For six days in July, I walked in solidarity with my comrade, colleague and friend Terry Mattinson. In my 20-plus years experience as an independent consultant working with schools and communities to build a global movement supporting youth power, I have rarely meant anyone like Terry. A long-time youth worker in Preston, Lancashire in the United Kingdom, his experience has afforded him wisdom beyond measure. It was my honor to walk with him and listen, observe, and see young people and adults engage with him on issues that matter to me the most. This is a short reflection on that experience.
Terry carefully shepherded me through an agenda that alternately inspired me and encouraged my own reflection on the work I’ve been doing. We visited youth-serving organizations in several communities as well as schools for young and older learners. There were deep conversations about theory, practical discussions about taking action, and meaningful opportunities to dissect, digest and divulge our experiences and learning with several people along the way–especially with Terry himself.
Sitting in classrooms at several schools, I got to hear student voices sound out on issues they were learning about, projects they designed, and the difference they were making in the world. Excited young students answered my questions anxiously, sometimes with gentle prompts from their teachers and other times with the restraint only well-taught learners can have. Their global perspectives behoove the pluralistic society they are growing up within. Other times, older students shared their wizened perceptions of taking action to change the world. They analyzed the effects of their actions, proposed radical new ways of affecting change, and inspired each other, Terry and I, and others in great ways.
Some of the things I distinctly learned from young people in these visits included that they are intensely focused on making a positive, powerful difference in the world around them; they want to demonstrate to adults, including teachers, youth workers and parents, their concern for the larger world beyond classrooms and throughout the community, and; they want to have fun while they’re taking action to make change.
In the course of my time there, I was able to meet with several adults about these issues, too. I met with Steve Walker, a senior lecturer and programme leader for working with children and families at the University of Cumbria. Steve has conducted a fascinating study at his university focused on establishing the validity of youth voice in evaluation. We discussed the nuances of his study, and I suspect there will be more conversations ahead as I explore the intricacies of what he’s doing. I also met with Mary Sayer, the Unite in Schools Coordinator for Unite the Union, the largest trade union in UK. Her program teaches students about labor unions, organizing and political power. In the course of a morning, she and I had an intensive series of conversations with a dozen young people at Our Lady’s Catholic High School in Preston, discussing the intersections of her interests with my efforts along the way. I also had a great convo with Marc Besford, the National Training and Development Worker for Young Christian Workers. Marc supports youth workers like Terry in a large portion of the UK, and has great perspectives on youth involvement. Given his broad application of the principles of meaningful involvement and their diverse applications, it was exciting to talk with him.
One of the most intriguing conversations I had was with Nigel Ranson, the headmaster of Our Lady’s. In a thorough but brief tête-à-tête, he and I discussed the capacity, interest and ability of educators to engage pupil voice in substantial ways. As I elaborated on the difference between engaging voice and meaningfully involving students throughout education, our back-and-forth reminded me of the early advocacy I’d conducted in Washington state’s education agency back in the early 2000s. It was an honor to talk with each of these folks.
Terry launched me back and forth through his region on trains, visiting surrounding cities with ease while allowing me to take in some gorgeous English countryside vistas, complete with fells and sheep galore! We also went to an old cathedral city called Carlisle. Sitting near the ancient Scottish border, Carlisle was surrounded by an enormous wall that we walked along for a bit. I saw the cathedral and castle, and devoured other historical sites shared by Terry and his nephew Andy, who is also a youth worker in the area. Our tour there included a fantastic facility called the Carlisle Youth Zone. Focused on providing a fun, safe environment for young people to hang out, recreate and learn, the Youth Zone is one of many facilities spread throughout the nation that does similar things. I had a thorough tour with the youth work manager, Clint Howat. While we discussed the several informal youth voice opportunities here, I became distinctly aware of the opportunity these types of facilities have to infuse meaningful youth involvement and youth mainstreaming throughout their operations. Fascinating potential!
One of the greatest rewards of this visit was the chance to form a great connection with Terry. He’s been working so hard for so long to engage young people, foster youth power, and nurture community connections with children and youth that really have changed the places they live. We shared the personal motivations we have for behind our commitment to youth and discussed the faults and potential for our individual futures. He also took care to find me beautifully calming accommodations, and I enjoyed a relaxing, invigorating stay that uplifted my spirit and rekindled my interest in the world beyond my front door!
All-in-all, I was excited by the potential Terry Mattinson shared with me in his city of Preston and the surrounding area. Talking with so many people showed me more of the commonalities in our international efforts to engage youth in dynamic, powerful new ways. It also inspired me to consider new ways that I can continue my life’s work, both where I live and far beyond.
Thanks to everyone who made this trip possible!