Annabel

Apr 202012
 

After several weeks on the critics’ bandwagon I’ve suddenly realised the invisible genius of this campaign: it’s given us a reason to be proud of our young people again. Did you notice?

Our kids – the ones we constantly criticise for being plugged in or on the phone, not pulling their trousers up and not listening – just stood up in their millions and said they want to help African children they’ve never met. Did I hear a cheer?

Ok, the organisation that facilitated this revolution is flawed, and so is their message. They took a highly complicated situation, simplified it, added regrettable emotional schmalz and rocked it up, insulting everyone in the process. But can we just for a moment let that pass? This film has been watched by over 100 million people, and while we don’t know the exact numbers, we do know that a huge proportion were young. Millions of children have watched, and talked about, a half-hour documentary on an obscure, barely-reported war in a country few adults could find on the map. What does this tell us? That our kids don’t just care about their peers in other countries – they care passionately. That our kids want to be good people. That it’s time we helped them.

In 1994 800,000 Rwandan people were hacked and burned to death in 100 days. When the Head of Human Rights Watch in the US called the State Department to ask why the US government wasn’t doing more, she was told: “You have to make more noise.”

But how can we make more noise about things we don’t know are happening? We rely almost completely on two sets of institutions to tell us everything: schools and the media. Neither is serving the public well just now. Despite the best efforts of many hero teachers and heads of school, education is shaped by cookie-cutter thinking and a remorseless need for data, while media empires, driven by ratings and sales, fill our screens and news stands with celebrity pap or foreign reports that just don’t seem real.

Both let young people down.

How did we do when KONY 2012 came out? Did our columnists and media leaders provide clear analysis and helpful insight? Did our teachers stop teaching to the test for long enough to have a proper conversation and get beyond a cake sale? In a few, wonderful cases yes, but in the vast majority, no. And why should they? It’s hardly a winner with exam boards or media ratings. So everyone fell back on Google, the BBC, whatever was trending on Twitter; on the Culture-makers and Policy-makers who didn’t know what to say. I bet most households’ resident dinner-table expert was under the age of 18.

Why don’t we, just for once, listen to those young people?

Ten years ago I started writing and teaching courses on global issues. The reaction of my first class of 17/18 year-olds shocked me – they were really angry. Why had they never been told this before? (They were still reeling from the news that President Bush was not attending the Earth Summit, then taking place in Johannesburg.) Just as they were entering adult life, voting and paying taxes, they were told how much they didn’t know. Nobody likes feeling stupid. So we rolled our sleeves up and got started: poverty, global public health, complex emergencies, international institutions.

Then we took it one step further and found the people in our neighbourhood who were the experts: refugee and immigrant communities, local government housing officials, those on low incomes. There’s no better classroom than the community, and no more powerful resource than people telling their own stories. Every year I ask my classes whether I should run the class again. Every year they say yes; courses like this should be compulsory. Everyone should know that the top five arms dealers in the world are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Everyone should know that more than 20,000 children under the age of five die every day of poverty. Apparently it surprises our media moguls and curriculum planners that young people care about these things.

We can’t teach everything – the world is a big place, after all. Writing curriculum and planning courses isn’t about covering all the facts, it’s about developing skills and habits of mind that allow young people to understand events and situations for which they haven’t been specifically prepared. So if they had a sense of the issues on the African continent, or of the workings of the ICC, or of how civil wars tend to focus on resources not borders, then they would be better equipped to see that whilst Kony should definitely be behind bars, Invisible Children’s approach is reckless and irresponsible.

But let’s not forget that Invisible Children are experts, on both social media and our kids. So rather than demonising Jason Russell and his team, why don’t we try to learn from them. Here are some things they did right:

• Make the invisible children visible by telling their stories.

• Shrink the distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’ by bringing people together

• Empower and challenge young people all over the world to act

• Trust young people to care

Friends in schools all over the world reported children who had never before shown any interest in the news or politics asking about the video. If this is what Invisible Children mean by ‘changing the conversation of our culture’ then I for one am right behind them. At a time of deep budget cuts and growing social polarisation I can’t think of better news than an outstanding display of compassion and determination by our young people. Let’s see them, hear them, and cheer.

The Missing Link

 Posted by on 26/11/2011  education, global, history, reality
Nov 262011
 

A few years ago, while I was living and working in the US, I devised a new optional ‘elective’ course for my teenage students. I began the first lesson by presenting them with a passage describing a community wracked by hunger, unemployment and epidemic sexually transmitted disease. I asked them what they thought and not surprisingly they talked of AIDS and poverty in Africa.

In fact the passage described Gaston County North Carolina, and was written by Martha Gellhorn as part of her work chronicling the impact of the Depression and syphilis epidemic on ordinary American men and women. Your grandparents, I said to my students. My point was not to embarrass them, but to make them think of life as a continuum. So many of the keys to understanding human experience lie on our own kitchen tables, yet too often we send young people into the world believing the world to be an alien place that they simply don’t understand.

To make my American students feel better about their country I drew a few parallels with mine. In 1910 life expectancy in London was 45 (the same as Sierra Leone today). The poor routinely died of malnutrition. One in seven children died before their fifth birthday.

My course was called Contemporary Africa, and was less about summarising the vital statistics of fifty-two countries than about a way of thinking. I explained the value of seeing things from other points of view, and used first-hand accounts and witness statements, personal stories and case studies to illuminate and humanise the big picture. I introduced my students to the rational actor framework and suggested that people generally do the things that make sense to them in a given time and context. Of course a factual framework helps too, so Colonialism, the Cold War and the Arms Trade made regular appearances.

