How Would You Feel If You Found Out Your Marriage Was Over Via Facebook?

Peter Monn

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Several hours ago, I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw that one of my friends had posted “Governor Pence is a piece of shit.”  I didn’t even need to read the rest; I already knew what had happened.  Several weeks ago, a judge in southern Indiana struck down the ban on gay marriage in Indiana, calling it unconstitutional.  Within the next three days, several hundreds of gay and lesbian couples rushed to the courthouse and got married.  Immediately, the attorney general’s office issued an appeal.  Today, Governor Pence released an order regarding these same-sex marriages stating that the ban “is in full force and effect and executive branch agencies are to execute their functions as though the U.S. District Court Order of June 25 had not been issued.”  Meaning, my marriage, and several hundred others, are null and void.

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An open letter to Ireland: Dear whiny bitches…

unshavedmouse

Dear Whiny Bitches,

How’ve you been? I am good. Let’s talk about that recent survey. You know the one? Recently something called the Good Country Index released a survey stating that Ireland was the “best” country in the world. Now, there’s a been a lot of confusion on this so first of all let’s just clarify that the survey was not necessarily the best place in the world to live, the survey was actually trying to measure which countries contribute most to the welfare of humanity (in stuff like global aid, peace-keeping, diplomacy, fighting climate change and so on) and which countries are dragging everyone else down. Now, I’ll admit I was surprised that we got the number one spot, not stunned, but surprised. But sure, we do give a lot of money to overseas aid and we’ve been involved in UN Peacekeeping missions since the early sixties so fine…

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Boring Reality of Racial or Religious Equality

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There was a time not all that long ago when it was common enough, especially in London, to see on guesthouses and bedsits a sign stating, ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ or job vacancies advertised with the added acronym, ‘INNA’ – Irish Need Not Apply. In the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s the Irish community in Britain faced at times intense discrimination. Memories of the Punch magazine cartoons from the 19th Century of Irish imbeciles, close to animals, perhaps still fresh in people’s minds.

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Bog Trotters – The Irish Imbecile running wild in the countryside

Of course move on to the 1970s and 1980s and this discrimination took a turn to the dark side. With an increase in IRA paramilitary activity so came an increase in discrimination towards the Irish. To be a builder in those days in London, especially a builder with a van, was to put you under instant suspicion. When you speak to the Irish community from this period, they talk about feeling like just being Irish tarred them with the IRA brush.

Even in my era of the early 2000s in London, this fear of terrorism although far more subtle, still existed. An old flatmate’s boyfriend was a Metropolitan detective, she was Irish. One day he told her that because of a terrorist threat the police had been made aware of, all Irish people in the UK if they had any dealings with the police were to be referred to Scotland Yard. Now I would understand if this was because they had a run in with the law but this detective purported that it even stood if you were a victim of crime for example if you were raped. Whether what he said was true, I have no idea. I do believe however that even into the 2000s Irish people when it came to dealing with the police were considered somewhat suspicious.

Today, this is no longer a problem. The IRA are not as active so the fear of Irish terrorism has subsided and the outward discrimination the Irish experienced in the 1960s is considered absolutely unacceptable by nearly all if not all of society in the UK.

My question then is, why have we not learnt from the experiences of the Irish community in the UK? Why have we not learnt that tarring everyone from a particular group of people as terrorists or potential terrorists is to do an incredible disservice to the individuals within this group?

A friend I trained to be a teacher with who now lives in Qatar, a British citizen with British children, recently posted on Facebook that she worried about the safety of her children if she returned to Britain without the power of such racists parties as the BNP and UKIP being controlled. She wondered why everyone tarred everyone in her ethnic, religious group a terrorist or dangerous to British society.

She suggested that if everyone consciously thought through the obvious, they would realise that for 99% if not more of the Muslim community in Britain they live boring, everyday lives. People buy houses, marry, have children, send children to school, work, save for old age, retire, their children marry, they get sick and eventually die in a way that is not remarkable different from the very group of people who attack them. For most Muslims, just like most White British, life is unremarkable.

Of course there are some bad apples in every barrel. Of course there are some members of the British Muslim community who are involved in preparing barbaric acts of terrorism, just like in the 1970s and 1980s there were Irish people living in Britain who did the same. Of course there are men who beat their wives – there are in every community. Of course being Muslim is a different culture to that of the people who fear and attack them but that doesn’t mean these people are dangerous – they are partly just different.

