Kirkcudbright peace ambassadors at Scottish parliament

Jean Best with her Kirkcudbright Peace Ambassadors
Jean Best with her Kirkcudbright Peace Ambassadors

A unique, inspiring and motivating Rotary Peace Conference was held in the Scottish Parliament Building on the 10th May organised and led by Rotarians from the South West of Scotland. The opportunity to use such a venue was facilitated by our local MSP Alex Fergusson. The intention was to bring together MSPs, Police Scotland, Rotary Peace Fellows, media, legal and educational representatives along with Rotarians, parents, university students, staff and pupils of secondary schools to celebrate how young people are currently making a difference as Peace Ambassadors in their schools and communities. The intention was met by 175 delegates of whom one third were young people along with representatives from Sweden, United States, Mexico, the whole of Scotland and Rotarians from England and Wales.

The conference was inspired by and created under the leadership of District 1020 Rotary Peace Officer, Jean Best, a Rotarian from the club at Kirkcudbright. It was designed and led in part by the first Kirkcudbright Peace Ambassadors who are now continuing their influence at university. The conference keynote speakers were Rotary Peace Fellows Flor Yanez and David LaMotte, Dick Hazlehurst experienced coordinator of Rotary Peace Scholars at Bradford University and David Scott, campaign Director of ‘Nil by Mouth’ the anti-sectarian movement based in Glasgow. School based Peace Ambassadors from Kirkcudbright and Newton Stewart addressed the Conference to help to inspire and to inform the young people, as well as to influence the decision makers present.

Maurice Halliday, Past District Governor and Rotary International Adviser gave a strong lead to the proceedings as compare sharing his wit, knowledge and time keeping skills to keep the day on track. Alex Ferguson, MSP and conference parliamentary sponsor, expressed his enthusiasm and support for the Peace project and he made it very clear that this kind of occasion fulfilled the wishes of those who designed and those who worked in the Parliament Building. Scottish Parliament Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick and a Rotarian opened the conference with a reference to one of her own early influences in politics which was ‘the Ripple of Hope’ speech in South Africa in 1966. The Presiding Officer offered her congratulations for organizing such a valuable and unique conference in the Parliament Building and gave her best wishes for a successful Conference. Ellie Bird, Chief Superintendent British Transport Police, represented Police Scotland and presented a DVD very supportive message from the Chief Constable Sir Stephen House in support of the young people. Ellie Bird also offered her full support for a project developing young people in peace and conflict resolution skills and paralled this with her direction for Peace and safe transport in Scotland. The final introductory welcome was left to Peace Officer Jean Best who outlined her concerns that young people today are no longer equipped with the social and emotional skills to cope with living in the 21st century so that problems are dealt with with a more aggressive and violent approach. She outlined the direction of the Rotary Peace Project undertaken in Kirkcudbright Academy and with other Rotary Districts and schools across Great Britain. She highlighted the progress that was being made.

The first thought provoking keynote was that of Flor Yanez, a Rotary Peace Fellow from Mexico, who had flown into Scotland especially for the Conference. In a passionate address, Flor told of the many challenges, including an attempt on her life, that she was encountering in delivering the peace agenda to young people in her own country. She explained a project that she was delivering in Mexico and later in the United States called ‘Conquering Conflict through Images’. She, too, urged those present to expand the peace work being done with young people in Scotland and thanked both Jean and Keith Best for their inspirational contribution to 5000 people in Mexico over a period of 5 days last May.

The morning session was concluded by 4 of the original Kirkcudbright Academy Peace Ambassadors. They enthusiastically outlined the conflict resolution skills that they had acquired through the Peace programme and how these life skills served them well with personal relationships and their influence at University. In order to introduce the conference to the practical skills each led breakout groups in the Parliamentary Committee rooms to one quarter of the delegates each. The Peace Ambassadors created the scenarios and activities that challenged both youth and adult delegates but highlighted the problems that young people face in getting their voice heard. This theme was further pursued in the afternoon session when two other school Peace Ambassador groups made presentations.

