Jan Tchamani is the Project Director of The Red Tent (Heart of England), a women’s group in Birmingham.
The Red Tent is for all women, and provides creative and therapeutic events, support, advice and friendship. Jan left behind her career as a senior school teacher and is establishing herself as a journalist, life-coach and events organiser.
Jan wrote an amazing article for an earlier issue of the3rdi magazine in which she explained how she developed her project at the same time as coping with a life-long mental health challenge.
This month she shares with us just how far she has come!
“Wonderful things happen when women get together and begin to dare to believe and to trust, and to dream and to plan.”
I’ve now been an ex-teacher for a year, and you would have thought that English teaching would be well out of my system. But it’s amazing how everything I learnt as an educator has stood me in good stead as I’ve put my whole heart, mind and energy into The Red Tent (Heart of England) over the past year. I guess education is in the blood. As an English teacher, my job was all about helping young people to achieve a higher level of thinking, understanding, knowledge and communication. To fall in love with the power of language to enable people to reach out to each other and to learn a deeper appreciation of everything that’s locked up in the human heart and mind. Not just to write a good enough Shakespeare essay to achieve an A* and a place in Further Education, but to fall in love with the Brummy Bard – his cheekiness, his earthiness, his all-embracing fascination with his fellow human beings, his love for the human spirit that reaches out for greatness, and his sense of the absurdity of our efforts to be great…
I believe in the power of people to learn, and to educate one another, and that’s what my Red Tent group is really about: a kind of cross-fertilisation of knowledge and skills, and of course as we get to know one another better, the building of deep, meaningful, mutually-strengthening relationships. The kind of relationships that foster self-belief and determination.
I also believe that we’re best able to sell and to market a product or service when we believe in what we are doing, and that we’re offering something that people really need – and I mean REALLY NEED, not want, or need to be persuaded they want, or only need because the way the world is organised forces them to need it, against their will. And I’m convinced that society really needs The Red Tent. I hope this article convinces you of that.
The easiest way to write about the progress we – and I – have made is to map out my working life for 3rdi’s readership. I suppose it divides into several clear areas, though of course they tend to overlap. First, there are the actual Red Tent meetings, which take place once a month, usually in the home of one of our members. We occasionally hire a venue, but it doesn’t matter where we go: the red tent is nomadic, and it’s about the women who constitute the membership.
Second, the networking that takes place on a daily basis, either via the website (http://redtentengland.ning. com), via email or phone, or face to face (including the life-coaching and professional writing service I offer). One of my clients is doing a business studies degree, and just needs to improve her public speaking. Another is an accountant from overseas, who wants to learn gesture and body language so she doesn’t come across as too formal, or ‘cold’.
Third, there’s the recruitment of new members. That usually happens because one of us takes the initiative to speak to a woman we meet (bus-stops are good), and infect her with our enthusiasm. And fourthly, the marketing and development aspect – that is to say, when we look outwards and form relationships with potential supporters/funders and people of influence – and that includes the professional writing I do for publications. I write a monthly column for the Birmingham Mail, each month focusing on a different women’s group in my city. It gives me a brilliant excuse to find out what they’re about, and what they’re trying to achieve. And then I can sit down and think about how we can help one another move forward. The leader of the Shakti women’s group (mainly business and professional women) is now a close friend, and we support each other’s aims in practical ways. For example, several of our Red Tent workshops have been led by women I’ve met at Shakti meetings.
The fourth area – help from outside – has taken a great leap forward recently, when I won Level 1 funding from the Millennium Fund last month. Just a small amount of money, but enough to buy some office equipment and a camera (for the Birmingham Women’s Calendar project that’s so close to my heart), pay someone to design a logo for us, and cover my project-related expenses for a few months. It’s hard to get funding. I think the secret of start-up is to keep things simple: just do what you can, not lose sight of the vision, and believe that Life, of which you are part, knows what she’s doing! It’s a dream of mine to be self-employed, but it might not happen, and so I make sure that I don’t overreach myself. The foundations I’m digging have to go down deep if The Red Tent is going to last. And my idea of an enterprise may not be what Life has in mind!