I remember distinctly last year being at one of my best friend’s weddings. After she got married there was a group shot of her family. I remember looking at all her sisters and their partners, their children, her dad, her aunts and uncles and thinking that is what Britain should be like. This is a prime example of why we should be open to all cultural influences in this country. In the photo was her Muslim dad and his sisters, born in the Middle East; her Caribbean aunts and uncles, born in St. Kitts; her 6 sisters, all born in the UK but of mixed ethnicity; their husbands and boyfriends – some French, some African, some British among just some nationalities; and her new White British husband and his brother.

All are accepted as part of her family, they do not question whether whatever new culture joins their family is going to do harm – they look to see whether that person loves the person they are marrying, will they take care of them when times get hard. Each new ethnicity / nationality is seen as adding to the wonderful pot of cultures that makes them a family. This family could not exist if each member hadn’t realised that a different culture is only different until you get to know and understand it.

Once I heard a friend tell a story that saddened and angered me deeply. Her father, the most open and caring man you could meet, had a brother in New York. Reasonably often he flew to New York to see him. Nothing unusual there. His seven wonderful daughters bought him a present – flights to New York. Not long after receiving the present September 11th happened. Her father, a British citizen and an active member of society in his home town, a business owner and employer suddenly felt worried. A single man with a Muslim name travelling to New York might be suspicious. He therefore asked his best friend to travel with him – only his best friend is white with a British name. Was he over-reacting – we will never know but the very fact that the Muslim community had been tarred as terrorists stopped somebody who has only done good for his community and brought up the most amazing family from simply getting on with his everyday, unremarkable life.

My friend, who now lives in Qatar, suggested that perhaps the silent majority of British Muslims with their everyday, unremarkable lives need to speak up more about just how boring and unremarkable their lives are. I suggested that perhaps the silent majority of everyone else, who sees the racism the Muslim community in the UK suffer, should also speak up about their disgust towards these attitudes.

I live in a very white community in Stratford-upon-Avon. One could not begin to claim that it is a multiethnic community. Resident within the town are a limited number of non-white families. I try, when I can, to always smile or when appropriate say ‘Good Afternoon’ to these residents, more so perhaps than I do the white community. Perhaps this action in itself is racist, surely so, as it is me clearly differentiating my behaviour when interacting with different groups in society. In my own naive, innocent way, I hope to make a small dent in the hatred and fear that many people feel towards communities that don’t look or maybe sound like their own. I want that one person for the split second we interact to know that I don’t hate or fear them which is ironic in itself as most are probably British citizens living in their own country while I am Irish and officially an emigrant living in a foreign country .

The silent majority in this country are unlikely to ever get the headlines needed to ensure that people realise that different ethnic groupings are in reality no different to each other. I can’t see the headline, ‘One person finds nothing to fear in another person.’ It won’t sell papers and so won’t be heard. Therefore, it is perhaps just through our simply actions that we can make it clear that we understand that most families, irrespective of background, are just as boring and everyday as our own.

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Check out my other blog about being an M.E. patient What Will Happen to M.E.?

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Stephen Sutton: Inspirational But Not Alone

People all over Britain and indeed the world quite rightly morn the passing of Stephen Sutton, May 14th 2014. The young man, aged just 19, who proved so inspirational that in the last few months of his life he managed to raise over £3 million for the Teenage Cancer Trust.

For me, Stephen is just a brilliant example of what I know only too well but what society and the media often choose to forget. Young people, quite simply, are some of the most generous, kind, caring and imaginative people you will ever meet. Not all can raise millions of pounds for charity and not all find themselves in the spotlight like Stephen quite rightly did. All, however, have something wonderful to share with the world and this they do on a daily basis.

Those who do not spend extended amounts of time amongst large numbers of young people could so easily believe their media image: ASBOs, comatosed on the street from alcohol, sleeping around, being rude to older people, refused to give up a seat on the bus for somebody who needs it.

Those of us that do spend the majority of our day with young people know that the image the media portrays is inaccurate. Every student I have ever taught has something wonderful to offer to the world and they do it everyday. Young people are growing up and learning who they are, learning what the boundaries are – so yes, sometimes they get things wrong, overall however they are truly amazing people.

