Reflections on working with young people on leadership and violence

A session with the Masakhane School Leavers programme at the Edgewood campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal this afternoon focused on leadership in relation to violence.  With about 150 young people, mostly from schools but with a group of facilitators from the University, it was, as always, compelling and thought-provoking.  I started the workshop in a light-hearted way and then set up the conditions under which people might feel safe in speaking about violence, through a full discussion of guidelines we could follow.

I asked those present to speak about any experience of violence that they had had, or witnessed, in pairs.  The next phase of the discussion was about what it was like to speak, and what it was like to listen.  There were such profound insights into the process of talking about violence – the contradictory emotions, the breaking of isolation, the sense of being pulled back into the original hurtful situation, the sense of connection that one develops as you see the other person in a new light.

I kept reminding people to hear the importance of what they were saying.  They are in an education system that often undermines their sense of intelligence and worth, but the insights went straight to the heart of what we know about violence, and were in themselves such a force for nonviolence.

I then asked people to speak about the leadership they had taken for nonviolence.  There were at first long, and I think, necessary, silences.  Then people began to speak, and it became clear that some young people feel an intense need to have the violence against themselves heard.   In the tears and anger there was also such clarity; a girl speaking about how she continues to love her abusive mother, and the need to remind herself that there is life, poetry and beauty beyond the abuse.   Other young women spoke of the struggle to forgive themselves after rape.

I spoke briefly of the need for men to face up to the damage done by not speaking about their lives.  One young man spoke with such gratitude of what he had learnt from the session, and how he had always tried to put things out of his mind, but without success.  Another, who had spoken with feeling of how the conversation with his good friend had brought a change, a sense of humility, also spoke of the difficulties faced in Black communities when there are no safe spaces for people to speak.

We are serious about tackling violence.  In a society racked by violence over long periods of time, that means creating spaces, even temporary like the one today, where people can speak, be acknowledged as who they are, and can be affirmed in their ability to recover.  The capacity for leadership is deep; we need to remind ourselves of that and validate the work of young leaders.

Crispin Hemson