Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Banksy, Brook and a uniquely Bristolian Battle with the Bureaucrats

Brook in Bristol recently moved into new premises with a range of organisations including Bristol Youth. The Station was developed and created by a group of local organisations and young people discussing and deciding what they could do for all young people in Bristol. The group was committed to listening to young people’s voices and their opinions on the services that they wanted at The Station.

Young people wanted a safe space where they could meet, be themselves and not be judged, be creative and get help and support when they needed it. From the beginning young people said that they wanted a sexual health service and Brook being Brook had to respond. After three years of hard work and support from the local NHS Brook moved into its new clinic. Young people now have the clinic that they deserve in a place that belongs to them. 

The dedicated team in Bristol is blazing a trail - they have a vision that the clinic at The Station will be a centre for learning and excellence for young people’s sexual health services.

Here Christine Townsend, trustee of Brook, a Bristol resident and educator in the City went to the launch of the new clinic…..

Bristolians of a certain age can remember a time before hordes of tourists and students gathered on a bridge at the bottom of a hill in central Bristol and take photographs of a large Banksy painting on the old Brook building in Bristol.

I, like Banksy, fit into this ‘certain age’ category. The image that appeared overnight at the bottom of that hill marked the end of our Bristol City Council removing or covering over the urban art created by Banksy. The image tourists flock to see (along with all the other Banksy pieces) remain to this day as a result of a sustained campaign to retain and nurture our particularly Bristolian take on urban underground culture.

The ‘Bristolians’ Battle for Banksy’ as it became colloquially known, raged for over four years – it galvanised people, Barton Hill to Baydock Wood, Brislington to Bedminster, Bristolians lobbied their local councillors to retain, protect and promote our working-class hero and his individual form of urban street art.

As an educationalist, what Banksy had created was one of the best sign-posting tools I ever had when educating young people about sexual health services in the city. I have countless times relayed the Bristolian, Banksy, Brook ‘insider story’ to groups of young people who like me, relish the idea that some tourists will not fully realise Banksy’s decision to paint that particular piece on Brook.

Bristol and Brook have a long history; our young person’s clinic was the first to open outside London in 1965, before either Banksy or I were born. Brook has now moved to a new purpose designed and built clinic in a multi-million pound youth facility in the centre of the city. At the launch of the Brook clinic in its new home I was pleased to see that the Banksy-Bristol-Brook legacy lives on. This iconic image now welcomes young people in the clinic’s comfortable waiting room.

Situated on the third floor of The Station, the clinic offers a sexual health service to the young people of Bristol. The Station development has bought together the creative arts in the form of music studios, dance and performance areas, a young person run café and access to health and well-being services all under one roof.

Since opening the clinic has continued to provide the top-class confidential sexual health service that generations of young Bristolians have benefited from. Those who use it now are also able to enjoy a latte or two while they wait!

Professionals will also benefit from these facilitates; the new clinic offers an accessible bookable space for training or running educational workshops with young people and will, I hope, grow to become a centre of excellence for professional development in Bristol in the years to come. The opening of this new clinic within The Station marks a step change in the way young people can access sexual health services in Bristol. It remains a role for all of us working within the CYPS workforce to ensure we continually promote the many benefits to young people of spending an afternoon or two at The Station.

And so, how to sign-post this fabulous new clinic? With the council well and truly aware of the value placed on Banksy’s art, my new year wish will be to awake one morning in 2013 to his newest creation, celebrating the health and creativity of the young people of Bristol. I for one will welcome a new piece of urban street art that will add a further stop on the tourist trail for the thousands of tourists and be another chapter to the Banksy-Bristol-Brook legacy.

So my message to Banksy, when he reads this blog as I’m confident he will, is to create an even better sign-posting tool for educationalists that directs our young people to the even better Brook Clinic. After all it wasn’t THAT long ago both you and I were amongst their number and would be in a position to use this fantastic service!

Friday, 15 February 2013

Gender: a question of perception

Kai Wooder, Education Lead for the North was awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship in 2012/3 in order to learn about how sex and relationships services are delivered in Toronto and New York City. Here she guest blogs and provides a snap shot of some of her learning.

Having worked specifically in the sexual health field for 7 years and more generally with young people for much longer I felt it was time for me to challenge my own practice, values and actions by visiting, understanding and learning from both professionals and young people in North America. I’ve always been clear that the work we do at Brook is exceptional and that we are a pioneering, effective and brave organisation. From my fellowship experience I wanted to ascertain if my own knowledge, skills and experience were still a good match for Brook and also to explore ways that we could improve future practice.  I also instinctively believe that educators all over the world will find fresh, creative and unique ways to engage and work with young people and I wanted to see innovative practice first hand.  I wasn’t disappointed. I learnt more than I can write about here and my full report can be found at  if you’d like to read more.

One of the key learning points for me was in being challenged to really think about gender. In the UK gender is still in the main viewed as a binary concept which serves to define people as Male or Female. With this label comes strict codes of conduct in terms of how you should and shouldn’t behave; careers, fashion, media and even the deodorants we use are gendered which when you really think about it is quite bizarre. Anyone who strays from what is socially expected are often viewed with suspicion and treated with disrespect. Your gender identity and your gender expression are supposed to match and so if you are a woman, you should act like one! This experience is magnified when you add sexuality into the mix. How does gender impact on you if you are lesbian? Well, young women who attend our LGBT group at Brook tell us that if you’re feminine (in the expected sense) then you may be accused of being unauthentic in your gayness and if you’re masculine (in the expected sense) then you may well be asked ‘why do you want to look like a man’? both of these judgements can be harmful and are powered by a socially constructed concept. If something is socially constructed surely it can be socially deconstructed? I was part of a conversation with a group of young gay men recently who were talking about their weight and build. One of the group referred to himself as ‘straight thin but gay fat’ highlighting the expectation that gay men need to be slimmer than straight men; finding ways to segregate rather than consolidate is seemingly rife.

