Isabel Chapman is a freelance project manager and youth expert
Last year I was fortunate enough to secure funding from the EU for a young people’s project, which I then went on to manage in three central London boroughs.
The money came through the Erasmus + programme, which is normally associated to university grants allowing students to experience a year in a different EU country. What not many people know is that Erasmus currently funds lots of volunteer and educational projects which entail no travel at all – expect perhaps for a shift in perspectives.
The Relationship Status: It’s Complicated project aimed to engage young people living in socially deprived neighbourhoods across London to come together to discuss key issues they felt passionately about, joining conversations they currently felt excluded from. Once the groups had decided their topics they had to work together, interview policy experts and organise three events involving professionals and policy makers.
The Erasmus+ funding was awarded on the premise that social mobility can be achieved within our own communities and great opportunities are often right on our doorsteps. Erasmus+ were keen to reach out to young people from socially deprived backgrounds in the hope that if and when they study at university level they will be more likely to access further Erasmus+ funding opportunities. Historically young people who are more socially mobile have tended to take advantage of the Erasmus+ opportunities to study abroad at university in greater numbers than their counterparts from more deprived neighbourhoods.
RSIC young people were recruited from estates and schools in Westminster, Southwark and Tower Hamlets. The project turned out to be easy to promote despite initial uncertainly that young people would be interested in something like this: it soon became obvious that they were. When delivery started young people quickly decided on three topics: Political Disengagement, Consent and Sex Education, Social Media and Online Safety.
In the run up to the 2015 May General Election the issue of political disengagement could not have been more topical. The young people leading the design and delivery of this event interviewed Tower Hamlet’s Council Youth Participation Officer, Boris Rupnik, to understand how their local council promotes opportunities for young people to vote and participate in local politics to have their voices heard.
An important aspect to the RSIC project to facilitate discussions between young people and policy makers to come to a clearer understanding of the issues, barriers and potential solutions. Many projects ask young people what they want to change or challenge, what do they dislike about their area or school or life in general but do not always inform them about services, charities or policy initiatives that deal those issues on a local, national or international scale. By connecting and informing young people and policy makers in order to foster change the project was innovative, and each of the events gave both sides lots of food for thought.
The second event was held at Notre Dame, a brilliant catholic girl’s school in Southwark. The Consent, SRE & Young People’s Conference was a huge success, bringing together over 90 young people and professionals. Young people led the panel discussion and hosted a game of ‘Sex Education Snakes and Ladders.’ Breakout activities were hosted by London Citizens and The Schools Consent Project. This surely must be the first ever Erasmus+ project to deliver a Sex and Relationship Education conference at a catholic girl’s school.
The last event was held at the House of Commons, again with young people leading the panel discussion with professionals from Childnet, AVA, The Office of the Children’s Commissioner and EVAW. In the presence of a number of MPs. The event focused on issues like online exploitation, sexting and radicalisation and what the Government could do to improve young people’s experiences on social media, including online safety.
Rapid advances in social media and technology results in young people’s realities constantly adapting and evolving; how can policy or legislative changes properly support young people if we as professionals and adults are totally excluded from this virtual world and its complexities? Far from being just ‘talked at’, the young audience generally speaking knew much more than the professionals about social media and had ideas for genuine solutions and a wealth of personal experience they were willing to share with policy makers to inform future initiatives.
As the RSIC project came to an end, it was a huge disappointment when MPs voted against 16-17 year olds having a vote in the forthcoming EU referendum. Having spent the last year of my life facilitating discussions, organising events and political projects with young people I have been incredibly impressed by their passion, knowledge and willingness to be included in these conversations.
If you ask a 15 year old if they are interested in politics they will probably look at you blankly; however if you ask if they care about being able to afford university fees, having access to information about contraception or being able to walk home safely at night or even whether they care if their streets are clean or not, they will have an answer and it will be clear they are engaged and should not be underestimated or excluded.
The notion that only age provides us with the wisdom to engage politically is nonsense. Young people might not be old enough to vote yet but I can tell you from first-hand experience that they are engaged and aware, more so than many adults.
If we as a nation decide to leave the EU this will have serious implications for freedom of movement, trade and the economy, and the young people who have been excluded from voting in the referendum are the very generation who will be left to deal with those consequences. So if we expect them to take on this burden of responsibility and potentially ask them to deal with the disaster that lies ahead of us if we leave the EU, we should at the very least invite young people to the table and for once, properly include them. They are capable, confident and more than ever, ready to lead the debate.
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