With the aid of games, conversations, sensory environments and practical skills, Mark Blake is bringing the community together to build a better world for neurodivergent people.
“There’s got to be more to life than where we’re headed,” says Mark Blake about why he co-founded Joyfully Different in Brighton with funding from The Challenge and Change Fund.
“If we truly lived in a world where everyone was empowered, and we helped develop each other, our relationships would be that much better for it.”
Mark explains that too many neurodivergent people grow up without a community. Combining his love of games with his desire to build a community space in Brighton, where he lives and studies, Mark initially founded an online and offline space for neurodivergent people called the Connection Hub in which games played a central role.
“I want games to be a regular part of my life, including access to video games, and I always pick the change-making route so I thought, hey, I better organise that.”
With ongoing support from The Blagrave Trust, The Connection Hub went through an iterative process, starting with the aim of bringing people together around games and transforming into a programme of events featuring expert speakers, with games still playing a crucial role as a community bonding tool.
“Blagrave really took it well: me constantly adapting the project,” says Mark, who has put some of the funding awarded by Challenge and Change towards podcasting equipment and software as well as coaching from a strategy coach who provides ‘business therapy’ and a neurodiverse coach who understands the social model of disability.
Increasingly, the social and radical models of disability are being utilised to better dismantle societal barriers that prevent disabled and neurodivergent people from being excluded or restricted. The social model describes people as being disabled by barriers in society, not by an impairment or difference. The radical model views the structure of disablement as a political construct.
“You need a balance of pursuit of meaning and staying in the present.”
“The Connection Hub was initially built with friends,” explains Mark. “But the more I was with them, the more I noticed the traumas of everyone including myself flare up. The whole team was powerful and we were all trauma survivors in different areas of our lives, but in that respect, that was the risk: the fact that everyone was looking to me to be responsible as I was leading them. I was not willing or not actually ready to deal with that at the time. I started to break rank and was barely hanging on when the first launch happened and it failing pushed me over the edge.”
The initial launch of The Connection Hub was not as successful as Mark had hoped and, after organising several failed events, his mental health deteriorated.
“I drove away my entire first team and I decided to just keep going,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to take on any pain and relive the trauma that I’ve been through dealing with terrible systems. My mum actually saved me and there were a few people that helped save my life. My mum told me I finally had no excuse to live for anyone but myself and Blagrave’s Youth Led Change Programme Lead, Rochell, also helped me by reassuring me that Blagrave gave me funding to try stuff and it should be fun. She said it was okay if I failed as long as I learned something that gave me the foundation to seek out more support. One of the conversations that we had gave me hope that I would bounce back. I took that to heart and I’ve tried a lot of big things. They’re the most understanding Fund I’ve encountered so far and the most understanding organisation as well. Blagrave is the best I’ve seen.
So when I sought out the business therapy, it helped me find my voice and unpack so many things about impact, what world and life and industry do I want to build. I thought about holistic and foundational knowledge and how we seek out mental health support. After all that, I knew what kind of an organisation and enterprise I want to build, what kind of an impact I want to make, and what kind of myself I want to create within that. I finally felt ready to try again with another partnership and another team.”
During this period, Mark visited Italy through an Erasmus+ exchange, where a lively debate between Mark and another participant ensued; a debate that altered Mark’s perspective about how he could find peace through his work.
“He said to me that people are afraid to pursue the real things that are meaningful because of the amount of work that takes and pain you have to go through. But if you do pursue it, you end up more fulfilled than most because you’re at peace with yourself. He was right, and it hit me that I wasn’t fulfilled with the project I was pursuing.”
Back at home, Mark reflected on this conversation over several months. It prompted him to think about whether or not he could configure an organisational structure that utilised the expertise of leaders with lived experience without retraumatizing them. To this end, he made the difficult decision to separate from the group with whom he had developed The Connection Hub, and he started anew.
“You need a balance of pursuit of meaning and staying in the present,” he explains. “Entrepreneurship and social change work is a window into your soul. Your true self will be revealed one way or another. I have had to shed everything that doesn’t work for me, my relationships and my masking habits. It brought to the forefront the trauma I had that I now know I had suppressed so I had to deal with that. When I was focused too much on the meaning of things, that’s when it got too serious. When I was focusing too much on games, it was too much escapism. So the key is in the middle because one can develop the quality of time spent on the other.”
Over time, the process led to Mark questioning what he needed in his mental health recovery, which led to a sense of inner peace and joy and an understanding of what he wanted for his life.
“When you take the risk to get into changemaking work sometimes you need to be selfish and take care of yourself and make sure your work and the impact you are making actually add to your life because if it doesn’t add to your life it can destroy it because of everything you can see along the way and the weight of it on your soul.
