From the Bottom Up

When i say “Cape Flats”, you say “Violence!”

“Cape Flats!” “VIOLENCE!!”

“Cape Flats!” “VIOLENCE!!”

Because, along with Nazareth and townships and maybe even Africa as a whole, that is the kind of mindset that too many of us hold, right?

The mindset that says [or suggests, or at the very least thinks]: What good ever came out of the Cape Flats…?

Time to flip this narrative

This past weekend i had the privilege – and it was completely a privilege – to be a leader and facilitator on a camp hosted by the non-profit organisation BottomUp with the RCL committees from four different schools from the Cape Flats.

And as mentioned, the Cape Flats does not have the best of reputations to those who live outside of it – when someone mentions ‘Cape Flats’ typical images or words that come to mind are gangs and drugs and death and violence.

It is easy to put labels on places where we are not from and have no particular loyalty to. In fact it is another kind of othering – just one more US vs Them – that South Africans have grown accustomed to as a way of letting anyone within earshot know without a shadow of a doubt that we consider ourselves better than.

How much of that story was doing its work on me as i headed to camp i cannot say, but i know that i have not been immune to the pallor and shade that has been cast on this particular area in Cape Town.

But just two nights later, as i found myself being driven away from the campsite en route to my home in Diep River, the chief thought i had running through my head was that i had been in the company of exciting leadership and hope for the future of the Cape Flats, of Cape Town and even South Africa. A different story had been told, and this one was full of life and transformation and believing that a different outcome is possible.


Bottom Up

So who or what exactly is BottomUp? Well, they describe themselves this way:

Bottomup positions itself as a catalyst for organizational change in the under-resourced schools in the Grassy Park, Lotus River and Ottery area. We aim to apply an assets-based approach, assisting schools to leverage their existing resources and capitals toward the goal of improving school culture.

They express their mission in the following words:

Bottomup believes that every child deserves the best education possible; one that nurtures their sense of pride, belonging and identity and offers them the skills to create a better future.

But on a more practical level, Bottomup are a small group of dedicated staff members who i know as Ashley and Helene, Gerda, Robyn, Lindsay, Dean and Charlie. From chess groups to philosophy clubs to public speaking to working with the RCL and ARC groups at the various schools to understanding their rights as learners in a school system to workshops and a whole lot more, this team are mobilising learners from a number of schools in the Cape Flats area.

One of their main focus points is High School Dropout Prevention and the work they do with learners and staff is aimed at increasing the likelihood that learners will choose to stay in school and finish their education.

The Camp

This past weekend, armed with a few extra volunteers and some enthusiastic teachers representing the different schools, the BottomUp team took around 55 student leaders representing the RCL’s at their schools to the Rocklands campsite in Simon’s Town for a weekend filled with a lot of content and interaction.

The staff of BottomUp had seven sessions they wanted to do with the learners and so each staff member took a different session and we worked collectively on them once the ideas were in to tweak and make sure they were more engagement than content. There was a really great flow that basically told a story from start to finish on camp and ended with each school working together on plans for events or actions they want to do in the schools when they return. So theory and engagement led to practical application and each session was just being-blown-away stuff which the learners really for-the-most-part seemed to drink up and benefit from.

Each session had what we called a Golden Nugget which was basically a one-liner which summed up the message of that particular session and we kept drumming those in to the learners with the hope that if they remembered the seven nuggets that would be able to connect them to the activity that happened during that session and then pretty much recreate the whole of the camp when back at school.

The nuggets were you-had-to-be-there moments and being in the sessions they would make more sense than just reading them, but to give you an idea of the kinds of messages we were sending, here they are, and the fact that i was able to get them all from memory gives me hope that i’m not the only one:

Strength Lies in Differences: You Count!

In it to will it.

For us, by us.

I can and I will.

Knowledge is Power.

Think. Plan. Act.

Collaboration, not Competition. 

The Bonus Nugget of Collaboration, not Competition, was a message we really wanted the learners to get with the idea that four schools working together in an area would have so much greater hope of impacting the whole area than if they were competing against each other. Friendships and teamwork across schools and even just meal times showed us that there is a lot of expectation that that can in fact happen. One of the last activities on camp saw each school having a moment to encourage one of the other schools and speak out some of the things they admired about that school in an affirmation time which was really special.

While there was a lot of work and content being covered on camp, there was also a whole lot of fun and laughs and enjoyable activities from archery and night hikes and drumming circles which the Solid Ground crew from the campsite led as well as games and fun activities and sporting action which formed a big part of the learning experiences as a number of debrief sessions were key to understanding how a particular activity showed what key aspects of leadership/commitment/motivation and so on could be realised.

Cape Flats: Fountain of Future Leadership

i had a lot more fun than i thought i was going to and i was truly inspired by so many of these young learners and young leaders just watching them in action. In many ways, because of the area and the associated themes and because of the historical narrative which has stacked many odds against these schools and learners, theirs is a bigger mountain to climb and when they emerge on the other side it will not be because they did the same amount of work or put in the same amount of effort as a Westerford or Bergvliet High or Rustenberg pupil. Their accomplishment will carry so much more weight because their path is scattered with so many more obstacles.

But i have so much hope and so much anticipation to see what will emerge from these schools – from these learners and with these teachers and headmasters standing by, urging them on. But most importantly because of the efforts and time and work of this small but powerful crew of BottomUp leaders who inspire me so very much in their commitment and passion for young people and education.

If you or your company or group of friends are looking for a great initiative to invest in, you should get hold of them immediately. But in the meantime let’s look forward to a time when ‘Cape Flats’ is a phrase spoken with admiration and awe because of the leaders that are emerging from that part of the country.

About the Author:

Brett Fish is a lover of life, God, tbV [the beautiful Valerie] and owns the world's most famous stuffed dolphin, No_bob (who doesn't bob). He believes that we are all responsible for making the world a significantly better place for everyone.

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