Friday, 28 December 2007

Cleaning, clearing and archiving and changing the world

....are not normally favourite things to do. I understand they need to be done, and done well, I just don't enjoy it. However that was my task here at Brook yesterday and will be again today.

Contrary to my expectation, it has been an absolute treat because it has given me greater insight into the determination and courage of so many people in Brook who have provided high quality services for young people, often in a hostile environment. It has also reminded me how much has been achieved since 1964. There are boxes and boxes of letters, negotiations and records of discussions about confidentiality and young people's rights to sexual health services and education. Negotiations that have helped change attitudes towards a more positive view of young people's sexuality.

So, it is new year resolution time - if you make them, as you write your list consider the words of Marian Wright Edelman an American attorney and civil rights activist who said 'if you don't like the way the world is, you change it. You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time.'

Saturday, 22 December 2007

The importance of eye contact

Most work Christmas parties are now over. Lots of us will now be set to spend time with family and friends over the holiday season. Last week, on the way home from my Christmas party I gave some money to a young man - lets say Adam - who is (presumably still) homeless and then spent some time talking to him in central London as he shivered by the cash machine.

Adam was grateful for the money, and even more grateful for the time I spent talking to him and making him feel 'worth something'. He told me it is always hard being homeless, physically more so at winter, and it is hard emotionally at Christmas because it is a particular reminder of what you do not have. As Adam sat there asking for some loose change, thousands of people were having a fantastic time. 'Begging' he said made him feel awful, disgusting and embarrassed.

We said goodbye, me offering to pay for a hostel, Adam saying it was too late that night, he would love the cash for the following night and a drunken 'well wisher' told me i was a ******* mug for giving the money - it would after all 'only go on special brew'. As i walked away it was me that felt awful, because what Adam, like we all, want is people who take the time to talk, people who take the time to notice and people who show us respect.

You don't have to be homeless to want time and company. So much happiness comes from human contact and our relationships. Lots of people will be sad and lonely this Christmas. Giving money and time to help others is important, spending time with friends and family is too - before meeting Adam my challenge to myself was to do both properly this Christmas. After meeting Adam I added one more thing to my list - don't pretend that people sat by the cash machine don't exist - make eye contact and if they want a conversation, have one. It means a lot - often more than we think.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Brook's annual party

Last week we had our AGM, a public meeting on abortion and a parliamentary reception kindly hosted by Baroness Massey of Darwen - a leader in advocating for young people's sexual health. Our AGM provided an opportunity for us all to reflect on the highlights of the year. It is my first full year as Chief Executive and i am proud of what the Brook Network has achieved this year - we see about 1500 young people every single day - and in a recent intelligence gathering exercise, one of our stakeholders said of young people, they come in scared and they go out skipping - what a marvellous tribute to the work of the staff.

The meeting on young women and abortion addressed a number of issues

the important balancing act of offering a platform for young women's views, supporting them to express their views safely and sometimes challenging the 'right or wrong' view on abortion that particularly younger young people can hold (and are often encouraged to hold at school through polarised debates) at the same time as advocating for them clearly and strongly

the importance of raising the bar on awareness of, and confidence in accessing contraception, and of discussing contraception when a young woman has an abortion - so they do not fall pregnant again within weeks of having an abortion

the importance of strengthening young people's current experiences of teaching and learning about abortion - bringing together health perspectives, cultural and value based perspectives and legal perspectives to provide an effective learning experience. This presentation from Education for Choice ( demonstrated how brilliant they really are as an organisation and how much expertise they can offer those who are interested

the role of counsellors in providing supportive, positive and cost effective counselling, referral and support for young women. Brook's services in Birmingham provide this counsellor led referral and abortion service providers they work with have seen a zero rate of 'do not arrive' clients and noticed how well supported the young women are - what a brilliant success story with the potential for replication in other parts of the country.

Inspired and thoughtful after four brilliant presentations we went off to the parliamentary reception to chat, ponder, laugh, and learn about the extraordinary practice of knitting a uterus as sex education. The only unsatisfactory bit was seeing some people come and go, giving a smile and a wave and then not getting to the right side of the room before they had left. Much like any other good party i suppose.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

being young, gay and resilient

Whilst I was in Manchester last week I picked up a leaflet about the Lesbian and Gay Foundation ( I was horrified yet again by the statistics they gave as part of their, ‘are we really going to let this keep happening’ fundraising campaign. The facts as they appear on the leaflet are;

1 in 5 of us have tried to commit suicide
9 in 10 of us have been verbally abused
1 in 10 of us are HIV positive
4 in 5 of us have been bullied at school
3 in 5 of us have been beaten up
1 in 4 of us suffer from alcohol or drug addiction.

There is clearly no room for complacency in challenging homophobia. That said it is an interesting space that charities occupy to secure the support of the public and generate funds from statutory and non-statutory sources – it probably wouldn’t be too appealing to insert at the end of these statistics – ‘remarkable that we contribute so much to society given these facts’ or ‘what impressive emotional resilience we have’. For Brook this sometimes means we are required to focus on the negative outcomes of sex and sexuality how many young people get pregnant, or get a sexually transmitted infection.

It is even more important therefore that we remember most young people DO want to take responsibility for their sex and sexuality and for protecting their sexual health; that most do not get pregnant, and with the right support those that do and decide to proceed with the pregnancy go on to make very very good parents.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Coming into view

I am the Vice Chair of the Black Health Agency ( On Friday last week I had an inspiring day visiting staff working in different programmes across Manchester. The skills, competence and commitment of the staff is truly remarkable. They daily find creative ways to reduce the health inequalities experienced by minority communities, and enabling people to speak out for themselves.

Whilst I was at one office the youth workers told me to look out of the window at the group of young people gathered in the garden. About eight young people from the local Further Education college were rolling and smoking ‘spliffs’ in their lunch break. I was surprised at how open they were. I was also surprised by how easy it is to tut loudly. Thankfully I quickly remembered that my peers smoked spliffs during lunch when I was at college – the only difference is that it was generally done out of sight of adults.

In a world in which all our lives are increasingly open to public view via the internet and reality TV, we will get used to young people reminding us of our faded or fading youth. If we don’t we will believe the myth that is peddled by some that young people are less moral than we were, shamefully forgetting the fun and the learning that doing ‘naughty things’ offers, and condemning youth in ways that I can’t see is particularly helpful.