davidBy David Ward (2014 Byron Fellow)

As I sat on the plane flying over the east coast of America on my way back to England in the Summer of 2014, I was on a high. I had just spent a week at the Byron Fellowship, where I met inspirational people from all over the world and shared life-changing experiences. I felt like I was surfing the “Byron wave”. The world was my oyster and nothing could stand in my way.

In the months that followed, I found myself returning to my old way of life. Yes, I was a changed person on the inside, but my environment was still the same. I found myself needing to make a real effort to utilise my Byron experience and not allow it to pass away into a file of happy yet distant memories.

Maybe, I was slightly awe-struck by the paths that the other Byron fellows were taking in life compared to my own humble situations. Was I meant to be a leader, someone who could make a big difference, or was I just an insignificant person from England, who had somehow managed to blag their way onto a fellowship program with some amazing people? This was a question that I found myself asking again and again, and I realised that the answers were mine to determine.

I am blessed to be involved in a number of different communities in Manchester, England; communities involving local elderly residents, homeless people, people with learning-disabilities and the student community. These are communities that I am privileged to be involved with and – to some extent – have leadership roles within. Would I return from Byron as the stereotype of what I think of as a world leader – of course I wouldn’t. However, there are many communities in which I could make a difference here and now!

For so long, I had let small injustices pass by without comment in my community of student volunteering. Staff members got away with things at the cost of more vulnerable people – those who were homeless or had learning-disabilities – who were unable to speak up for themselves. Meanwhile, other victims were students – who were either blissfully unaware of the injustices they were being subjected to, or were not willing to confront staff members. Student volunteers were understandably concerned with the undoubted detrimental outcome on their studies that would accompany questioning the status quo. In each case, I felt called to take a stand and to insure that the much-needed process of change was brought to the attention of those in positions of authority.

As I embarked on a journey to challenge such injustices, I was totally unaware of the hurdles that would be put in my place and the people that would become part of the journey towards defining who I was.

As I had found at Byron, being faced with challenges to the way that you do things can be difficult to take. In the less receptive world that we live in, this proved to be magnified many times. I found myself applying many different approaches I learned at Byron to draw attention to what was occurring and to create change. The greatest Byron gift was the network of like-minded fellows and numerous mentors all over the globe, who I called upon for advice and support. My willingness to express vulnerability to such people allowed them to support me through the challenges ahead.

Over time, I found myself spending more time in dialogue with the hierarchy at the university and less time doing the hands-on outreach work that I felt was my calling in life. Yet, while this would previously have caused me great emotional turmoil, I could now see myself actively creating the role that was in the greatest service of creating the change I want in the world. Taking on this role inadvertently opened the door for a conversation that I had promised I would have with my father upon returning home from Byron.

For the past 7 years, I had been balancing a career in academia with one in social justice and outreach. The latter had been pursued in my spare time, with the former seen by others as my main career pathway and future income in life. The career academic pathway was one that my father had his heart set on for me. He had always seen my intellectual talents, and had seen me as being easily “pushed about” by others to do what they wanted.

Things took a marked change when I became the victim of a personal attack on my character, when those I had been challenging over injustices decided to launch a safeguarding investigation against myself relating to the protection of vulnerable adults. Although I knew that the allegations were entirely unfounded, the ramifications of the existence of such an investigation were profound. I had to remove myself immediately from all the social action groups I was involved with to protect these groups and had to isolate myself from many of my friends in these organisations (for their protection). My life was crashing down around me, and I was struggling to keep going.

I was faced with two options; either step away from the work I was most called for, drop my concerns about injustices, focus my attention toward my career in mathematics – and the chances are that the attack on myself would end – or keep fighting for what I believed in and trust that the personal attack would be seen for what it truly was. As I took the latter path, I found people coming to my defence and suddenly the Byron spirit that had lay dormant within me returned.

Suddenly, my father saw a different side to me, and saw the qualities in me that had often been hidden. Moreover, he saw similar qualities in the manager of one of the charities I volunteered with, who steadfastly stood beside me throughout my troubles. The door was open for a number of genuine conversations with my father, and the new-found respect that he had for my manager would be invaluable. The conversations that followed re-affirmed our relationship as they allowed us to see in each other the qualities that we had previously respected quietly, but never truly vocalised. We also had the opportunity to discuss our concerns for each other’s views of my future. By the end of our conversations, we learned to accept and respect each other’s viewpoints and I felt that I finally had my father’s blessing on my chosen career plan – a vocation of community living with learning-disabled adults.

As my journey continued and I left full-time academia to pursue my vocation, I have been faced with many more challenges, and will continue to be faced with them. Where is my role in such a community? How can I best contribute? Which areas am I being called to lead in, and does this leadership need to be conventional worldly leadership, or a role of servant leadership to which I find it easier to assimilate? These are all questions that have long and complicated answers, and answers that will evolve as my journey in life progresses. However, the guiding hand of Byron, and the family of fellows with whom I am blessed to be part of makes the quest for answers to such questions an easier and more enjoyable task to embark on, and for that I am eternally grateful.