One regret, one hope with Lesley McAra

Reading time: 4 minutes

In this series, Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, chats to members of our community to find out more about them. Each fortnight she’ll be asking, what is the one regret that has shaped their past, and what is their one hope for the future.

This week Mona’s guest is Lesley McAra, Director of the Edinburgh Futures Institute and Professor of Penology at Edinburgh Law School.

Mona Siddiqui: Lesley, first of all, tell us a little bit about your research.

Lesley McAra: I research youth crime and youth justice, and I’m Co-Director with Susan McVie of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime and that’s been going since 1998. We’ve been looking into the lives of around 4,300 young people who started secondary school in Edinburgh in 1998 and we’re following up with the cohort at age 33 and 34 at the moment so that is really exciting.

One of the things I’ve been proudest of has been the impact which our findings have had on youth justice policy in Scotland. We were the main evidence-base drawn on by the Scottish Government to raise the age of criminal responsibility from age 8, which is one of the lowest in the world, to age 12. We’re actually leading within the UK although it’s still got a way to go to be more equivalent internationally.

MS: Tell us a little about the work that you do as Director of the Futures Institute? Most of us have heard about the Institute but what is it really about?

LM: It’s a space in the University where we are going to be able to do risky, experimental things, in terms of research, education and engagement, recognising that the biggest challenges the planet faces are all multisectorial and we need multidisciplinary responses. The Futures Institute is core to that.

It’s quite challenging because you’re trying to work horizontally across a University that’s organised in vertical ways. But that’s also part of the fun of it. I’m working with some extraordinary people too. I mean really, wonderfully inspirational people.

MS: Looking back at either your distant or recent past, is there anything you can share with us that you regret?

LM: I was thinking about this in advance and I think actually want to focus on the personal rather than professional, partly because this has been a year of so many losses and so much grief for people. It made me reflect back on the grief and loss in my own family when my sister died.

Eileen and I had a slightly turbulent childhood when we were very young, and she was always there for me. As we got older, she moved abroad, so when we got together we were organising family parties and looking after our elderly relatives so we didn’t ever have time for us.

I remember the very last time I saw her before she died. I said we must get some time together in the autumn and she looked at me and said yes we must do that and she died three weeks later.

I never had a chance to tell her how much I loved her, how much she meant to me. With this whole year of loss my heart goes out to all those who have lost people who they’ve not been able to sit and hold their hand when they’ve died, who’ve not been able to express what they really want to say. But it also shows I think the power of love and how love brings us together.

MS: I think that, in a way, that kind of loss never really goes away, the fact that you couldn’t be with someone. But looking forward, what’s your hope for the future?

LM: My one hope is that the Futures Institute really will have the impact that we are hoping it’s going to. Recently we held the Edinburgh Futures Conversations around the theme of global health and we got some amazing speakers from right across the globe, to talk about the pandemic and what its lessons are in terms of what we need to do to promote global health.

What I was astonished by, maybe I shouldn’t have been, was the huge amount of consensus from all the amazing speakers, of the essential need of multilateralism, of intersectorial approaches, for democratisation of knowledge and it made me think about the way in which universities can have a major role to play. We can bring people together and really make a difference.

I hope that from these Futures Conversations there will be real practical action and global activism on the part of universities that will make that change. The world really is at a tipping point and I think perhaps the pandemic has made us all take a step back and reflect on what could be different. I think universities have a leadership role to play, and if the Edinburgh Futures Institute can play one small part in those kind of changes I think we will have done our job.

Photography: Julie Howden