Guest blog by Susan Hunter, Chief Officer of YouthBorders and Trustee of Together.
How do we feel about labels?
I have a mixed feeling about them – sometimes they are helpful, sometimes they make us feel proud, but sometimes they don’t tell us very much or they simply put us in a box.
Twenty years ago, in 2001, my label was: Young Person.
What does it even mean to be a ‘Young Person’? Well, let me tell you what it does not do today, definitely did not do back 2001 – It doesn’t recognise the diversity, uniqueness, or individuality of people with different circumstances, experiences, knowledge, interests, and aspirations.
I’m sure you will be able to recall a conversation in your workplace where someone suggests “we should find out what children and young people think or want!” Whilst good intentioned, it’s a bit like saying “what do adults think?” and if you’ve ever dabbled in social media, you’ll quickly appreciate that there isn’t just one answer. Unless surround by those who will tell you what you want to hear, you definitely shouldn’t expect a homogenous response.
Fast forward 10 years
In 2011, I supported Elected Members who were ‘Children’s Champions’. After consulting with children and young people to inform a decision, one Councillor said, “when I ask children and young people, they all say different things!” I responded with something along the lines of, “well how about you use the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to guide and support you to make your decisions?”
Why did I make this suggestion?
In my view, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, also known as the ‘UNCRC’ is the best framework in the world to help guide adults to do the right thing for children and young people. The UNCRC is a blueprint for how adults should act to enable every child and young person to reach their potential, and it does this by ensuring a minimum standard of provision, protection, and participation.
What makes me form this view?
Let me take you back to the turn of the millennium – this Susan was a bit lost. An awkward self-conscious teenager, growing up in Forfar, who didn’t fit the labels that many of my peers had. I wasn’t ‘sporty’, ‘musical’ or ‘cool’. Navigating life as a teenager is hard when you don’t have a tribe. But then, I found my tribe, or rather they found me. Six names:
Ann. Joe. Val. Nancy. Bob. Maggie.
Between 1996 and 2002, these six youth workers fundamentally changed my life. They gave me space to be me – to just be ‘Susan’ and this Susan would become a founding member, and later the Chairperson, of Angus Youth Congress. Through this, I was introduced to Monica Hodgkinson, a Child Rights Officer at the local authority. Monica’s passion for human rights and the wellbeing of children was infectious and I was hooked. Finally! Something that made sense to me, something to ground my desire to contribute my voice, to share my experiences, to create change, to improve my community not just for me but for others and for the future. I began to eat, sleep, breathe Article 12 of the UNCRC: the right to be heard.
I began to lead.
In those six years, as part of various local, regional and national forums, I became a change-maker. Shaping the decision for Scotland to have a Children and Young People’s Commissioner; being a member of the Millennium Youth Council; providing evidence to parliamentary committee; organising a youth summit for young people at Tulliallan to improve youth relations with the Police; establishing The Pitstop and Corner House youth clubs; and piloting the use of Young Scot smart card technology.
On the 17th September 2002, I contributed evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government Committee – a debate on ‘Renewing Local Democracy’. When asked by a Member of Scottish Parliament “what has been progressed?”
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has been important for the Youth Congress. We have promoted that through working with social work department and attending conferences on health, police, and drugs and alcohol.
My colleague that day, a local elected member said:
We took our time and proved to the young people that we would not dictate our ideas to them… only when we demonstrated that we valued their contribution, valued them as members of society, that we were prepared to put our money where our mouth was, did young people become willing to take ownership of the initiatives, which they have done so successfully… It is a profound partnership which has worked for us thus far.
Why am I telling you this?
The investment of high quality, well-resourced youth work in 12-year-old Susan altered the course of my life. Today, I’m the Chief Officer of YouthBorders – a regional network of 45 community-based youth work organisation in the Scottish Borders and a trustee of Together. I’m the first generation of my family to go to university. In my career, the UNCRC has been with me every day. It has led me to co-create opportunities with young people including youth-led grant making, international youth work exchanges to promote dialogue on Child Rights and a ground-breaking youth commission on bullying. I found a career path that would enable me to collaborate with others. Maybe someday, I would be someone’s Ann or Nancy… that one trusted adult who would be there for the long haul, believe in their potential, remove barriers, and challenge, empower and create space for change.
We need funders to invest in the potential of our children and young people.
Through sustained, long-term funding in trusted community organisations, full of passionate and dedicated volunteers, staff, leaders, trustees, we can support successive generations of children and young people. I said it once, ten years ago and I’ll say it again today “…use the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to guide and support you to make your decision”.
I began my youth work journey 25 years ago and during this time I watched children and young people be amazing advocates for their rights, and in March this year, I watched with pride as these efforts made way for our Parliament to unanimously pass a Bill that would incorporate the UNCRC into Scots Law.
Whilst feeling such pride, I also couldn’t help feeling frustration at the pace of change. The UNCRC was signed in 1990, the age of 6-year-old Susan. We cannot wait another few decades again. The time rights-based decision-making and budgeting is now. We must be courageous. We must be brave. We must be persistent in our mission to make Scotland the best place to grow up. Children, young people and our communities cannot wait any longer.
What are my labels today?
Today my labels are multiple: Mum. CEO. Trustee. Youth Worker. Volunteer. Unfeartie. Human Rights Defender. Leader.
About the author
Susan is Chief Officer of YouthBorders. YouthBorders is the network of voluntary and community-based youth organisations in the Scottish Borders. Susan joined YouthBorders in March 2019, having previously worked as Policy and Research Manager at YouthLink Scotland for four years, and as Youth Participation Officer at Scottish Borders Council for six years. Susan served as a trustee of Together, (Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights) for three years until 2018; and was then re-appointed to the board in September 2020. Susan co-authored “The Impact of Community-based Universal Youth Work in Scotland.” She graduated from the University of Strathclyde in 2007 with a Post Graduate Certificate in Community Education; having completed undergraduate studies in Social Policy and Sociology at the University of Edinburgh with an overseas year at Queen’s University, Canada.