“Are Scouts dark?”
Michelle, a 7-year-old girl looks up at me with large, questioning eyes. Joshua, a boy of 8, pulls at my arm—he wants to leave Clondalkin Towers, the direct provision center where he lives, for the Scouting den where we will be hosting a meeting that evening. I pull away from Joshua to turn back toward Michelle, my frantic motion betraying my shock as I fail to keep my cool.
My mind is moving quickly. I ask Michelle to repeat what she had just asked. She asks the same question and, as I freeze with a sudden indecision about how to deal with this tricky subject, I can feel her impatience grow.
I freeze because this is the exact question I have spent my first two weeks trying to get Scouting Ireland to answer. And on that rainy Tuesday, after two and a half weeks in Ireland, I still don’t know.
Michelle is a person of color, just like every other child I will be leading from Clondalkin Towers, a direct provision center that houses asylum seekers who are attempting to resettle in Ireland without the resources to live on their own. We are going to the local Scouting Den to interact with a group of Beavers, Scouts aged between 6 and 8, that is entirely composed of white children. RIA, a part of Ireland’s Department of Justice, has funded this program as a way to increase interactions between asylum seekers and Irish nationals.
This summer, I am working with Scouting Ireland, an organization of 50,000 that, as far as I can tell from my own limited experiences, is a relatively homogenous group filled with middle class white children. In three short words, Michelle has found a way to voice my every concern about the organization I am serving, and everything that I would hope to change about it.
Throughout my short time in Ireland, I have heard plenty of talk about Ireland’s increasing diversity. This past Thursday, Muyre, a coordinator at a school whose children I work with every week and a native Dubliner, explained to me that she did not see a black person until she was 8, and now she works with students of color every day. But, as Ireland continues to grow in terms of cultural diversity, the question remains how these newcomers will integrate into Irish culture, and how welcoming the Irish will be. The programs on which I am conducting research present just one path out of endless possibilities through which to accomplish this.
Upon entering the Scouting Den, the children from Clondalkin Towers were immediately taken aback and did not want to join the circle of scouts, in part because the leader, Aiman, was in the midst of briefing his scouts.
This immediately created the uncomfortable image of the white children in a circle on one side of the room, and the children of color opposite them. As I look at Michelle in this situation, I knew her question has been answered. Without the demographic diversity to reflect the surrounding communities, Scouts may be an uncomfortable place to minorities within the Irish community.
After overcoming these barriers to inclusion, the scouts and children from the direct provision center split into four groups to complete the activities planned for the day. They get to know each other through icebreakers and learn about the food of each other’s cultures. A final, striking moment from Tuesday’s meeting came at its end. The children from Clondalkin Towers had been incessantly asking us the week prior for a neckerchief, the ultimate sign of Scouting. As we gave each child their own neckerchief, pairs of eyes lit up.
Each of these children—Irish or asylum seeker, black or white, boy or girl—has a different background, a different story to tell. My task is to teach them to listen to and value the stories of others; this is the only way that they will truly learn beyond the scope of the classroom, and beyond the scope of their homes. Only through listening and interacting can the Scouts escape the label of asylum seeker to appreciate the complex humanity of their peers at Clondalkin Towers.
Interculturalism in practice through youth work will always be uncomfortable. Children will have to learn to push their own boundaries and to learn when they have crossed a line. Ireland will have to work to create inclusive spaces where people will feel safe and comfortable regardless of their identities. As Ireland becomes more diverse, this intercultural exchange will only become more important.