Spending time with young people has been enriching both professionally and personally

I was lucky to join the #iwill campaign “before the beginning” in late 2012 and help shape its launch and the set up of Step Up To Serve to play an important coordination and amplifying role. It has been a real privilege to be part of a time-limited charity and to now be going into our final year of operation. We set out to build on the leadership that already existed in communities and across sectors and demonstrate what’s possible when we bring together the power of collaboration with the power of youth. 

Over the last seven years, without a doubt the opportunities to meet with young people have been the highlights of my time with the campaign. Their passion, insights and ideas never fail to remind me why the work we do is so vital. Since becoming Chief Executive of Step Up To Serve for the second time in August, I have been determined to make more time in my diary for one-on-one conversations with our #iwill Ambassadors, and to visit social action projects with #iwill campaign partners across the UK. 

Building this into my weekly routine has been one of the best decisions I have made, not only directly benefiting my day to day work, but also my personal development and wellbeing. Here are a few thoughts on why it has been so worthwhile. 

Create the space 

Given how hectic a working week can be, it hasn’t always been easy to find the time. I have had to be very intentional about creating space in my diary. In truth, I would have likely struggled to do so without being ably supported by my dynamic team and the incredible network of #iwill partners who have kindly hosted visits over the last few months – support that I’m aware not everybody has.  

More often than not, these conversations and visits won’t have a strict agenda – a risk given how pressurised a normal week can feel. But in the grand scheme of things, the returns have been profound. I’ve gained more from a thirty-minute phone call with an #iwill Ambassador than I have from hours of regular working-week meetings! Social action visits have given me quality time with campaign partners and a much better understanding of the depth of their work with young people and communities that are facing enormous challenges. These visits have also given me hope about what’s possible when organisations from across sectors come together to invest in and with young people.

However squeezed for time you are, regularly engaging with young people will save you time in the long run by ensuring that their knowledge, ideas and insights shape your thoughts and plans from the outset.  

Listen and learn

Young people think big. There is often more to talk about than we have time for – with no danger of empty silences or the need for a ten point agenda. I’ve been asked big questions like “Where do you see the campaign in 5 years?” and urged to lobby for Votes at 16 and for the creation of a Youth Minister. Despite the serious topics we have discussed, there has also been a lot of laughter and our conversations have left me smiling for hours later. 

I have been pushed to open myself up and consider new ideas. I certainly wouldn’t be considering an Instagram page if not for a great chat with Tahirah, who uses social media brilliantly to tackle gender stereotypes and coached me in becoming comfortable with putting myself out there (listen to my first attempt when Lanai interviewed me as part of my #iwillWeek challenge here)

Although making me feel a little old (!) these conversations have also given me space to take a trip down memory lane and reflect on my own experiences as a young person. Speaking to Ciya Vyas as she was preparing to start her first year at the same university I attended, I was brought back to packing my bags in a small town in Greece over two decades ago, with all of the excitement and nervousness that comes with leaving home for the first time. It is an ever present reminder of the important milestones and momentous changes young people are going through in their own lives whilst continuing to demonstrate a real commitment to helping the world around them. Seriously impressive. 

There’s still so much more to do 

From each of the conversations I have had with young people, I’ve been struck by just how challenging it is to be a young person today. The lack of opportunities, the daily prejudices, the dismissal of their views and ideas – all are real and heartbreaking.  We’ve come a long way since 2013 but the reality is that we still have a long way to go before all young people have the opportunities to have their voices heard and be active citizens. 

I will not forget the moment one our #iwill Ambassadors shared with me the racism she has been experiencing in her home community. Or the young man I met in the streets of Croydon who went out of his way to direct me to a school and shared how a system that is preventing him from gaining legal employment in this country has left him with no choice but to deal drugs again (something he started at the age of 9 to support his family who were struggling). Or the choices faced daily by parents in so many communities – to buy their children a pair of shoes or make sure there is a hot meal on the table. 

Yet, the last few months have also brought me a real sense of possibility and a determination to fight even harder for the much needed investment that is needed in our young people and communities. I was particularly inspired by the work of #iwill Ambassador Lanai Collis-Phillips and WASSUP (Women Against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Speak Out). Despite the gravity of the work they do, educating young people about grooming and abuse, they bring passion, energy and hope everywhere they go.  I was also blown away by the talent and courage of young people I met in Newcastle, supported by #iwill Fund match funder Virgin Money Foundation who are using the power of Art to advocate for themselves and other young people in their communities. 

Take part in the 2020 Power of Youth Challenge 

Ultimately, taking the time to see and hear the power of youth has been a truly enriching experience. Next year, we will be encouraging you all to do the same. Keep an eye out for the #iwill Power of Youth Challenge: a year-long set of activities to shine a light on the impact of youth social action; promote youth voice; and co-create a set of commitments and actions that will truly embed youth voice and leadership over the next decade. I look forward to seeing you take part and joining some of you on your journey during 2020.  

  1. #iwill campaign young trustees Tom McEachan and Ceylon Hickman speak to primary students during a workshop at Kew Gardens.

  2. Young trustees Ceylon Hickman and Saeed Atcha celebrate chairing a successful Advisory Council at St James’s Palace, hosted by HRH The Prince of Wales.