In my previous article, I wrote about our September Red Tent meeting, “Makeovers and More”, at which we sunned ourselves in a member’s garden, had aloe vera facials and a personal styling seminar with Louise Boss, a professional image consultant. We also had a Bring & Share lunch, which is a wonderful way of sampling dishes from all the different backgrounds we come from. Our last meeting, on 21st December, was at the same venue, but the supper we shared was somewhat different: mulled wine, warming soup and the gooiest chocolate cake ever (we needed fat on our bones to get through the cold months – that’s our excuse!). One of our members led a card-making workshop, and it was tremendous fun, sitting around the dining table with our glitter glue and scissors for a happy hour or two. And it didn’t matter that some of the cards we made were a bit amateurish: what we were really there for was the companionship, the laughter and tears, and the sharing of experience and advice. We talk about everything, no holds barred, and it’s very liberating. In the Red Tent, women are real with each other as well as kind and respectful, and it doesn’t matter where we come from, we find our challenges and aspirations, sources of joy and pain, are pretty much exactly the same…
The more we meet, the deeper the friendships are becoming. And the more we find that other women want to join us. You see, we don’t just see each other once a month. In between the meetings, there’s a buzz of activity: women meeting up to do things together, or we’re on the phone to each other for encouragement, or helping each other out. The Red Tent is like a virtual village, hidden within our huge and sprawling city, with paths of friendship running through it, linking us all together. It’s not a 9-5 enterprise: it’s 24/7. I believe that’s the way forward. Climate change is forcing a radical new approach on us, and we need to stop thinking about ‘going to the office’ and be more like the artisan, who lives above the workshop, and is available to the people with whom she/he lives in close proximity. We need to be living from our core: our talents and gifts, our USP, networking within our local communities.
I feel this is all very important, in a way I can’t quite grasp yet with my whole mind. My heart is telling me women are going to need this type of social network. Society is in a state of upheaval, and so is Nature. Birmingham itself was once a patchwork of little villages, until the City Fathers (James Watt, James Brindley, Matthew Boulton, the Chamberlain family and so on) decided to band together to put us on the map. We’ve done well, I suppose. Survived all kinds of challenges. Reinvented ourselves as the ‘European shopping capital’ when we lost our manufacturing base. Birmingham has some quite beautiful spots: the canal network and its stunning buildings, smart restaurants, Sea Life Centre, National Indoor Arena etc., the Bull Ring Shopping Centre with its eye-catching Selfridge’s building – I feel proud when I show people round, even though I know that some of the suburbs are pretty desolate places badly in need of investment and smartening up. But with the recession, shopping may have lost its appeal for many people. And we will have to think again.
That’s why I believe that the time of the City Mothers is coming, and that The Red Tent, and the other women’s groups I’m working hard to build relationships with, will come together to do what’s needed. It just needs a vision equal to, or greater than, that of the City Fathers 150 years ago. And it will be about business, education, infrastructure, sustainability, interdependence and local sourcing, and all the other subjects they thought of, but it will be a vision driven by the desire for a closer relationship with Mother Nature – for whom at last the human race is regaining its respect – and with one another. When the City Fathers began to meet, they thought principally of Birmingham taking its place in a world which was getting bigger – a global market; when the City Mothers meet, it will be in the face of a world that seems very small. Everything I do affects everyone else on the planet. When the ice shelves fall and the waters rise, I’ll find myself treading water alongside my neighbours in the Americas, Asia, Africa…
Our next Red Tent meeting, as I write, is due to take place on 23rd January 2010, at a local restaurant. This time I’ve invited women from other groups I’ve made contact with over the past year: Shakti, WAITS, the Irish women’s group, Somali, Chinese and Swedish women who live in my city. The thrust of the meeting is to plan for this year, and to plan BIG. One of our speakers is Leon Jackson, a Resettlement Development worker with St. Basil’s, who work with the homeless. Leon wants to work with me to set up a Red Tent group for young, resettled, formerly homeless women. He’s recruiting right now. We’re offering careers advice, self-esteem building, creative and therapeutic activities, trips out into the countryside, anything these young, vulnerable women need to brighten their lives and make them feel more secure as they look to the future. And to restore their faith. Despair is a deadly disease.
Wonderful things happen when women get together and begin to dare to believe and to trust, and to dream and to plan. I believe it’s going to be a critical year, not just for The Red Tent (Heart of England) but for society in general. I believe in women, and I believe in women in leadership. We’re well-equipped – and I don’t mean with mobile phones, cars and IT skills! What I mean is that we’re so aware that in life there are no guarantees, and that first and foremost a person has to be realistic, adaptable, not prone to nursing disappointments and grievances, and to be able to think on their feet. We understand that leadership isn’t about status, but about wisdom, love, courage, perseverance, resilience, creativity – the old virtues we long to see in those who are out in front, exhorting us to keep on going.
To all women out there who are still daring to dream, and to reach out to people around them, and who bow to the wisdom of Life, I wish you a very, very happy and successful New Year. And if anything I’ve written has inspired you, please visit The Red Tent website, set up a page for yourself, and join our online community. Unless of course you live within the Birmingham area, in which case, come and join us in person. There’s a warm welcome inside the red tent. Come on a good day, come on a bad day: “All you have to be is a woman”…