Paul Leslie - Dialogue

[The following is the transcription of Paul Leslie's Dialogue. It remains unedited at present, but will be updated shortly]

(omission) to maintain links with my co-panelists, so that in the area of work that I specialise in, some of their principles, some of their ideologies, can be used for the betterment of young people. Thank you.

Now I'm a great believer in dialogue, so I've got something I have to say, but I want to keep it as brief as I possibly can so that I can get as many questions as I possibly can. What I'd like to talk about first of all, would be international youth exchange, that's part and parcel of the work I do. I organise international youth exchanges for a number of reasons, but for me international youth exchanges allow young people who wouldn't normally get the opportunity for international travel to interact with young people from a range of countries, and breaking down the cultural divide. Thereby reducing, in the long run, misunderstandings which lead to conflicts, which lead to war. And I'm talking about on a mass scale.

I then want to wrap that up in the informal education bag. And that bag of informal education is what I specialise in - I'm not a teacher, I'm not a social worker, I'm not a probation officer, I'm a youth and community worker, which means I regard young people as an active and vibrant part of communities in which they live, and work with them in those communities, alongside adults, alongside other professionals, to achieve what I perceive as being a common goal, which is a unified vision of a community, and a unified vision of a society, and global harmony.

I then want to go along and talk a little bit about what I call CBS, and CBS is the name of a project that I started six years ago, and anyone who was in my workshop yesterday will know what I'm talking about. And CBS stands for confidence, belief and self-awareness. I just want to develop some of those concepts, and finally I just want to throw a few balls in the air for discussion - some of my visions for the future, how I see the role of young people increasing becoming important on the international stage, and a suggestion for some of the delegates at the end.

So, to start from the top. International Youth Exchanges. I started developing international youth exchanges in 1988 when I developed, along with others, a youth exchange to Jamaica. Why Jamaica you would ask? Great country, but the reason was at the time I was working in the London Borough of Harringay with predominantly black Afro-Carribean people. And these young people, both male and female, had a particular perspective on what it was to be an African-Carribean person living in Great Britain. And their perspective was wrong. They were representing what they perceived to be Jamaicans living in Britain. And these young people had never left the UK. These young people had watched films, spoken to other people who had left Jamaica maybe twenty, thirty, forty years ago, and listened to what their families had to say about what Jamaica was like as a country. I decided at that time to put some clarity in terms of where they were coming from - understand what they were trying to communicate. Was it that they felt isolated in the UK? Was it that they were trying to find a mother country? Was it that they were trying to communicate to others, what they felt they should receive in terms of ownership of cultural identity, in the UK? What was it? I didn't know the answers. So I chose the simple option of taking them to Jamaica to have a look for ourselves.

Youth Exchanges are, for me, the epitome of quantitative youth and community work. They bring together so many different learning experiences. I sometimes have difficulty trying to list them all, because they are not only humongous and diverse, but they are unique and distinct and individual to each person who take part in an international youth exchange. This particular group that went to Jamaica, they used to have a particular way of talking which is Patwa or Jamaican slang, in London. And when they went to Jamaica, they all adopted a cockney accent. Why was that? It was simple - the accent and the language they were using was so far off the mark. The Jamaicans would look at them and say "you're from England." And so they had to understand that their country was England, that everything about them was English, that they had a home in England whilst having a link with Jamaica, the home of their parents. So they had to own both. And they were forced to own both - not by me, not by teachers, not by their parents, but by the culture and the country to which they had wanted to link themselves.

I felt at that time, having spoken to the young people, that the key thing that they had learned from that youth exchange experience, was that to join with a country to which you do not have a link is extremely difficult, to adopt characteristics of another race or another culture is extremely difficult, unless you engage with that community, with that culture, unless you share something of yourself with them, and they share something of themselves with you. Then, maybe, it's a lot easier to have commonality of purpose, commonality of vision, a clear understanding. The aims and objectives of the young people that the UK group met in Jamaica were totally different to the objectives of the UK group. The UK group wanted to leave England and find a place in Jamaica, and the Jamaicans wanted to leave Jamaica and find a place in the UK. Why was this? It's a simple philosophy - the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill. So what we had to do was look at the quality of the grass on the side of the hill we were on, and the diversity of the grass, and the taste of the grass [laughter]. And understand that grass is what you make it! [more laughter].

I speak to some of those young people today, who are mothers, fathers, husbands and wives. And they remember the youth exchange experience, and they look back and they laugh at themselves, say "there I was, trying to be Jamaican and I'm really English". And it's been a positive learning because it's made them "own" the country that they were born in. It's enabled them also to own part of Jamaica. It's enabled them to become more productive citizens in the country in which they were born. And it's also enabled them to struggle and fight for better conditions for young people in Jamaica. So their learning experience taught me a hell of a lot. And it's one of the key things that youth exchanges do is learning is infinite - there isn't a limit on what people learn when they engage in a youth exchange experience.

