As the conference drew to a close, participants took their seats for the final keynote of the day – from author, poet and broadcaster, Lemn Sissay. Lemn is the author of several poetry collections, as well as articles, records, public art and plays. His Landmark Poems are installed across Manchester and London, including at the Royal Festival Hall and the Olympic Park.
“How high did you want me to imagine as a child in care? Because I did. I wrote a poem that imagined, and that landscape lasted forever. The arts are incredibly important, and you are an incredible gift in being the people who allow that bridge to others, so that they can walk down, find out more about who they are, and change the world.” (Lemn Sissay)
In an important reminder as to why the fight for fair and equal arts and cultural education is so vital to the wellbeing of children and young people, and indeed the adults they go on to become, Sissay shared his own experiences of life as a child growing up in care. He unraveled the label of ‘care leavers’, and wanted to emphasise something: “Words are incredibly powerful things. I never left care, care left me.”
He also made critical points about the terminology used when working to improve the lives of children and young people – the idea of ‘giving someone a voice’: “I wanted to say something about the idea of giving young people a voice. I had lots of people ‘giving me a voice’ as a child, and, sorry if you’re using this language, but I don’t believe in it. It’s a really good thing to want to give a voice, but I just don’t think it’s possible. They already have a voice. You can’t give a young person a voice unless you’re firstly saying they haven’t got one. To say they haven’t already got one is to say you’re not listening.”
In the hopes of inspiring delegates and reminding them exactly why we keep pushing as advocates for the wellbeing of children and young people, and for the multitude of proven positive effects that the arts and culture has on humankind, Lemn added: “It’s really important that we who are working in the arts are enlivened by the fact that it joins not only with the people that we’re working with, but with our own spirits, our own story – whether it’s from our dad, our mum, our great granddad – where we came from is all part of the story. Whether we teach, whether we work in an arts centre, whether we’re a Pupils Manager, all of us is there. It’s really important that at this time in particular, we bring all of ourselves to the table.”