Learning to dream is as important for young people as developing work skills
Amid mounting public concern over tragically high rates of youth unemployment in SA, much of the discussion has ranged from a fairly narrow focus on fee-free higher education to a broader debate about the education, training and skills development system as a whole.
Certainly, improving the quality of teaching and learning outcomes in education is a critical piece of the puzzle. Many youth who have exited the schooling system lack even the basic reading, writing and computer literacy skills required to look for work, let alone land a job and remain employed.
There are also numerous interventions — public and private — aimed at promoting entrepreneurship among our youth and, again, these are important and necessary.
But our experience at the Chrysalis Academy is that there is far more to youth development than simply imparting useful skills.
The majority of young people coming through our doors come from communities afflicted by extreme levels of unemployment and poverty, where violence, gangs and drug abuse are rife.
In many ways these young people inhabit places resembling a conflict zone and they carry the kinds of psychological trauma one would associate with growing up in such circumstances. They have witnessed or experienced domestic violence or seen people being shot.
Some of our graduates have been killed for resisting gangs or have been caught in the crossfire.
The ever-present threat of violence, temptation of drugs and demoralising grind of looking for work can swiftly revive the sense of worthlessness and negativity instilled by the seemingly uncaring world they were raised in.
We realised at Chrysalis that we needed training as trauma-release practitioners, along with more traditional youth development approaches, and were fortunate in 2012 to find support from Distell, which took the risk of funding what was then a new therapeutic approach and to this day continues to understand that our work is about personal transformation more than the mere provision of resources.
Trauma lodges deep in all dimensions of being — in the body, mind and spirit — and developing a more positive connection with the self and others makes it possible to discover the power to take control of the future.
This is why our three-month programme includes physical, emotional, mental, energetic and spiritual development. Strenuous physical exercise is combined with the exploration of creative avenues like photography and art as well as emotional development, so that young people learn to recognise the triggers causing anger and how to regulate their emotions.
Discovering the capacity to dream and create can unlock a new sense of self-awareness that allows growth and transformation to begin. Learning to recognise how the body responds to negative stimulus like shouting or violence helps to develop mindfulness and the ability to pause and pay attention to one’s reactions, making it possible to control them better.
Fitness and improved health contribute to greater clarity of thought and emotion. We also provide one-to-one counselling and group therapy and assess progress over the three months.
Our graduates then enter a 12-month internship that prepares them better for the world of work.
This holistic approach emanates from a recognition that our young people — despite the hardships they endure — are whole and have strengths that they simply haven’t discovered. More than skills — which we also teach — they need the resilience to understand that, despite their challenging socioeconomic context and strained family situations, they have the power to change this.
Young people need the things that ignite the human spirit — love, safety, accountability — which our society fails in many ways to provide and demonstrate. They need the resilience to make better choices when so many evils confront them and to stay on a positive trajectory no matter the difficulty.
Our programme shows them they have the tools and the power to change, and spurs them to ask themselves: “Who are you waiting for?”
Our approach is now being replicated by the Vuma and Esicabazini academies in KwaZulu-Natal and we have also been visited by a delegation from the Gauteng provincial government, which is also interested in adopting it. My hope is that we will begin to innovate our youth development approach in SA, taking account of the whole person, which is a much more powerful way of effecting change than skills development alone.
Dr Lucille Meyer is CEO of the Chrysalis Academy, a youth development programme in the Western Cape funded by the provincial government