As I was listening to Javed Khan, the CEO of Barnardos, present at the TBAP TSA Conference on Thursday 23rd March I was struck by one thing in particular: his reflections on identity. Not just his own identity, but that of the children whom Barnardos supports relentlessly across the country every day. His observation was that now, in 2017, it is almost impossible to categorise young people in a neat, tidy, box-ticking sort of way, and this can have its own implications on the lives of young people both socially and academically.
Khan spoke of the seductive draw of gang culture: in a society where it is increasingly difficult to be secure in your own identity (be it your ethnicity, your sexuality, religious beliefs etc.) how refreshing to operate in a clear hierarchical structure, where everyone has a role and a place and there is a clear sense of belonging.
As far back as 2002 Britain was celebrating the fact that it had one of the “fastest growing mixed race populations in the world, fuelled by the continuing rise of inter-ethnic relationships”. Data from the 2001 census had shown “that Britain has one of the highest rates in the world of inter-ethnic relationships and, consequently, mixed race people,” an amazing reflection of the increasingly multi-cultural demographic of Britain’s population. Now, as the children of these relationships reach secondary school age, it is increasingly important to consider the impact that a mixed-race identity can have on young people, both the benefits and the drawbacks. Similarly, there has been a lot of media coverage recently about the challenges facing young people who are brought up in families who are ethnically similar: battling with a home life that is still very much culturally akin to growing up in Pakistan, or Jamaica or Poland, but a school and community life that is culturally British.
Here at Jamie’s Farm we are lucky enough to work one to one with over 850 young people each year and the thoughts and feelings they share in these one to one conversations provide a real insight into the complex lives of teenagers today. As part of our impact analysis, we look at themes and trends in these discussions, in particular around the barriers to learning that young people describe so we can work with our partner schools and organisations to best support vulnerable young people to succeed socially and academically.
The 2017 Autumn Term Analysis showed that 23% of young people cited issues of identity as one of their main barriers to learning, second only to family relationships and dynamics (divorce, bereavement, domestic violence, illness etc.) and a much greater problem than exam and academic pressure, peer relationships, or even the omnipresence of social media. The prevalence of identity as a cause for concern amongst young people really surprised me – perhaps it is the lack of dialogue around this on my Twitter feed, or perhaps there is a general ignorance around this, as it is only now that the children of multi cultural Britain are old enough to get their voices heard?
Some talked of not quite knowing where they fitted in – Khan, self deprecatingly talked about how he was often told to “go back where he came from!” He came from Birmingham. And his experiences still chime with those of our young people today. Some young people celebrated the cultural diversity of their family dynamic – Yorkshire pudding and plantain being a particular favourite Sunday roast accompaniment for one of our visiting young people. Others, however, are struggling between the expectations of one side of their family, compared with the expectations of the other side – caught in the middle of two very different sets of priorities and ideologies. I spoke to one young mixed race young lady whose grandparents were incredibly racist, not towards her, but towards her father’s side of the family, yet she was stuck in the middle.
These are issues that we can’t shy away from exploring with young people, celebrating and appreciating the diversity that exists in society today whilst at the same time eradicating stigmas attached to different identities, which can have hugely damaging effects both socially and academically on young people.
But, how do we help reduce this sense of isolation? How do we encourage young people to share their worries and concerns beyond the confines of a one to one conversation?
This is something we’ll continue to explore here at Jamie’s Farm, and questions that we’ll come back to in our blogs and podcasts. We’d also love to hear from anyone who might like to offer a response or share ideas and resources around ways to work with these issues.
Written by Laura Mathews
Laura is the Impact Manager for Jamie’s Farm: looking at how much of a difference we can make to young people’s lives and sharing the lessons we have learnt from young people at the farm.