We are so obsessed by wanting to put people in neat little boxes and for them to stay there; conformingly, that we don’t often see the damage it causes. Toronto was so forward thinking in terms of gender; their approach, understanding, legislation, publications and policies were inclusive and embracing.  This manifested in how people lived their lives and went about their business. I met many people and at times I didn't know who was male or female because they didn’t conform to my own perceived social norms, this confused me at first and I had to really challenge and question my own perceptions and judgements. In the end I realised that it didn't matter that I couldn’t define someone as male or female and removing the barrier of gender left me to get on with building relationships with people.

This makes me question why we need to try and name something before we can try to understand it? We create our own social cultures and maybe it’s time for all of us to challenge our own ideas about gender, even just for today.
Brook has a new resource: Learn your LGBT ABC, to find out how to order copies visit

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Safer Internet Day and why education is key

Yesterday was Safer Internet Day and the Sex Education Forum, together with the Anti-Bullying Alliance published a guide for parents and carers to help children enjoy safer online relationships. It focuses on the importance of talking together and gives tips on getting conversations started. You can download the resource here:

Also highlighted in the news this week was the fact that the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) have seen an increasing number of cases of abusers targeting children and young people purely online, with no intention to meet them. This is still abuse. At Brook we work to protect young people from harm and we know the importance of education to help young people to recognise when behaviour is appropriate, and when it isn’t and to know where they can seek help and support. We know that blocking technology at the source isn’t the cure - good education is the most powerful tool in combating this horrid abuse of children.

If you picked up a copy of the Metro this morning you can read more in the letter I sent to the Metro published today.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Standing on the shoulders of brave people - LGBT History Month matters

Some people get weary of 'awareness days and months'.  Lets face it there are, to all of us, many that seem unnecessary or ridiculous, but are the most important thing in the world to others.  Just like Easter Eggs appear in the shops on Boxing Day, so too red ribbons for World AIDS Day appear before the moustaches have been shaved off for Movember.  And so we pick and choose what matters to us for what ever reason.

LGBT History Month starts today and it matters to me.  I'd like to think it would matter to me if I was a straight man, but who knows because I am not.  It matters because I am gay and because I have the privilege of living an open, proud and happy life and I know that is only possible because I am able to stand on the shoulders of those that went before me.  It also matters to Brook in achieving our mission of enabling ALL young people to enjoy their sexuality without harm, and diversity is one of our core values.

But it wasn't that long ago that being gay was illegal.  When I was growing up the age of consent was 21 (feels a long way off at 16) and then 18 before it was equalised at 16.  Section 28 was still on the statute books less than 15 years ago.  And it still remains sadly true that boys and girls are bullied and hurt because they are gay, bisexual or transgendered.  Unbelievably people continue to be killed in the UK - in fact less than 1/2 mile away from my flat in Clapham - and around the world because they are gay.

In the UK gay rights progressed at an astonishing pace under New Labour - equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, the introduction of civil partnerships and the Equality Duties.  Wonderful progress, but frighteningly recent.

I was involved in the policy and advocacy work to equalise the age of consent and repeal Section 28.  At the Stonewall party to celebrate the age of consent there were two elderly men - as they danced tears rolled freely down their cheeks and I spoke to them later - they had never imagined seeing the day that the age of consent would be equal and their love would be validated.    

Last month I was in New York to celebrate the wedding of two friends.  We went to Stonewall, now a quiet, comfortable relaxed bar - less than 50 years the place that police behaved brutally and triggered a response that would radically change the gay rights movement.  On that same street we played Gay Bingo with Vodka Slinger, our wonderful drag host.  Later that night the streets were full after karaoke and there was rightly no hint of fear.

But that safety now exists because there were brave, principled, moral people who demanded recognition, who refused to hide, who said I am that person who can be in the top job and were willing to dedicate, and sometimes sacrifice, their life to achieving the civil rights so many of us can now enjoy.

And there is no room for complacency - around the world the death penalty still exists.  I know that in the UK I will not be arrested for loving another man.  More than that I know that I have almost the same rights in almost all situations (giving blood aside) even if not everyone feels able to realise those but sex and relationships education still fails to address diverse sexualities adequately and some children are being bullied mercilessly .

So, for me LGBT month is an opportunity for Brook to do our bit to raise awareness of LGBT rights.  And I am delighted that a group of our young volunteers have published a booklet called the ABC of LGBT that has arrived from the printers today (look at @simonablake to see it in all its bright loveliness); that our teams across the country will be working hard to help young people celebrate and enjoy diversity.

At a policy level Brook will be urging MPs to support the Same Sex Marriage Bill, urging people to be sensible about what and how we will teach children about equal relationships and marriage, and being clear that the myths the Society Protection for Unborn Children are peddling in schools is scaremongering nonsense.

So LGBT History Month matters because it reminds us to celebrate the progress that has been made; reminds us to be grateful to those who have gone before us, dedicating and sometimes sacrificing their lives to achieve equal rights. It is also a time for personal quiet reflection and to be determined to stand on the shoulders of many before us and confidently shout Stonewall's slogans from every roof top we want Some People are Gay: Get Over It.