I moved then, from Haringay, and worked in a predominately white area, which is where I'm based now - the London Borough of Newham. And here was a completely different set of ideologies, in terms of how the young people perceived themselves, and how they perceived the rest of the world. The reality, for many young people, was they had no perception whatsoever of the rest of the world. Their world revolved the area, the housing estate, the borough that they lived in. Many of the young people hadn't travelled from maybe ten miles outside the areas in which they lived. And that's not unique. But in the area in which I work, one of the key problems, was the height of the racism - racial violence and discrimination. And I felt that bringing international youth exchanges to this area would have far more impact on the lives of those young people than me telling them there are other countries, and showing them the maps. So I decided to organise a youth exchange to South Africa. Why South Africa I hear you ask? It wasn't due to the number of black people in South Africa, it was actually due to the recent political shift in South Africa, where we had Nelson Mandela coming out of jail, and seeking freedom for his race; where you had a white minority governing a black majority to the detriment of the black majority. And I felt that some of the hard views that many of the young people I worked with had, needed to be challenged in an environment which would again provide clarity, but one which was alien to them. Again, none of them had ever thought about South Africa as a place they would want to visit - they didn't know where it was. So wrapped up in this youth exchange to South Africa, was learning for me, and I did try and learn from a variety of different areas - my knowledge of South Africa was limited, my knowledge of the white view of Africans in South Africa was limited, because I get selective information from the media, as do we all. And it's whether I let the media go to my intellect, or whether I seek out information for myself. So I decided to get that information for myself.

On going to South Africa, I found that there was a beautiful kind of peace in the people that I met. Now you understand that these people have been under oppression for so many years, and yet in terms of individual dialogue, in terms of group dialogue these people had a sense of peace, and I come from Britain, London, I would have expected they would have been trying to kill every white person that they could see. This was not the case - it took me some time to understand that. They did not wish to react in a violent way. And I can't say that this was very every black person in the country - only the black people that I met in South Africa. And I had to toss that one around a bit. I said "well OK. You've been under pressure for so long, and been oppressed for so long that you've lost the will to fight. You're quite happy with the status quo - you don't want to change it." But that wasn't the reality - what they were saying to me was that "basically we're trusting in God to sort this one out. That we have faith that this is injustice, and this will be addressed." And I had to own that. It was a difficult one to grasp, as I say, but I took that one on board. And brought that back to the UK with me. Taking a group of young people to South Africa - that was an experience in itself, simply because where we travelled as a youth group, the black South Africans themselves hadn't travelled. The accommodation we stayed in, they hadn't previously had access to, it was reserved for whites. We had government assistants and armed guards, but the arms were kind of hidden. Again, black people running around with guns in South Africa. It's not unusual I suppose. But these were the guns of the government. We stayed in accommodation with other white people, for many of the rural groups in South Africa that we interacted with. And the most important thing was that our presence in South Africa as a youth exchange group, sharing ideas about issues that young people in London were dealing with at the time - issues like crime, drugs, HIV/Aids, sex and sexuality, homelessness, unemployment - all these issues were being tossed around. Our involvement with the group in South Africa meant that that young group, who came from rural part of a northern province called Celine [?] we enabled them to establish networks in areas that they hadn't previously established, simply because of the lack of transport from point A to point B. That's another key thing in international youth exchanges - we set up no only national local networks, but international networks.

Our presence enables groups who wouldn't normally meet, who wouldn't normally talk, to interact and start the ball rolling, and start developing strategies locally. So in terms of breaking down the cultural divide, international youth exchanges, not only enable young people to meet, greet and discuss what they perceive to be serious issues, but they have long lasting effects, not only on the individual, not only on the workers, not only on the group, but I think on cultures, on whole ranges of people. I think exchanges touch people that I don't even know - I think just by interacting in an international environment. We bring issues to the agenda that may not be on the agenda. We bring issues to the agenda that, maybe, groups have been struggling with for some time. I find that, for example, in international youth exchanges to Japan. It's quite interesting because, again, perceptions of Japan are that it's such a model country, so far ahead of everyone else, technologically speaking, I think they're right. In terms of how Japan operates on a societal level, on a community level, I think some of the issues that we're dealing with in London, haven't hit Japan yet, and when they hit Japan, there'll be plenty of work for me. [laughter]. But in terms of international youth exchanges, you have groups of young people in the UK interacting with groups of young people in Japan, talking about issues that young people in Japan may not have even have addressed yet. Certainly they're talking about issues that the elders in society haven't addressed yet. I think when we interact with young people, when we interact with elder members of Japanese society, we talk about issues like drug misuse as though it's water off a ducks back - they're issues that we've dealt with for many a long year - (omission) solvent abuse, injecting drugs, crack cocaine, and heroin. That for many young people in Japan who shrug their shoulders and say "it's OK, I've dealt with that. Now, what's the next item on the agenda." I think in terms of Japanese society, some of those issues aren't on the agenda yet. How Japanese society deals with those issues, I don't know, but I think they've got a lot to learn from young people in the UK, because they've had to deal with those issues, they've had to go through the learning process. And that is another key part of the international youth exchange - where groups have addressed issues, where groups have developed strategies, where communities have community action. Those forums, those environments, those strategies can almost be lifted out and stuck onto another country and another culture - they need tweaking, they need manipulating to some extent, but I think that part of the exchange process is the key. Exchanges are not holidays! They are not junkets for junkies, they are not rewarding criminals for criminal behaviour. This is some of the rhetoric that I have to deal with in the UK, where people, other educators, non-professionals, don't understand what international youth exchange is about. So the formal education element of the youth exchange has to be focused.

