Saturday, 26 January 2013

My last week of being 38 and what I learned from Edith

This is my last weekend of being 38.  Its not particularly significant except I needed a title for the blog.  I keep telling people that it is my 40th birthday today.  It isn't.  Its not a deliberate lie - my brain has simply computed it as truth and so it comes out of my mouth until I rather embarrassingly jolt out of that moment and say actually thats not true.

And through the week, this experience of getting my birthday and age wrong has, for me, brought into stark view how gaps can manifest between adults and young people if we are not careful.  As a child I used to find it alarming that adults sometimes wouldn't know how old they were, so I would test them to find out if they knew what year they were born.  And there were many examples like that - what do you mean you don't know your O/A level grades, how can you not remember the year you went on a particular holiday or started a job - I used to find it bizarre and frankly confusing.  Now of course as I experience a blurring of history myself I realise that I am like those adults that used to make my jaw drop with their vagueness about the wilderness of time.  That is what happens for most of us, but as a child I didn't get it.  And if you look in the papers there is an awful lot that the different generations do not get about each other.

Forsters Communications Agency and News International hosted a round table event on intergenerational communication about health on Thursday.  There was a diverse group of organisations there including organisations like NESTA who drive innovation and excellence.  There was a general consensus that we must have a common starting place that human beings are intrinsically good, and that we must narrow the generation gaps so young, middle and old people can enjoy and learn from each other.  When it comes to sex and relationships we know that people in their 30s, 40, 60s, 80s have a huge amount of experience of love, compromise, relationship break up, heart break, building new relationships which is a fantastic resource for the young to draw upon.  More needs to be done to promote those intergenerational conversations.

My own experience of that type of conversation was delightful.  I used to visit a wonderful lady who was in her early 80s when she died.  Between the ages of 11 and 18 I generally visited Edith at least once a week and often twice. I would do her shopping, unpack it, make a cup of tea then basically kick back my heels and listen as she told me tale after tale about her life.  Edith had loved her life enormously and wanted young people to do the same.  She hated the idea of 'wasted lives cooped up by lack of confidence and imagination'.  I later learned through my Sociology A levels that she was a feminist.  When we talked about it she was clearly an avid supporter of equality more broadly - this was the early 80s in rural Cornwall and she was the first person I ever met that genuinely believed in equality.  I learnt much from that space and period of conversation.

Most of all I learnt that I had to take some control, and that if I believed it I could be the type of person who could try great things, who could go to University and I could travel, and I was the type of person who could stick my finger up at the careers advisor who told me no other person in my family had left Cornwall so why did I have such ideas above my station. So I did.

Who knew then that I would come to draw on her experience of relationships to make some critical decisions, hear her voice and ask 'what would Edith say?' as I draft emails or plan for meetings 20 years later.   I guess this would fit neatly into the Big Society mould.

At the Roundtable I asserted that we seek to replicate these types of experiences at scale at our peril.  It rarely works.  I don't believe we should be describing interaction and connectness as soft outcomes.  When people have opportunities to be together within and across generations it connects them and provides support and learning, it creates opportunities to connect which supports emotional and physical well being.  These are hard outcomes: they are building social capital.  There is no one magic approach, but there is a magic bullet - relationships.  The building of individual and group relationships must be a core social goal, and even more so in times of austerity.  I am a firm believer in driving to deliver outcomes and throughout the discussion I kept on wondering what it would be like if we liberated ourselves from trying to measure connectness and spent the resourcing based on an intuitive human understanding that it works and then making it happen.

Since then I have spent much wonderful time with older adults and listen to them, myself and peers talking about young people.  There are basically two camps - those that broadly trust young people and the magic within them; and those that broadly don't.  Intergenerational activity builds trust and understanding.

Where there isn't trust of young people all of their mistakes are amplified and seen as much bigger and more significant than the same mistakes made by adults.  When one trusts young people you remember how it feels to be young and you enjoy rather than demonise them.  If you trust them whilst you may wish they weren't hanging out at the bus shelter, you remember that if there was somewhere more inspiring than the bus shelter then young people would likely use it.

Talking of young people at bus shelters:  This week Gove denounced central governments responsibilities for youth policy.  In doing so he will be pushing another generation to the bus shelter.  Of course it is right Local Authorities have a huge responsibility for youth policy, but we know central government have to ensure there is a coherent policy agenda and framework for excellent local delivery. This is clearly no laughing matter and I along with a number of other organisation CEOs will be writing to Gove to express our deep concerns about this.

But there was much to laugh about last Friday at Comedy Sex hosted by Al Murray (The Pub Landlord) and supported by a stellar line up of guests who all donated their time freely to come and entertain an audience who had trapsed through the adverse weather warnings and in some cases actual snow to get to the Bloomsbury Theatre.  Our deepest thanks to all of the acts who for the second year running made everyone laugh so hard and supported Brook's work.  Thank you to Zoe Margolis, Brook Ambassador, and Joy Kumahor, Events Manager who worked tirelessly to make this such a good event, and of course to Love Honey, our sponsors who were cruelly unable to make it from Bath because of snow.  Photos will be at shortly.

From Comedy Sex to the sexualisation and pornification of childhood - Claire Perry MP appointed as Cameron's Tsar on the issue gave an exclusive interview to the Mail.  The headline ran 'Snoop on your Child's Texts' and whilst some of the content did suggest this was a reasonable thing to do, there were also some more nuanced views about how best to protect and empower children.  I support Perry's vision of the UK being a leader in online safety and believe education is a critical part of that package.

Picking up the theme speaking at the Fabian Women's Network, Diane Abbott, shadow Public Health Minister emphasised the range of sources from which young people absorbed sexualised images.  Unlike some who see SRE as being part of the problem Abbott rightly emphasised that we need a 'revolution in sex education' as part of the solution.  Of course a position Brook supports through our campaign for 21st Century SRE.  On a similar issue The Office of the Children's Commissioner has launched a research programme on pornography and young people.  You can find out more and submit into the research via their website.

Back at Brook I observed a Brook education worker working with young people with a range of disabilities in West Bromwich on Wednesday.  It was absolutely excellent to watch.  Her manner and approach personifies what I hope and want Brook to be all about.  Divine.  Yesterday I was at Brook services in Birmingham meeting my Chair and trustee who leads on policy to consider again the intelligence we have on state of play with regards the transition of Public Health responsibility to Local Authorities and how Brook works with that.

I ended the week at Brook in Brixton at Carole's leaving do last night.  Carole has worked for Brook for 25 years - having started on the 8th August 1988.  As Harriet, Area Director for London and South East said in her speech, Carole is a Brookie through and through.  We all wish Carole well on the next part of her journey and will sorely miss her hard work, dedication, her commitment to Brook and her humour and smiling face.

Now to prepare for being 40, whoops 39.
You can follow Brook and I @brookcharity, @besexpositive, @simonablake

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