Jenni Osborn

Sidewalk, Scarborough

This week’s podcast, which you can listen to on Apple, Spotify or Anchor, is a conversation with Steve Blower from Sidewalk in Scarborough. I first talked to Steve back in November, he was one of the first people I talked to as I began writing From Isolation to Community, wanting to capture their story of youth work during covid. I was really blown away by the organisation’s view of young people as wilderness prophets, and I know it’s resonated with some of you who have now read the book, which you can buy here. As I say in the conversation, it’s a kind of touchstone phrase, when you find someone else who it really speaks to, you know you’ve found your people! 

image of a desert wilderness brown sand, a few small green bushes and blue sky
Desert wilderness Photo by Public Doman Images on Pixabay

Wilderness prophets are those whose voices come from the ‘left field’, whose voices are not universally acknowledged or heard. These people are not in need, they don’t need saving from themselves or anyone else, wilderness prophets are those whose wisdom is needed by others. However, they are often unaccustomed to being heard or given credence within wider society. Perhaps you know someone who has a lot of important and wise things to say but you’re unsure if they would ever be received well by those who need to hear their message? Another name for it could be ‘creative disruption’ – a kind of shaking up by listening to a new voice.

Young people have the propensity to be these wilderness prophets, young people often demand authenticity and truth, their ‘fake news-o-meter’ is so sensitive they can tell when you’re faking an interest in them and their friends. They will call a spade a spade because they can, they have not yet had anyone tell them to modify their opinions or language; they have not yet developed the modifying part of their brains which may, a few years down the road, lead to them being more circumspect in their approach. If we listen, really listen, to the young people around us then they begin to become a gift to us. And this is the approach that Sidewalk takes with their work.

One of the things Steve mentions in this podcast is the way in which one of the projects they’ve been running during the pandemic, the Projection Project, has enabled connections across neighbourhoods in a way that hadn’t really happened before. Communities which had been either indifferent or antagonistic towards each other had moved towards becoming more connected and I love this! It’s so good to hear that these connections are being made and helping to change minds and hearts, one of my long held passions has been about connecting people with other people or organisations. Many of the conversations I have with people involve phrases like ‘Oh you should talk to this person’ or ‘these guys over here are doing that same thing, let me connect you’

I was at a conference recently about ‘tackling loneliness in young people’, the keynote speakers were Janet Batsleer and James Duggan who are leading the Loneliness Connects Us project in Manchester. It’s a fascinating project which aims to develop new ways of thinking about loneliness, and to work with young people to create more cooperative ways of being with one another, among other things. One of the questions posed at the conference was ‘What’s the opposite of loneliness?’ and the answer that was arrived at was ‘connectedness’, I like this a lot. 

image of a spiders web drenched in dew against a forest background
Cobweb Photo by Albrecht Fietz

I like it because it chimes with something I read a couple of years ago about how much we need connections, not only do we need deep connections, people who’ve known us a long time or people we have a deep soul connection with, a spouse or best friend or family members, but we also need ‘weak’ connections, such as social media ‘friends’ we maintain contact with long after actually meeting them, or someone expressing an opinion that makes us think about something differently but isn’t part of our ‘close’ circle. I’m not saying that social media connections are only weak, far from it. I’m also not talking about those whose preference is to rant and rage in a way that is divisive and pejorative to many. What we need is a web of connections – people who are close to us in the middle, and those who sit further out on the web, all connected, but in different ways.

We need to remember this as we emerge from this lockdown, remember that young people are a gift, that their voices need to be heard and that we all need to be connected in with others, we were not made for isolation, but for community.