The three Case Studies recorded here illustrate different strands of the participation process.
The Lewisham example from London demonstrates the serious political commitment that local politicians can invest in enabling young people to engage with and for their communities. In turn, the young people are critically involved in representing the present and shaping their futures. Young people and local politicians working together for the common good.
In Brighton and Hove, on the English south coast, protest came to town. Confronted with local authority (municipality) budget reductions that threatened the existence of young people’s services, local citizens mounted a challenge. With young people mobilizing via social media, alliances were formed with youth workers, organisations, the Press, politicians, pressure groups, residents, and friends. A marvellous example of political education and the positive use of protest in a youth work context.
The third example illustrates the significance of relationship and how skilful and sensitive youth work practice can enable change. This example should not be compared to the others in this section; it is not scale that is important but how we respect and respond to each other at the micro level, and how that acquires significance.
Our thanks go to the young people and youth workers who share their stories here.
In November 2016, Brighton and Hove City Council (a minority administration – which proved significant) announced proposed budget cuts of £800,000 to an approximately £1m youth service. This consisted of a Local Authority-led youth service with a predominant focus on targeted work, and a group of 8 voluntary sector organisations (known as the ‘Brighton & Hove Youth Collective’ (BHYC) who delivered citywide, open-access youth work. The ensuing 3-month campaign managed to overturn these 80% cuts to cuts of about 15%. This is a just a short synopsis of how we did it.
The day the decision was officially announced, young people were informed and mobilised on social media. Young people launched #protectyouthservices with comments on what youth work meant to them – this became the overarching name/tag of the campaign. A Facebook group and page was started to provide a space for people to plan and advertise action, get up-to-date information and have a community hub. This became an integral tool in running a coherent, efficient and effective campaign.
Raising awareness was also key to a successful campaign and huge efforts were made to inform young people and the public about the proposed cuts. Young people told their friends, in person, at youth clubs and on social media. Flyers, stickers and easy-read documents about how people could support the campaign were made for distribution in schools, youth clubs and publicly.
Campaign strategy meetings began almost immediately with a focus on young people and other supporters working in collaboration. Young people were supported to go to meetings, both emotionally and practically. Campaign meetings provided a space for updates, ideas for actions and formulation of plans. Respectful sharing of insights and knowledge between young people and adults was important for positive communication and progression. Empowerment lay at the centre: though there was a huge amount of heart warming involvement from the community and youth workers, ownership always lay with young people, their voices at the core.
Our ability to organise was immeasurably improved by the fact that the BHYC organisations were already working together closely. Strategic planning, division of labour and the pooling of resources happened instantly because of these pre-existing relationships. Our city-wide participation work with young people meant we also already had a small army of well-informed young advocates/campaigners. For any organisations or groups facing a similar situation, we cannot emphasise enough the importance of working together rather than in isolation. Likewise, being community-based and outwardly facing made a huge difference. Families, neighbourhoods and communities became our petition signers, protest marchers, consultation responders and Councillor letter writers.
Having pre-existing relationships with the press helped to bring a powerful dimension to the campaign that was difficult for politicians and the wider public to ignore. Front-pages, shocking headlines and a string of supportive interviews, particularly with young people, meant that we had plenty of information to be sharing on social media in support of our cause.
The nature of our campaign gained lot of attention by one of the opposition parties in our city. They attended meetings, interpreted political documents, brought numbers to demonstrations and were generally a great support throughout. This did not go unnoticed by the other parties and we did find ourselves needing to manage this relationship tactfully so that we could maintain positive support across political parties.
We were also joined almost immediately by a youth-led equality group who had a strong position against the cuts in general and cuts to youth services in particular. Not organisationally based, this group in particular stimulated opportunities to discuss different forms of action that the campaign could take, and at times a more political, direct action, campaigning edge. Again, this often needed to be managed, and discussed, from our different situated perspectives. However, from the beginning, this multi-layered perspective was central to the success of our campaign.
Taking action gave campaigners outlets for their energy and passion for the cause. Multiple frequent actions offered young people and other supporters a variety of ways to get involved and increased discussion about the campaign, contributing to momentum. There was never a period in which there wasn’t a focus on one or multiple actions: the campaign was incessant. Signing the petition; emailing and writing letters to councillors; completing the council youth consultation; and banner making could be done from youth clubs and other bases. On location group actions included a demonstration march; protests and public questions at all relevant council meetings; raising awareness stalls; and a pop-up youth club. Creativity was engaged and encouraged: young people wrote and performed slogans, speeches, video raps and music.
The budget outcome was uncertain so expectations were managed and participation was seen not only as a means to an end, but as an opportunity to develop and learn. Young people’s level of involvement and commitment was flexible and supported throughout by youth workers. The campaign offered opportunities to develop planning, creative and communication skills and grew community interest, relationships and involvement. Interrelated benefits were first time experiences such as novel thinking; stepping out of comfort zones; encountering new environments and people; and engaging in politics. Young people have not only recovered money to youth services, but their involvement has been empowering, inspiring and educational.