The child who strives to do well in their GCSEs despite having no real support at home, their sheer determination to do well is admirable. The student who spots you carrying a pile of books and offers to take some back to your classroom for you – their only motivation: to be helpful. The student who is a full-time carer at home but is not afraid to say they need help. The child who faces ill health and still supports their friends when they need them. The child who writes a Christmas card for a teacher that makes the teacher feel that is why they are in education that happens to come on the very day when the teacher is wondering if they have the strength to keep doing it. The child who every day for a week bakes cakes at home and then sells them the next day for charity. The child who realises their mother is having an epileptic fit and remembered what she’d been told to do in the event and saves her mother’s life. All of these are examples from my own experiences.

All of these young people are aspirational – they all do something everyday that is never reported in the media. It is a side of young people that it is all too easy to not notice or forget.

Yet you still say what about those kids who do horrible things to older people or get drunk and profane on a Friday night? What about those kids who are rude and abusive to teachers? What about those children who bully others? For me these are the children who often deserve the most admiration.

Find these children alone, where they don’t feel the need to be the big man, where they feel safe and behind their anger, frustration, worry and confusion these children too are inspirational. You do not become a ‘difficult’ child unless you come from a difficult background. Yes some kids very sadly slip through the system without anyone really being able to help but oh so many show such bravery in trying to change themselves.

I have taught so many children who have tried to be rude and abusive to me – once they saw that I wasn’t going to give up on them, that I believed in them and respected them, many slowly, very slowly started to come around. The courage it takes to go from being a child who is infamous for disturbing lessons, to a child who tries their best, is all too often forgotten.

So Stephen represents the pinnacle of what young people can achieve. I believe however it is important to remember the little heroes who walk around all day with the reputation developed by the media and those who listen only to soundbites hanging over their head.

I believe our future will be in safe hands for all teachers see the wealth of positive futures developing each day in front of our eyes.

See also my other blog about my experiences as an M.E. patient – What Will Happen to M.E.?

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Intelligence: Nature v Nurture and its implications in schools

I recall once having a bitter argument with a fellow teacher about expectations for children. I claimed that we couldn’t expect our children from a state school with a huge percentage of military children (and the transience that brings); with a large number of children from poorer homes; and a huge percentage of children with special educational needs to do as well as children from public schools or even from state schools in areas of high income. He was determined that we should have the same expectations for them and that I was doing them down by not doing so.

Arguing that the children I taught were intellectually inferior to those in public schools was not the objective. The objective was to say that, ‘yes we should aspire for these children to achieve at the same level as children from stable home lives where financially they can benefit from all that life offers however aspiration is different from expectation.’ An aspiration is something that you keep quietly as your aim while providing expectations that stretch children but ultimately are achievable. To do otherwise just leads children down the path of continual disappointment, sapping them of the one thing they need most to succeed – confidence.

It was with interest then that I listened to a recent Radio 4 show about the inheritability of intelligence. The researcher involved was keen to differentiate his research from eugenics although he admitted that it did fit into that box but he hoped without the inherent discrimination eugenics is famous for. His research seemed to indicate that 30 – 40% of our intelligence could be heritable from our parents, the rest was a result of nurture.

Teachers, I feel, would in no way be surprised by this. We have all sat in the parent / teacher meetings and thought, “ah ha that’s where she gets it!” Of course what teachers cannot divine is whether students are like their parents purely through nurture or through nature.

The researcher raised the question if 30 – 40% of intelligence is heritable through your parents should society and schools in particular differentiate from the very beginning based on the intelligence of parents? Should students in reception be put into sets in order to give those children who had less of a good start intellectually the chance to fully nurture the remaining 60 – 70% of their intelligence? By doing so enabling the less intelligent children to have the best start possible while enabling the more intelligent to be pushed and stretched and not let them, as often happens, from day one be bored.

The idea of pigeon holing children from day one, sits uncomfortably with me. Children develop and grow at such different rates, is it fair to say to a child from the age of five that, “from now on you are in the thick group.” All children recognise setting, no matter how hard you try and claim that all classes are equal, they recognise the inherent and blatant truth – they are not. No matter how hard you try and avoid the term ‘bottom set’ this is what children will call it.

