Abstract This blog reflects on the Youth and Young Adult Track of a 3 day online global conference (INCCIP 2021), which is for and about children of incarcerated parents. The youth and young adult track was the first of its kind; an opportunity for impacted young people to come together from around the world to discuss their experiences. This programme was essentially a conference within a conference, and this blog is a reflection from the lead of the youth/young adult track.
Experiences from the lead of the Youth Track, and INCCIP Board Member.
INCCIP (International Coalition for Children of Incarcerated Parents) is a global charity that aims to improve the lives of children who are impacted by parental incarceration across the world. Every 2-years INCCIP holds an international conference that brings together practitioners, researchers, policy makers and young people who share this passion and aim. In 2017 we met for our inaugural conference in New Zealand; in 2019 we met in the UK; this year we had planned to meet in Washington USA, but the pandemic hit, and we were forced to move our conference online.
After many days, week and months of restrictions, isolations and lockdowns around the world, where Zoom and similar online platforms have become our norm, you would be forgiven for imaging a three-day online conference to be tiring, energy draining and perhaps something you might log onto with your screen off, whilst doing other tasks. Yet INCCIP’s 2021 conference was nothing like this! I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this one of the most inspiring, uplifting, mind-opening and heart-opening conference I have ever had the pleasure of being involved in.
This conference had two tracks; the Main Track for those sharing local, national, and global challenges, academic papers and good practice, and the Youth and Young Adult Track, a safe space where young people aged 13-25yrs could come together to share how it feels to be a child who has experienced parental imprisonment, what helps them, and the ways in which they strive in the face of this adversity. This was the track I had the honour of being asked to lead and facilitate.
Of course, an online conference, with young people living in different time zones is no easy feat. Checking and re-checking intended log-on times in the preparation phase and making sure to be up to date with Daylight Saving Time Zones became a near-daily occurrence. Moreover, as this was my first time facilitating a youth conference over the internet, I was nervous about how I could make sure the participants felt safe and supported at all times. In any environment, talking about parental imprisonment is a sensitive affair; reading the mood of the room, picking up body language queues and adjusting my groups accordingly is the way I practice, so the barrier of screens, with camera’s that may or may not be on, had to be thought through carefully. Parental / caregiver consent was naturally sought for those 17yrs and under, and for an extra layer of protection, we made available an online ‘Safe-Guardian’; a person who they could talk to in the breakout rooms if they needed any additional support.
I am delighted to tell you that across the three days, a whopping 32 young people came together from across the globe; mostly from the UK, USA, Canada and Uganda. It is noteworthy that children from Uganda logged on from a shared phone from a children’s residential home (https://wellsofhopeorg.wordpress.com/) they live in, set up specifically for children who have been separated from their primary caregivers due to imprisonment. In our programme, co-designed and co facilitated by my brilliant and committed colleagues Jessica Reid from Canada (https://www.kipcanada.org/) and Katie Kramer from the USA (https://www.thebridginggroup.com/) welcomed inspiring key notes speakers; young adults in university, postgraduates, rising stars in their careers who shared with us their stories of success in spite of the trauma’s they had suffered. Of course, stories naturally included difficult experiences and memories, stigmatization, grief and loss. Across our international group, children and young adults spoke of guns to heads, being scared for their lives, witnessing (commonly violent) arrests, a child’s right to privacy being ignored and abused by the media, the sharing of their information without due consent or legitimate necessity, the constant battle of being exposed to negative rhetoric’s and discrimination, and sadly some of our group even reported the death of their primary caregivers.
Nonetheless, in the midst of our difficult conversations this was a positive and happy group. Sessions were opened and closed by each member choosing from memes to represent their feelings, (eg “what crazy cat are you today?” or “what marvel character represents you this session?”). We also had a ‘show and tell’ of items that meant family to us; one young boy showed us the photo he keeps by his bed of his dad and him; a young woman showed us her grandmothers ring who raised her when her mother was incarcerated. These were the kind of things we shared. We also talked about some positive ways that social media could help change the rhetoric for impacted youth, and we picked the winners of the stuffed animal competition from the main track. Indeed, the Youth and Young Adults Track was really only part of a whole; a whole incredible wider conference, led by the inspirational super-woman that is Dr Avon Hart-Johnson from Walden University and the president and founder of DC Project Connect (https://www.dcprojectconnect.com/). The whole conference program can be seen here: https://www.flipsnack.com/dcpc1/inccip-conference-program-sept-29-2021-to-oct-01-2021/full-view.html.
Even a quick flick of this digital booklet will demonstrate the enormity of what was achieved. Within this plethora of incredible contributors, I was able to share my own research (“My Zoom-Time. 1:1 Support over Zoom for children with a parent in prison during the Covid19 Pandemic UK Lockdown”) with my esteemed colleague and friend Angie Daly from the LJMU School of Education. Also, from our school, was Bisnhu Subedi, a PhD student speaking about his work on how children with a mother in prison in Nepal thrive which was met with great interest across the community. Younger children with lived experience were also represented via their virtual art exhibition, created and narrated by the children from Time-Matters UK, with a little support from yours truly. (https://www.timemattersuk.com/gallery/).Most importantly we were able to co-ordinate young adults from the youth track by ‘remotely jumping’ into the main track to share our discussions with the wider delegates and remind them of our hopes for the future. One clip from a Youth Ambassador Check can be found on the updated conference page (https://inccip.org/2021-inccip-conference/).
Here are some of the things we learnt. We learnt that we must stop pathologizing young people; predicting negative outcomes. We must allow impacted children and adults to share their story in their own time and that’s even if they want to. We must address the sharing of children’s home addresses through the media, removing a child’s privacy and safety in their own homes. Mostly, however, we learnt that great things can be achieved in times of trouble. This incredible conference, hailed as a huge success by all who attended, was born and delivered in Covid times. But most of all, youth and young adults with lived experience, with support and compassion, can and do Strive, Thrive and Make a Difference!