The affective nature of young people speaking out and engaging in the political process was picked up by councillors, the media and the community. It served as a provoking instrument that spoke to people and inspired devotion and change.
For the young people involved in the #ProtectYouthServices campaign the experience served as an awakening, not just to politics but to critical engagement with the world around them. Dissent is their right but is rarely cultivated through formal education. This experiential learning process with its multi-faceted components proved to our young people that they can disagree with the views of those with power and that there are a multitude of ways to have your voice heard to that effect. It feels more crucial now than ever to be using youth work methodologies to support this engagement of youth in politics; youth work is a political activity.
“I was so shocked n amazed [sic] at how young people managed to actually make a change. It was a real confidence booster in terms of knowing we actually have a voice that will be listened to in the end. I met so many awesome people through all the campaigning and will definitely be getting involved with more things like this now I know that we’re not just telling into a void and that were actually making a difference”
Bette Davies, age 16.
We have already started to discuss ways for the campaign to continue. Although we have achieved a victory for now, we are very much aware of the persistent fragility of our position, both locally and nationally, as well as the wider context of ongoing cuts. We hope and plan to continue to support our young people to be informed and involved in this level of political engagement. We have already discussed continuing campaign meetings: preparing for future budgets; embedding young people’s views at the heart of decision-making about their services; linking into wider local and national movements. It is always more difficult to embed continuing, rather than immediate resistance, but we feel committed to keep working together, and to try.
In order to promote the interests of all young people in the area, young people in the London Borough of Lewisham annually elect a Young Mayor. The Young Mayor is supported in their endeavours by a lively and enthusiastic group of Young Advisers that meets weekly to consider matters of significance for all young people in the area and advise the Young Mayor and local politicians accordingly. The initiative to establish the position of Young Mayor was conceived when Steve Bullock, now Sir Steve Bullock, was elected Mayor of Lewisham in 2002; it was his political belief that the rights of children and young people could best be served by creating a post of Young Mayor and a supporting group of Young Advisers. This ground-breaking initiative, now in its 14th year, has ensured that that not only are the voices of young people in Lewisham heard but that they also have opportunities to actively contribute to the future development of their neighbourhoods for the benefit of all citizens irrespective of age.
For almost a quarter of a century, Lewisham has promoted the encouragement of youth-led citizen engagement: involvement in neighbourhood forums; the development of school councils; informal community-based networks; participation in youth service-led projects; and the planning, implementation, and evaluation of council (municipality) services. Throughout these developments, professionally qualified youth workers, employed by Lewisham Council, have ensured that young people could critically engage with both the process and the practice of participation; supporting them through the stages of challenging and shaping their futures and those of other young people.
With control of an annual budget, Lewisham’s Young Mayor and their Young Advisers have created and supported a range of initiatives: organising healthy activities; encouraging intergenerational work to challenge stereotypes and reduce barriers; providing opportunities to involve young people in debates and decision-making; creating a platform to celebrate young people’s achievements; the development of schemes that focus on role model and mentoring programmes; and supporting cultural, artistic, and sporting events to bring Lewisham’s diverse youth population together.
The process for election of the Young Mayor is modelled on the conventional electoral system. Any young person aged between 13 – 17 years on the day of the election may put themselves forward as a candidate so long as they live, work, or go to school or college in Lewisham. Formal consent is required from parents or guardians and either school, college, or employer by way of validation of the candidate’s application. Additionally, candidates must obtain supporting signatures from 50 young people who meet the above criteria.
The next stage is a Training Day for all candidates, supported by professional youth workers, that involves the Young Mayor’s Team, the Young Advisers, and former young mayors and young advisers. Aside from exploring the roles and responsibilities of the post, other support is provided to the candidates: how to produce a manifesto that sets out their ideas and proposals; a photo session for the preparation of campaigning materials; the production of a video message for the Young Mayor’s YouTube channel; tips and advice for handling public speaking and other campaigning techniques; and developing a schedule for meeting with, and talking to, young people in the area at schools, youth clubs, and hustings events.
After taking the decision to put themselves forward, participating in the training, and engaging with the electorate, finally it is Election Day. The Council’s Electoral Services Team organises the election process establishing polling stations in over 40 schools and colleges in Lewisham. Young people who go to school or college in other areas can register for a postal vote. The voting system is of the preferential ballot type; voters are able to cast two votes for their first and second choice candidates. The official Returning Officer for Lewisham Council declares the results. There are four posts available: first place is accorded the title Young Mayor of Lewisham; second, Deputy Young Mayor; third and fourth places are Lewisham’s representatives at the UK Youth Parliament. Now the hard work begins!
“When I was elected, and during my term, I have had some of the best and most challenging times of my life! Being Young Mayor has changed my outlook on life. I’ve realised that everyone has the opportunity to make positive changes to the young community in Lewisham.”
