The Think Project, Brexit and the urgent need for better citizenship education

The Think Project in Wales, born from a project to combat home-grown Islamic extremism, demonstrates that open discussion can effectively draw at-risk youth away from far-right ideologies as well.

Rocio Cifuentes
8 July 2016

A man watches anti-fascist protesters at the British National Party's Red, White and Blue festival in Codnor, Derbyshire, in 2009. Rui Vieira/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The recent momentous decision by the majority of the voting UK population to leave the EU was shocking, but, in retrospect, not surprising. It is now glaringly obvious that too many people for too long have been without prospects, without education and without hope. For these people, the benefits of the EU – including the possibility to live and work in one of 27 countries, or the many jobs it funded, were simply never considered as relevant or accessible to them. The imagined disadvantages however – of too many immigrants, and EU bureaucracy – were shouted out to them daily for more than a decade through the populist mainstream media, and legitimised more recently by opportunist mainstream politicians anxious to seem in touch with their concerns.

Indeed Brexit is just a moment on a journey which arguably began after the terrorist attacks in New York on 9/11 and London on 7/7. This is when historical dichotomies of east vs west and narratives of anti-Islam were energetically revived, quickly evolving into anti-anyone-who-looks-Muslim as we saw with the mistaken killing of the Brazilian Jean DeMenezes on the London underground. The global financial crash and acceleration of austerity measures in the UK offered the perfect storm in which foreigners, asylum seekers and Muslims could all be blamed for ‘taking all the jobs and all the houses’.

Preventing extremism with dialogue

In this UK context of increasing racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia, the Ethnic Youth Support Team – a charity established in 2005 to support young ethnic minorities living in Wales – saw a need to do something more practical than simply support victims of, or condemn or report racist hate crime. We knew from our experience delivering projects to address Islamist extremism that young people’s resilience can be increased by simply allowing them to air their grievances and concerns in a safe and respectful environment, coupled with giving them facts and ideas to counter extremist narratives. We also knew, from 10 years of working with a wide range of young people that, given the time, space and opportunity, most have a huge capacity to learn and to change.

I’ve always been a bit racist, I’m not gonna lie, but this project has changed the way I look at things, I see everything completely differently now – it’s changed my life.

Consequently, we developed the ‘Think Project’ – a practical educational programme designed to engage with and educate the most ‘disadvantaged’ young people. These are arguably those most vulnerable to far-right messages, and they include those excluded from mainstream schools in alternative education, and those in the youth offending system, youth prisons, and so on. It was designed as a three-day educational programme giving young people the truth about immigration, about asylum and about Muslims, and changing their views on these issues for the better.

Delivered by ethnically diverse and engaging youth workers, its uniqueness stems from the fact that it combines facts about immigration, Islam and asylum, with a positive first-hand experience of diversity. Also central to its success is its emphasis on open dialogue and debate, allowing young people to say openly how they really feel about migration and Muslims, before those views can be debated and challenged.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating

Following a successful pilot, the Think Project was funded by the Big Lottery Innovation Fund, and between 2012 and 2015 438 young people completed the three-day programme. The project’s formal evaluation found a 95% success rate in radically changing young people’s views from being anti to pro-diversity. As one young man from Merthyr Tydfil said: “I’ve always been a bit racist, I’m not gonna lie, but this project has changed the way I look at things, I see everything completely differently now – it’s changed my life”.

What stood out was the degree of misconception surrounding the issues of immigration, asylum and Islam. At the beginning of the programme, 96% of young people did not know what an asylum seeker was, and those who tried to define it understood it as ‘someone who comes here to take our jobs and benefits’. By the end 83% did know what the term meant, and could link it to the human right to be offered sanctuary from war and persecution. One of the most valued parts of the programme, which was mentioned repeatedly by project participants, was the opportunity to meet and hear first-hand the experiences of someone who had sought asylum in the UK, which they said was something they would never forget.

Crucially, and illuminatingly in light of the Brexit decision, the vast majority of young people grossly overestimated the number of people from a different ethnic background to themselves living in Wales – over half of the young participants estimated that this was more than 50%, and about a quarter thought it was over 75%. By the end of the programme 89% correctly put the figure at under 10%. Distorted perceptions of reality chime perfectly with the message of the Brexiteers; the UK is being over-run with immigrants, who are here to take jobs, houses and benefits, and that we are indeed at a ‘breaking point’. However, our programme shows that given the opportunity to learn the facts, and given a positive first-hand experience of meeting and talking to Muslims and refugees, all this can be changed, making these young people significantly more resilient to the messages and ideology of far-right extremists.

Our programme shows that given the opportunity to learn the facts, and given a positive first-hand experience of meeting and talking to Muslims and refugees, young people can become significantly more resilient to the messages and ideology of far-right extremists.

The shame is not that the popular press has been allowed to peddle these myths and misrepresentations for so many years, nor that opportunist politicians have capitalised and exploited these stereotypes, turning vulnerable groups into scapegoats for austerity. No, the greatest shame has been that educational institutions, charged with giving young people the tools to become positive and active contributors to society, have failed to give such a large proportion of young people a clear understanding some of the biggest issues and challenges facing contemporary societies. And of course there have been personal tragedies and victims along the way, including most recently the murder of MP Jo Cox at the hands of a far-right terrorist. If we are to avoid more tragic murders, we need to stop such home grown terrorism in its tracks, and prevent it from taking root in the minds and hearts of our young people.

Citizenship, diversity and democracy all need to become core parts of the national curriculum taught to all young people at every stage of their education. However this should not be the preserve of the high-flying elite. Such programmes rather need to reach out in a more targeted and proactive way to those young people who arguably need it the most, including those who miss out on mainstream schooling, and whose life prospects are limited due to other complex factors linked to poverty and deprivation.

There are much wider challenges involved in addressing the entrenched and inter-generational poverty facing many young people today, and it is no wonder that many feel aggrieved. However, it is essential that schools and educational institutions in particular work proactively to counter and challenge the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim narratives which have been enjoying a resurgence in the UK and across Europe in recent years, and equip young people to question and critique the media, politicians and extremist groups.

The Think Project is one example of such an approach which has been shown to be effective.

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