A conference about community must involve the community

My colleagues and I  had the privilege of contributing towards a breakout session at the Social Mission Conference organised by Caritas Singapore last Saturday. Together with Hope House who provides a safe residential environment for youth development, we were asked to share some insights on the topic of youths-at-risk.
When we were approached early this year, we expressed that such conferences should involve and include the very people that will be at the centre of the conversation.  We recommended that for our breakout session, we should have conference participants to actually meet and talk with “youths at risk.”  Otherwise, participants will be talking about these youths behind their backs instead of involving them as part of the solution.  Also, as the helping relationship is a partnership, we would give participants the experience of talking with youths instead of talking about them.
We were grateful that Caritas decided to go along with our recommendation and we began inviting youths from Hope House and our neighbourhoods to participate in this breakout session.  We explained that we needed their help to create a mutual learning experience involving adults and youths.  We elaborated that we needed them to be part of a conversation where people remained respectful to each other despite their differing views.  Finally, we stressed that we wanted them to respond honestly during the conversation and they were not there to sing our praises.
Not every young person we spoke to was willing to participate. Some told us that they would be most uncomfortable being with a group of strangers while others revealed that they would probably be tongue tied. Anyway, 23 youths eventually made it to the conference and they joined 8 different talking circles that reflected on the question: “Do you want to be in a position to fix youths or do you want to be able to support them as they make the important decisions in their lives?”
To the surprise of the adults in one talking circle, a youth shared that he often wished someone could simply fix him. He realised that he was often engaging in risky behaviours and he would like someone to fix him before he got into very serious trouble. At another circle, a youth expressed that listening is very important and that youths want their parents and adults to listen to what they had to say.  The consensus at the session was that youths needed support rather than fixing but many also realised that offering a supportive presence may not be so easy.
For us, it was an important experience for the youths to be part of the conference. Social integration should be a 2 way street where the people from diverse backgrounds are actively reaching out to each other. At the end of the breakout session, I had a sense that participants young and old felt a little more comfortable with each other simply because they had listened and spoken to each other with much respect.
“A single conversation across the table with a wise person is worth a month's study of books” - Chinese Proverb

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Comment by Onesmus Mutuku on September 3, 2014 at 9:11am

We all progress when we put the community at the center of the response, engage and develop a culture of facilitation characterized by SALT that constantly stimulates the 3 spheres (policy/service providers/communities) for change through a culture of learning from local responses.

Comment by Dee Brooks on September 2, 2014 at 2:52pm

Fantastic approach!

One of my colleagues just returned from a conference in Canada around Inclusion of people with a disability in community - they did something similar - they walked the streets and talked to people!

Very inspiring!

We are also looking at how we can incorporate community members at our Unconferences, in a meaningful way!

Great work!

Comment by Rituu B. Nanda on September 1, 2014 at 10:29pm

Thanks for this post Gerard. What do you think enabled the youth to share freely? 

Comment by Autry Haynes on August 31, 2014 at 4:07pm

What a revealing experience  Gerard Ee Huck LIan!! I liked the whole thought of being inclusive, "..talk with youths rather than talk about them..." I always think that vulnerable or at risk 'people' need that space and opportunity to express their inner feeling and thinking and many many times they make valuable solutions that could alleviate their concerns. It is from occasions like these that impact oriented results that are sustainable are derived. As I read I immediately thought of the SALT[y] way you and team would have facilitated the learning experience. Thank you thank you (^_^)

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