Beyond The Usual Suspects

As part of #iwill week, London Youth Chief Executive, Rosie Ferguson, reflects on the value of social action in supporting young people to develop confidence, resilience and leaderships skills, and the importance of engaging those who wouldn’t normally take part.

Nearly 10 years ago, when I first joined London Youth, my job was to develop leadership programmes for young people in our network of 400 youth clubs. As a former young leader in a youth project myself, I started off by reaching out to the few young people in each club who I recognised as ready and willing to take on responsibility and lead their peers.

We trained them with the skills and confidence to build their leadership skills and use that in their clubs and community, and I bump into a number of those early young leaders in my professional work today; Poonam is now a youth worker at The Sulgrave Club, Shavin works in IT, Raziya is working in social policy and Matt is our Employer Engagement Manager for Talent Match London.

But one of my frustrations has always been that despite the diversity of provision across our member clubs, it was only really very few young people who were able to take on leadership roles that took them beyond their and others’ expectations of themselves. The majority remained recipients of services and opportunities rather than agents of change for themselves and their communities.

During the last decade we have worked hard to change this at London Youth: to get beyond the usual suspects, and to find models which support more young people to participate in defining and delivering projects which benefit them, and their communities. So this week we gathered together a wide range of organisations and young people, all of whom share our desire to widen participation in social action, to think about how we can do even better in the future.

As we reflect in 2014, I think we can say with confidence that we have made progress. The Step Up To Serve and #iwill campaign, has set itself the ambition of doubling the number of young people involved in social action in 10 years. We were one of the first organisations to pledge support to Step Up To Serve, and the campaign has just published research this week to coincide with its first birthday. This showed that 40% of young people in the UK had done meaningful volunteering in the past year. This is good progress, and there are many imaginative ways now that young people are supported to engage. And it was especially heartening to see that those numbers also applied to young people with disabilities and those with special educational needs. So some fundamental barriers are clearly being reduced.

But the research also highlighted some ongoing challenges, which we need to urgently address if we are serious about building capacity for social action amongst young people who currently aren’t engaging.

  • Most social action activities are still generated through school – including many of those linked to the National Citizen Service. This isn’t surprising in itself, but of course this can have the effect of excluding some young people. In some of our member youth clubs such as Prospex, who do outreach work in estates in North London, truancy or low attainment are major issues, so engaging those young people in social action through school just doesn’t work. And for those young people who have low self-esteem, or are simply regarded with suspicion by adults in their neighbourhood, finding opportunities to engage is not as easy as it might sound
  • In addition, the research shows that up to 40% of what counts as social action involves fundraising. Again, in itself this is good and valuable. But for young people in poorer communities, where the majority of youth clubs are located, or in homes where getting by day to day is a challenge, raising money for other causes may not be an easy option. And more than this, shaking a tin or doing a sponsored activity for a cause, while it delivers some benefits, may not always offer young people much chance to set or shape their own projects, so may also be off putting to some
  • And there are specific challenges in London, where actually only 35% of young people have done meaningful volunteering – 5 points less than in the rest country, despite the apparent glut of options for young people in the capital. The overall figures also mask some troubling deeper stories – nationally levels of volunteering are 30% lower in deprived areas. We don’t know yet precisely why this is the case, but in Hackney for example, young people tell us that there is a disconnect between available provision and the local areas they are bound to due to gang territory

If we are serious about doubling the numbers of young people involved in social action we need to create social action opportunities that work for young people who wouldn’t put their hand up in school or look for an opportunity on the internet that they then have to travel to get to. This means changing the way we engage; working with young people in spaces that are relevant to them and through people they already trust, rather than expecting young people to go looking for it. And we need to invest in the development of young people’s initial agency, self-awareness, follow-through and teamwork skills on their terms initially so that they can learn how to access all of the other opportunities that are out there.

These are the principles on which we base our Athan 31 programme, which offers young people a framework and resources to design, lead and learn from their own social action projects. We take groups of young people through three progressive stages – ‘My Team’, ‘My Club’ and ‘My Community’ – starting where they are at, and challenging them to further their skills at each level. It works because the early stages focus mainly on the personal development benefits, with the community benefit element becoming more important as young people develop basic confidence and skills and begin to realise that they can follow through on their own ideas. Project sessions take place in local youth organisations, at a time chosen by the young people, and delivered by local volunteers with support and training from London Youth.

This year, with funding through the Cabinet Office’s Journey Fund, we’ve been able to scale this up so that 580 young people who wouldn’t previously get involved in social action have had the opportunity to do so through their youth clubs. But this is just one example.

I’ve no doubt that this week we’ll continue to hear other ways that organisations are engaging on young people’s terms in ways that work for them. And we’ll try to better understand the barriers young people face and how we remove them; with insight from specialist engagement organisations such as Foyer Federation, Gingerbread, WAC Arts and Working With Men.

We’re looking forward to sharing this learning with others in the sector to help drive the goals of the #iwill campaign.

So as we wish Happy 1st Birthday to Step Up To Serve, we hope that everyone involved is as excited as we are at London Youth to make sure that when doubling the number of young people involved in social action, we truly reach beyond the usual suspects to a new generation of social activists.

This blog was originally published on the London Youth website.

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