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Joe Baden & Open Book

December 17, 2015
by Dick Hobbs

Today it is my pleasure to introduce the fourth of five stories by the distinguished Criminologist Professor Dick Hobbs, Author of Lush Life, Constructing Organised Crime in the UK

Joe Baden

Growing up in Bermondsey, Joe’s childhood ambition was to be an armed robber. Even a stint as one of the ‘working class aristocracy’ in the print trade never deterred him from dreams of banditry.

Eventually, Joe found himself on remand in Belmarsh Prison charged with armed robbery and violent affray. Fortunately for Joe, the armed robbery charges were dropped because a witness could not pick him out at an identity parade, so he was given a two-year community service order for violent affray and possession of a firearm. Alongside Joe’s history with drugs and mental health problems, you might consider these unusual qualifications to find in the Director of the country’s most innovative higher education scheme, but these are the experiences that Joe Baden brings to Goldsmiths’ Open Book project.

Although Joe “thought education was for people from another world,” he agreed to join a basic skills programme in order to placate his probation officer and discovered, to his surprise, that academic work could be enjoyable. This was followed by an access course at Greenwich University and in 1998 he graduated with a BA in History from Goldsmiths College.

Joe worked as a tutor for the probation service and then on a number of projects aimed at encouraging ex-offenders to get into education, before Goldsmiths’Open Book projectwas launched in 2002 with the aim of helping ex-offenders and those with addiction and mental health problems to get into education. The project provides both practical and emotional support, offering mentoring, drop-in and study sessions, and an outreach programme that includes visits to prisons, hospitals and residential units. Open Book has helped more than two hundred students to find places on undergraduate courses and has five hundred people on its books, with students studying a range of degree subjects from foundation to postgraduate level.

Azra is about to commence his degree course in Anthropology, and is excited at the prospect of being a student, a status that stands in remarkable contrast to the chaos of his last twenty years – “Drugs, homelessness, prison, lots of crime, lots of drugs. In prison a drugs rehab course opened up my eyes where things were going wrong. Next stop – fix my life. I knew I needed education and Open Book was introduced by another prisoner. He gave me a brochure and said ‘check this out.’ I came here with no background in college or school. I got lots of help in coming to terms with who I am. They made me believe. I am positive what I can achieve. Joe is an inspiration.”

However, not everybody shared the belief that Joe Baden was an inspiration from the start, indeed Neil Bradley, a clerk at Goldsmiths College thought he was,“a spiv, too good to be true, selling me a timeshare. Joe knew that I wrote for The Lion Roars (Millwall fanzine), and he asked me to teach a two hour session on creative writing. I didn’t fancy it. I had always wanted to be a writer but from my background you were just told to get a proper job. I came from a Trade Union background, old school socialist. I thought that criminals should be locked up, and that drug addicts got what they deserved. But he went on about it and I gave it a go. They were a really nice group of people, and within three to four weeks I had bought into it totally.”

With Joe’s support, and despite the fact that he did not have an undergraduate degree, Neil registered for a part-time Masters, and on completing his MA degree took up a full-time post as an Open Book tutor. Last year he published his first book entitled Four Funerals and a Wedding. “Joe is the most generous person I have ever met.” Neil confided to me,

When Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I visited Goldsmiths College, the other Open Book tutors we met were Fiona Taylor, James Carney and Sue Hallisey. Fiona, from the Pepys Estate in Deptford worked alongside Joe from the beginning of the project. While struggling with her course at Goldsmiths, she was told about someone running a scheme at the college who “speaks just like you.” That was Joe, and Fiona has been Open Book mainstay ever since – and along the way, she has gained a Masters degree in Art History.

