Leonard Tesner’s life has not been easy. At 23 he’s just started his History degree at Goldsmiths, but just over a year ago he was homeless and living in a hostel. He has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and adult ADHD. It was at the hostel that he first heard about Open Book, a project based in south east London, which encourages people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter undergraduate degree courses. Now, he is on track to realizing his dream of graduating and is one of the most vocal and engaged members of the project’s weekly art history class.
Each Friday afternoon, Leonard and a small group of other students, meet with Fiona Taylor, Open Book’s project co-ordinator and an art history graduate. The lecture room has views across the Goldsmiths campus and tables are arranged in a welcoming U-shape. It’s here where they discuss everything from Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man to the photoshopping that routinely occurs in the advertising and magazine industry.
The Open Book project, which was launched as a small drop-in centre at Goldsmiths University 10 years ago, enables people from socially excluded groups to gain degrees at Goldsmiths as well as other institutions, by offering a supportive and encouraging environment.
In November last year the project was given the seal of approval by the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, whose longstanding interest in the rehabilitation of offenders saw him give a talk to Open Book students and staff in the Deptford Town Hall.
The art history classes are a new addition to the program, with philosophy, creative writing, long essay writing, practical art classes and physical theatre also offered. Leonard said: “I’m studying history, so it’s broadening my knowledge as a whole. But I try to go to as many classes as I can. The most important one is creative writing – it has a really therapeutic element.”
Students attending Open Book’s classes range from ex-offenders to those with a history of drug and alcohol addiction, childhood abuse and mental health issues. Some, like Jennifer McGregor, 52 from Deptford, come for the companionship. Jennifer said: “I’ve met beautiful people here with compassion. It makes life worth living.”
Sue Hallissey runs Open Book’s creative writing class. She says the majority of students come to Open Book through alcohol support groups, job centres, prison talks (a team of volunteers recently visited Holloway Prison) or word-of-mouth in the South East London community. She said: “We think about the people that aren’t being represented in the university population and appeal to them.”
Attendance is non-compulsory but classes are structured (each lasts two hours). It’s this routine combined with flexibility that ensures the program’s success. Hallissey said: “One of our students is a carer and sometimes won’t be able to attend because she has to look after her parents.” And if students with prior commitments can only arrive for the last five minutes of a class they will still be welcomed.
Crucially, Open Book is not just about the practical side of learning. Emotional support is the backbone of the project. Hallissey said: “Classes usually merge into cups of tea and conversation. If there’s one thing we like to do, it’s talk about ourselves!”
These impromptu chats often occur after class, when the group meets at the Student Union café on Goldsmiths campus. Amidst the chatter of other students, James Carney, 48, who lives in South London says he found the Open Book project through a talk given at an alcohol support group and graduated with a history degree from Goldmiths in 2009. Now he is a dyslexia tutor and helps students work on extended research projects which teach crucial essay writing skills and act as a stepping stone to a degree. Carney said: “At school I was told I was stupid. Now I have a history degree. The help from Open Book has been invaluable.”
Taylor agrees: “There is no language about being stupid here. Rather we think about creative ways to achieve something.” Many of the students experience problems with short-term memory (a result of substance abuse or the side-effects of medication). The encouraging community environment acts as a crucial support system for them. Taylor said: “We identify with each other, remove the stigma of shame. It’s no wonder people can’t learn when their brains are preoccupied. We help to free up their headspace. We aim to tell the truth to each other as well as succeed academically.”
Leonard is leaving the art class early to give a talk in Brixton. “Everyone leaving early this week has had a really good excuse,” says Taylor. On his way out he says the project is helping him achieve his dreams: “I’ve wanted that cap and gown. Open Book has been the dream factory, it’s changed my life.”
“I no longer think of the people who come to Open Book as being at a disadvantage,” says Taylor. “Now I think we’re so lucky because we’ve found a space to be honest about who we are.”