Yet as a teacher I have seen hundreds of times the benefit of intervention and the earlier the intervention the better. If nothing else, children who are taught in small groups or one to one grow in confidence. Confidence, I feel, is one of the greatest skills a child needs to access education. If, therefore, we can instil a child with confidence and help them to develop their remaining 60-70% of intelligence, surely the earlier the better.

That therefore leads me onto the next dilemma if 30-40% of intelligence is heritable then theoretically this is 30-40% that intervention can have no impact on. Is it fair therefore to assume that all children will develop at the same rate? Should we have the same expectations for all children? All children are expected to be a Level 1 in Maths and English by the end of their second year in school – age 6. By the age of 10 they are expected to be Level 4 in both. There are no official progress expectations. Schools are judged on their ability to meet floor targets (the percentage of children achieving these levels). The floor targets are usually around 60-65% of children.

You could argue that basic skill levels should be expected of ALL children and yes schools should be judged on their ability to achieve them. While I agree that floor targets do motivate schools to push all students to achieve the target levels, I do not agree that this is fair on all children.

For the children who work hard and are taught well and whose home life and intelligence is average then they will achieve expected levels. For those children who are intellectually equal to the first child but whose home life is utterly chaotic and attendance is variable, as perhaps they have to get themselves up and dressed at the age of 6 in order to get to school then it is a little tough to add that pressure to the children. On the other hand you could argue that if the children are intelligent enough, then we should not lower our expectations of them purely because of their home life. On this one, I think you have to take it case by case.

What about the child who strives to do well, spends hours on their homework, is taught well and gets plenty of parental support yet still struggles to make progress – is it fair to put them under the further pressure of achieving a target that is ultimately unachievable by the end of Year 1 or Year 6?

What about the child who finds school a doddle, they barely listen, rush their homework and yet still hit Level 1 and Level 4 targets easily – is it fair to not stretch these children by giving them the same target? Yes, as a 10 year old you can sit an English and Maths exam that enables students to achieve a Level 6 (technically the level expected by 14 year olds). There are however no floor targets for these levels, schools do not sink or swim based on these more challenging levels. A school could never get a child to sit these higher level exams and there would be no consequences for them.

A few years ago I had dealings with a school and their data. What I read utterly shocked me. Their headline figure was 96% of all students achieved a Level 4 in their end of Year 6 exams. Believe me this is a pretty amazing figure, all schools aspire to achieve this. Digging into their data however it rapidly became clear that not all was well in the Garden of Eden.

I looked at the progress made by the children while at the school. The school I was looking at was a middle school (children aged 9 – 13). The guideline for expected progress is 1 level a year (from age 9 – 13)- so these children should have made 4 levels progress in their time in the school. The children however were making in the region of 2 levels. They had joined the school with the majority close to a Level 4 so two years later when they sat their Year 6 exams they had exceeded Level 4 – hence why 96% had achieved a Level 4+.

They therefore started Year 7 already a year or so ahead of the game. When they left the school aged 13 the majority hit Level 6 as the government expects. When you looked however at their progress between Year 5 and Year 8 they had not made the 4 levels progress expected despite the on the surface glowing figures.

This ultimately is my problem with the arms race that currently exists within education – in order for a school to prove how good it is, floor targets based purely on achievement keep going up and indeed only hitting the floor targets is considered by many schools a failure yet there is no official charting of the real data needed to show how effective a school is – progress.

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Take this example. Which child has achieved the greater success?
Child A
– By the end of Year 2 was a Level P (the level just before Level 1) – technically two years behind their peers.
– By the end of Year 6 was a Level 3 – technically now a year behind their peers.
Child B
– By the end of Year 2 was a Level 2 – technically a year ahead of their peers
– By the end of Year 6 was a Level 4 – technically at the level expected of their peer group.
Child A currently would be a negative piece of data in a school while Child B would be a positive. Which child however has seen more success? Child A – in fact Child B has actually regressed when compared to their peers.

What about the child who makes 2 levels progress not the expected 3 and is a Level 3 instead of a Level 4 but in the last three years has been removed by Social Services from their parents and moved foster homes and schools 5 times since then? Has this child failed by not making ‘guideline progress’ or hitting ‘expected levels’?

