Collaborative learning at the Fire Starter Festival 2018

Guest blog from Cat Tabbner, Glasgow Centre for Population Health. This blog was originally published on

Cat Tabbner reflects on the launch of Fire Starter Festival 2018 and how it has set her up for the year ahead.

It all started with music. As I was handed a pair of headphones, a memory came into my head. A blast from the past that I had mostly forgotten. The last time I had headphones on in public was in a silent disco tent at a music festival. Memories of my younger self (more distant than I wish) dancing to the music in my own private soundscape came flooding back. Rather fitting given that 2018 is Scotland’s Year of Young People.

This was not how I expected my Monday morning to kick off. Especially not at a ‘work’ event. But that is one of the great things about the Fire Starter Festival – it opens you up to new possibilities. Colleagues across the country are sharing their discoveries and taking a leap of faith to explore them with you, right there and then.

That memory of my younger self stayed with me for the rest of the event, as I listened to the speakers tell me their experiences of transforming themselves and others to create a better and fairer Scotland. The headphones gave me back that spirit of exploration, of pushing boundaries – I like to think I still have this spirit, but there’s something about being young (at least for me anyway) that made that fire burn, well, brighter. Over the years I’ve learned how to stoke my inner fires, but every now again it’s good to be reminded how bright we can be.

And you know what? With a pair of headphones on and with the permission to walk freely around Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, our home for the morning, I listened more intently than I ever have. And I’m a good listener. I felt like I was walking through the exhibits with the speakers by my side.

Every speaker inspired me, and their stories will be added to my community engagement toolbox for the year – to be shared with researchers, communities and boardrooms across Glasgow. These stories are signs of hope and proof of possibilities! Memorable tips were Katie Slavin (Shining Stars Theatre School) telling me to “always, always stay humble” when working with (young) people or Fiona Duncan (The Corra Foundation and Chair of the Care Review) replacing “hard to reach” with the insight that “it’s the reachers who aren’t trying hard enough”. Liam Murray’s (MCR Pathways) story of becoming a Graduate Surveyor and Kate Polson’s (Rock Trust) goal to end youth homelessness in Scotland in ten years got me thinking on how my community engagement role can contribute to more ambitions like these from voices we really need to hear. That was the power of headphones – I really felt like the speakers were to talking to me, encouraging me to take action.

Headphones and papers at the Firestarter festival

It’s with this spirit of youth, exploration, boundary pushing and ambitions that I have been approaching the rest of the festival. And I’m listening more too. At ‘Unleashing courageous leadership at every age’ this week I particularly took Rachael McCully’s (Communic18 and Year of Young Person representative) tip away with me: “if you help a young person to be courageous, you’ll learn more from them than the other way round”. There was also the chance to try the fishbowl facilitation technique, but that’s another blog!

I’m already wondering what my next Fire Starter event (‘Facilitative leadership’) will bring. And I have already started a few work ‘fires’. 2018, here I come…

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