how to change the world

Ask for help, and you might get it

Hope is a waking dream
— Aristotle

By John-Paul Flintoff

This is me, and my new friend Yahya, on stage in the midst of a mass-brainstorming exercise.

I’d asked for a volunteer to come out and tell a huge group of young people about a single change he would like to see in the world. Yahya stuck a hand up and announced that he would like to stop young people smoking weed.

The point was that, instead of coming to tell inspiring stories about people changing the world somewhere else, I’ve become increasingly interested in inviting the people I meet to make a difference there and then.

So I asked Yahya why this question mattered so much to him. He replied that he had lost touch with friends who smoked lots of weed – friends who used to be in his squad, he said, and now they were out on the streets getting shot up.

Having heard this, the audience were keen to help. The idea was for each person to write down whatever suggestion felt right at the time – whether they felt serious or sad or frankly bonkers – and for Yahya to take away all their suggestions and choose from them the ones that appealed to him.

This event, organised by the admirable people at Envision, took place at the Emirates Stadium – the venue was provided at no cost for this good cause. Hats off to Arsenal FC.

After less than five minutes, the audience had generated a vast pile of ideas for Yahya to take away. I asked if he was willing to promise, in front of everybody, to do at least one thing, using one of those suggestions, in the next 24 hours. He said he would.

I asked how he felt to have support from all those people. He said he felt splendid. (That was his word.)

And how did members of the audience feel about helping Yahya? Bit of an imposition? “Terrific… Brilliant,” said various people. “It was a privilege.”

I was hoping they might say that, because I’ve seen it happen before. Two years ago, I tried it with a group at The School of Life. One of the participants, Naneh Hovhannisyan, shared her wish to help young Armenian adults to be more confident.

I can pretty well guarantee that nobody else in the room had till then given a thought to the confidence of young Armenian adults. But – perhaps for that very reason – they were very happy to provide ideas for small, achievable actions to Naneh, who promised she would go away and put some of them into action.

A year later, I heard back from Naneh.

“I promised to take the steps I publicly committed to and to let you know how I got on,” she wrote. “I have just returned from Armenia, where I have delivered a series of confidence workshops for 15-25 year-olds.

“I wasn’t all that confident about my course as I took the flight to Yerevan, mainly because I’d had a rejection letter from one of the two organisations that I thought might be interested.”

But on the plane she sat next to somebody who was able to help make it happen.

“The course, entitled ‘Give me Wings’, lasted just under three weeks and was my first ever attempt. The positive feedback – all documented – is overwhelming, and we decided to build on the project next year. In the meantime, these young people are going to deliver the course to other mentees this summer.”

I know that the other people who took part in that class at The School of Life, who so easily and lightly provided realistic small steps to Naneh, would be delighted (and might possibly be astonished) to find that they had contributed to such a wonderful outcome. I just hope that something equally amazing might emerge out of the ideas submitted to Yahya.

Posted: November 20, 2014