After a very welcome lunch, the first afternoon session was started by Rotarian Dick Hazlehurst, Peace Fellow Co-ordinator at Bradford University and member of the Rotary Club of Keighley. Dick highlighted how Rotary chose and supported 60 Peace Scholars across 6 world Rotary Peace Centres to graduate as Peace Fellows and to work anywhere in the world in the pursuit of Peace. Currently there are over 760 Rotary Peace Fellows exerting their influence and support. He informed the audience of the training offered to the designated Peace Fellows and he talked of the successes that they have achieved. One Peace Fellow that he was particularly proud to have been associated with was Flor Yanez who graduated from the Peace Centre at Bradford University.

The holistic nature of the conference was designed to give maximum opportunity for the young people engaged in the process of becoming Peace Ambassadors to be heard. No one could fail to be inspired by the next two groups of Peace Ambassadors. The first came from the second cohort of Kirkcudbright Academy students who were equally impressive in their confident delivery and again facilitated by Jean Best. They talked of their service project whereby they were offering support through delivering conflict resolution workshops based on identified needs within their own school population. They were followed by a younger group of Peace Ambassadors from the Douglas Ewart High School in Newton Stewart, facilitated by Rtn. Keith Best They confidently described the stages that as members of ‘#Peace’ that they had undergone during curriculum time to acquire the skills of being a Peace Ambassador. They described how they had used the skills to chose and felt sufficiently empowered to deliver a service project to raise money for Aquaboxes for the Philippines, a project very close to Rotarian hearts. These two presentations drew a very supportive and enthusiastic response from the audience.

The stimulation and audience engagement continued with the Keynote address of Dave Scott, the Campaign Director for ‘Nil By Mouth’. He effectively ushered in moments of real humour and entertainment through a very challenging subject. His delivery belied and then reinforced the serious message he wished to share with all those present, namely the vital work that his campaign were doing to overcome sectarianism in Scotland. He recognised and reinforced the enormous importance and potential of the Rotary Peace initiative with young people and he endorsed the need for society to listen purposefully to the voice of our young people.

The final keynote was introduced though an astounding guitar solo from David La Motte, a Rotary World Peace Fellow and award-winning songwriter, speaker and writer, who had flown into Scotland from Black Mountain, North Carolina especially to attend the Conference. His presentation, ‘World changing101 : Challenging the Myth of Powerlessness’ was hugely absorbing, entertaining, challenging and thought provoking. His message to everyone present was ‘you are changing the world whether you like it or not’ not by being heroes but by collectively getting engaged with small acts. All those in the rapt audience were agreed that it was a privilege to listen to him and there is no doubt that he inspired young and old alike in their belief in the value of Peace work. He was most genuine when he wished all present every success in what they were seeking to achieve with young people.

The Conference was concluded with a lively and enthusiastic question and response session, including a request for the Conference to become an annual event. Jean Best took the opportunity along with other panel members to confirm that the Conference had helped to disseminate the knowledge and understanding of what is possible for school Peace groups and increased the awareness of those present as to what Rotary can offer to our young people and the route to take to achieve this.

Rotary District Governor Kate Keter thanked all those involved in making the event such a success and gave her support for this valuable Rotary development. Finally the 4 original Peace Ambassadors requested an extra word for Kate Barr, one of the original Kirkcudbright Academy Peace group, who gave heartfelt thanks to Jean Best for all that she had given to her and her fellow students since beginning the Peace programme back in 2012.

Finally Alex Fergusson took the opportunity to reinforce his opening remarks by once again summing up the immense value and undoubted worth of the Peace Conference and he clearly took great pride in telling all those in the audience that this kind of occasion is clear justification for the construction and the design of the magnificent building that is the Scottish Parliament Building.

The organisers have received many written and spoken personal perspectives following the conference and one that seems to speak for all stated

“I enjoy my Saturdays and they are precious to me…… However, I’d give up another one in a flash if I thought it would be as enjoyable, sociable, thought provoking and inspirational as yesterday. In fact I’d want my children and my grandchildren to experience it too….

It was a day which connected with hearts and minds..”

Theresa Douglas, Livingston.