Commissioner Speaking at NEELB Conference

16 April 2011

Imagine its 10pm on a dark, dank October evening.  The bingo hall has shut for the night and Mary who’s in her 70s is buttoning up her coat to make the short 10 minute walk home. 

She has taken this walk home most of her life and past the lampposts she used to swing on or the streets she used to play.  But this night is different.

As she turns a corner she sees silhouetted in the lamplight a group of 5 dark figures.  They are talking loudly shouting at each other, laughing and joking around.  Each one has their hoods up and she can’t see their faces. 

Immediately thoughts enter her mind, why are they laughing at me, have they been waiting on me all night, do they know I live on my own?  

The only thought that rests in her mind is the need to be safe.  If I can only just get into the house then I’ll be okay. But because of where the group are standing she has no other option but to walk right past them to get home.

As she hurries past they immediately stop talking and step aside and the thoughts race in her mind why have they stopped, are they looking at me, have they got a knife?

Reaching the front door, she fumbles for the key and drops her bag on the ground, one of the young people walk towards her, she can hear him coming closer and just in time she finds the key, gets the door open and rushes inside.  After bolting the door, her hands are shaking, and she somehow manages to stop them just enough to lift the phone and dials 999, and vows never to walk home again.

My name is Patricia Lewsley and as Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People my job is described simply as:

Promoting and safeguarding the rights and best interests of children and young people to help them challenge and change the world in which they live. But most importantly- to give children and young people in Northern Ireland a voice.

And that’s all children and young people up to 18 in Northern Ireland. Except in 2 exceptional circumstances of C&YP who have been in care or who have a disability and that’s to the age of 21.

If you want to find out more about me visit our website.

Now I’d like you to once more step back in your imagination to that dark dank day in October and think about the young person’s perspective.

Its 10 o’clock on a dark October evening and since the youth club closed down last month, James and his mates have nowhere to go. There’s not much room in anyone’s house for the 5 of them to meet, so most of the time they just hang around about the streets.  Tonight is no different, everyone is pretty stressed out with coursework at the minute so chilling out with his mates for an hour or so is the only way to relax and escape the impending exams.

The neighbourhood he lives in is pretty rough so James likes hanging around with his friends near the pensioners’ bungalows because he knows it’s safer here compared with other places.    They don’t get up to much just talk and have a laugh, and it’s brilliant to just to forget about revision for an hour and enjoy the company of his mates.

Out of no where an old lady can be seen walking towards them and James’ mind starts to race.  Will she move us on? Is she afraid of us?

Not wishing to scare the woman James tells his friends to keep quiet, and they stop joking and step aside to make sure she has enough room to get past.  When she has gone past, James notices that she has dropped her bag and he steps towards her to help her pick things up as he can see she is finding it difficult to bend down.  But as he comes towards her she rushes inside and bangs the door.

He tells his friends what happened and they decide to call it a night, as he reaches home he hears the distant sound of a police siren, and he knows that they’ll have to find another place to hang out.

Too many of you this is not a new story, and probably most of you can identify with James in this story, but think of it from Mary’s point of view would you be as understanding if Mary was your aunt, neighbour, mother or granny?

This story is about perceptions.  But what I want to ask you is how are these perceptions formed, why is Mary suspicious?

  • Why does she feel like she needs to bolt the door and call 999?  
  • Why does she feel threatened?
  • Why can an item of clothing as simple as a hood cause so much fear?
  • What about James? 
  • Why is the only place he feels safe outside pensioners’ bungalows?
  • Why do neither of them feel safe where they live?

So what fuels these negative stereotypes, what causes us to jump to conclusions?  To understand this we need to look at where these perceptions come from and how they are sustained.

In this way it’s helpful to think of stereotyping as a cycle.  It starts with Mary who picks up the phone the next day and tells her friends of the terrible night she’s had because of young people.  Soon everyone is talking about the problem, and it becomes acceptable to voice negative stereotypes and blame them.

Before you know it someone has called the local paper and because the view is already popular they publish a story.  This further escalates the fear and misperceptions and it only happens because it is accepted and encouraged by local communities. 

Politicians then weigh in to try and win votes, by voicing popular opinion and suddenly from one incident the community is more fearful, they invalidate what young people say and so further isolate them and the cycle continues.

  • Who knows it might end up on The Nolan Show…
  • At what point do we step in to break the cycle?
  • It is at every point.

