otrbristol | 10th September 2012

Off The Record goes to Preston: Global Conversations conference!

Liam (Media Officer) and Laura (Participation & Rights Worker) from Off The Record took the long jaunt from Bristol up to Preston on Friday (7th Sept) to take part in theGlobal Conversations – Young citizens, different voices conference at UCLAN – and what a great time we had!

We were warmly greeted at the university and made our way into the introductory meeting space, where immediately we were taken aback by the range of ages and nationalities represented at the gathering. We were informed that over the course of the week-long conference, young people from Peru, Morocco, Bangladesh, Turkey and even Australia had taken part in one way or another; all contributing some fascinating ideas about youth participation and rights. The variety of voices at the conference is undoubtedly what makes it such an engaging and equal platform for youth expression.

As an example, an 18 year old girl from Cusco, Peru, explained via an interpreter how a group of young people from her school campaigned to the local authorities for better washroom conditions in the school – and the motion was passed; no longer did 300 schoolchildren have to share the same toilet. It seems to us, in our culture, like a basic right; but it is something that these Latin American schoolchildren were deprived of – and they made the change happen. Inspiring!

We also heard from some young people local to Preston in an afternoon workshop on the subject of youth participation, and they raised some very thought-provoking points. One of the issues raised was the punishment process in schools – for instance, if a student is caught possessing drugs within school premises, they are punished (usually expelled or suspended), but not helped in terms of rehabilitation or counselling. It seems to us to be a bizarre method of dealing with young people who would benefit far more from compassionate support and treatment rather than cold, passive law enforcement.

Another point raised in this workshop was the lack of individuality in schools; stemming perhaps from the enforcement of uniform and the lack of opportunity for expressionism.

We were surprised and delighted when the young people in the room unanimously chose mental health support as the most vital service currently absent in modern schools. As a mental health charity, we really made a case of the need for freely available counselling services in schools – and we were pleased that the students agreed. It was refreshing to hear young people hold mental health support in such high regard, and recognise the importance of the service. Everyone in the room agreed that mental health support in schools would consequently reduce a number of other ‘hot issues’ – bullying, self-image issues, aggression, and much more. Being able to highlight Off The Record’s services and campaign the need for youth mental health services in this workshop made it a big success from our perspective.

Later in the day, we heard from Harry Shier, who has recently published a book ‘Learn to live without violence’, based on years of research and youth work in Nicaragua. We’re pleased to have taken home a copy of this book and look forward to reading it. Harry’s speech was rousing, and we were particularly impressed with his direct challenge to Nicaragua’s Ministry of Family: “what are you going to do to help stop violence against children?” It seems that the campaigning work has helped shift the attitude of adults towards children, and enabled Nicaraguan youth to experience the joy of ‘play’ – something which was previously not held with any value whatsoever. Child labour has also (albeit belatedly) drastically reduced, and discrimination against girls is also on the decrease. It’s all positive, and we applaud the work being done out there.

After lunch – and the joy of the Samba band outside the campus (check our Twitter for a video of this!) – our final workshop was hosted by Jason of the Warrington Wolves charity; and we have to say, we absolutely loved his seminar. In one exercise, we were split into groups and asked to perform a team-building exercise: creating a tower made from straws, but with each team member impaired in some way (one blindfolded, one unable to speak, one with arms held behind back, one ‘deaf’, and another only able to answer with ‘yes’ or ‘no’). This made us work together and communicate in different ways in order to build the tower. We’re pleased to say that the team including Off The Record’s staff built the tallest tower – although they were all impressive, and demonstrated fantastic communication despite the impairments. This exercise was a great example of inclusion and we worked together very effectively.

Jason and Isaac (18 and 14) were proud Olympic torch-bearers this summer – and we can see why: their youth work is inspirational, and they have taken it as far as Gambia, running rugby courses and campaigning for inclusion and youth participation across the world! We take our hats off to them and hope they can continue the legacy that the Warrington Wolves have built over the last 3 years.

In all, the day in Preston was excellent – and eye-opening. A final open space discussion in the Harrington lecture theatre raised further talking points, and we only wish we could have stayed longer – but we had a train to catch! Fortunately, the folks behind Global Conversations were very proactive and managed to capture practically every discussion, interview and workshop on flip-cams, which are currently being uploaded to YouTube. Keep an eye on our Facebook, as we will post this footage.

We would like to thank everyone involved in hosting the conference; we had a blast, and learned a lot. It was a pleasure to meet you all.