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Changing Lives

How One Youth Exchange Project Has Changed Lives

When Bilal Ameen came to the UK in 1979, he quickly became concerned about the lack of services aimed at young black people.

Originally from St Vincent and Grenadines, Ameen, father of Kidulthood star Aml Ameen, has always been passionate about the youth.

Back home, he was part of church youth groups, promoting music and heritage education. And his band LOB Corporation, later renamed The Caribbean Stompers, travelled around the Caribbean performing for the likes of Princess Margaret and Mick Jagger.

However in the UK, he noticed the lack of similar opportunities for young people to develop their talents and skills.

Ameen founded the Caribbean Development Foundation (CDF) in 1982, a pioneering community project that offered initiatives such as its international youth exchange programme for youth often described as “hard to engage.”

The programme allowed black Britons to visit Africa, the Caribbean and Europe and meet with other young people.

Today, as austerity measures decimate government budgets for youth outreach schemes, Ameen is on a mission to remind Britain of the benefits of investing in young people through the Heritage Lottery funded, Youth Exchange Archive Heritage Project.

The project showcases experiences of African Caribbean youth who went on exchange trips during the 1980s and 90s through the CDF, now called Africa Caribbean Development Foundation (ACDF).

“This project is going to prove that a trip can change a young person’s life, essentially giving them hope and a positive outlook and putting them on a path to productivity and success,” says Ameen.

One of his initial aims for the youth exchanges was to get young people to connect with their heritage and cultural identity. According to Ameen, this is central to the development of a positive self He says “Most of the young people who participated in the exchanges went on to great accomplishments. To me this is evidence of the scheme’s effectiveness.”

Ameen is hoping that the project will inspire other organisations and revive the practice of youth exchanges and offer support to organisations that are interested in non-formal education or who want to run youth-centric initiatives. Claudia Webbe, founder and former chairperson of Operation Trident Independent Advisory Group and an Islington councillor, visited St Vincent and the Grenadines with the project in the late 1980s. She said the benefits of the exchange were clear in the transformation she witnessed. “Some of the young people in my group were facing serious personal challenges, because of the stark racial discrimination that existed at the time,” she recalls.

BACK IN THE DAY: ACDF youngsters on a trip to St Vincent in 1989. Claudia Webbe is second from the right in the front row

“There were also youths who had attempted suicide and mixed-race teenagers who were confused about their identity.

“The project gave young black people the opportunity to see others like themselves, doing positive things such as performing well in school and demonstrating a high level of discipline.

“They went to a country that without question welcomed them, did not judge them, did not police the boundaries of blackness.

“They felt a sense of belonging; they felt at home in a way that they hadn’t experienced in the UK. “They came back more confident, more engaged and inspired by what they saw and what they did for themselves.”

Webbe described the reduction of funding and resources for youth services as “an absolute shame”. While she supports the Heritage Project, she is concerned that programmes like the ACDF youth exchange are now a thing of the past.

“All the benefits that youth work was achieving in the 1980s and 1990s have now been lost... people are missing out on the value of these youth exchanges.”

Teacher and former youth worker Samuel Nelson, who was also an ACDF programme director, said the youth exchange programme helped the young people to connect with the values and way of life of people who shared their cultural heritage.

Among other ACDF participants Rumbe Manshonga, a qualified nurse, sales executive, Sandra Garrett who now owns her own nursery and social worker Veronica Price-Job. All three agree that the programme had a positive impact on their lives.

Manshonga described it as a “journey of self discovery”, Garrette said it was “life changing” and Price-Job remembers experiencing complete acceptance while she was in St Vincent.

The Youth Exchange Archive Heritage Project, which is supported by the Museum of London, The Black Cultural Archives and libraries across the capital, is due for completion in July 2014.

It includes the making of a TV documentary, directed by Aml, the publication of a book by Melrose Books, a website and a photographic exhibition.

Sue Bowers, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund London, said: “This is a valuable project.

“It creates an archive to celebrate 25 years of foreign exchange programmes and helps establish partnership with a number of organisations.”