What about the child who is clearly highly intelligent, who comes from a stable loving environment who makes just expected progress and reaches just expected levels? Has this child been successful or failed?

So the question then is should an entirely new system be created whereby students’ intelligence on starting school should define expected progress and achievement? Or should the government focus more on progress than on achievement when judging schools and individuals? Or is it fair to differentiate at all in expectations given everyone will be fighting at the same level for jobs in the future?

One thing is certainly true, the system for judging children when they are very young isn’t working. It forces schools to play the system in order to appear to be successful. The impact this playing the system has on a child in the future is huge. Another thing is also certain, the group of people involved in restructuring the system cannot be led by a man with no educational background other than his own experiences of private school. What appears to be semi-dictatorial powers must be taken out of the hands of Michael Gove and given to the real experts, the ones whose voices are not heard unless they agree with what Gove suggests.

See also my other blog What Will Happen to M.E.? about my experiences as an M.E. patient

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Give Yourself the Right to Complain

I firmly believe in my right to moan and complain. I don’t stand for poor service, I write emails to CEOs on a semi regular basis. There is no excuse for people not doing the job they are paid for. I’m particularly antsy about people who fail to even vaguely meet the standards required of those in public service. I get antsy for two reasons: largely I pay their salaries through my taxes but also in many cases I’ve helped to elect them into the positions they so poorly hold.

I have a firm belief however that as soon as I fail to exercise my democratic right to vote, I fail to have a right to complain about those who theoretically represent me. As soon as I step away from my responsibility to play my role in the democratic process, I no longer have the right to moan about Michael Gove, the NHS, Nigel Farage or potholes on my street. A democratic system only truly works when all those enfranchised to vote take advantage of their right. We are only truly represented if we step up and vote.

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It is therefore with great sadness that I see once again a seeming lack of engagement with the public in the election ward I live in in Stratford upon Avon. Up until yesterday I was voting Liberal Democrats, for the simply reason that they were the only party to have tried to engage with me although only about the local elections. Yesterday however we received a Labour flyer so may the games begin. If I never turned on the TV or never listened to the radio, I would be oblivious to the fact that European elections will also be held on May 22nd.

This brings me therefore to the gist of this piece. If as an intelligent politically interested adult (with a back history of having voted in every election I had a right to vote in) I am barely aware of the upcoming local and European elections, how must first time or young voters feel? Are they even aware that they have a democratic duty on May 22nd? Fail to get young people engaged in the democratic process early and you fail to engage them, most probably for life.

As a teacher I feel never forcing my opinions on students is one of the most important things I can do. I firmly believe that my job is to open students minds to differing beliefs, situations, cultures and then allow them to develop their own opinions; opinions which more likely than not will morph and develop late into their twenties and thirties. One topic however I will not allow any leeway on – my students once they hit 18 should vote. There is no excuse not to.

I understand why many young people struggle to engage in the democratic process. They feel that politics isn’t relevant to them. They see politicians ‘getting down with the kids’ and feel even more that politicians just don’t get them. Of course young people should be interested in interest rates, pensions, immigration, foreign policy and the like but in all honesty as an 18/19 year old were you? Yes, everything that happens in Westminster or Strasbourg will ultimately impact on them but right now how many truly understand this.

Let’s be honest here for many in their late teens or early twenties they exist in their own bubble, concerned largely with what effects them and those in their immediate vicinity. This is most definitely not a criticism. It is in these years that you develop a sense of who you are as an adult, you learn what you believe in, what your morals truly are. You make decisions that effect the direction of your life.

Disenfranchisement happens when politicians or the public don’t recognise the significance of these years for young people. Failure of politicians to engage young people in the topics that most concern them: employment, training, university fees, housing etc can only lead to young people choosing not to vote: not exercising their democratic right / responsibility.

Having taught 9 year olds to 18 year olds, I have no doubt about the ability of young people to intellectually engage in the big political picture. Give them the right environment and even the youngest child I have taught is capable of understanding complex ideas and expressing their opinions. If you can just grasp their attention, make politics relevant to them, then not only will they engage with politicians on the topics that most concern them but also to those areas that as of yet, have no direct impact on their lives.

