is a doctoral researcher at the University of Bristol’s School of Education and a part-time lecturer on the English Literature and Community Engagement BA. Her PhD is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It focuses on the wellbeing of English teachers with an overstory of inclusion through democratic fellowship. It is a co-creative project conducted with members of the National Writing Project UKand other English teachers. Sian combines research, teaching and writing with bringing up her young daughter. She is interested in Early Years practices and an advocate of play-based learning.

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