Respect was, is, and always will be the cornerstone of any meaningful attempt at dialogue. It is therefore apposite that BERA has put respect at the heart of designing a future we have not yet realised. It is also pertinent that the voice of the young should take centre stage in this endeavour. Try as we may, we are not young people and we cannot know what they are thinking, experiencing and feeling unless we make serious efforts to really listen to them. Sometimes when we attempt to engage in debates about young people, often polar views are presented: if only youth would listen to the sage advice of experience there would be no problem. Unless age can find a way to hear young people we run the risk of imposing outdated ideologies and rather than demonstrating respect towards youth, simply reinforce the tired axiom of ‘children should be seen and not heard’. However, listening alone is not enough and it is our professional and moral responsibility to take the further step of accurately representing young people’s thoughts and views to decision makers so that future policies are informed by their voices. This is the means of achieving meaningful and respectful dialogue and helping young people to move from the fringes to the axis of policy formation.
Some groups, including Black people and young people, experience greater difficulty in accessing decision makers. As educators one of our primary challenges is to create spaces where groups, particularly disadvantaged groups, can be given the opportunity to become ‘part of the solution’ (Alexander and Potter, 2005: 198) rather than being presented as the problem. Black, young people are keen to be involved in the issues that concern them. Given the opportunity to have their voices heard, they enthusiastically engage in debate and genuinely value the chance to speak to ‘someone interested’ (Adam) in their lives, requesting their views are passed onto those with power: ‘You can tell them what we said’, (Terry). Young Black men do not want to be helpless bystanders as others make decisions about them, but actively want to be part of the structures which form and produce new policies. Young Black people want the chance to shape their futures.
During sessions which brought together young, Black male students to give them the time … to talk through their everyday life (Morrison, 2008: 17) and discuss their education, some Black men expressed the view that sometimes they felt they were destined to fulfil the stereotype of being ‘just another failed Black boy. Just a statistic (Lewis). Numbers of students felt they had been treated unfairly by the education system and had been ‘let down by school, definitely’ (David) or that they had been the recipients of ‘a lot of unfair treatment’ (Clive). Some students even felt they had been subjected to ritual humiliation when teachers tried ‘to make a scene in front of everyone. That’s what it seemed like at school. They’d make a show of you’ (Daniel) or they had been talked to ‘like shit’ (John). This hostile environment made it difficult for some Black students to persist and numbers of them simply gave up trying, succumbing to the pre-ordained stereotype of failure.
However, despite facing many obstacles, not all young Black men held this fatalistic, pessimistic view of life. Other students were hungry for change and through sheer blinkered bloody-mindedness (Peart, 2013: 100) were determined to succeed in education. They had learned not to be not to be bothered by what the college thinks’ (Taylor) and appreciated they needed to remain focussed if they were to achieve. They resisted becoming victims of an uncaring education system (Peart, 2013: 103) and were determined to access the best that the system could provide. These students did not just want to get by, they were determined to get on.
Like students, educators also have choices. They too can decide to be part of a continuing problem by failing to listen and failing to provide opportunities for students; or they can decide to listen to and work with the group which can help find the answers to persistent underachievement: young Black people; and together build solutions for a better future.
Alexander, T and Potter, J (2005) Manifesto: Education for Change, in Education for a Change, Alexander, T and Potter, J (eds) London: RoutledgeFalmer
Morrison, N. (2008) Ready to Talk, Times Educational Supplement Magazine, 9 May.
Peart, S (2013) Making Education Work: How Black Men and Boys Navigate the Further Education Sector London: Trentham/Institute of Education Press