So where does responsibility for increasing political awareness lie? Once again I suspect the experts and the media would clamour to declare lack of political awareness to be the fault of teachers. Why don’t we teach students expressly about politics? I think most teachers would agree that we are probably in the best position to impact on the lives of students on mass. Teachers should therefore add politically engaging students to the long list of non-curricular areas we have failed to take responsibility for: politics, child abuse, sexualisation of young teens, forced marriage, healthy eating, wide musical and artistic knowledge among very very many.

As a teacher I want to take responsibility for these areas. I really do. The reality is that teachers now operate in a world of increasingly wide responsibilities for non-curricular areas but with increasing pressures on students hitting the right levels in tight curricular areas. The curriculum as it stands has no real room to encompass everything we should be teaching.

The reality is that while teachers of course have a responsibility to encourage political awareness, the real responsibility lies with parents and politicians. I have little doubt that the children of politically aware and engaged parents will as a whole grow into politically aware and engaged adults themselves. As a child I always went to polling stations with my parents and it was an assumption I would vote when I turned 18. The challenge therefore is to engage those who come from families with little or no political engagement.

My fear lies in the frightening reality that parties such as, but in particular, UKIP seem to have found the method needed to engage the political disenfranchised. Their simple messages of them and us seem to resonate only too well with those who worry about their jobs, housing and their cultural identity. Whether there is any true validity in UKIP statements loses importance among those who feel no one gets them, supports them or is on their side.

Faced with the threat of the discriminatory policies of groups such as UKIP, it is all the more important for society to encourage everyone including young people to vote. A failure to do this simply means every vote not exercised, is effectively one vote less for UKIP to have to match and beat.

As much as politically the choice between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives is in reality these days a case of ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’, choosing one of the three main parties at least will help to ensure that radical extremists are one step further away from power in Europe or locally.

I often tell a story to my students when faced with, “What difference can I really make? I’m only one vote.” I tell them a story about politics in Poland, a country I lived in for almost five years. In simply terms, one parliamentary election there was a record low amongst young voters. Less than 10% of young people voted.

The Mohair Army as they were known voted on mass. The Mohair Army are old ladies with mohair hats who attend church daily and believe every word the priests says. With many priests and Radio Marjya (a Catholic radio station) arguing the case for Andrzej Lepper’s Samoobrona (Self-defence) and Roman Giertych’s LPR (League of Polish Families), they came from obscurity to leading roles in a coalition government. Both parties were radical right wing organisations with links to Neo-Nazi youth movements. Indeed Roman Giertych himself once led All-Polish Youth – a full on Neo-Nazi youth movement that had my gay friend hurrying home when he saw them get off a coach near his house.

Young people didn’t support Samoobrona or LPR on the whole but their failure to state this through the ballot box ensured their rise in power. The realisation that their new Minister for Education, Roman Giertych had formally led a neo-Nazi organisation brought young people onto the streets in protest. The sudden move towards the de-liberalising of society shocked young people.

The coalition did not last. The three parties involved struggled to find common ground and work together. The government fell and a new election was called. This time around 70% of young people voted. Some polling stations in Warsaw saw 110% of votes cast. Polling stations ran out of ballot papers but young people refused not to vote and went to other polling stations until arrangements could be made for them to vote. Unsurprisingly, Samoobrona and LPR failed to receive enough votes, lost their deposits and went bankrupt. A more main stream and effective government was created.

This is my lesson to young people who say, “What difference can I really make? I’m only one vote.” You cannot democratically bring change for the positive unless each individual chooses to vote. You choose not to vote and you can easily bring change for the worse. This was a bitter lesson young people in Poland had to learn. Your vote makes a difference. At the very least it gives you the right to complain!

So I challenge all political parties in the last two weeks before the local and general elections to go out there and speak to young people, show them you care. I challenge parents to encourage those young people who have registered to vote to go to the polling stations on May 22nd. For those not registered, I challenge parents to get their children registered. I challenge the media to not dumb down the capabilities of young people, help show them they have the power to bring about change.

More importantly I challenge young people to exercise their democratic right, don’t be afraid of the ballot box, don’t think politics isn’t for you. It is, it is for everyone. More realistically it is for you, for you, as the youngest group, will be the one most affected in the future.

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