Promoting diversity and equality through writing

All Different, All Equal youth project (ADAE) was a Live Literature funded project organised by Roxana Meechan at Highland Council’s Youth Development Services. Working with young people from six Sutherland villages, the aim was to promote cultural diversity, tolerance & equality within their communities and to prevent discrimination & racism amongst their peers.

Roxana wanted to provide opportunities for young people to explore and reflect on issues connected to equality, using the arts as a tool to address difficult issues in a creative way. She invited Bob Pegg to carry out six Live Literature sessions. Bob wrote an account of his experience below.

 


My job was to encourage youth club members and upper primary age children in East Sutherland to talk and write on this theme. Because I’m a storytelling musician and songwriter, it made sense to try and use all three skills, interlocking as they are in any case. Roxana was happy if the children wrote a story, a poem, a script or a song, and I would make sound recordings of everything that was produced, so if someone just wanted to tell their story, that was OK too.

Thinking hard about what would be good material to get sessions started, I lighted on the traditional story of The Girl Who Filled the House with Music (and Happiness), and the West Highland tale of the Gille Dubh. Both set up expectations – of the girl as a flibbertigibbet and the Gille Dubh as a child eating monster – then go on to confound them. I would also use my song The Wild Man of the Hills, which speaks with the voice of the outsider.

In the first meeting, at Golspie Youth Club, the story of The Girl… provoked a heated debate around the theme of what’s now called “gender equality”, which, in the Highlands, tends to boil down to the question of whether men should, or should not, do any housework. But as the sessions went on, it was the theme of the outsider that proved the most fertile. Virtually everyone had been bullied (or had been a bully), and many had a friend – often a Goth – who had made a conscious decision to step aside from their peers. I encouraged the children to inhabit the skins of these individualists, to try them on for size. They came up with some nice pieces of empathetic writing (one imagining what the first day at school would be like for a dragon among humans). I also encouraged them to illustrate their writing, to make comic strips if they wanted. This strengthened the confidence of some who found writing by itself hard work. Towards the end of the project, we made books, which again could be illustrated. They are instant, fold-up things which concentrate the mind, because there are only six pages in which to tell your story.

Some reflections:

  • Old folk tales still have power to stimulate and provoke.
  • There’s a great difference between a school session (where discipline rules), and a session in a youth club (where you have to work to keep your audience).
  • The grownups who work in youth clubs, usually for little or no money, are heroines/heroes.
  • I was struck by how many times during the sessions children asked if they were “allowed” to do something or other. It made me wonder about the origins of those voices in our heads which whisper, “Thou shalt not…”
  • It’s so invigorating to work with young people. I wish there were regular opportunities in the Highlands to do this, and I wish the mutual benefits for artists and children were more widely acknowledged.
  • You can try as hard as you like to convince them to mend their ways, but some folk prefer playing football to writing.
  • The kids are all right: this isn’t a glib way of signing off, but rather to say that the young people up here in the Highlands are smart and creative – as young people inevitably will be – and projects like this, which give them the opportunity to think, talk, write, draw, make music, help to make the culture strong.

Find out more about Roxana’s project and how to run your own author/storyteller events