A national policy of austerity in the UK had resulted in a disinvestment in public services, with youth work amongst the worst effected. Brighton and Hove is a city on the south coast of England that had held protected youth work provision. In 2016, this provision cost the Local Authority (LA) approximately £800,000, in November 2016, following a surprise announcement, the LA proposed to cut this by 100% for 2017-18.
A LA committee on ‘Neighbourhoods, Communities and Equality’ was identified as our first opportunity to challenge this cut. At the meeting a youth worker gave an emotional presentation on behalf of the young people, young people came to stand outside the meeting and hand out hurriedly prepared statements in support of youth services. After the committee meeting, youth workers and young people reflected and planned our next action.
The young people created the #ProtectYouthServices hashtag which became the moniker for what would become the best piece of participative youth work many of us have ever been involved in. Taking a rights-based approach, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) insists that young people have a right to information that affects them (Article 17) and have a right to have their opinions heard on those issues (Article 12). For many of the young people being told that their beloved youth services would close was enough for them to innately understand that they must speak up and, critically, had the right to be heard.
An emergency meeting was arranged where senior managers and Chief Executive Officers gathered to strategize around overturning the funding decision through lobbying, media messaging and petitioning etc. It turned out to be naïve of the group to think that they could control and plan what was to come. We discovered that a local 15 year old woman had already started her own petition, this petition would go on to gather just under 2,000 signatures and be debated at a full Council meeting for the City.
Some criticisms levelled at youth participation work is the idea that it can be tokenistic; “youth workers plant ideas and steer young people to perform certain duties in the name of the campaign or cause that has been predetermined”. In order to combat these tendencies it was recognised early on that we must trust our young people to become the campaign and run the campaign that they wanted to run. Inspired by the petition, the city’s youth workers put aside the ideas of the senior managers and CEOs and organised a citywide meeting for the young people under the #ProtectYouthServices banner.
The young people themselves soon had planned media messaging, mass demonstrations, protests at various Council committee meetings and representation at the meetings too to ask their questions to those in power. The role of the youth workers was supporting the organisation and catalysing the communications between young people. We were following their energy and in an assisting role; young people took the lead.
Read also our interview with Maddie, a young woman involved in the campaign, by clicking on the photo above
The Council’s budget-setting meeting saw cross political party support for youth work in the city and managed to save 85% of the £800,000 budget.
Young peoples ability to assume the lead was not a matter of luck. Local youth organisations had been supporting higher-level participation for a long time and at the moment the cut was announced a group of young people were in the process of investigating the new models of youth service structure around the country to bring back to Brighton and Hove. Already well-versed in the local services’ activities and familiar with some of the power structures in place, this group formed a core part of the campaign group.
In February 2017, after three months of campaigning, the Council’s budget-setting meeting saw cross political party support for youth work in the city and managed to save 85% of the £800,000 budget. A new youth work contract is being drawn up which should see it secure for at least another two years. Councillors at this meeting reported never having seen a better campaign, let alone one by young people. By the time of the meeting, young people had:
Through the campaign not only had young people demonstrated their incredible abilities in terms of active citizenship, they had shown the effects of youth work in its role enabling and facilitating this within young people. When so often we are challenged with proving the impact of our work; here was a clear example of its impact and of how much it was valued by its beneficiaries and the wider community.
For the young people involved in the #ProtectYouthServices campaign the experience served as an awakening, to politics and critical engagement in the world around them. Dissent is their right but is rarely cultivated through formal education. This experiential learning process proved to young people that they can disagree with the views of those in power and that there are many ways to have your voice heard. 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 we’re actually making a difference”
Bette Davies, age 16.
by Adam Muirhead (2017)
is a qualified youth work manager for a charity in Brighton & Hove and also Chair of the Institute for Youth Work and an Associate Lecturer in youth work at the University of Brighton.
Photos: © ProtectYouthService campaign