James arrived at Open Book through an addiction project. Now a History graduate, he is a trained Dyslexia Specialist and works for the project as a Dyslexia Development Worker. Inspired by their personal experiences and their immersion in the often-unruly lives of their students, the Open Book team are united by a powerful shared belief in the transformative power of education

Marguerita, a vital Liverpuddlian woman, is equally enthusiastic, “My life was carnage, total chaos. Seven kids, ten years in temporary accommodation, drink, drugs. Most of us at Open Book are working class people from bad spaces, but here everybody is a mentor, everybody is like your brother and sister.” Marguerita is shortly to fulfil her ambition to be an actor, in Gimme Shelter at the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham. The play is produced by Open Stage which was established in 2008 to further Open Book’s ethos of introducing Arts to its members. This aspect of their work is typified by the experience of Sue Hallissey who, before coming to Open Book, told me she “had a good drinking career, I felt at home with the chaos. I had never been to an art gallery or ever felt that I had an opinion.” But Open Book is about encouraging confidence in people who feel excluded from the mainstream and so, with the encouragement of tutors and fellow students alike, Sue has become an Open Book tutor, a qualified teacher, and a playwright with a successful production under her belt.

Open Book manifests an approach to working class education that has been bypassed by the market-led academic production lines for whom the notion of widening participation can be little more than a badge of convenience. Joe and his team studiously avoid patronising the often-vulnerable individuals who come to them. “We don’t make excuses for people or try to forgive people. No one has the right to forgive me or to say they are ’empowering’ me. People can only empower themselves,” he admitted.

Remarkably, after years of struggle, the prospects of future funding look good. Open Book has opened a branch in Chatham and plans to extend the reach of the project through ambitious collaborations with a wide range of academic partners and community organisations. “We’re not trying to reform people or turn them into middle-class clones. The strength of the Open Book project is that we all share similar experiences,” says Joe.

Empathy, expertise and the determination to instil confidence into people who can render the cliché of “non-traditional student” as an understatement are what Open Book is about. For instance, one student telephoned Joe in the middle of the night recently after a serious shooting incident at her home, yet her concern was not the horrendous violence that had been inflicted on her family, but rather the prospect that the shooting and its aftermath might result in late submission of her essay.

Fiona Taylor, Open Book Tutor

Azra, Open Book Student

Sue Hallisey, Open Book Tutor

Neil Bradley, Open Book Tutor

Marguerita, Open Book Student

James Carney, Open Book Tutor

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

OPEN BOOK, Goldsmiths College, University of London, New Cross, SE14 6NW

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. marina Bang permalink
    December 17, 2015

    Joe and all the tutors and students, you are an inspiration!

  2. Annie G permalink
    December 17, 2015

    This is very heartening. When I win the Lottery, I will give them a big wodge of cash so they can carry on offering people hope through the open hand of education.

  3. Michele Grant permalink
    December 17, 2015

    Hi – I work with the Open Book Project. Neil will be too modest to ask but it would be brilliant if you could add a link to his book which is available from Amazon


  4. Annie S permalink
    December 17, 2015

    This series is so heart warming and inspirational and gives an insight into how easy it is to slip into a lifestyle of crime through lack of confidence and knowledge in how to achieve anything else.

    So impressed with what they’ve done with their lives!

  5. Ros permalink
    December 17, 2015

    fine piece and fine photos. So much good stuff going on if you look for it.

  6. December 18, 2015

    Fantastic work. Education in the true sense. So glad Open Book has secured funding in these target driven, more for less days.

  7. Michael Hrebeniak permalink
    February 17, 2016

    How life-affirming! Long live Open Book! May its energy & integrity swarm across the buggered marketised sewer of this nation’s education system & may its humane practices proliferate!

  8. Ursula Blythe permalink
    May 16, 2018

    A great article explaining the background of the project and the key players. I didn’t realise that Joe had done a stint in the print trade, which was a staple employer at one stage in working class history.

    The transformative nature of education still grows and expands at Open Book, inclusive of extended project qualifications, prison education projects, artistic events, and positive media coverage.

    Keep the funding coming…

  9. Norma permalink
    July 9, 2018

    Hi Jo Baden
    I am currently making enquiries about open book and
    would value your response
    Regarding a couple of young people requiring support
    I work for a Fostercare Agency and have had your support in the past in my last job role and would again like to form links


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