Fortunately, I was introduced to my current business partner, Alice, through my university because someone in the entrepreneurial team thought we could work well together. Alice had just left her company on good terms and was also starting anew. I thought it was a good moment to get a very experienced business partner to help me build my social enterprise. We arranged what she thought was a casual business lunch and I came to the lunch with my laptop and the entire business strategy that I had developed a couple of months prior: it was a 20 page pitch deck! Alice listened and she absolutely loved my idea and asked how she could help. I asked her right there to team up with me and she said yes.”
Mark had also learned on the job the leadership skills necessary to grow a community, which he describes as a trial by fire.
“When I was running the first Connection Hub team, I chose to mask my overwhelming anxiety with arrogance. I touted my experience with previous projects to justify it. I never properly delegated. I didn’t create a climate where anyone’s needs were supported including my own and that was such a profound sense of guilt, sadness and straight up tears which gave me a wake up call I needed to finally free myself of toxic patterns. Going through that taught me so many lessons but there was one that was most important. One’s compatibility is so important in any thing but especially in change making work and, because I never knew myself, I never could establish it with my first team, even though they were lovely people. But when I was finally able to be with my next business partner, Alice, it healed my soul.
Because we’d had experiences with our previous professional relationships and partnerships, we wanted to take our time with building our enterprise and make sure all the details were worked out. We had months of talks including about common values and who is responsible for what before we incorporated Joyfully Different officially on the 29th of May, 2023. We continued to have long and detailed discussions about how it would work, testing our compatibility and she was really upfront and altered my business plan in a way that I really respected. One thing I never thought would happen is meeting someone who has a completely different background, life experience, skills sets, even gender and who is, on a personality level, completely like me. So the transition was fairly seamless.”
“Everyone benefits from neurodiverse accessibility because it allows everyone to work in the way that fits them.”
Over 15% of people in the UK are neurodivergent and it is widely believed that a substantial number of neurodivergent people are undiagnosed, including business leaders who are, largely, working with limited access to community support and connections.
“Our mission now is to make business joyful for neurodivergent founders. Everyone benefits from neurodiverse accessibility because it allows everyone to work in the way that fits them. One very stark reality is that two thirds of neurodiverse people across the board are not diagnosed and that’s especially bad when it comes to autistic people and it’s especially bad when it comes to autistic women. I want the community to be a community of friends, a second family that helps each other grow and develop.
We have a very unique challenge because when anything new pops up for neurodiverse people, we have a justified level of cynicism around it. Most things don’t work because they’re rooted in the medical model. So we used the summer ‘deadzone’ period as a trial period to get our name out there and rolled out a programme of events building up a foundational member base, and we’re now transitioning into getting paid members and paid events so that our social enterprise is self funded and can grow our financial stability.”
Joyfully Different has organised several hugely successful events through which Mark can already see an impact on the community as well as the positive difference that his fresh start with co-founder Alice has made on him and the quality of his events.
“I’ve noticed the impact in my community of giving people permission to be their authentic selves, not what they pretend is authentic,” says Mark. “When I’ve hired speakers, they’ve turned into great friends and community members as well. One of our members, Roxy, spoke at the Sussex Business show recently and she opened her talk by saying ‘I’m autistic’, which, a year before, she could not have done. She didn’t have the confidence in herself and in her talk she was making the point about the impact of community and she had a slideshow of photos of everyone who had helped her to showcase the power of community and I was in that as well. My heart melted and I see these things happen time and time again across the events, the roundtables, business workshops: they’re all powerful because they give people permission to be authentic and embrace themselves.
I decided to share my journey with the community on social media and events like roundtables and I’ve seen what that achieved. People who come to our events and spaces feel emotionally free and that they can be really vulnerable and connect with us from that place. I let people know it’s okay to be vulnerable and hurt sometimes and I now think all social impact should be from that kind of place whenever possible, because the world is in a perpetual cycle of broken heartedness. We need to heal that and I think it starts with being vulnerable. In community psychology there is a conceptual centre of community in which everything revolves around love and vulnerability and that creates a much safer community.
This experience was the experience that changed my life and me as a person and from this I would like to share a few things that I think help achieve true joy. One, that even though it can be beyond painful to accept this and actually do this, your mistakes do not define you and you can always come back from even your worst mistakes and you can receive love while doing so. I also want to share with you that true joy and fulfilment can come from leading a place of authenticity, vulnerability and strength because leading from things can help you connect deeper with the community you serve.
As much as I am doing it for others, especially for my friends, I’m also doing it for myself. I need to know there’s more to life than this and that’s why I’m doing it. That’s why I’m still here. I won’t stop.”
Visit the Joyfully Different website to find out more.
The Challenge and Change Fund is designed by young changemakers for young changemakers. It funds young people directly, supporting them to create the change they want to see. It prioritises young people who are emergent and have lived experience of the injustices they are trying to change, supporting youth led collectives, social enterprises and CICs across England. You can read more about Challenge and Change here.