Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Young All-Ireland & Scotland Programme

Well, I have returned from Scotland somewhat victorious – came second in Ireland for the speech (yes, that very speech you see below you). And though getting the award for my writing was very validating, and made me extremely happy, it really was not the be-all and end-all of my week amongst such fine people.

For me, the greatest thing was debating and being listened to. It was speaking and being heard. And it was not being judged for having an opinion, but appreciated for it. It was being amongst people who felt as I did – that one person CAN make a difference in this world.

The days were set out fairly rigidly, with little free time on hand, but were extremely enjoyable for that! We were separated into groups of 5-6 at the start of the week, and assigned two projects to work on throughout the duration, and present on Friday. Project 1 was to come up with an idea which would change society for the better – it could be at a local government level, or a purely community level, and could involve government legislation if needed. The second project was to give our impressions on the meaning of a word – words were picked from a hat and assigned to groups, and our group got ‘Idealism’…which seemed very fitting!

So, every day went somewhat like this: Breakfast at 8.30, meet with group at 9.00 to discuss presentations and ideas, sessions start at 9.45 with papers being read in rotation with some breaks in between, lunch (including some group-work time), debates, guest speaker and discussion, dinner (from 7.30 to 9.00, and pretty much obligatory), a few drinks in the bar (if able!), then bed.

Hectic stuff! The debates were fantastic, and really fun! We were given a statement at the start of the discussion, and we voted ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘Don’t Know’, then debated the issue for an hour, and took another vote at the end to see if anyone had changed their minds – which frequently happened! The debate statements were: “Is the use of torture ever justified” (I voted ‘No’, and stuck firmly to that one!); “Are schools failing the young people of our countries” (I voted ‘Don’t Know’, but changed it to ‘Yes’ at the end of the debate); “Should the drugs laws be more liberal” (I voted ‘Yes’, and stuck to it); and “Is there a God” (which I voted ‘Yes’ to, and took part in a confusing and interesting discussion on the issue).

Listening to people’s papers was the most amazing part! The way of speaking ranged from people who were loud and confident getting behind that podium and almost whispering their paper, to the quietly shy people standing up and belting out a passionate speech…it was amazing to witness! And the topics undertaken were so diverse and brilliant…from technology (how Google is a malevolent force, or how video-games are not creating murderers, or how Web 2.0 is great – as blogger knows), to reality T.V. (that the government are desensitising us to being spied on, or how celebrities are being created from nobodies), to chicken’s rights, to euthanasia, to heroin addicts, to abortion, to feminism (not just me, eh!), to Christianity, to family life, to alcoholism, to thinness, to Latin, to food, to death by corporate bludgeon…anything you could think of was discussed, with passion and fervour. It was an amazing time to be a witness to, and such an amazing event to take part in!

Our group projects came to fruition on Friday, with Project 1 being showcased first. Most groups ideas centred on the lack of community in modern society, and how best to develop a more community-spirited society. Our groups idea was for an ‘Assisted Volunteer Programme’, whereby volunteer work in the community would earn a person ‘credits’, which could then be redeemed against a list of options with the Community Development Officer of the County Council – for example, the credits could be used to reduce your council tax, or pay bin charges, or reduce heating bills, or reduce gym membership, or buy travel cards, etc. I introduced the scheme, and we role-played the rest of our description, with Anne-Marie a busy commuter who now took part in the ‘shared travel’ scheme, whereby she carpooled with neighbours, taking them to work; Linda was a stroppy teenager who now had a youth club to go to, thanks to volunteers chaperoning; Jim was an elderly man who was a member of the ‘active retirement’ group, and they kept the church grounds clean; and Jon was a student who did odd jobs for elderly members of the community.

We were very proud of our idea! But there was such a range of ideas on show, that you really couldn’t have felt anything but pleased for anyone else who might win the ‘best group’ category.

The second project, which was to discuss a word and what it meant to you, also had role-play from our team. Jon wrote a fabulous and poignant introduction about what idealism meant to us, then I stepped forward as an 11 year old articulating what idealism meant to me, then Anne-Marie was the grown-up version of the same person, and Linda the elderly. Jon then wrapped up our treatise with a reflection that age tempers idealism, but that idealism was the reason we were all sat there taking part in the programme.

Some other groups did some fantastic work – both hilarious and touching – on their words. The winning group may have clinched it with their fabulous discourse on ‘Success’, where a member of the group was a rich businessman in his car at traffic lights, two other members were girls commenting on various aspects of his success, and another member was his conscience pointing out to him that he had no friends, and no partner in life – asking the question, ‘What is Success?’ Great stuff!!

The guest speakers for the week were fantastic, and stirred some great discussion – both with them after their talk, and amongst us back at the dinner table! The first speaker, Mujdeh Yousef, was a woman of much the same age as myself, who had fled Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2001 with her husband and young daughters, and was now an Asylum Seeker living in Glasgow. Her story of the oppression and desolation of Taliban rule continued into a harrowing tale of surviving in Glasgow – which could be translated as ‘any western country’ – as an Asylum Seeker.

The second speaker was Mick North, an organiser of the event. His daughter was shot and killed during the Dunblane massacre, where a man walked into a primary school and killed 15 children, their teacher, and then himself. Mick’s wife had died from breast cancer in the preceding couple of years, so he had an exceptionally close relationship with his daughter, Sophie, as she had to accompany him on his academic tours to lecture halls. They spent much of their time together, travelling and talking, and his story of her life was as heartbreaking as the story of her death, since we all knew how it ended. As Mick said, he has good days and bad days, and life has never been the same for him. She was shot five times, something Mick had trouble saying – and we had trouble hearing. It was an amazing story to hear, and shocked us beyond belief.

Libby Wilson was our third speaker, a little old lady who looked every inch the quiet-granny type, and who shocked us all with her outrageous – and uproarious – tales of bringing family planning to 1950’s Scotland! Libby was - and is - a fervent supporter of a woman’s right to choose, and spoke of opening a sexual health clinic for single people in the 60’s…when the thought that unmarried people engaged in sexual activity was hugely taboo! She also started a clinic for prostitutes, and furthermore travelled to Seirra Leone to advise on family planning clinics being set up over there. Over her vast and varied life, Libby has championed the rights of women over their own bodies, and the open discussion of sexual health in both men and women. Now retired, she is a founding member of ‘Friends to the End’, a group advocating euthanasia.

Our final speaker was Jimmy Reid – one of Scotland’s ‘living legends’. A fierce trade unionist in his day, taking part in a famous Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in…where workers decided that instead of striking, they would simply continue to work and build ships! In this they were extremely successful - showing the viability of the workyard, and preventing its closure. Over his varied life, Jimmy has been a Communist Party member, then a Labour Party member, and then a member of the Socialist Party – where he remains today. His discussion mainly centred on life itself, and how he sees it. He is a supporter of the Young People’s Programmes, and was very lively in his discussion on the apathy of youth today, and how best to agitate them into action.

Friday night we had the awards ceremony, followed by copious amounts of drinking, dancing and singing – carrying on into the night, and early morning!

It was a fantastic adventure to be a part of, and I was thrilled to be involved. Though I have never been an apathetic person, and have aligned myself to many causes throughout the year, this programme focused me far more on what direction my life should take.

At the risk of sounding borderline-superhero, I should try to be a force for good, and not evil, and should recognise that having an opinion does not make me a freak, but rather makes me a spirited person who should push for those tenets of society we lack so much these days – peace, harmony, and the freedom of speech and choice!

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