It was win-win and a feel good factor all round: appreciation, beauty, and community
When I explored the Tasmanian wilderness and travelled in China at the beginning of the 1980's, I realised how important connection to the natural world and close communities can have on a person's inner health. At the time I was working with young offenders and I thought about how different their lives could have turned out if they had had different experiences in their childhood.
Experiencing a culture, such as China in 1983, which was so different to my own in the UK, enhanced my awareness of how social influences impact on how a person feels about themselves, their motivations, their connection to the earth, and sense of belonging to a community. It seemed to me that so much focus was placed on the family, as if other media and social factors and our education system don't also have an effect on a young person's behaviour.
Later in my life, and whilst bringing up my son and living in rural Somerset, I became increasingly concerned about the focus on academic development and computer based learning in schools, together with young people's growing dependency on screens for social interaction.
Whilst working in Bristol in public health, on alcohol misuse prevention with young people, I started asking myself why binge drinking was such a problem in this country, when it isn't such an issue elsewhere. I was reminded of seeing all ages working on the land together in China and also heard stories from a friend in Cameroon in Africa about their way of life – I was told how in their community, teenagers socialise together with everyone in the village. They were not left to entertain themselves separately - and there were no problems with drinking.
I wanted to contribute towards the long term prevention of later problems for young people, to stop problems before they start. Motivated by my own trials and tribulations, I wanted to create opportunities for young people to establish a sense of belonging. This could, I believed, enable them to want to take care of themselves and their environment, rather than abuse it. I was keen to help them connect with the land and their community; to get back in contact with their hands. My son was very keen to build structures like round-houses, and this motivated me to do something. Learning traditional skills seemed a good place to start the journey.
So in 2005 a friend, Avril Silk, helped me to set up the Eco Youth Group, which ran in the area where we lived in Somerset until 2010. The community group applied for grants and ran courses to teach young people green-woodworking, sculptures with willow, building with cob and later bush-craft skills. The project became hugely popular, with over 800 young people taking part in workshops in schools and rural communities at weekends and in the holidays. A wide range of courses were run and young people consistently said they loved it.
The projects were all run by 'doing' - hands-on, rather than intellectual learning. There were no notes, lectures, videos or You-Tube learning, and mobiles were switched off. Instead, it was a hand-to-hand, face-to-face experience allowing the young people to really interact with themselves, each other, the materials and the sounds of nature.
The Eco Youth Group was for all young people and all the courses were free. However, the group felt that there seemed to be far more opportunities for those already struggling, than those in the mainstream,. We wanted to create something for all young people, particularly those who may not be accessing services, or those brewing later problems.
As part of the philosophy to help young people to feel part of their community, there were three community seat and shelter projects. The largest was a beautiful and majestic cob and thatch seat and shelter which was built by children and young people aged 3-18. Funded by Awards for All, the toddler group, primary school children and local youth group joined in with getting their hands dirty whilst building the cob walls. Later, they designed and laid a mosaic floor, whilst teenagers also created a stained glass window with Avril.
At the end of each project, there was a community celebration of the young people's contributions - an opportunity for them to be publicly appreciated by their community. There were good news stories in the local newspaper, which gave a different flavour to the regular coverage of the number of A* and Oxford/Cambridge places. It was win-win and a feel good factor all round. The young people felt appreciated, were keeping traditional skills alive and were creating a sense of beauty in their own communities.
Another project has since developed, this time encouraging young people to feel connected on a social as well as an environmental perspective. A dedicated group now work at a comprehensive school in an old mill town, Wellington, in Somerset. This project, called the Wellington Woolcraft Project, has been particularly aided by the encouragement of Elaine Faull, the head teacher, and other local organisations.
Elaine said: "This has been an inspiring inter-age project that has community values at its core. It has been a priviledge to see young, often socially vulnerable students, develop confidence and self-esteem, as well as learning traditional skills."
The project has brought community members and pupils from the comprehensive school together to learn wool-craft skills. Operating initially as an after school club, the group see the sheep sheared and then wash, dye, spin, weave, felt and knit the fleece themselves. The start-up costs were funded by the local Council's Youth Initiative Fund and as part of this an evaluation was undertaken early on in the project. This showed that, as well as developing these skills, the course had a huge impact on both teenagers and community members' levels of happiness. They also appreciated the contributions different generations had to make, felt more connected to the town and found the crafts hugely helped relaxation.
Sue Poole, one of the organising team said: "It is wonderful to see everyone 'growing' with each other - understanding that we all have a place and something to give to our community".
The sense of connection was helped by Richard Fox, a local historian and member of the family who owned and developed the mill for over 350 years, joining the group. He took them around the town to explain how the landscape and old buildings used to be part of the mill industry. Richard, 74, explained:
"We are variously created with brains, eyes, hands, feet, etc. I believe that if we do not use all these, in balance, then we get out of balance, and get somewhat miserable. People tell me of their work frustrations and I wonder if the money saved by using technology instead of our hands is spent on mental health instead"
Deb Glennie adds; "When you have created something you get a tremendous inner sense of achievement. This all gets lost when we're working for someone else's profit. It's just numbers. You can't stamp your individuality on it“.
The green and social agendas are usually seen separately, but what we believe is that they are inseparable. If we help our young people to feel an affinity with the natural world, they will experience more inner harmony and this will then, over the long term, reduce some of our social problems.
It is now hoped that in the future some type of school for these skills could be set up, so that a whole range of young people can be our investors for the future, keeping these wonderful crafts, and the inner well-being that comes with them, alive for future generations.
Jan has spent the last eight years setting up community projects where she lives in Somerset. Jan now runs exploratory and therapeutic weaving workshops during which participants use the weaving as a means of celebrating nature and generating actions that can be taken forward to create happier, greener, safer communities. Jan will be running a workshop this weekend (July 24th 2013) at Resurgence Summer Gathering.
Jan can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org