A couple of days ago I was talking to Mustafa, one of our recent National Citizen Service graduates.
He told me how his school was near a Traveller community and that while there were pupils from that community at his school, he had never made friends or mixed much with them.
Mustafa spent his early childhood in East Africa and most of his friends are, like him, of African heritage.
His classmates from the Traveller community “just seemed too different to me,” he told me. “I never really tried to talk to them because I assumed we wouldn’t have anything in common. It was as if ‘why bother when there’s nothing to talk about’,” he said.
And then Mustafa went on The Challenge’s NCS programme with young people from the Traveller community.
“It was towards the end of the second week when we were staying in university accommodation. I needed to do the dishes and me and another boy, who was from the Traveller community, just got on with washing up together. We found out we had a shared interest in films and in particular anime – a type of Japanese animation. After that, I was like ‘what have I been doing avoiding these people – they’re like me’.”
When Mustafa returned to school after NCS, he asked himself what he could do about what he saw was a pointless divide between his friends and his classmates from the Traveller community.
“At school I play a lot of basketball and the teams are generally made up of my friends or people like me. I invited pupils from the Traveller community to play and now we often play together. I also went to where the Traveller community lives with my school and I started to understand more about the culture. It started to make much more sense to me.”
My conversation with Mustafa reminded me of what Brendan Cox recently said when asked how he’d like his murdered wife, the MP Jo Cox, to be remembered:
“I’d like her to be remembered the way she was really … As someone who when confronted with a problem, asked ‘what can I do?’ And if we do that, we make our country a better place to live,” Brendan told interviewer Owen Jones.
At The Challenge, we have our work cut out in trying to fulfil our aim of creating a society where there is understanding and appreciation of each other’s differences. It can seem a daunting task when we read that our schools are among the most segregated in the world and that in Britain we are less likely to trust our neighbours than anywhere else in Europe. It becomes all the more overwhelming when we wake up, as we did this week, to hear of the deeply shocking and tragic terror attack in Manchester.
But it was precisely this question – ‘what can I do’ – that led to the creation of our organisation. In 2009, some of the future founders of The Challenge saw that even though Britain was becoming more diverse by income, age and ethnicity, too few of us were friends with people from different backgrounds. Later that year, they ran a summer programme that widened the friendship circles of 158 teenagers. Now it touches the lives of tens of thousands of young people many of whom, are, like Mustafa, asking ‘what can I do?’.
Jessica Shepherd, Head of Communications and Campaigns at The Challenge