January is traditionally a time for new beginnings, so I’ve been thinking about what lies ahead this year (given the recent disruption). It’s so hard to predict what might come next, however in times of uncertainty the pragmatist in me always reverts to a place where I remind myself of the important things. That gives me strength and focus which is always welcome.
I’ve always been passionate about working with young people, it comes from a place of wanting to represent what I needed (but didn’t have access to) when I was young.
Years ago, I was training to be a part-time youth worker and one of the requirements was to have a qualification. I completely underestimated the journey of growth and learning that I would embark upon. That training course was the single most important development point of my career.
One of the modules covered ‘Power and Oppression’. During one session we had to participate in an exercise which was essentially “rigged”. It consisted of three tables – top middle and bottom – I was on the middle table. It was determined in advance who would move from the bottom table to the middle table, to the top table or from the bottom table straight to the top. The idea was that if you advanced to the top table, you could change all the rules and keep changing them at your will.
As expected, what quickly ensued was absolute chaos because those who were at the top table just became more and more aggressive. They were drunk with power. I remember their facial expressions started to change, as did their behaviour, in an ugly way. People from the bottom table would progress to the top and say: “I’ll remember you when I get to the top,” and as soon as they got to the top, they completely forgot everybody else and would assimilate with the group who were changing all the rules.
My friend and I, who were on both on the middle table, looked at each other and very quickly established we did not want any part of this ludicrous activity so we sat through the whole thing. It was carnage, and some people were in tears. At the end of the session the tutor (who later became a dear friend), met with everyone on a one-to-one basis to review the task.
Feeling very smug and superior, I said: “The whole thing was horrific. I think people need to really take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror as the way they behaved was abysmal.” She then asked me how I thought I behaved and as I had not participated. I said I thought I acted with grace and maturity.
She turned to me and said “That might be a problem, Ashley. You didn’t participate in anything; you didn’t try and tackle whatever perceived craziness was happening at the top. Nor did you try and help anyone at the bottom, you did nothing.”
I was absolutely mortified, and she said the immortal words: “If you’re not a part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” Those words rang in my ears for years.
Recently I was on holiday with that tutor and we discussed the power of that activity, and how it became the root of my personal and career values and why I am so passionate about fairness and equality. From that session all those years ago, I learned at a young age that it’s not OK abuse your power but it’s also not OK to just sit back and it’s not OK or acceptable for an organisation that works with young people to not engage with what’s happening in the world around us.
If we can’t equip young people to survive and thrive then we’re failing them. Of course, I am immensely proud of the programmes we deliver but they can’t be delivered in a vacuum without considering the changing context within which we delivery them. We must be prepared to take risks and bring that external context and relevance to our work. So, 2022 will be another year where I strive to be “part of the solution” for the young people who need us.