Reflections on training (pre-corrymeela)

Today we did youth work with a local group again, for the last time (it will happen next week, but Hannah and I will be gone). The primary exercise we did today was “not on my street”, an exercise where youth ranked the order of people that they would want/not want in their community. The members included ‘gay nurse’, orange order member, SF councilor, ex RUC constable, community worker, reformed drug addict, part time female model, bus driver, hospital doctor, and unemployed youth. The order of preference varied by group, but the discussion within the group I was in was fascinating. I was the scribe, but also asked probing questions about the rationale behind why youth answered the way they did, and got some very interesting answers. The group ranked gay nurse very low (9), and member of orange order last (every group consistently did so). The female model was ranked first, not unsurprisingly because our group was ¾ male, but the interesting thing was why. I asked if they would change their answer if the model was male, they affirmed this. The lone female in the group (F to preserve anonymity) was very charismatic (reminding me of a very ‘Swarthmore’ persona, Hannah convinced her to apply afterwards, and she gave out her contact info later in case she was interested in applying contacting her about applying there). She was consistently trying to dissuade the guys from their opinion, challenging their positions and rationale. She even decried the group as ‘sexist’ at one point, as well as homophobic (when asked about whether they focused on the ‘gay’ part of ‘gay nurse’ or the actual profession (nurse) they answered that they would focus on the gay part, ignoring the profession, regardless of the fact that [IMO] the sexual orientation of the person in question doesn’t affect how they do their job. I do understand legitimate ideological opinions about the morality of sexuality, but that shouldn’t affect perceptions of people doing their job…

The next bit was interesting ,as after all the groups had recorded their answers, they were asked to listen as [the facilitator], Hannah and myself read out the bios and background stories of each of the people they were ranking. They were then asked to discuss and then re-rank the people. I wasn’t surprised to see that this changed their answers, but it did so in an interesting way, which literally tied exactly with what we were discussing in class two weeks ago, that who you are is determined on what you where you live, and that the local context is really important in order to determine the way forward. It affects our perceptions subconsciously, and the only way to examine this bias Is through reflection and discussion. Back to the original point in question, the answers changed to a surprising extent. Model got dropped to 8, and the nurse was brought up to 2 (as F has wanted, she then rescinded her comment about the group being ‘sexist’). The idea of making youth question their preconceptions by hearing the full story, and question their gut reaction was particularly interesting, and I admit, I questioned my own assumptions and biases, which was the goal of the exercise.
It would be fascinating to run this (albeit with different characters and context) at Swarthmore. My bet would be that anyone remotely right-wing, rich, conservative, republican, etc. would be put at the bottom of the list. I think that it’s always worth thinking through our stereotypes and questioning them. Something may be true for one member of a group, but that doesn’t mean it’s true for all of them. I’ve learned that I have my biases even in the exercise, as the image that came to mind with ‘reformed drug addict’ was male, [though I did actually focus on the reformed part, not the drug addict part], even though the case study was female. I will certainly keep in mind that with future endeavors. It never hurts to be reminded of one’s own biases, even if it is uncomfortable. It’s a growing experience I suppose…
This was the last time I will be working with the youth, as the Corrymeela residential conflicts with the last training date. I found working with the youth to be a fantastic experience overall, I enjoyed it greatly, and learned a lot about myself. Namely, I have more in common with them than I thought, and that youth work (in the right context) is actually a constructive and positive experience, even in a completely foreign context. I realized that I really enjoy being a facilitator, and given the proper training, I will develop that skill in the future.