I have given my life over to the service of youth and through this work I have witnessed the tremendous resource that young people are and the amazing and invaluable gifts they have to share with all of us, if we would just create the right conditions. The conditions have to not only be right for young people to create and generate these gifts but crucially, the conditions have to be right for us to receive them. So often we, as adults, hurtling through our busy lives, simply don’t perceive the wondrous things we can be gaining, especially when they come to us as lessons for us to reflect upon.
I’m going to talk about 3 lessons that I was gifted throughout quite a challenging and stressful period in my professional life last year that culminated in a profound and humbling gift given by a thirteen-year-old boy living in a Council house on a poor fringe estate in Brighton, UK which literally altered the lives thousands of residents of the city in January last year with just eight words…
The story starts with an analysis of power.
Our claim of power over young people seems to come from the understanding of youth as ‘lesser versions of ourselves’ – less experienced, less knowledgeable, less wise. We tend to think that if left to their own devices, we’d have some sort of ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario on our hands – chaotic and dangerous for all their risk taking and lack of empathy. For those who have not read ‘Lord of the Flies’, the huge irony is that it is a naval officer who comes to their rescue to bring them back to ‘civilisation’ that is actually in the middle of a world war started by adults – very chaotic and very dangerous.
You see, of course youth is a physiological phenomenon but it is certainly also a sociological phenomenon and our sociological construct always seems to have young people in deficit – morally, intellectually and otherwise. We use this superiority as adults to exert power over those who haven’t orbited the sun as many times as we have…
The power that adults have over young people is manifest in a huge number of restrictions in the things they can do:
They can’t drink
They can’t smoke
They can’t have sex
…lots of the things that many adults take great pleasure in!
Whilst we rationalise all of these decisions, from a place of ‘understanding of what is best’ and ‘how to minimise harm’, there are still plenty of decisions that are taken around things with less potentially (physically) harmful consequences where young people have no say whatsoever, for example:
How long they have to stay in formal education. Some people just don’t fit our current formal educational models and likely never will. Sitting down and facing forwards with sometimes 40 other teenagers for an hour isn’t how I best learn, why should we insist this is how they learn?? Young people have zero say in what goes into the National Curriculum – why would that be??
And there are lots of other examples of services that affect young people that they rarely if ever get asked about. Their health care, transport, changes to their own communities and the spaces they live in… I was having a conversation with the people writing the Youth Work Strategy for Wales a few weeks ago and the Government told them not to invite young people to help in the design because “it was a bit top-level, strategic”! This is the youth work strategy – as in how best we support young people!...
This all happens in spite of laws that are in place, intended to prevent such injustices. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children and young people have a right to be heard in all decisions that affect them. Well, what comes next is about what happened when the rules and laws and decisions of the powerful didn’t work for young people and they chose to say ‘no’.
The Protect Youth Service campaign
In November 2016, Brighton and Hove City Council made a budget proposal that would have seen a 100% cut to the Local Authority funding to youth services in the city. They claimed that there was no funding available in the Children and Young People’s Directorate and that there were no other options. Those with the power had taken a decision without even speaking to the young people it would affect.
The youth workers in the city heard the news from the press who called to say “what do you make of all your funding being cut?”; “huh?!” was our response. We started to let the young people know what was being proposed and our project managers quickly arranged a meeting to discuss how we would handle this. By the following week we were taught a very valuable first lesson (a gift, if you will) by a 15-year-old girl called Sky. Whilst us adults chose to sit around together to consider the fate of our projects and the fate of the young people we serve, thinking about how we would mount a campaign against the decision, Sky had already started a petition of her own. It didn’t need the facts and figures or statistics about deprivation that we would have included, it spoke in her words about all the ways youth work meant so much to her and what a loss it would be. In a matter of weeks Sky got close to 2,000 signatures and countless messages of support and us adults knew we wouldn’t have another meeting behind closed doors. The first lesson was: nothing about them without them.
A public meeting was arranged with young people who were going to be affected by these cuts and we filled the large studio space at Brighton Youth Centre. The youth workers explained what was being proposed and told the room that there was already a petition up and running, but then asked the young people what they wanted to do with their own energy. Our role was to support them and follow their energy. They split into three groups focussing on:
Making noise - creating flyers, making videos, writing raps and performing them, making memes and working with newspapers and television.
