One hundred years is a milestone in any life. For the English-Speaking Union, as we approach our centenary in 2018, it is all the more remarkable as we not only survive but grow in our reach and impact. Our founders, remarkable men and women, lived through the crisis of a devastating war and sought to make a better life for all. They did so by promoting effective communication in the English language and a commitment to global dialogue and international relations through increasing personal connectivity.
I learnt early on the power of language. My father was a lawyer and subsequently an activist in the struggle for independence of what was then the Gold Coast. He was a rhetorician, known for his use of language, no doubt in part inspired by Winston Churchill's speeches, of which he had the complete collection. I can still hear Churchill’s speech on the Atlantic Charter – and the crackle of our old Grundig gramophone – as if it were yesterday.
I learnt the power of language more viscerally still when my mother, sister and I were forced to flee to England after my father was taken away at gunpoint. Not long afterwards, we ended up living on a council estate in Hemel Hempstead, where I found it very difficult to adjust.
Debating – in fact an English-Speaking Union schools debating competition – came to my rescue. My partner and I won, and it gave me confidence that I could be a winner in a strange land. I’ve never really looked back.
I realised early on that being able to communicate, being able to articulate a cause, and to listen and respond to your opponents, was desperately important and much more to do with empowerment than mere speech. I realised that if you deny people the opportunity to become self-empowered and to become enabled then you condemn them to the margins of our society. And there are still in our society, and in our world, far too many people condemned to the margins.
Today, the English-Speaking Union works to combat this, increasingly providing oracy resources in those schools and communities which have no tradition of public speaking and debating, and to those students who have most to gain. As part of our centenary year, we are delighted to be able to offer Discover Debating, our flagship programme, free to 100 state primary schools with indicators of the greatest social need. As far as we are able, we want to ensure that no-one, for any reason, is excluded from the society of which we all need to be a part.
This plays into another challenge, too. The world is changing. There has never been a greater need for global dialogue and understanding. Technology purports to make communication easier, but there is more to communication than posting something on the internet or sending a tweet. True communication is not just expressing what you feel but listening and responding to what the other person feels. Debate teaches that.
What we must do as a society, what we have to work with others to do in different societies and in different contexts, is to create safe spaces where it is possible to exchange ideas, competing ideas, and where it is possible to have critical thinking without the threat of abuse and denigration. There must always be a safe space for communication, for the conflict of ideas contained within an envelope of mutual respect. When you have that, then you have not only a true basis for understanding and comprehension but also a true base for intellectual and emotional development.
The English-Speaking Union has always been a membership charity and we are enormously grateful to all our members for their continuing support. For our next 100 years we want to increase our numbers, so that more people are able to access the communication skills we offer, and the opportunities for informed and global dialogue that we promote. We have to recognise that not everyone has time to attend meetings in today’s busy world, and so we must find new membership models that allow for meaningful discussion and co-operation; bringing together and galvanising all those who share our unshakeable belief in the power of language.
Visit our centenary website to find out more about our history, hear from our alumni about the life-changing impact of our oracy skills programmes and cultural exchanges, and to add your voice to our What Would You Speak Out About? campaign.