READ: Social Cohesion Exchange 2018

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Robert McCall, MSYP for Perthshire North and member of YoYP 2018's Communic18 Co-design Champions group, recently took part in an exchange to the United States of America with young people from Scotland and the rest of the UK.

He has written a blog about his experiences to share with other young Scots. 

The exchange was funded and managed by the U.S Department of State and the U.S. Embassy London

Read Robert's blog below...

Following on from last year's Jo Cox Memorial Exchange, this year the Social Cohesion Exchange brought together 12 young people from all over the UK to travel up the east coast of the U.S. We visited North Carolina, Virginia, Washington DC and finally Pennsylvania. Looking at a range of issues including homelessness, Islamophobia, racial tensions as well as visiting some of the most incredible social organisations.

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Part 1: North Carolina

Starting in Durham, NC, we met with a local councillor for the city. Durham is a very progressive city, Cllr Charlie Reece claimed when we first met him. From the conversation the following hour, I agreed with him. They were looking at fare-free buses in the city, to a $15 minimum wage for council staff and their very own youth commission that advises the council directly on all areas of policy affecting young people (I sort of wished we had all of this back home).

We then moved on to Raleigh, the capital of NC. It’s an understatement to say that this day included two of the most inspirational organisations I think I will ever visit. We started at Pullen Baptist Memorial Church (I’ll admit my initial impression was incredibly pessimistic). Talking to Rev. Nancy Petty, the openly gay pastor of the church, and Brian Crisp. This was a church that had been excluded and removed from Baptist church associations in Raleigh, North Carolina and the Southern Baptist Convention. This church should have suffered due to it’s views and values, and yet it was clearly a thriving community. They had close links with many other religions, openly accepted people from the LGBT community and was actively inclusive of people from all backgrounds.

The church was involved in many social issues, from activism against institutional racism, to helping the homeless locally. It was a church that had community at the centre of everything it stood for, community beyond the social segregation that we self impose on ourselves. Actively challenging our self-imposed divisions in religion, social-class and race. We served lunch for those struggling with food-insecurity and homelessness. This is when the realisation of the ‘community’ they had spoken about all morning was realised. The pastors knew many by name, and there was no rush to move on, in fact you were encouraged to stay and chat. It was so much more than just a service for those in significant need, it was all about providing community for everyone that came through the door, without judgement or prejudice.

Later that day we visited the Lighthouse Project. This was founded after the murder of 3 Muslim students. Originally the crime was dismissed as a parking dispute by the police, however a week later it was announced as a hate crime. The lighthouse project provides a space for young people, a space to congregate, plan, work and organise social action. Started by the brother of one of the victims, it supports a number of small social organisations run by young people, giving them the space and skills to fully realise their ambitions and vision.

The final stop in NC was Greensboro. An epicentre of the civil rights movement, Greensboro had led the sit-in movement in the 60’s, and was at the centre of social action during this period. However it has a very divided community. In 1979, an anti-KKK rally ended in the murder of 5 local residents, in what became known widely as the Greensboro massacre. The divisions in the community however are fresh to this day, visiting the Beloved Community Centre we heard of the distrust and resentment of the police that had grown after the massacre, and the effort that has been put in over the past 4 decades to bring the community back together.

We visited the international civil rights museum in Greensboro. The history of the civil rights movement was certainly a large part of Greensboro. But the institutionalised racism that existed (and still exists many would argue) was shocking. While we were there we came across a coke vending-machine, with two sides to it. Before the end of segregation, one side was for white guests while the other was for those of colour. On the one side you would be charged 5 cents for a can, while on the other... 10. We were informed that coca-cola had intended for it to ‘serve more customers.’ Make of that what you will.

We finished our stay in NC by attending a March For our Lives rally in Greensboro. The student movement that was started after the Florida High School shooting. There were speakers from all walks of life, and yet they were all young, it was inspirational to see a grassroots movement entirely run by young people have such a huge impact, touring the country in opposition of guns. However there was also a small counter protest following this tour. An armoured truck selling guns was parked less than 200 meters from the main stage, a cruel reminder of how divided a country America is over gun rights.

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Part 2: Washington D.C.

One of the first people we met in D.C. was Andy Shallal, the owner of Busboys and Poets, a local restaurant that also used its space to foster dialogue on topical issues. Andy had also run for Mayor of DC in 2014, and is a well known local activist. Not afraid to speak his mind, Andy was clearly very enthusiastic about the work he does, but sees his restaurant as so much more than just food. His vision, which had clearly been realised, was for his restaurant to allow people to talk about divisive issues, debate and bridge conflicts. With weekly well-attended events on controversial topics, it was certainly very impressive to see the work he’s done and is continuing to expand on.