Political lobbying – who to speak to across the different political parties, a letter-writing campaign, what the messages were to be and which Council meetings to demonstrate outside of.
A March - through the centre of Brighton – how to be more visible to other residents of the city.
The #ProtectYouthServices campaign was born.
Through all of this, an unassuming young man, Ethan, this thirteen-year-old from Moulsecoomb took part. It was clear that he wanted to be involved and took up his place organising the march although interested in all of the activities and even went in front of the TV cameras for ITV (regional) news. He told me after one meeting that this was “the first time anything like this had happened to him”. He didn’t mean that his services had been threatened or that he’d organised protest, he meant that he’d been listened to and felt like he was a valid and valuable part of the solution. Lesson number two – it is powerfully developmental for young people to be meaningfully involved in real-world issues, not simply looked after in a youth club building once a week and taught how not to drink too much on a Friday night.
Anyway, the campaign was going great, the materials were produced and distributed, the media were hugely supportive, people rallied and marched the streets together and protested outside Council meetings. The politicians were taking note but they still couldn’t find any solution and were wriggling out of any sort of debates or media interviews with shrewd political rhetoric.
The campaign was building up to a key Council meeting of their Children & Young People’s Committee and the young organisers of the #ProtectYouthService campaign were able to submit questions to ask on the day to the Chair of the Committee, Councillor Tom Bewick. There were some extremely eloquent young people who were quick to think of their questions. Questions were submitted on the fiscal responsibilities of the Council and the short-sighted financial gains – all very good questions. Ethan was excited by the idea of channelling his frustrations and facing up to the people making these abhorrent decisions but he was really struggling with what to ask. He drafted a few things and re-wrote them, scribbling out a word and replacing it with another: his question clearly meant a lot to him and he finally submitted it in advance of the meeting with a sort of noble calmness that told me he was happy with it.
On the day, the questions came from other teens, and Cllr Bewick, an experienced business man and politician had an answer for everything, as you might expect. He was towing the party line about the responsible course of action on austerity and batted shrewdly away fiscal this and short-sighted that. Then Ethan stood up and moved forwards on his own to the seat in the middle of the large Council chamber at the Town Hall. He didn’t look nervous even though the experience can be hugely daunting for anyone to have all the eyes of the Councillors, members of the public gallery and your peers staring in your direction. The thirteen-year-old stood up and spoke his laboured 8-word question, that was simply “Why do you want to make us sad?”.
Tom Bewick, for all his political savvy was clearly stumped. His reaction gave him away as he fumbled some answer about it being out of his hands and not what he would want. Cllr Bewick resigned the next morning. Shock waves went through the Council and through the campaign group. A real world consequence of their real world activism and the knowledge, for the young people, that they were being heard. Lesson three: speaking from the heart is not naïve. It is a powerful tool that we sometimes forget to use as adults.
At final budget Council where the ultimate decision was to be taken, we were sat with a large group of young people in a room down the hall with a video link to the meeting from 4pm – 11pm waiting for the results. We weren’t allowed in the gallery itself as early in the meeting some members of a youth equalities group called pre-qual flyer bombed the meeting from the balcony above. They literally scattered hundreds of their flyers challenging executive pay onto the heads of unsuspecting Councillors below. Not something us youth workers sanctioned or endorsed – but still felt pretty good that YP were learning about direct action on their own terms.
Late into the evening at about 10 o’clock it was announced that the politicians had found a way to save the youth work budget! A huge cheer went up in our room – it was so loud that I was told people watching on the live video feed at home could hear the roar being picked up on the microphones in the chamber itself! Hugging and whooping and cheers ensued and the young people had not only positively changed their own futures but the futures of countless other young people in the city and their families for future years.
The whole process had been the best piece of youth work I’ve ever been involved with. A case study was captured here, for those who are interested.
If each lesson is a gift, I for one am a hugely and humbly grateful. I feel intensely proud to work with some of the most inspirational people who genuinely have things to teach us all. What if we as adults didn’t abandon these gifts from our young people and instead embraced them; aside from creating some incredibly positive social change now, just imagine the generations of empowered and critical people we would foster for the sake of all our futures.
Ps. Thanks to the Possibility Club who first asked me to answer the question 'What if we didn't abandon young people?' at their event in August 2018