Written by Standard Issue


Changing Lives: Where a second chance is not up for debate

A historic debating chamber has become a place for building confidence among some of society’s most vulnerable people. Aisling Cowell explains all about a special project called Second Chance.

Aisling Cowell (centre front) with some of the women involved in Second Chance.

Aisling Cowell (centre front) with some of the women involved in Second Chance.

Durham University debating chamber sits in a very privileged position, elegantly sandwiched between the city’s magnificent cathedral and castle.

It is also home to a remarkable collaborative project called Second Chance that sees some brilliant young minds join forces with some of the most vulnerable members of society.

Project leader Aisling Cowell reports back from the project’s most recent debate.

For the past eight years the charity Changing Lives has collaborated with Team Durham and the Durham Union Society to run the Second Chance scheme and it has been a genuine pleasure and privilege to be involved with such a remarkable project.

Participants, who are all clients of Changing Lives – the north-east based, national charity which supports vulnerable people and families – are coached by a team of student volunteers and given the opportunity to improve their public speaking and learn how to debate, which has the valuable benefit of building confidence into the bargain.

Skills are cultivated over eight weekly sessions and culminate in a performance of a formal debate. The participants prepare speeches on a debate topic that they collectively agree on beforehand, and give these speeches to audience members in the union society’s historic debating chamber.

The annual event comes complete with lecterns, black tie dress and the proceedings of the evening being recorded in the formal minute-book of the Durham Union Society. It really is a wonderful occasion.

Second Chance debating sessionEach year, Second Chance has welcomed a larger group of participants from increasingly diverse backgrounds and brings them together during the two months before the big debate.

Many remain vulnerable and in need of support, struggling with addiction, unemployment and homelessness. By developing their public speaking talent, they not only gain a valuable skill for use in the workplace, but also rediscover a confidence in themselves that can provide them with the strength to move forwards in life.

Several previous speakers from the final debates have gone on to give speeches to support groups, local church groups and community centres, demonstrating the lasting impact this programme can have on those who take part.

In addition to the success achieved by the participants, the student volunteers also gain a huge amount as a result of their involvement. Described as “an unparalleled experience” by one volunteer, and “a constant highlight of my week” by another, it is clear that the scheme benefits more than just the Changing Lives service users.

“It can be especially difficult for these women to move forwards in their lives in a society that all too often prioritises men for employment and makes assertions such as that men are more confident than women.”

The perseverance and development shown by the participants was wonderful and humbling to witness. One of the greatest goods to emerge from the scheme – and one of the many reasons that I applied to take part – is how it can specifically benefit the women involved.

Many have experienced adversities much the same as the men who take part, but have also been threatened with, or experienced, sexual and physical violence and custody battles.

Such difficulties add to the pressure that the women feel at a time in their lives when they are unsure as to what the future might hold. As a result, it is often the case that women can benefit the most from the confidence and sense of self-worth the Second Chance scheme can offer.

Furthermore, it can be especially difficult for these women to move forward in their lives in a society that all too often prioritises men for employment and makes assertions such as that men are more confident than women.

Second chance debating sessionIn order to combat these prejudices, we ensure from the outset that the workshops are built on principles of respect and equality, where everybody can feel free to contribute equally, and where women can find their voice and develop a confidence in themselves that some corners of society would seek to deny them.

We had a record number of speakers in the final debate this year, which demonstrated an excellent achievement for all of the participants and was testament to their courage. What was also notable is that this year was the first where a significant number of women stood up and spoke in the final debate.

This represents an important step forwards in terms of equal representation of men and women on the scheme. This is something that I hope will be built upon in the coming years, to ensure that everybody can continue to feel comfortable expressing themselves through public speaking and debate.


  • googleplus
  • linkedin
  • rss
  • pinterest

Written by Standard Issue