CHILDREN'S RIGHTS AND POWER
by Mary John
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FOREWORD BY THE AUTHOR
 
Think of the kind of world you want to live and work in. What do you need to know to build that world? Demand that your teachers teach you that.
 

--Prince Pyotr Kropotkin

 
This book has been being written, or rather lived for over half a century. It started in the head of a child abandoned, bewildered, wounded, drugged, hallucinating, and desperately solitary in a hospital bed. This child faced the same problems that have beset children in many places, at many times &endash; problems of recognition of her needs, of establishing identity, agency of managing relationships wisely and richly, of exercising power and of finding a voice that is heard, of being someone who counts, who has a future as a citizen and a participant in the world of which she was born a part. It has involved the same struggle to maintain some imagination and a joyous spirit through a life which has taxed the spirit of a young person so poorly equipped in socialisation terms to deal with life ion all its continuing complexity. These are the challenges which, often against apparently impossible odds, are experienced in their most acute form in childhood but remain lifelong struggles. They will be tasks that will test the human being from childhood on into maturity and may be aspects of the human condition to which there is no solution but rather a life-long odyssey.
 
This child was taught that a feature of good literary style is to expunge the 'I'. In doing so she realises that much of what it is important about agency, power and is precisely that it is uniquely personal. Moreover feminist research and activities have underlined how important autobiography is in capturing, archiving and legitimating experience. So she must, having lived to tell the tale write in her own voice as an 'I'.
 
Like many, I have been seeking to voice my concerns for well over half a century &endash; this self-same search which has, I believe, united this one-time child the worlds children and energised my work. All children have rights but first have to have some sense of personal powers to exercise those rights yet almost everywhere they are rendered powerless. Their efforts are constantly routed into searches for love, for happiness, for recognition. The routes that energy takes in terms of personal powers are endless and multitude(manifold?) &endash; the obstacles, the challenges are unthinkable such that their short life might end as a headless torso in the Thames &endash; the only clue to identity their red shorts and the suspicion that here was another victim of the power of adult lust. The struggle has occasionally found a voice, and at times been so overwhelmed with non-recognition that it has been silenced. … just as children have just been silenced by matters of apparently much greater importance. Can anything be more important than the welfare of children?
 
In 1992 shortly after the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in the UK I hosted in Exeter a 'World Conference on Children's Rights: a question of empowerment, to look at the state of international progress in research and practice in this very newly emerging area so that we could profit from it and build upon it. This Conference was largely planned in conjunction with a team of young people who also acted as the evaluators for the Conference. ( See Chapter xx). It also gave birth to the Children in Charge Series with Jessica Kingsley Publishers the first three volumes of which present very largely the proceedings of that ground-breaking Conference (John, 1996, 1996, 1997) A lot has happened since then and now this field is burgeoning so it seemed that ten years on this was an appropriate time to take stock again. The field has been largely neglected by psychologist for reasons I suggest in the book and rather colonised by lawyers and sociologists. At a personal as well as professional level this marked an important transition at the end of my working life in the formal labour market and high time to review, at a time when in research-terms problems of subjectivity and identity are urgent and salient, what a career as a developmental psychologist had contributed to the understanding and realisation of children's rights and what it had taught me about the nature and exercise of power.
 
The United Nations had also decided that it was time to review what progress had been made over the last ten years. For three days in September 2001, therefore, it had been planning that the eyes of the world would be on children focusing on what it is really like growing up in the 21st century. It had been hoped that the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children between 19 and 21 September would be one of the highest profile summits ever to address children's issues. During the summit, world leaders were to look at what has been achieved for children over the last ten years and set out plans for their future well being and development. After all 40% of the world's population are now children, the highest proportion it has ever been. But what did these leaders actually look at when the time came?
 
They looked at the devastation terrorists had wreaked on a small proportion of the worlds population traumatic and tragic though that suffering was. . Attention was diverted to a war on terrorism and resources allocated to this great task. Children were again put to one side to be considered sometime in 2002. The priorities were clear. This deflection of attention and the re-routing of resources probably delay yet again the urgent need to focus on the state of the world's children. It may even exacerbate their state. Will the postponed Summit in the context of a world now at war give children the place they deserve in the world's priorities?
 
Yet against this tragic backdrop we have to remind ourselves that tomorrow is not necessarily available for children. In working with children, as I shall argue it is the present we must respond to and honour.
 
…the understanding which we want is an understanding of the insistent present. The only use of knowledge of the past is to equip us for the present. No more deadly harm can be done to young minds than by depreciation of the present. The present contains all there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and the future.
 

--AN Whitehead, p3-4, 1932

This book whilst started over half a century ago is not about the past but about the insistent present.

........................................................

From Mary Leue, Founder and Co-director Emerita:

In 1997, Mary's secretary called us from Exeter one morning to ask if Mary could come for a visit to our school. She apologized for the last minute nature of the request, explaining that Mary's plans had had to be altered at the last moment when one of her proposed stays had had to be postponed. I responded enthusiastically, asking her to let Mary know that we would be delighted for her to come whenever she could and stay as long as she liked!

The visit was marvelous, from start to finish. She stayed with Connie and Frank, whose house is beautifully hospitable toward and for visitors - unlike most of our other houses, including my own! She jumped into whatever was going on in the community in a seamless manner, as though she had always been a member. Her presence in the school was not only positive but equally seamless! I wasn't on hand, but she told me that within moments of walking into the school, she had been taken in charge by Chris (Minehan), who was engaged in the creating of hand puppets. Almost immediately, they were both down on their knees designing and furbishing hand puppets by the handful, and creating scenarios for them to interact in - the whole enterprise ending in a show put on by the two of them for the entire school!