Siobhan Bell, Young Mayor 2006 (Lewisham Council, 2013: 9)
Those candidates who do not gain elected positions are invited and encouraged to be active in the Young Advisers group that supports the Young Mayor. Whilst many of the Young Advisers come from other groups, such as neighbourhood forums, school councils, or youth and community projects, their meetings are open to all young people in the area. Critical to the success of the Young Mayor and Young Advisers initiative is their involvement in examining and commenting on key decision-making reports, commenting on plans and strategies, and engaging with service managers, policy makers, and elected members (councillors), to ensure that young peoples’ voices contribute to wider developments, not just services for young people, in their area.
The work of the Young Mayor and Young Advisers reaches beyond Lewisham; over the past fourteen years they have been involved in regional and national initiatives including the British Youth Council, the UK Youth Parliament, and events at the UK Houses of Parliament.
Supported by the European Union, their work has developed an international dimension with positive links across Europe; youth democracy initiatives have involved exchanges with young people from Norway, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, and France.
“As Young Mayor you get pressure when people keep asking what you have done for young people – you have to be patient as things take time to get right, and I know patience is a virtue. The most positive thing for me was the opportunity to help people and be able to visit and talk with other young people in this country and abroad.”
Kieran Lang, Young Mayor 2011 (Lewisham Council, 2013: 14)
The Lewisham Young Mayor initiative is now the longest-running such scheme in the UK and continues to build on its strengths, learn from its young people, and provide strong evidence of power and possibility:
“I want to take this opportunity to commend Lewisham’s young people who have contributed to making the scheme a success over the years, to the point where it is regarded, both nationally and internationally, as an exceptional example of ensuring young people have the opportunity to get involved in democracy and that their voices are heard.”
Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham (Lewisham Council, 2013: 2)
Lewisham Council (2013) Young Mayor of Lewisham: 10th anniversary commemorative book, London: Lewisham Council.
I work in a local, community-based youth project that involves young people with learning difficulties and disabilities. In a youth work context this can range from young people who are high on the autistic spectrum and have no verbal communication, or young people that can hold a conversation but fixate on one subject such as roller coasters, or washing machines, or Anime. When I refer to disability what I mean is young people who may rely on the use of a wheelchair or another aide to help them manoeuvre around the youth club. Young people may also need support to have a drink, or eat food or to go to the toilet within the youth club setting. Quite often to communicate young people develop their own sign language or use Makaton to express what they want.
What I want to share with you is an example where participation is one-sided and where consultation was initiated by youth workers taking the lead and deciding what activities are taking place based on the disability rather than the needs of the young people.
A while ago I had a discussion with a youth worker who had always worked with this group of young people. With passion they explained their idea of a sensory garden in the youth club grounds which is a place where young people can go and hear wind chimes and can relax outside on a safe surface; this can also help interaction as each surface has a different texture and activity that can be done there. For someone with specific needs this garden is a great idea as it enables young people that have limited movement to learn in a safe outdoor environment.
Whilst we were speaking, a young man came out and curiously asked what we were talking about. The staff member enthusiastically spoke about the garden and the benefit it would have to the work. Finally, the worker asked “And so what do you think?”
The young person turned to them and simply said, “Well it doesn’t matter what I think…. After all this is your youth club”.
The worker did not challenge or question this statement, or encourage the young man to take ownership. They continued our conversation with an attitude that backed up his thinking. This is the youth workers’ club and young people only take part; young people do not have a voice or a right to challenge or debate decisions youth workers make. I later reflected that perhaps the worker’s thinking was because these young people have learning difficulties and disabilities?
Determined to explore the matter further, I started asking young people if they wanted to be part of a youth forum that not only looked at planning the programme of the youth club but also looked at issues that they, or people they knew were facing and come up with solutions. As a staff team we also discussed why we felt this was important and shared our anxieties as well.
At the first meeting we had a good representation of young people. Verbal and non-verbal, able bodied and limited movement. Young people agreed with the principle that the group would be led by young people for young people because who else understands or has experienced their issues but young people with learning difficulties and disabilities.
Although the principle was good, with staff and young people beginning to understand their roles within the group, after the first meeting staff realised that they did share the same starting point as the young people. Due to young people being used to having things done for them and to them, either at home or at school or college, they struggled to see the importance or believed they should put the time into this level of participation and even used their own disability as an excuse.
We agreed to share the young people’s starting point. Slowly building their self-esteem through positive reinforcement that the youth club is for them and they are an integral part of what goes on. And so now we are looking at a name that young people will democratically vote for, which may take 3 weeks or it may take 6 months. Young people are designing the programme and the layout they want in a printed format, and are beginning to have conversations with each other around the struggles they are facing.
Real participation begins with young people, and progresses at their speed, in a way that challenges both staff and young people to continue the journey together. And so we are looking at commonality and a desire to understand each other’s disability, we are identifying that the reason the group is unique is down to the fact that each member has a difficulty and once identifying that, young people are promoting their own self-help group as quite often they are victims of abuse but have nowhere to turn and talk through the situation logically with others that really understand why they feel that way, and how their thought processes work.
Through reflection and supervision the staff team are exploring their fears of sharing in the running of the group, examining their lack of self-confidence and self-belief, and comprehending that change is not only inevitable but is good too.
To protect those involved the worker’s name and location, including country, are anonymous.