Include me in
Inclusion seems to be a new thing in common speak, as we are all asked to look at how we treat people unfairly or hurtfully by excluding them from services, friendships, jobs etc. because of some aspect of our perception of their personality, colour, background and so on. For me, my seventy years in Scouting has enriched my life because of so many different examples of 'inclusion'. My sincere wish is that this continues in Scouting and grows.
As the son of a Royal Air Force serviceman, moving every few years around the country and abroad the very next thing to looking for a school in a new town, was us finding a Methodist church and Scout Group. And so I was accepted and readily included into the 6th Farnborough, 1st Andover, 1st Manama Bahrein, Holy Trinity Blackpool, 2nd Chessington, and now 16th Bermondsey.
It was in Scouts that I met and did crazy activities with black members and as a teenager I got a bloody nose teaching Rajan to swim. He threw his arms and legs out wildly in all directions, in a blizzard of water, moving slowly along. He called-it the 'camel kick'. During the last twenty years running an inner London troop I have found a real joy in a healthy mixed race Group and Explorer Unit. For Rod who came all the way from Brazil to present me with a bag of determination and madness. For the quiet resolve of a Spanish lady and a Columbian family who adopted me as grandfather at a dark time in their lives. Some young black women have been the most adventurous and finest scouts I have had the pleasure to lead; I often found their inner belief and fight quite intriguing. 'I rise'.
Back in 1960 as a young adult leader we had a scout with serious epilepsy, who stayed as an adult leader. Poor chap would have sudden and violent seizures and just drop to the ground. I remember him holding open a trapdoor to our under-stage camping store. A groan, and the enormous frame of Gerry dropped on top of me, then he went rigid trembling, with one leg across my neck and the other on top the stage. I knew he would quickly recover, and dragging himself back to standing and brushing himself off asked if I had found the missing guy-rope. Goodness knows how we would now carry out a risk assessment on Gerry, but I do remember him coming on every camp, night-hike and activity, and waking us all up three times during the night with the gong of an enormous alarm clock to take his medication. Once the pills were found and scoffed Gerry was snoring long before we all rediscovered sleep. I don't ever remember us deciding not to include Gerry in activities.
I accept I was late understanding homosexuality, I may even have been in my late teens, but looking back I can now imagine that various male leaders may well have been gay, perhaps some of the kindest and most caring men. And didn't we need them! Such was the bullying and cruelty of 'initiation ceremonies' which were rife on scout camps. I refused to go to camp as a young lad due to the threats from older scouts to tie me up, hang me from my thumbs and beat me. By Senior Scouts in Andover all was fine with great times camping and hiking, day and night. But as a young adult Leader I heard boys threatening 'initiations' all the time and the macho ex-army leaders openly encouraged it. I remember running a little camp on a beautiful summer day, we were in an idyllic silver birch glade on a crowded campsite, but could hear threats and whimpering all around us. Eventually we set off and rescued a few kids, with their older troop members explaining that 'we all do it', 'we had it done to us'.
The final straw was when I had been asked to help with a camp and discovered that the Leader was actually organising to 'peg-out' to the ground a rather sad, tubby young boy. I asked the Leader for the time of the event. 'Why, do you want to watch?' I said I needed to know so I could call the police to charge him with Actual Bodily Harm. He sulked off. The next day he put an axe through his foot, left me running my first camp and I don't remember a happier one. It was a hard fight by many like and fair-minded leaders to rid ourselves of this macho culture, and I believe that the inclusion of girls has been a most important factor in our change to a more caring and sensitive culture in Scouting.
My wife had recognised the fact that my Senior Patrol Leader had been gay, long before he became Explorer Leader and then Cub Scout Leader. By then homosexuality was officially accepted, not really discussed and still scared the life out of most confused older leaders! The young Cub Scout Leader needed one of these older Leaders who had expressed quite homophobic views to be present on a cub camp, to assess his Pack Holiday Certificate. When I heard he was taking his male partner as camp cook I held my breath. Our Cub Leader was awarded a glowing report, he was exemplary in every way, 'And he brought a really nice young friend along as cook'.
Scouting has accepted and included me in friendships and relationships, odd-ball as I am, and given me the challenge and opportunity of getting up close with so many other amazing men and women. I have a lot more to learn, especially as changing to a Cub section I am having to learn how to include and work with children with very challenging behaviours and autism in our pack. But thank you Scouting for the challenge and the gift of inclusion.
