Learn­ing to dream is as im­por­tant for young peo­ple as de­vel­op­ing work skills

Sunday Times - - Opinion - LU­CILLE MEYER

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

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