Tea and Conversation

For the last several weeks I’ve been co-facilitating a Facing Prejudice class at the Lifford Youth Reach Home in County Donegal. Essentially this means that my friend and I ask a group of 16-18 year old boys to openly discuss racism, sectarianism and homophobia for a few hours each week to see if we can start to break down the concept of “the other.”
Many of the boys come from troubled backgrounds, been run out of Northern Ireland as a result of involvement in drugs, or committed a crime or two. We’re never sure just how many will be there, or how long they’ll decide to stay. I’ve found that once you pick out the words that aren’t expletives, there are really interesting observations from these young men.

We try not to take things one day at a time. I prefer 15 minutes intervals, a day would be too much.

Over the last few weeks I think we’ve made some progress, which can be seen in our conversations.

Our first meeting went something like this:
Young man 1: “Girl, where’s your accent from? America! Hey boys check out this doll’s accent, it’s class!”
To which I responded: “My mother named me Ashleen, not doll. Please use my name, and I’ll use yours.”
Young man 2: “Can we call you Ash?”
“No.”

Our recent meeting didn’t involve any comments about my gender, accent or general look. In fact the boys were using words like spectacular, inspirational and abysmal, and of course, demanding that we take note of the new vocabulary. They have potential, and when we mention that we have to leave exactly at 2:30 for other commitments the conversation is more like this:

“If they have a problem with you being late, send them here, we’ll straighten them out.”
—“yes, how would you do that? You know we don’t believe in violence.”
“Ashleen, who said anything about violence? We’d invite them in for a cuppa tea.”

Somehow I don’t think that a nice cup of tea has been the preferred option for settling disputes, but I’ll take it. I’ve really enjoyed this workshop, and I’ll be sad to see it end. For me, it’s been an opportunity to speak with young people about issues that are awkward, uncomfortable and untouched. It’s an opportunity to have them express what’s on their minds without fear of repercussion or consequence. It’s a chance to have a cup of tea with young people I wouldn’t otherwise get to meet.

The time in Lifford goes quickly, and then they’re left to learn how to be functioning, responsible citizens and I’m left to return to my quiet Derry life to enjoy a cup of tea.

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