Sometimes I realise why I love Scotland and its people so much. It usually arises after I have had a conversation with someone who has been deeply affected by crime, brought up in care, been a victim of crime or is desperate to get a better life, yet stymied at every turn.
I have had a series of these kinds of conversation recently.
With a young woman whose background is care-experienced who told me that she knows what a normal family looks like, but she doesn’t know what it feels like. She talks to me about crafting out a new life and future, and of the random acts of kindness that make her life better. The mentor, the friend, the people who take time to understand her and her experience and commit to supporting her, giving her the opportunity she needs to break a cycle.
With an amazing man whose life has been changed by awful circumstances. He talked to me about the kindness of neighbours and community and the humbling discovery that despite the narrative that ‘no one cares’, there are so many people that do. His realisation that his experiences can change a system and that the opportunity to speak and be heard might provide a way for some positive change to come out of something difficult and traumatic was incredible to witness.
With a young man who has fundamentally changed his future after a life of victimisation and crime, who is so extraordinary, so full of potential that the realisation that he can take any path he chooses is an absolute joy to see, so unburdened is he now by negative forces that previously kept him in a life of violence. He is a lovely dad, a great colleague and I can’t wait to see what he contributes to this country.
With the NHS worker and football coach, who seems to do so much in his spare time to help the community I worry that he will collapse under the weight. He came to see me because he is running a mental health conversation in Armadale, finding assets and volunteers in the community to support others. At the same time he is pulling together lots of people to talk about diversity and equality in the justice system. He could convince anyone to help.
And then there was the wonderful tenancy support officer from Edinburgh who wrote to me with my favourite line: “I’d like to do something, how can I help?” That folks, is a fine question, the right question – not “what are all these other people going to do”, but “what can I do”? to make other lives better, and in doing that, improve my own life. Being a leader isn’t about a job title, it really isn’t. A leader is someone willing to help; someone who sees something that needs to change and decides they are going to make the first moves in influencing that change. In this tortuous time that we find ourselves in, people are complaining about the lack of leadership in the highest echelons of power and influence.
I think you are looking in the wrong place. Look in your communities for the quiet, effective residents, the next-door neighbour who you can rely on because they know everyone and where to get help. The community centre locally run by a handful of great people who wanted to create a space to meet, feed and enjoy. The immigrant who throws themselves into the community with a desire to make a difference and share their knowledge. The local place of worship so often full of people who give their time freely and, regardless of your faith, would reach out to help.
There is a change happening in Scotland, and it’s happening from the bottom up, from people who are taking control, changing the destiny of others and their own. We should nurture it, fund it, support it and not interfere. I haven’t named you, for you did not ask for publicity, but all our lives are enriched by what you do.
Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland