Monday, 10 September 2012

Social Fusion, at all ages, is irreplaceable

What would you think if you met a 16-year-old who said they wanted to get good at robbery like their brother? Would you judge them? Would you cross the road and continue listening to your iPod? Or, would you think about what type of life they may have had so far?

This summer, I have been working at the Challenge - a facilitator of the Government funded, National Citizen Service. It has been described by the Government as a ‘non military national service’, and this year 30,000 16-17 year olds took part across the country.

The idea is that young people come together from different social backgrounds, mix, increase their leadership skills, engage in their communities and ultimately encourage social action.

The programme works on the grounds that the more exposure youths have to people with different backgrounds, the more open-minded people should be.

After all, the ability to be tolerant only really comes with education and exposure so the luxury of meeting different kinds of people is vital.

In my group there was an array of young people from various ethnicities including a girl who had just got straight A* GCSE grades and attends a private school and a guy who had spent time in a young offenders institution for robbery.

“When I first met you I thought you would be too different, from a different postcode to me”, said one boy to another."I thought you would be stuck up but you're actually really nice", said someone else to a well spoken girl.

What do you think of rich people? Snobs, vulnerable and white were some of the answers I got in one evening session I did.

During the couple of months, I learnt some urban lingo so I could understand the chat.

South London urban lingo… (Perhaps politicians could adopt to get some street cred!?) Here are a few new words I have acquired:

Rushed – beaten up
Dope – great
Bare – lots of
Sic - great
Heavy – good
Calm – good
Gassed- Showing off
Screwed – stared at
YOLO - you only live once (Apparently everyone uses this but I had never heard it)

Some of the stories I heard about their schools were incomparable to my own tweed jacket experience, including a scheduled gambling session when kids were meant to be in class, girls learning how to climb walls so they wouldn’t get ‘rushed’ by a gang……stepping into the wrong postcode…. One girl who got much better GCSE results than I got hadn't told her mum yet as she "hadn't asked".

How it works..

First there is an outward bound type week when twelve 16 year olds who do not know each other but are from roughly the same area take part in some challenging activities.

This is followed by the Team Challenge, which is a community based week. We went to a home with people with learning disabilities and the group coached them football, this was actually quite emotional seeing people who the Daily Mail would just pass off as ‘HOODIES’ teaching a group of disabled people and mixing so well as a group.

The third week is the Real Challenge ending up with the group pitching a community action campaign plan in front of various dragons (business people, councillors etc).

And throughout September we are doing our social action days which include dressing up as hoodies and helping people with their shopping to try and stop unfair stereotypes and a campaign raising awareness about domestic abuse.

Does it work?

Ultimately, the young people have to want to do it. One rewarding comment came from a boy who was a ‘hard looking’ hoodie stereotype, a too cool for school guy who appeared to be completely disinterested in taking a leadership role confessed on the last day that the thought of standing up and talking to an audience terrified him. He was pushed, he did it and he said ‘ It wasn’t so bad was it..’.

Another boy who had in his own words ‘almost killed someone’, I think a knife was involved, had been to youth prison, and wanted to know if he could do the programme again.

It is costly, but a good Government investment nonetheless? Will a stint of inspiration, social mixing and confidence building at a pivotal life age translate into a stronger and more cohesive society?

I guess it does seem controversial seeing as so many year round youth projects are being forced to close down because of the austerity cuts.

Only time will tell. I certainly got a lot out of it. Maybe all tweed jacket schoolies should do the same.