You as youth workers are working every day to empower young people as part of a community, to build intergenerational bridges and to challenge through participation these negative stereotypes.

But how do we challenge the media.  How often have you picked up a newspaper and seen a good news story about a young person? 

How often have you picked up a newspaper and read stories about ‘vampires’, ‘hoodies’, or ‘lazy slobs’.  Last year my youth panel (who you’ll hear from later) carried out a survey of the local daily newspapers over a 4 day period.  The Youth Panel noted 24 articles specific to young people aged 11 to 18 years old and found that almost three quarters of the articles portrayed young people in a negative light.  

One of the panel members Eva Beattie, who helped carry out the analysis posed a very good question ‘As soon as a child leaves primary school they don’t automatically become bad, so why is this image being portrayed in some of our newspapers?’

And it’s not just print media either. As youth workers who work directly with young people, who give them a voice, who listen to and empower them. 

  • How do you feel when you go home and turn on the TV.
  • What do you see?
  • Do you still see a world that respects children’s rights?  When we watch programmes portraying young people as hoodies, sexually promiscuous, drunks and drug addicts, it infuriates me as I’m sure it infuriates you.

But as a famous American actor Forest Whitaker once said ‘Stereotypes do exist, but we have to walk through them.’

I think we all here acknowledge that this discrimination happens so how can we change it?

The blame cannot be laid solely at the door of the media.  These perceptions have filtered through to government and have influenced how they deal with children and young people.

Policies relating to Community Safety, for example, which should be about making communities safe and inclusive places for children and young people, instead tend to conceptualise young people as problems that need to be contained.

Increasingly punitive measures have been implemented or proposed over recent years such as Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), to keep young people off the streets. In addition, Mosquito Devices, ultrasonic devices emitting a high pitched noise designed to cause discomfort or pain to children and young people, are available for use in Northern Ireland as ‘teenage control products’. (For more information see NICCY’s policy briefing on Community Safety here)

We want the Executive and its agencies to tackle the negative stereotyping of children and young people by reviewing their policies to ensure a more positive focus on children and young people.

The Executive should consider positive ways of promoting children and young people’s active inclusion within their communities, through better provision of social development and leisure activities.

In short we want the government to include young people in their communities not further isolate them.  In a society that is all about division we should strive to overcome division not mange or increase them.

So this is what I’m going to do, but what about you?

What are you going to do?  Each one of us has the potential to create a society which respects children’s rights.  You are already helping to combat these stereotypes everyday in your work with young people because you

encourage young people you work with; you challenge their perceptions you listen to them and value them. 

But how can we take this challenge further how can we target the other parts of the cycle.

There are lots of different ways but one of those is probably in your pocket right now.  You each hold the power for change in your pocket.  So I want you all to hold up your mobile phone.

This is one way for change.  If you go home tonight, and see a programme that is portraying young people in a bad light, pick up your phone and challenge it.  Imagine if UTV or the BBC received a hundred text messages or phone calls from youth workers, that would make them sit up and think again. 

What about politicians? We’re in the middle of an election and whilst I can’t influence what way you vote I would encourage you to ask each and every politician calling at your door what are they going to do for young people; how are they going to ensure that young people are provided for in a recession when the cuts are hitting the most vulnerable hardest.

The power for change is in you, we must each do our part to ensure that discrimination against young people is a thing of the past.

I have talked a lot about what discrimination is, how it manifests itself and what we can do to change it, but to give you some idea about its impact on young people.  I want you to watch this short DVD which was created by my youth panel.

The youth panel is a group of 25 children and young people whose job it is to advise me in my work.  They have consistently identified negative stereotyping as a key priority, their efforts can be seen on their own youtube channel.  As part of our 2010-11business plan, the panel were given their own budget and time to produce a youth led campaign to challenge negative stereotyping, which they’ve called ‘Disable the Label’ you can read more about the campaign here

I hope this brief overview has given you some insight into the complexities of negative stereotyping.  I will do my part to help children and young people, the youth panel are doing there’s what will you do to disable the label? 

I’ll leave you with a quote from Janus Korczak, a defender of children and young people during the Nazi Holocaust was clear that we must make change right here, right now

‘A hundred children, a hundred individuals who are people.   NOT people-to-be, not people of tomorrow, but people now, right now–today.’