25 years of mentoring

The text below is adapted from a speech delivered by Citywise Chief Executive Luke Wilkinson at our 25th Anniversary celebration events, on 13th March 2019 in Glasgow, and 22nd March 2019 in Manchester.

I’m going to tell you a bit about Citywise in a moment, but before that I’d like to start by asking you to think about a simple question: how did you get here today? I don’t mean did you get here by car/bus/bike/plane. How did you get to where you are, at this point in your life?

If you take a moment to stand back and think about the journey of your life, I’m sure yours, like mine, owes a lot to the circumstances you were born into, the opportunities you had, and the people who supported you at key moments in your life. Think about the quality of the education you received, the network of friends you grew up alongside, or the connections you made whilst at college or university. How did you get your first job? Or your first big promotion?

We all have a lot to be thankful for. And it’s good isn’t it? To look back with gratitude at those who made provision for us, who had time for us, who perhaps took a risk on us, gave us an opportunity we didn’t deserve by merit of our experience. Gratitude can help keep us humble!

But I’m sure you also worked hard to get to where you are today. To enjoy success at anything worthwhile – relationships, careers, vocations – requires inner strength doesn’t it? We need discipline to stay focussed, wisdom to make good decisions, perseverance to stick at something and see it through. Have you ever thought about how you learnt these things? They weren’t on the curriculum at school. You definitely learnt them in school, but not only in school.

On the sports field we discovered how to master ourselves; from the example of our parents and from fights with our siblings we learnt fairness and cooperation; from our faith communities we learnt right and wrong and to treat others with dignity; from youth groups – Scouts, Guides – we learnt to find solutions, to be part of a team and to lead a team; from the first menial jobs we took we learnt diligence and resilience. 

But what if you don’t have all of this?

Sadly for many children growing up in the UK today, the kinds of opportunities we may have enjoyed are not on offer. Citywise works in parts of Manchester and Glasgow where up to half of children are living in households struggling to meet their basic needs – that’s 45% of children in Glasgow Central, 48% of children in Manchester Gorton. These are figures from the DWP and indicate percentages of children in households living below the so-called ‘Poverty Line’, which is taken as 60% of median income.

What does that actually mean? It’s not a case of just being a little bit short of cash. It means that these kids sometimes go hungry because there’s not enough food. It means they might live in houses where the gas and electric are on pre-paid meters: in other words, if you don’t have enough money, the lights go out and the heating goes off. It means that their parents might not even be able to afford to take them away for a one-week holiday once a year.

The effects of poverty are felt far beyond childhood. By the time children sit their GCSEs, 28% fewer children living in poverty achieve 5 A*-C grades. Poverty negatively influences average earnings and health over the course of a lifetime, with life expectancy for people from the most deprived backgrounds up to 9 years lower than those from the most affluent communities.

So while you or I may be stood here this evening “on the shoulders of giants”, if you like, benefitting from the foundational opportunities we were given, the encouragement we received, the inner resources we developed, many young people in the UK, simply by the accidental circumstances of birth, will struggle to break out of a cycle of poverty. And I don’t believe that’s fair. Do you?

Citywise was established in 1994 by a group of students and young professionals who recognised this injustice, and wanted to do something about it. Some names a few of you may recognise who were involved from the outset: Gerry McCarthy, Xavier Bosch, Joe Evans, Ashley Stratford. There will have been many others who I don’t know, but we owe the work we do today to the vision of these young people who 25 years ago set out to change the world!

Now, obviously we can’t change the huge social and economic circumstances that create poverty. We’ll leave that to the clever people at Westminster and Holyrood. They’ll need something new to argue about after next Friday! [Original Brexit deadline: 29th March 2019] But what we can do is to help individuals who find themselves in difficult life circumstances.

Our founders started out with no money, but they used the rich resources they did have at their disposal, and started giving generously. The simple gift of time, the gift of showing up and saying “I care”, the gift of encouragement and challenge, the gift of being a listening ear and a trusted friend. All these things go some way to describing a mentor. And that’s what we do: mentoring.

Each year we train and equip mentors who are paired with one child for a year. In Manchester this year there are 59 mentors working in small groups with 59 children at three partner schools, and on the two after school clubs we run here at the Citywise Centre.  I hope you’ve met some of them this evening. If not, as I mentioned earlier, all the people serving dinner this evening are existing Citywise volunteer, so do take the opportunity to say hi before you head home.

Throughout the year, our volunteers follow a curriculum that helps children learn about specific character strengths, and how to develop them. And in fact this evening each table represents one of the 7 steps in our programme. Have you had a chance to do the activities on your table? They’re to give you a bit of a flavour of what we do with children in our projects. Things like resilience – the ability to keep working hard at something in the face of setbacks. Self-control – the ability to delay gratification, to concentrate. Coupled with this we teach really practical goal-setting techniques: how to make tangible steps towards a desired target.