Mary writes in her book about her relationship with this same student, Chris:

... On my visit, a young pupil, a one-time hoodlum and tearaway, took my hand on one of the school's local outings, asking me with all courtesy and graciousness, 'Would you like to see my River Hudson?', and he showed it to me with all the pride of a citizen of Albany. He had received from others respect, caring and consideration and saw how they valued the community and environment in which they lived. The work of the Free School is subtle, pervasive and, I would surmise, lasting. Many of these children had not been valued and responded to like the cognisant people that they are until, often as a last resort, they came to the school. There they are part of a community working towards shared understandings and shared respect, where everybody's point of view matters.
 
In this setting, children are able to exercise their right under Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to 'express a view and have that view taken into account in any matter that concerns them'(Article 12, UNCRC). Albany goes a long way beyond; their view is not just acknowledged but actually shapes decisions. Children's feelings and views are paramount and, importantly, they are encouraged to disclose these feelings, to be expressive and outspoken about their views. Truthfulness and spontaneity is encouraged in the interests of them being able to function autonomously in the present as people with intrinsic worth.

It is typical of Mary that she focuses, not on her own role in eliciting Chris' courteous hospitality but on the climate at the school which gave him this option! I am in no way arguing against her interpretation of the significance of Chris' behavior toward her, but am viewing her own role in eliciting the very reactions she describes as of real significance - as a kind of melody that runs beneath the text of her splendid book and informs its aliveness! For me, this is the ONLY way children ought to be written about!

Mary's observations about the school's ways of doing things are equally eloquent and insightful. She writes:

ALCHEMY AT ALBANY

Resourcefulness, resilience and fearlessness characterised both children and staff at the Free School in Albany, which it was my good fortune to visit shortly after leaving Rajasthan [India]. My good fortune was that, in changing cultures and geographical locations so rapidly, it sharpened comparisons, counterpoint and understanding. It was also surprising to find halfway across the world that the resonances were stunning. The connectedness was of communities, which prioritised educating the human spirit rather than the mechanics of the institutionalised educational process. These were children facing different challenges to the Indian children's responsibilities as members of their family economy. Many of the Albany children were alienated, disenfranchised and damaged by education, families and the community. In Albany, relationships with the community were immediate and tangible, while at Barefoot College, it was larger and more distributed in the outlying village night schools spread over more than 3000 kilometres. Only for rare special occasions like Children's Festival could the whole community get together as one elebrating 'family' having fun together - fun as an oasis in hard-working lives.

The Free School was similarly 'an oasis', although it s strange to refer to it as such given the cacophony of sound and activity that greeted me when first I stepped through the door - yet it is a place where children are resourced and their great 'thirsts' assuaged. Both iniiatives had been works of visionaries who grasped the wider context of learning and made the impossible happen. In Tilonia it was Bunker Roy; in Albany it was the intuitive understanding of what was needed and the sheer educational and financial flair of Mary Leue which made things begin to stir and happen. Eventually the whole community could take it forward and let it grow into the joint enterprise it is today -'joint' since the generations of children who have attended the school have been an essential part of shaping it too. Like the night school, it provides relevant learning opportunities and experiences which have grown organically and relate to the realities of the children's daily lives. The community at the Free School provides for children - many of whom have little in the form of social capital-models of what it is to be a caring, committed, human being in the present, in the community and, in the case of many encounters there, 'in your face'! Both in Rajasthan and in Albany the children know they are valued, cared about and are important members of their communities.

The particular alchemy that makes up the Albany Free School is difficult to capture as it has, certainly for all the depth of thinking that goes to it, a magical air. Fortunately Chris Mercogliano, the present co-director, has written its story, titled, appropriately enough, Making It Up As We Go Along (1998). He sets the school within the context of various alternatives to conventional schooling. Fundamental subjects like aggression, sexuality, race/class and spirituality are addressed, topics described as 'four primary colours of human experience that are all too often relegated to the rusty side spurs of our national thinking about children' (Mercogliano 1998, p.xxiii). Ivan Illich, commenting on this tale, said:
 
In touchingly plain language, Chris Mercogliano tells about 25 years of unfolding trust; how kids learn without anyone making sure; how a free school has become a pretext for a community; and how adults who care are able, by shedding their roles, to open unexpected spaces for friendship and new growth. More convincing than any book I have had the privilege to read, this one proves that learning by children ought, once and for all, to be institutionally disembedded. (Illich 1998)
 
In terms of the theme of my book, power, this Albany community is about power sharing, about withholding judgement while other views of reality are explored. it is also about holding children through the crises of their own terrible, uncontrollable power so that they learn gradually, in a context in which they are safe and valued, to handle it for themselves. It is about being in the present. Affectionate portraits of individual children are given to provide insights into the challenges the Free School has faced:
 
She arrived at our door unannounced, three years' worth of rompin', stompin' hell's-on-fire. Since the Free School is an energetic place to begin with ('How do you people stand the noise?'), and since Mumasatou was obviously a tightly strung, high-energy kid, we knew from the outset we were about to have our mettle thoroughly tested. (Mercogliano 1998, p.2 1)
 
How did this inspirational place begin and why did I choose to go there? I decided to go there quite simply because I felt, just as I had felt about going to Rajasthan, here was a place where children were taken seriously. The actual encounter was far from 'serious' - filled with fun, high jinks, noise, rough and tumble, yelling, with purposeful activity alongside - but through it all ran a level of shared understanding I had not experienced before in an educational establishment in the industrialised world. ...
 
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