The leaders behind this project are all graduates of the Columba Leadership programme, which instils young people with the skills and the confidence to take charge of their own lives. In 2016, learners noticed that incidents of bullying at the school had dramatically increased compared to the year before. Most of the victims were Grade 8 learners, in their first year of high school, who were bullied because they came from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds. There was also a grave concern regarding the incidence of rape in the community.
Recognising the need to act, Columba Leadership graduates launched a project to tackle the issues. They started by recruiting the bullies to participate in the campaign, making them part of the solution. They also organised silent protests at lunch breaks, with groups of students taping their mouths and carrying anti-bullying and anti-rape placards. The result has been an almost complete eradication of bullying and cyberbullying at the school.
Girl-Talk, another youth-led project at the same school, addresses the challenges and pressures faced by female learners, including substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, and verbal abuse. The first workshop at the school took place in 2016. This year’s main event was hosted in Midrand and 100 students attended. The project has proved so successful that they have started Boy-Talk to address the same issues with male learners.
These are just two of the many projects developed and implemented by Columba Leadership graduates around South Africa. Earlier this month, Columba Leadership held its annual Youth Connexion event for Gauteng at The University of the Witwatersrand, which attracted 450 people which is the largest ever attendance of this event.
“Treating young people as passive consumers of education is incredibly limiting,” says Tracy Hackland, CEO at Columba Leadership. “The power of our youth engagement model is that schools are supported to open up space for learner leadership, and through having opportunities to lead learners start connecting with a sense of purpose, develop character, and become much more invested in their schools and their communities. The projects at Thuto Lesedi are great examples of the impact empowered young people can have on their environment,” she continues.
Columba’s process also benefits the teachers and school leaders at schools. When learners are engaged and invested in their communities and their schools, they are easier to teach and they reinforce the culture of learning and teaching in the school. This can make fragile schools far more resilient and less prone to disruption and drop-outs.
“Educators are a key part of the Columba process. Although the learners brainstorm and implement the projects, educators are there to empower, encourage and support the process. They advise on the viability of projects and assist in mobilising support from the school’s management team and other educators. They also ensure that these projects are implemented in accordance with school policies. Youth and adults learn to work as partners for change,” explains Hackland.
“The Columba process has broader and long-term effects on educators,” continues Hackland. “Those who have attended our leadership academy start to engage their peers formally and informally - they share values, discuss strategies for bringing change to their schools, start to motivate one another in the staff room, reach out to support their peers and their principal and also start investing more in their own development.”
The most significant long-term effects are on the Columba graduates themselves. Learners develop important skills and capabilities such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving. These skills and the character development that occurs makes these young people more employable.
“What makes Columba’s programme unique is that it focuses on helping young people to help themselves. This means that Columban participants develop the grit required to identify and solve problems and uplift themselves,” adds Rob Taylor, founding chairman of Columba.
“We believe that the key to transforming fragile schools into havens for learning and growth is to harness the power of youth energy and positivity,” says Hackland. “Our experience has taught us that when you make young people responsible for their own lives, and give them the tools to succeed, they transform themselves and the communities around them.”