Finding a Path Among Endless Possibilities

“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.

Summer Studies

Entering into my eight weeks working in Dublin, I was nervous about undertaking youth work in an unfamiliar context. I value the importance of understanding an environment before taking action to tackle its shortcomings, and Dublin was a foreign land to me, represented primarily through James Joyce’s Ulysses and the satirical film Waking Ned Devine. Duke students were quick to assuage my fears, saying that Ireland’s culture would differ little from that of the United States, but I knew this would be far from the case.

Although our group read two books and watched two documentaries to help understand Ireland before our arrival, I spent much of my time in the days and weeks leading up to our departure frantically reading every piece of literature I could find on diversity and inclusiveness within Ireland’s youth sector in order to have some base level of understanding before my first day of work at Scouting Ireland.

More so than anything else, I struggled to understand the differing needs of identity groups as they interacted with my organization, Scouting Ireland. This city, as would hold true of most modern cities, has lived up to my expectations in terms of its remarkable complexity. Dublin is a paradox in and of itself: steeped in the history of a homogenous people who have inhabited the island for millennia, yet diversifying at a rate that has rendered it a hub of multiculturalism within Europe.

While I was correct in evaluating my relative lack of understanding about this island, I underestimated the value conversations could play in an on-the-ground style of learning that has characterized my seven weeks with Duke Engage. Throughout our time in Dublin, words have consistently pushed my understanding of this city.

Just as much as any youth work procedural booklet or Scouting Ireland policy, the words of those with and for whom I work have formed my basic understanding of this island and those that inhabit it. Understanding the ins and outs of this city has taken a listening ear, as I constantly pepper my boss with questions about everything from the Irish Traveller community to Direct Provision centers to the thinking behind Scouting Ireland’s Diversity and Inclusion policy.

A large part of my time in Ireland has been spent facilitating two programs that pair migrant youth with Scouts. These programs represent an important opportunity for Irish nationals and migrants to participate in peer-to-peer learning to more fully grasp each other’s backgrounds, both in their similarities and differences. While each program had its flaws, they were ultimately effective in creating an intercultural space that otherwise might not exist for Irish nationals and migrant youth to interact and learn from one another.

After the completion of this program, I sat down with Ali, who only recently arrived in Ireland. He told me that “If you are new, you don’t know any young people, you think you are excluded, you are not a part of a group. But when you have a relationship with Irish people, you feel a lot more comfortable.”

Alexandra, a 7-year-old girl from Clondalkin, explained to me that “the best part of the program was that I saw some of the children at the playground on Friday. We were chatting, and now I have new friends.”

I have talked with young people about the joy in departing from their corruption-ridden home nation, as well as the difficulty of leaving a country that holds your only friends, family, and home. In Scouts, I have discussed the difficulties of transitioning genders, of being an ethnic minority, and of engaging direct provision centers with those that have experienced these issues.

In each of these cases, the young person whom I am working on behalf of has done an unparalleled job in outlining how issues directly affect the day-to-day procedures of inclusiveness within Scouting Ireland. To fully understand the interplay amongst different social phenomenon’s in this country, I would have to spend a lifetime working here, yet these conversations have given me important insight into the issues on which I am working.

More than anything else, through these conversations I have been reaffirmed in my belief in multiculturalism as a necessity to solve this city and this island’s problems. Scouting Ireland’s membership numbers just over 50,000 and its network stretches across both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Its capacity to positively affect change spanning across this vast network of staff, volunteers, and Scouts is unparalleled. With an ear actively listening to those that are most affected by its diversity and inclusion-centric policies and practices, Scouting Ireland should be on the forefront of multiculturalism within an increasingly diverse Ireland.

*All names were changed in this letter in order to protect the identity of those participating in the program