The Power of Youth Voice in Creating a Good Society
By Lucy Stephens, Founder and Co-Headteacher of The New School and Aliyah York, Founder of Pupil Power
This webinar explored how often young people are ahead of adults in their thinking around how to build a good society but how structural problems, and some unfounded fears, too often prevent us from listening to what they have to say. The speakers invited us to consider our responsibility as adults to challenge the status quo in this way and create space for young people to be heard.
Sughra Ahmed, Director of Education UK, spoke about the ‘Speak Truth to Power’ programme of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights which is encouraging young people to take action to make human rights a reality for all. Sughra talked about the importance of meeting people ‘where they are at’ and working with young people on their mindset to help them discover their purpose, develop compassion, appreciate complexity, and uphold hope.
Sughra highlighted that young people experience their own power and agency when they make a real-world change — which is why they take a “hyper local” focus in helping young people to understand their place in the world and how they interrelate with people and place and purpose. Sughra then talked about her belief in the ‘ripple effect’ that young people can have in their schools, communities and globally, when they understand multiple truths and act with integrity, as highlighted through Black Lives Matter movement.
Lucy Stephens is Founder and Co-Headteacher, at The New School, a non-fee-paying democratic school in South London, on a mission to positively change education by putting young people’s voice at the heart of their own education. Lucy highlighted how young people both historically and still today, have things ‘done to’ them — whether it’s education, medical procedures, behaviour techniques etc and commented that this typically results in disinterest or resistance which fuels societal problems such as school exclusions, the school to prison pipeline, the mental health crisis and less empathetic society.
Lucy proposes that to create the good society, we first need a transformation within schools and homes. She argues that partnership-based relationships enable the next generation to find a sense of purpose, identity, and a collective belonging that brings out the best in everyone.
However, Lucy warns that including young people’s voice is hard work and goes a lot deeper than having a school council or other tokenistic initiatives. It is about the tone of voice that we use, the respect with which we engage with young people (whilst also holding the role of adult) and the decision making systems that give young people the space and support to be heard. Lucy stressed that those in positions of power have a responsibility to listen effectively to young people to model what an equitable society looks like. For The New School, this starts with building quality relationships by getting to know individuals, respecting differences and including everyone.
Kayleigh Wainwright, Director of Engagement at UK Youth spoke about their vision for all young people to gain the skills and experience to thrive personally, as well as to make a positive contribution in their own lives and in others. Kayleigh described youth work as “putting young people at the heart of communities” by supporting young people to make their own decisions.
Kayleigh powerfully pointed out that youth work is often the first time that a young person has engaged with a trusted adult on an equal power dynamic where they have to take full ownership of their own lives, and make their own decisions — this being key before an individual is ready to make a positive difference to society, through volunteering or campaigning. Kayleigh explained how this sense of personal control / agency helps young people feel a sense of belonging in their community and is often the spark for future leadership and entrepreneurship.
Kayleigh spoke about how within UK Youth, they strive to involve young people in all that they do, with 30% of board members being young people and by ensuring that nothing is designed for young people without young people being in the room.
We also watched a powerful video made by a young person, who reflected on the challenges of the pandemic and the challenges faced by young people. She expressed how young people felt they were constantly put “at the bottom of the food chain” and asked us, “don’t we deserve to be heard? Don’t we deserve to be recognised?”
Jo Wells is Director of Blagrave Trust, a youth-led small education funder that is now led by a young board. Jo described this as a “radical shift” that was essential and had created an irreversible “wave” of change towards better power sharing. She reminded us that everyone has a voice and the real question is, are we listening?
Jo reflected that the youth sector can be tokenistic or even negligent in listening to youth voice — and urged us not to fear young people’s more radical thinking because “young people have always been at the forefront of social change” and are usually “ahead of us in their thinking”. Jo invited us to reflect on the risks of not listening well enough to young people, specifically how it will worsen the rise in intergenerational inequity.
Finally, a recent funding opportunity for young people that was overwhelmed with high quality applicants proved to Jo that young people are already socially and politically active and full of brilliant ideas — they lack opportunity and resources. She asserted that “we can learn from [young people] but we need to stay humble.”
Aliyah York is a young person, student and Founder of the organisation, Pupil Power, a student-led movement that aims to educate and engage young people about educational policy that affects them and their experience of school. Aliyah reminded us of Article 12 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, that establishes the right of every child to freely express their views, in all matters affecting them, and the subsequent right for those views to be given due weight, according to the child’s age and maturity.
Aliyah commented on how many so-called youth organisations do not listen to or engage with young people in a genuine way, and that this issue was often engrained within the power structures of those organisations. For example, with young people not even being allowed to attend events or have influence over important decisions or their ideas being dismissed or treated with a lack of respect.
Aliyah urged us to keep having the uncomfortable conversations that are necessary for progress to occur and to dismantle any attitudes of “I am higher than you” when working with young people. Finally, she implored us to ask ourselves, “what is the worst that can happen?” by giving young people a platform…they are full of good ideas.
The full webinar is available on YouTube.