And over-arching the whole curriculum is the positive relationship with the mentor: the trusted adult who comes each week, who is on your side, who listens to your fears and anxieties and gently challenges you to overcome them.

Why do we do this? Because we believe every young person has the potential to lead a flourishing life, to discover their passion and purpose. Being born into challenging life circumstances shouldn’t define someone’s life. Many studies have shown that a positive mentoring relationship focussing on holistic character growth can dramatically buffer the long-term negative effects of poverty. We have worked hard in the last two years to deepen our understanding of the academic literature relevant to our work, and build into our curriculum and pedagogy more solid, research-based material. And I’m very grateful to my colleague Hana who has been leading that work. Hana turned down the lure of a PhD opportunity at The University of Glasgow, where she did her Bachelor’s degree, to come and work with Citywise in Manchester almost 2 years ago, and has been driving forwards our curriculum, pedagogy and evaluation.

I’m very proud that each year we can report on the growth we have seen in children across Manchester and Glasgow. Our programme gives young people

  • A better understanding of their character
  • Improved attitudes towards learning
  • Greater emotional wellbeing and pro-social skills

Last year young people reported being more resilient and trying harder not to give up. Parents told us they had seen positive changes in relationships since their children joined the Citywise programme, and mentors saw children grow in confidence.

There’s more to be done however, if we want to help more children, more effectively. For a long time it has been evident to us that our work with children can only go so far. The obvious next step is to offer support to parents – the primary educators – as they seek to raise caring, confident children.

I’m sure that any of you here who are parents know the instinct to nurture, to teach, to prepare your child, in order that they might enjoy the best possible future. We aim, most of the time unconsciously, at helping our children arrive on the doorstep of adult life ready for the excitement and challenges they will meet.

That’s why we were delighted last year to receive a prestigious award from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, allowing us to create a new full-time role for a Family Services Manager. James is here this evening, and would love to meet anyone interested in supporting our work with families. Over the coming years, James will be developing a model of family support that sits alongside our existing work with children. We’ll be creating more opportunities for parents to hear about their child’s character development journey on our school projects, and how it can be fostered in the home environment.

We also have a fantastic new opportunity to work directly with families in the local community, which has been made possible by the opening up of the Citywise Centre in Manchester. We’re sitting at the moment in the basement of Greygarth Hall, which is the student residence where Citywise was founded 25 years ago. For many years our offices have been here, but it’s only in the last few months that we have formalised a partnership with Greygarth, allowing us to begin running activities for young people and their families on our own premises.

This new arrangement has come about in large part thanks to the generous gift left to us by Pedro Ballester, a resident of Greygarth and a volunteer mentor with Citywise. We learnt so much from the example of Pedro’s life, and continue to enjoy his support in prayer. I’d like to take this opportunity to extend a very warm thank you to Pedro’s family for all their ongoing love and support for me personally and for Citywise.

This new centre opens up a lot of new possibilities. We have already used the Centre to run our Heroes Academy Summer project, and a Family Fun Day, and in the autumn we launched two new after-school clubs for primary-aged boys and girls. As we grow in the coming years we want this place to become a hub of activity, with young people and families meeting, learning and supporting one another. We imagine digital skills workshops, employability schemes, cookery and home economics, sports of different kinds, music and drama groups, parent support groups, playgroups, groups for mums to meet and encourage one another, groups for dads to meet and encourage one another. Our imagination is limited only by the our resources. By supporting parents in their important role and by empowering children to develop their character and sense of agency, we believe we really can transform young lives.

In Glasgow we would love to do the same, and are actively exploring venues where we could base ourselves, close to our partner primary schools. In addition to this we’re excited to be exploring research opportunities with the universities in Glasgow, bridging theory and practice, and studying the impact of our work with young people. With your support, we’ll be able to release staff time to build partnerships that will improve the evidence base for our approach, inform our curriculum and make our evaluation processes more robust.

We would love to invite all of you to join in with our exciting new work and to find your place in the Citywise family.

But just to finish, let me leave you with a story from a couple of weeks ago on one of our projects in Manchester. Mary is a girl in one of our primary projects where we’ve been fortunate to be able to work with the same group of children for two years running now. At the start of the programme Mary was really struggling to manage her emotions. She would have frequent tantrums, sometimes throwing things and storming out of the room during our sessions. She would very easily break down in tears, very easily offended. Our project leader was in touch with her parents and teachers, all of whom were struggling to know how to help her.

But recently, halfway through her second year at Citywise, Mary is doing a lot better. And just the other day she was overheard talking to another child on the project who was experiencing some of the same difficulty in managing big emotions. She was saying “I know it feels like it’s really big right now, but it will calm down if you just wait. You just need to take a big breath and think about something peaceful. You can do it, don’t worry”.

Mentoring is infectious. I hope you catch the bug too.

Thank you.

Click here if you would like to read more about our 25th Anniversary celebrations and how you can join in!