12/08/2018 - Published by

Making Space to Tackle the Violence of Exclusion

Today is International Youth Day, an annual event celebrating the important role young people play in creating positive, sustainable change and peace. It is also an opportunity to highlight challenges faced by youth in today’s expanding world and promote the inclusion of young people in finding sustainable solutions to these issues.

The United Nations reports that there are currently 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 to 24 in the world, which is the largest ever youth population. A report commissioned by the UN and launched earlier this year: The Missing Peace: Giving Young People a Greater Voice, Peace and Security reflected that 1 in 10 of these young people are cited to live in conflict zones with 24 million are out of school. Of these, a staggering quarter of these young people are exposed to violence on a regular basis. The needs of these young people are diverse and continuously affected by challenges posed by increased political instability, deficits in the labour market and limited opportunity to engage and access political and civic spaces. These are major structural and societal challenges and inequalities that uphold this status quo.

Young people, in many areas of the world, are defined in terms of their problems and perceived to be in some way lacking the necessary skills, qualities and information to contribute fully to society – what some refer to as a deficit-based approach and perspective. What is certain is that this perception prevents young people developing and removes their agency. This means that young people can be exposed and vulnerable and open to abuse.

Agency: [count noun] A thing or person that acts to produce a particular result.

Young people are disproportionally affected by conflict and violence, and because of the perception that they are vulnerable, a problem, and not ready to contribute to society, they are often left out of the discussions, processes and decision making that concerns them. An insight from the UN report that really resonated was that it is the violence of exclusion that is the greatest challenge young people face. In other words, it is howwe involve young people, and in a sustainable way- that will really effect the changes so desperately needed. The report reflects on the fact that young people reject patronages that are corrupt or that they perceive as such. This means that they are not easily won over by political parties who make pledges time and again that fail to truly live up to their promises. 2017 saw the word ‘youthquake’ reach the UK’s Oxford dictionary for a reason. A significant addition recognising the impact the often-maligned millennial generation can have in effecting political change. Young people can be the solution – they just need to be included in processes and decision making in a meaningful way.

The work of the Foundation recognises this, and we know that young people can play a vital role in contributing to peace and positive change in their communities. As stated by the UN – the world’s youth population is the largest ever recorded; there is therefore an opportunity to mobilise this population to participate as engaged citizens of the world.

Young people have a powerful influence, not least in terms of their numbers, but with their peers, and are able to mobilise, rationalise and participate in finding solutions to some of the biggest modern-day challenges. Take for example the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in the US. After a shooting that killed 17 of their peers at their school in February of this year, they mobilised a movement for gun-control reform. Frustrated by the view that adults, elected as representatives of their communities, were not doing enough to prevent and seek reform for unregulated access to automatic firearms–they mobilised a force that took to the streets and screens of the world to call for change. The strength and power of their campaign was felt the world over as images of the testimonies of these eloquent and impassioned young people reached deep into people’s consciousness. Another powerful example of how young people have incredible potential to influence and participate in discourses that they are often kept out of.

The theme for this year’s UN led International Youth Day is Safe Spaces. This is critical given the scale and nature of the challenges we face as a global society, and in our own communities.  Through the work at the Foundation we recognise the challenges faced by young people and through our processes, work to curate safe spaces in which we can develop and enhance the inherent skills of young people.  We help them tap into their potential – equipping them with the skills to help them to be in control of their emotions, think differently and complexly, and behave and act with agency and conscience. We describe this as helping them learn to ACT rather than react. The skills building and the provision of that space to test these new approaches and ideas is critical – it helps prepare them for real life.

Ultimately, the work we do at the Foundation is about finding alternatives to violence and promoting positive, sustainable peace. Our view is that we want to do all that we can to convince people that nothing good can come from someone putting a bomb in a bin in order to make their point. It was that action that killed two young boys, Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, and injured so many others–the reason our charity exists. There is and there always has to be another way.

The Foundation’s work historically began with young people. The first ever programme we ran was called the Tim Parry Scholarship. This dialogue programme evolved to become a leadership development course that brought together young people from Warrington, the North, and South of Ireland to share their experiences, exchange learning and develop their leadership skills, in order to create positive change in their communities.

Today, our work with young people takes many forms, but is very much influenced by the original leadership development project, which focusses on three major themes: self-awareness, conflict transformation and leadership. It is by working on these three themes that we help them realise that it starts within ourselves and ultimately, takes them to a place where they feel able to go out and make their own personal stamp on how things can be. Whilst our methods may be mature, it is testament to the fact that this stuff works. If we get the basics right, we can help young people grow.

And how do we achieve all of this? It’s about creating that safe space in the session room to begin with. Allowing young people to develop a deeper understanding about themselves and their place in the world. Ask ‘difficult’ questions and get answers. Encouraging them to meet and spend time with ‘the other’. Being allowed to make a mistake during games and exercises – but do so knowing they get the chance to try again and improve a little later. It is letting them lead, for the duration of the time they are with us – and experience new ways of doing and achieving.

So, on this International Youth Day this is a chance for us to reflect on how we are doing globally, but also how we are doing at home here in the UK. Whist the UN’s report may refer to war zones across the world – we know all too well that we have tremendous challenges of our own. If we are to truly combat the violence of exclusion and make the most of the safe spaces that is the focus on this year’s International Youth Day we have to consider how we make that happen. In the UK, one of the biggest barrier our organisation faces to providing these transformative spaces is time and the pressure on our schools to meet targets. It is when conflict or violence threatens that our programmes are called for. But those spaces should be the norm. They can. If they were we might never reach those crisis points. If we take a risk and trust young people to challenge us and themselves – that is where we can truly help enable that enduring change.

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Written by Harriet Vickers, Programme Development Lead