I spoke in a recent blog about the power of talk, getting the conversation going and sharing your experiences with others. When you share your story wholeheartedly, it truly touches people in a profound way. I witnessed the power of conversation and connection today and each time I am reminded of its value.
Once again, so much happened today but there were a couple of things that show the power of discussion, conversation and listening to one another.
We started today by attending a play session in New Kru Town. The children in the group I joined were a bit older. With each game played in Right to Play programming, there is a skill or value embedded in the game. After playing, the group comes together and discusses what they learned, why that lesson might be important and how it applies to their everyday life. For example, there is a game where two people stand in the centre of a circle of people. The circle of people are close together, very tightly connected and there are 1-3 people outside of the circle. Those outside of the circle try and break into the centre of the circle to the two individuals in the centre. This game is used to represent the immune system and fosters conversations around protecting yourself from malaria or HIV/AIDS. It can also be used to demonstrate protection of the child from harm and this creates conversation around what rights the child has, what these children and youth can do to help themselves and those around them.
One game we played with an older group involved the community leader making statements and once the statement was made, each of us had to run to one of 4 sections. Each section was marked agree, disagree, still thinking and I don’t know.
Some examples of statements included in this game were:
“All boys are lazy.”
“Only girls care for children.”
Each of these fostered conversations about discrimination and stereotypes. The one statement that led to the most heated debate was, “Only girls should play with dolls.”
The group was very much divided between agree and disagree – with the majority on disagree. It was incredible to see this group go back and forth, making their statements and arguments in an articulated manner:
“Boys playing with dolls go against tradition here, it would not be right.”
“Boys should not play with baby dolls because it is the women’s job to care for the baby.”
“Boys should play with dolls if they want, we should not discriminate or prevent people from doing what they want.”
“Boys should play with baby dolls so that the first time they hold a real baby, they have some experience. It is their responsibility to care for the babies as well.”
“Saying boys cannot play with baby dolls is like saying girls cannot play sports, maybe that was tradition before but traditions change.”
I’m paraphrasing and including only a few of the statements made but coming together as a group and discussing the activity, the students said that they felt empowered playing the game because they had the opportunity to speak and the opportunity to be heard. They also felt like they had a right to speak and have their voices heard and were able to learn about others’ views. They also learned that discussion is a very effective way of communicating about disagreements but that it is also okay to disagree.
Later that day (after participating in another play session in Clara Town), we joined a youth forum discussing drugs and drug abuse, a prominent issue in communities such as Clara Town and West Point. Attending the session was: Clara Town’s community chairman, a member from the Youth and Sports Ministry, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Youth Council for Clara Town consisting of about 20 young males and only one female.
They discussed what factors are responsible for the high rate of drug abuse in their community. They listed an entire range of causes including lack of education, lack of self-esteem, experimentation, normalization of drug use among certain groups, addiction remaining from war time use, using to cope with trauma either from the civil war or from trauma that has been incurred since and cyclical processes that pass from one generation to the next.
Then came the question about the way forward and two individuals really stood out to me. First was a member of the youth council who said something that seems like common sense but that often gets overlooked: dealing with the underlying root cause. He spoke about how it was not enough to merely take punitive action or removing certain individuals from the community but create initiatives to address the actual cause of the problem or you would only be creating a band-aid fix at best. It seems so simple but we do this back home too. We shy away from the actual causes of particular problems because there is not a simple solution. The solution, like the root cause of the problem, will be more complex in nature.
The representative from the Youth & Sport Ministry then spoke about how the solutions need to be implemented at all levels, from the smallest unit to larger policy level interventions. He spoke about how the youth in the room had the power to make a change in their community, starting with small changes and advocacy efforts by looking to families and members of the community by creating social support networks. Policies and large level changes can be slow bureaucratic processes but that did not mean that change wouldn’t happen at that level, nor did it mean that change had to wait, it started with each and every one of them.
The forum was in a community centre within Clara Town. It was a hot day and after two hours, you could see that peoples’ attention was starting to wane. Then ROCH introduced the next speaker to make their remarks, “an individual who had at one point in their life struggled with alcohol and drug abuse then overcame it to become a champion”. At that point, Clara stood up and immediately, every single person in the room leaned forward. They held onto every single word Clara spoke about her extremely challenging upbringing which led her to start smoking and drinking at age 12 and within a few years, had her spending the majority of her time on the streets, using drugs without direction or any positive influence until she saw the Olympic Games. The power of sport, positive people in her life and the urge to be someone better brought her back to life and completely changed the path she was taking. The people in that room could be those change makers, they could be that positive influence for those in the community. Nowhere in the world is free from struggle and challenge. While our struggles and challenges may differ, change starts with you and you have the power to make a difference even if it is only in one person’s life.
One of the most incredible things about this trip is witnessing the circumstances here, the conditions in which these people live and seeing so many people looking out for each other and protecting the well-being of those around them. Many of the community leaders do not have jobs but still volunteer their time to implement Right To Play programs because when these kids have nothing else, they at least have this chance to come together to meet other children and have a positive role model. It makes me think about how at home, I am guilty of this too. We often get so caught up in our own lives that we forget to pay attention to those around us. We don’t take the time to notice or learn about the people around us. It is so important because when you have nothing else, you need the people in your life.
As the saying in the Right To Play office in Liberia goes: “Look after yourself, look after one another.”