Looking at Labeling and Diversity: Interview with Philip Patston

Recently, I had to the opportunity to catch up with Philip Patston who is a phenomenal speaker, advocate, and expert on diversity and labeling. Philip is also one of Social Work Helper’s expert columnists who offer readers a global perspective hailing from Auckland, New Zealand. Although he is located on the other side of the world, Philip helped me to realize through his writing and speaking the symmetry we all (human kind) share versus focusing on our differences.

Philip has traveled an interesting path and has seen the world from different lenses such as a counselor, comedian, and advocate to name a few. After viewing his Ted Talk with over 30,000 views, I wanted to learn more about Philip. We had an interesting conversation, and now I am going to share it with you.

SWH: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you into the field of social work?
Philip Patston at Tedx Auckland
Philip Patston at Tedx Auckland

I began a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in Psychology and Sociology aged 18, but hated the University environment, so I quit early in my second year. I then trained to be a phone counsellor and ended up counselling by phone for nine years. I had also been a member of a youth group since my mid-teens and had been “dropped” into leadership roles (e.g. turning up at youth work meetings and being told to get up and speak about the youth group). So I did a lot of youth development work in my late teens and early 20s as well.

Then in 1990, when I was 22, I was accepted onto a two-year Social Work programme which gave me a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work and a Diploma in Applied Social Studies. The programme was known to be quite radical. There were only 40 students per year, half of whom were Maori (the indigenous people of NZ or Tangata Whenua, literally “people of the land”), a quarter Pacific people, and a quarter “other” (known as Pakeha in the Maori language).

It was an immersive bi-cultural programme, deliberately making Maori culture dominant. There were huge conflicts, particularly among the Pakeha group, who felt aggrieved by many processes in which they were not the majority. Being gay and disabled, I was fairly used to not being in the majority, so I was quite comfortable and amused by some of my colleagues’ inability to step outside of the process and learn from the experience of the tables being turned.

During my first year, I did a placement in a government care and protection agency and realised it wasn’t my thing. My second year placement was doing social research on the needs of disabled people for the Auckland Health Board. That turned into a two or three year job. After that I worked for the Human Rights Commission for four years, after which I became self-employed, raising awareness of diversity and doing comedy professionally.

So, I never really got to actually be a social worker! But the Diploma programme gave me a great grounding in radical social theory and direct action. If anything, I was an activist. Running awareness workshops as well as doing comedy, which led me to have a very high profile in New Zealand through television in the 1990s and 2000s, were a great combination of vehicles to create change.

SWH: Would you identify your work as being macro and/or mezzo focused, and what advice would you give other social workers who would like to do the work you are doing?

People have likened me to Nietzsche over the years so, yes, I do work in the macro/mezzo realms, I guess! I think it’s a hard place to feel effective because like any leadership or social change activity, it’s a long game and hard to see any tangible evidence of success. My suggestions for others working in similar spaces? Find like minds and check in regularly. Drink wine. Celebrate any success however small and, every now and then, pretend you’ve had a huge success and celebrate that! Finally, read Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed — the best book on social entrepreneurship and social change ever written.

SWH: Who are some of your biggest influencers in how you filter, provide and give information/advice to others?

Some of my favourite thinkers in the work I do are the authors of Getting to Maybe, Sir Ken Robinson, Brene Brown, Peter Block, Kathryn Schulz, and Adam Kahane. I also love Onora O’Neill’s definition of trust. Another fave is Prof. Brian Cox – he’s a cute, English educational physicist and I’ve used his layperson explanations of entropy and physics to explain diversity and relationship dynamics to school students. Finally, Sue Davidoff and Allan Kaplan, from The Proteus Initiative in South Africa. I’ve worked with them on living social practice twice now and they’ve had a profound influence on the way I work with people about diversity.

SWH: Your Tedx Talk on Labeling was a huge success. What was that experience like and what has life been like after your Tedx Talk?

It was surprisingly intimidating and nerve-wracking. Being a regular viewer of TED Talks, it really felt like I was wheeling into a TED video! Those big red letters and the round red carpet are quite iconic. I had refused to rehearse because as a comedian I would only ever rehearse mentally, so the guys running it (who hadn’t seen me perform) were a bit nervous and told my PA, Wai, who was backstage. Wai said, “Nah. he’ll be fine,” and halfway through they apparently said, “He’s killing.” Wai: “Told you so!”

Probably the most significant thing though was being able to present what I would call my soul work to 2,000 people live, in a funny, entertaining way, and have it videoed and put online under the TED brand so that it’s had over 30,000 views. That’s a great privilege.

Life after TED? Well, I did a conference call with the Diversity Group of IBM in California, which was a bit of a fizzer, and I’ve had a few speaking and facilitation jobs as a result. Not life-changing on the big scale of things, but definitely a highlight

SWH: Are you further developing your work on labeling, and do you have any other projects you are working on or have recently finished?

I recently made a music video about labelling that I’ve used a lot in diversity workshops. Music is a powerful way to simplify topics that can be quite complex, in order to have a conversation about the complexity. I was really lucky to work with an extremely talented musician, Arli Liberman, who put my words to music; and then some friends who run a superb creative agency, Borderless Productions, came up with the concept and produced the video. I’ve also recently finished some work on diversity in the media and co-wrote and published a children’s book.

Right now, I’m in an interesting space of limbo. Apart from running a leadership programme, which I love and is in its fourth year, a lot of my projects have either come to an end or have lost funding (we’re in an election year in NZ so Government funders have become super risk averse, unfortunately). So I’m in a space of seeing where I will be taken next. I’d love to make some more music videos, but they’re quite expensive and hard to get funded, even via crowdsourcing. I funded the first one myself, which meant I had a complete creative license and no accountability — that was extremely liberating!

So what’s next on the bucket list…oh and I started writing a book earlier this year and I am stuck big time. I need to give myself a good talking to and hopefully, I’ll get back into that soon too!

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