Washington Parks and People was next up on the agenda. The organisation started with just a few locals walking around the park that had the highest murder rate in Washington. And all they had to do when they went out was say ‘hello’ to everyone they came across. 25 years on and the organisation is clearly thriving, working in many parks across D.C. with the aim of simply re-connecting people with their public spaces. So much of what they said was incredibly relevant to issues we have in the UK, with poor use of green-spaces and over-complicated planning permissions that are an arduous task for anyone. While they may have an advantage over Scotland with their weather (32 degrees and it was only 11am!!), their mission is one that we should also aspire to - for our parks (and people) to be the centre of communities.

As a group it would be an understatement to say that we didn’t like early mornings! But on our second day in the US capital we found ourselves leaving the hotel at 6am (minus two who had unsurprisingly slept-in). We were heading to So Others Might Eat, or SOME. A charity based in the centre of DC, SOME provided everything including food, medical provisions, housing and advice. We only saw the morning food service, this was our second time serving to the homeless. It was a very different type of experience compared to that of Pullen. SOME was focussed on enabling people to climb the ladder, providing a step up to social mobility. While it may have lacked in the community feel of Pullen, I certainly shouldn’t understate how effective they are. As with many large cities, you’re quite often unaware of the social issues that have deep roots in communities. While DC might be overflowing with affluent politicians and the governments workforce, there is also a deep issue of poverty.

One of our final stops in Washington was the National Disability Rights Network. We discussed legislation in America protecting people with disabilities, and how it often did not work. The network has spent a lot of time campaigning for better legislation, and investigate breaches of current legislation nationwide. Through the conversation it struck me just how unaware I was of the impacts that certain things can have on people who struggle with disabilities, and that what I might consider a simple task in something unattainable for many people. Simple things like ensuring there’s wheelchair access when organising an event is something that would rarely cross my mind. Simply being mindful of our surroundings and ensuring that everything we do is fully accessible is a very simple task, but one that is often forgotten.

Of course we couldn’t have gone around Washington without going to see all the monuments and museums, so here are a few pictures of us in the scorching sun!

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Part 3: Philadelphia, PA

Our first stop in Philly was the Broad Street Ministry for our third service programme. There was quite an excitable atmosphere when we arrived, and again this was completely different from the two we had already visited. The church hall was set out like a restaurant, and during the 2 hours we were there our role was to provide table service to everyone who came through the door. A theme that had continuously come up throughout our trip was equality and how our prejudices and stereotypes can create a very hostile environment. By providing table service and simply seeing the people who came through the door as equals, we were starting to challenge our own baseless prejudices, and overcome the stigma that often prevents the first step towards solving social issues.

Philly Student union was next on the agenda. This was an extremely relatable project, very similar to the youth councils we see across Scotland. But it was incredible to see the level of support that they had locally and the impact that they were creating. There was a buzz in the centre that was quite exciting and different from the atmosphere surrounding youth engagement here in Scotland, but if we could create that atmosphere back home then there would simply be no stopping young people today and in the future.

The Anti-Defamation League, based in central Philadelphia, was one of our final stops before heading home. They focussed on tackling anti-semitism and monitoring levels of anti-semitic views worldwide. It shocked me profusely to learn that roughly 12% of British people held anti-Semitic views, and shocked me even more to learn that this was considered a low figure for Europe. The mission statement they read and the way they described their work has me in awe of the work they were doing, and yet further into the conversation I found myself questioning their methods. Following revelations that there had been human rights abuses in Israeli jails, there was a global Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement. But it was surprising to learn that ADL had opposed this and advocated against the use of this tactic. It opened my eyes into the disagreements between social action organisations, something which I would never have considered as an issue. There are so many competing methods of tackling social issues, but never would I have thought it to be a divisive issue.

Of course I couldn’t finish this blog without saying a bit about the amazing people I spent two weeks with. My fellow Scot Sarah (who’s accent saved me from breakdowns at points), who came on behalf of SYP. And of course the Lee family (pictured below), with Courtney, Sylvia, some tall Scottish boy, Tommy and Orlaith. Without them all my two weeks simply wouldn’t have been the same, and I’m so glad to have met such a group of inspiring people from around the UK and beyond.

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Robert is a Minister of the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP) for Perthshire North. SYP is the democratically elected voice of Scotland's young people. Ministers of the Scottish Youth Parliament (MSYPs) range in age from 14 to 25 and represent constituencies in all 32 local authorities throughout the country, and several national voluntary organisations. To find out more about SYP, visit syp.org.uk.

Interested in embracing international opportunities? Head over to #Globescotters for all things at home and abroad - including some big Young Scot Rewards prizes!