As a more traditional History teacher, my aim had always been to bring the past to life, to cross the divide of decades or centuries and find points of contact. I wanted to make the dead real for my students, to make the ‘deadness’ unimportant, and to concentrate on the personalities and the situations. I wanted them to like or dislike historical figures for a reason, to get into their heads and to understand why they did what they did. My students were required to take on roles, defend positions and find the way in to often unappealing or alien points of view. We studied ordinary people, not just kings and queens. We looked at their houses and clothes, and at statistics on health, life expectancy and infant mortality. We tried, above all, to connect.

But I didn’t provide the missing link. I didn’t give my students of Nineteenth century economics recent newspaper articles about the coltan mines in the Congo from where the vital ingredients of their cell phones came. Nor did I show them photographs I’d taken in Ethiopia and Madagascar of farmers tilling the earth with wooden ploughs and oxen. I didn’t tell them my stories of former commercial sex workers in India and my visit to a brothel, any more than I reminded my current events students that London used to be a seething hell of child prostitution, dead babies and filth – in my grandmother’s lifetime.

So why don’t we put our study of the past and present together? Why don’t we take the hard-earned skills of analysis, imagination and empathy and use them to help decode the urgent issues of the day? Why not use those approaches and that understanding to make the world we live in more comprehensible, familiar and human? Perhaps then Africans would stop being crazy and frustrating, and start making sense. Kenyan street kids sniffing glue would seem as logical a response to hunger and cold as drinking gin in Edwardian London; and the traffic of women and children for domestic slavery and the sex industry not something new, but the continuation of an abominable and heartbreaking trade.

While we’re at it, why don’t we also take a rather more global perspective? A few years ago a black South African friend pointed out that it is strange that Europeans consider Africa a dark, savage continent. Looking from Cape Town, Europe was the instigator and venue for two savage world wars and a genocide that incinerated millions of people in purpose-built ovens. Selecting a particular lense, and then looking at the whole world through it is not only more fair, but also far more interesting.

If we want to create a big, compassionate society filled not with incomprehensible strangers but with ordinary people, then we need to fix the missing link: going round the world and going back in time are not as different as we might think. And in case that sounds like a case for progress and the superiority of the global north, it’s worth noting that London is currently experiencing a new epidemic of that ‘Victorian’ condition, rickets.

Nov 232011
 

Demos published a report last Friday called A Place for Pride. It examines what makes people proud to be British, and reached an inspiring conclusion: community engagement and volunteering.

‘When you ask about what’s best about being British I think of all the people
that give up their time to help other people, or to do good things in the
community. That’s what makes me proud of this country.’

Shakespeare, the National Trust, the armed forces and the NHS came out of the polls ok (Parliament and legal system not so much) but they left most people feeling unengaged:

‘I think of being British as being about littler things, more boring I suppose.
Like doing your bit and manners and helping out. The thing about British
people is that we do things for each other, you know? Being British is more
about the way we are than things like Buckingham Palace or Parliament.’

There’s a strong tradition of volunteering in the UK, but it’s understated: few of us would think of doing the old lady next-door’s shopping or picking up a friend’s kids from school as community engagement. Even so, the Demos polls showed that two-thirds of respondents had volunteered in the last 12 months. This is very good news.

And it’s true in the US too: volunteering makes you proud of yourself and others, and pride in your community makes you more likely to volunteer and help others. There’s a positive feedback loop that links individuals, local communities and the whole country. Even the very grand: On September 11th 2008 I was in New York to mark the launch of the new service bill through congress. One after another a show-stopping cast of celebrities stepped forward – Hilary Clinton, Jon Bon Jovi, the presidents of Bank of America, GE, Home Depot and Time Inc; Usher, Former President Bush, UN special envoys, representatives of churches, the Presidents of 9 of the top universities, Arnold Schwarzenegger, top military, senators, congressmen and women, Wendy Kopp, Jeffrey Sachs, Queen Noor of Jordan and Alicia Keys – and they all said the same thing: of all their achievements, nothing made them more proud than their volunteering. There must have been a billion dollars in that room, but there were no press.

What else does the Demos report tell us?

  • That four-fifths of those polled agreed with the statement ‘people who are proud of themselves and their community behave in more positive ways.’
  • That one crucial reason why volunteering and social action are so important is that they mix people together, so old and young, rich and poor, black, white and Asian work side by side and explode the lurking stereotypes.
  • That the minute politicians get involved, ordinary people back away:

‘Sometimes when they [politicians] talk about volunteering and all that, it
sounds like they think they invented it or something. I don’t volunteer
because the Government tells me to, I volunteer because I want to – I enjoy
it and I think it’s important, when you get to my age, to give something back
and to stay in touch with what’s going on.’

‘I’m always a bit dubious when the politicians see something good and then
say ‘that’s what I believe in’ because usually they take that thing and they
ruin it.’

So, Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg and and Mr Miliband, listen up:

‘Honestly, I hate the Tories. And I feel angry that they’ve taken something
I’m most proud of in my community – the way we pull together and
organise to keep the street tidy and safe – and they’ve said ‘this is a
Conservative thing’. It’s not a Conservative thing, it’s a British thing.
Well I think it’s good that the Government is supporting volunteering. And I
agree with the Big Society or whatever it’s called. But I don’t like it all being
so political – Tories say it’s good, Labour say it isn’t, and then it becomes
like the Labour Party are saying volunteering isn’t good.’

If you want to strengthen our communities, integrate all those who are part of them and increase pride and positive action, then here’s some advice:

Stop cutting the budgets of the organisations that are doing exactly that.

▪ Start making Citizenship in schools mean something: make community action and community learning a    part of the core curriculum of every school and don’t just do it for the little ones. Nobody needs this more      than teenagers, and nobody does it better.

▪ Keep politics out of it. This is not about you, it’s about us.