It is hard for many to find employment, especially for those who are not coming from wealthy families or immigrants who lack the family or social networks they have grown up in. Being unemployed is not an easy story to share in a social environment, in an outing with friends on Saturday night or a Facebook chat, for instance. Being unemployed causes distress and puts confidence in jeopardy, because it carries stigma for the unemployed person who is perceived incapable of work in our modernised time, that blindly values individual success, excellent performance and celebrities.
After 19 years of continuous employment and professional development, I have so far counted six months since being unemployed for the first time in my life. It is a painful as well as a good learning process to evaluate, revalue and appreciate many things in my life. Following the normal route of applying directly to employers had no fruitful results. I have made 55 applications, attended 22 unsuccessful interviews, prepared and delivered 8 presentations and two second-round interviews. I do not say that the interviews were a failure or that I performed well in all of them. But in a few of them, I found myself perceived as an immigrant with sharp Mediterranean accent. Despite being a resident in London for nine years now and naturalised as a British citizen prior to referendum, it is this particular time that my everyday reality makes me to come to terms with being an ‘economic migrant’ in England. Unfortunately, I have been a victim of discrimination three times, in a school, a youth charity and an arts organisation; ironically in all three areas my interdisciplinary work of social justice and arts education intersects and flourishes.
My career began as a trainee social worker in 1998 co-creating with young immigrants a shadow theatre performance in a youth club, supported by Evgenios Spatharis (the most prominent shadow theatre artist in modern Greece) and his museum in North Attica (Athens). Since then, for nearly 14 years, I have been using my foundation subject knowledge of social work and diverse cultural forms (applied drama, music, documentary, visual arts, oral history, natural and tangible heritage) to support marginalised young people. In 2015, I managed to get into the arts sector in the UK as a cultural education leader and developed high quality work at the disciplinary frontiers of arts, youth, disability and education, and I started doing a part-time doctorate in museum and educational studies, funded by Goldsmiths University of London. Driven by academic interests in culture, identity and education, my research explores issues of social justice in the educational approaches of museums in the UK to working with young people.
I have to admit that many times in my recent job-hunting in the areas of my expertise, I had to hide that I am doing a doctorate, fearful of how potential employers might perceive my life course of endlessly studying. I fight with the assumptions that a PhD equates to an academic career (when more than half of PhDs do not follow academic careers) or the preconceptions of university as the optimal work environment of knowledge production and exchange. I also had to fight within a very competitive cultural sector of ‘experts’, competing with professionals in the arts who never actually worked directly with young people or those whose studies and expertise has no relevance to youth work. After responsibility for national youth policy was transferred from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) last year, everybody in the cultural industries became an expert at young people. I do understand that the policy landscape and the governmental funding are not enough to explain that none of the 22 employers I went for an interview offered me a job. I struggle to explain this unfair treatment to always get shortlisted second or third.
I cannot offer to the cultural and education sector in the UK at the most productive and most creative stage in my career. On top of this, my attitude to professionalism cannot go against my ethics. When I was graduated from the Department of Social Work in the Higher Education Institute of Patras in 1999, I did something that doctors normally do before starting their practice to treat people’s illnesses: I took an oath that commits me to ‘study and stand critical towards the trends in science, technology and culture and selflessly and vigorously serve peace, democracy and social justice’. Museum and heritage interpretation has always been my passion, since the times of myself creating my family archive at the age of six or recording the stories of my grandmother and a refugee from Minor Asia as a teenager. Heritage learning is my way to tackle injustice in society and help more young people who deserve the chance to make their ways at these tough times for our communities. As an experienced youth work professional and a PhD researcher in museum and educational studies, I know that a personal sense of fulfilment and responsibility to support youth at the margins of society precedes a service to the arts for arts’ sake, because both my professional and academic knowledge shape my values. After applying to ‘open’, publically accessible positions in 21 different cultural and creative industries, I came to the realisation that I did not want to be offered a job at the backstage. I only wanted to be trusted one.