Scouting, Suspension and Mental Health
After about 60 years in scouting, I can safely claim that Scouting is hugely advantageous to your physical and mental well being, but must warn that for some it can also be a real danger to your mental health. I am saying that we should all be aware of this and managers be prepared to improve their Duty of Care to adults in the movement.
As someone who is not a 'sporty type' nearly all of my years of hiking, camping and canoeing have been while undertaking activities with young people. Most of my courting comprised of visits to country pubs and creepy village churchyards which would soon figure heavily in a troop night hike or weekends in fields and forests checking-out possible hike routes, canoe journeys and campsites.
Most of my friends and social activities have been linked to my scouting activities, however when I was later officially suspended from scouting I was glad that I had also maintained an involvement with a church, a homeless project and as a school governor. For most of my scouting life I had never known anyone to be suspended by HQ, I hardly knew where Gilwell was or what it did other than make badges and uniforms.
Then on a most beautiful summer morning while walking up onto the South Downs, with God in His heaven and everything right with the world, my phone rang and a cloud drifted across the sun. It was a good friend, a young professional woman, a Queen's Scout, who had moved away to the countryside with her small children and started a village scout group in the parish hall. During a Beaver picnic she had pulled a child to safety from the road, leading to a police interview and immediate scouting suspension. The child's parents quickly withdrew charges for the bruising to their daughter's arm but the scouting process continued for weeks and months. Her local professional practice withered overnight; it was an isolating and stressful time. I had written to Gilwell to support her but in that buttercup meadow my friend told me that Gilwell had advised that I stop supporting her, hinting that it could be bad for me too!
Twenty years later I received that same warning letter in gut-wrenching disbelief. I was physically shaking, like I was standing outside the headmaster's door, with friends passing on their way to lessons and you knowing that you would eventually smell his bad breath and the cane across your palms. I knew I had done wrong, I had not eaten my beetroot and salad cream, I had failed to inform my DC of a concern I was aware of. I could explain but there is no opportunity for 'explanation' just the cane, weeks, months of stressful isolation, humiliation, anger, rage, distress…… feeling dirty and uncared for… and prevented from having anyone to properly support you in a 'professional' manner. As a school Governor we hold a disciplinary panel within days and suspended staff sit alongside a trade union rep. who ensures that we run our process fairly and efficiently, and we do, because we want that skilled person back working with our children asap. In Scouting the reverse is the norm.
As a trained Mental Health Social Worker I soon recognised something similar to the 'Bereavement Process' of Denial, Bargaining, Anger and Depression. The final is Acceptance but two years on I am only just sieving the ashes of incinerated memories and finding genuine flecks of joy in past Scouting friendships and fun.
During my long dark days in what I called 'the coal-hole' my family were my rock. I continually fear for single colleagues for whom scouting is their main social circle - 'their life'. I was later to find that suspension fractures lives, damages relationships and employment. I was experiencing waves of rage and distress - kicking the wall and shouting at Gilwell. I shouted on the bus, in shops, I raged inside, I woke at 3am with my brain in full action. I wanted to sit down quietly with my DC and chat, explain, discuss….. I thought we had been trusted colleagues, we communicated well for years. I believe that when you are suspended, your DC should be standing up for you, arguing toe to toe with Gilwell. Instead they have to 'remain neutral'. Quite frankly suspension is planned and sustained bullying. After sufficient humiliation and you are seen to be totally alone and unable to see the final charge sheet, the verbal beating coming from all sides until, it suddenly stops.
I am aware of fresh guidance and some changes as to how suspension is used in some circumstances. There has also been an acknowledgement of the need to be mindful of the effect suspension may have on people's mental health. You may yourself know of suspended leaders for whom Scouting has been a major strength and stay; you can play a positive part in their recovery by listening, like the few people who met me in parks at lunchtime, just to sit with me. Scouting should be setting an example of friendship, trust, well-being and honesty.
The purpose of this article is threefold:
To warn you that if you suddenly get 'the suspension letter' be prepared for a dreadful time.
To encourage all leaders to diversify and to do other things with their lives.
For those who run Scouting to start a dialogue with a mental health agency to develop a holistic Duty of Care to all suspended adults.
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