Structures of formal and informal education. Informal education - I don't know what that means to you, but what that means to me is working with young people, in a negotiated way - looking at education as a complete learning process, not as a national curriculum. So we focus on where the young person is at, and what I mean is different people learn at different stages, at different times. So we would develop a package of support for young people, which reflects their learning needs. An example would be, I work with young people who are excluded from school, or expelled, you are no longer allowed on school site. And these young people may be excluded at fourteen. Yet there is a legal responsibility that they are educated until they are sixteen. So what we would do, is we would refer that young person to accredited learning centres, as one act of support. And the agency I work for, community links, is an accredited learning centre, where they will receive basic numeracy and literacy training. But that may not be where the young person is coming from - they may prefer to work with their hands. They may prefer to pull motor cars apart and put them back together. So we would then refer them to a program which did just that - a motorcar project, a motorcycle project, a horticultural project - it's still learning. So they receive basic education, and they engage in something that they feel is important to them. We would then look at what other support we could build into that young person. And maybe there's an activity element, a sporting element, a football coaching element. Whatever it is , we would look at that young person as a person, not as a statistic, not a number. And look at what their educational needs are, and structure education programs for them. The difference between formal and informal education is quite clear. Formal education is under a lot of pressure to produce productive members of society, as they would see it. Informal education's primary focus is to produce members of society, productive in terms of how they regard productivity, not in terms of my definition of productivity. So I don't have to produce a banker or a lawyer, or a scientist, or an industrialist. I just have to produce at the end of the day, an environment which enables young people to learn. And that is what I do. So informal education doesn't necessarily work in isolation, it looks at working in partnership with formal education, but it has different ways of achieving learning. That's the thing to focus on - moving from point A to anywhere - it just means movement as far as I'm concerned. It doesn't mean you get to point B and point C.

I just have to rush over CBS. CBS - confidence, belief, self-awareness. Guiding principles to the work I do, many of the young people I work with lack confidence, belief and self-awareness. But the driving force behind CBS is that I really believe that all young people have potential. And we have to look how best we can facilitate that potential. So CBS means - the confidence to change to mainstream society, ideology, practices or structures, the confidence to challenge, the confidence to question, the confidence to learn, to educate, and be educated, the confidence to contribute. Belief, according to the B in CBS - the belief in ourselves, the belief in unity, the belief in humanity, the belief in positive power, the belief in love (very fundamental). Many of the young people I've worked with don't have love in their lives from their families, or their peers. So when we work with them we show them love. We love them, for who they are, irrespective of whether they are criminals, we love them. If they use lots of profanity, we love them. If they are violent towards each other, we love them. Through that love we achieve learning. And the S in CBS - self awareness - in relation to ourselves and our contribution to the world, self awareness in relation to others, and our interactions in our relationships with them, self-awareness in terms of who we are or who we want to be, self-awareness in terms of what we want to achieve and how we are going to achieve it.

I'm going to end by saying that I want to make CBS a conscious way of living - for young people, for adults, for everyone. The confidence, belief and self-awareness to do. I also want to say two separate things - the first is that it amazes me that young people make up such a large percentage of the population of the world, and yet they seem, in some parts, to be denied power. So I've been speaking about reducing the voting age to sixteen for young people globally. And I want you to consider that one, because that's the main way that you have of effecting governments if you have a democratic right to vote. If you don't have the right to vote then seek it. I call it playing the game. There are other ways of acquiring power. This way of playing the game - gets you in the door. [?] The final thing is - I was speaking to couple of delegates earlier about what do you do, the young people who are taking part in this process? How do you maintain your networks? How do you maintain your links? And what I was suggesting was that you organise yourselves in a pro-active manner, to maintain contact. What I suggest is that you should undertake to set up a global bank account, not to buy new cars or anything, [laughter] just for the purpose of facilitating travel for each of you here today. To be fair, the most affluent of the students would contribute more money, and you would have to determine what it would be, but if you're serious about keeping in contact with each other, or meeting each other - yes you can do it by e-mail, phone, letter, but it would be really good if each one of you could hop to each othersí country. So every six months or year one or two of you would dip into that bank account and use it to travel, to meet one of your colleagues, to share ideas, to have discourse.

So thank you very much for your patience and your time.

[This was followed by several questions from the audience and delegates. Click here to continue]

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