ARTICLES “Learn to listen – learn to collaborate”

Michael from Winchester
Michael, one of the young people at the event in Winchester

“Learn to listen – learn to collaborate”

The Blagrave Trust funds around 50 youth organisations in the South East of England. We recently brought them and young people together at the Blagrave Trust’s annual partners event. We discussed the future for young people in order to contribute to the Civil Society Futures Inquiry. Quotes below are from people attending the event.

What will be the biggest challenges for young people over the next ten years?   How will the youth sector need to adapt to address these challenges?
A different relationship with the State

“Self-belief, self-confidence, agency and empowerment”

In the coming years, facing a decline in support from the state, withdrawal of the support offered by the EU, and a squeeze in resources available for charitable support, young people must be equipped to stand on their own two feet.

There is an urgent need for young people to be supported to develop necessary levels of “self-belief, self-confidence, agency and empowerment”.

This chimes with other Civil Society Futures conversations where there has been a great deal of importance placed on community resilience: how communities grow their ability to deal with shocks.

Young people will need resilience and independence to face the lack of fairness that seems inbuilt in our structures and systems. Youth sector leaders expressed their frustration at the lack of freedom they are given by funders and commissioners to prioritise work that delivers the kind of outcomes young people need to thrive. They observed a disconnect between our current education system and the world of work.

Young people agreed. As Adam Ramsay says in his Winchester reflections, their main concern was the explosion of young people’s mental health issues. They put this down to the pressures that young people are facing today and a lack of certainty over “finding out who they are and where they fit”. Young people felt strongly that they must be involved in shaping services that can help them on their future path.

Across other Civil Society Futures conversations, the feeling that people are not involved in decisions about their lives is being heard repeatedly. If we are going to build the skills over generations of a more sustainable, equal and participative society, then young people’s involvement now is essential.

A different relationship with each other

“[There is] strength in numbers, in one message”

Youth organisations recognise that their strength lies in “coming together to form one voice – [there is] strength in numbers, in one message”. Having given up looking for leadership and strategy in the national policy agenda, it is time for the youth sector to speak up for the reality of what they need to improve young people’s lives. “Don’t be complicit with government cuts – don’t agree to deliver at half price”.

“Trust young people – listen carefully and act with them”

And the real power, energy and expertise comes from young people themselves. Youth organisations recognise they need the strength to “trust young people – listen carefully and act with them”. They recognise this isn’t always going to be easy but young people say “don’t be a gatekeeper – don’t define what young people are interested in” and more and more of those of us who participate and lead the sector agree.

A different relationship with funders

There are challenges for the funder and commissioners in this. Youth leaders are clear that a different form of relationship with funders is going to be necessary to help them respond to – and with – young people. They are prepared to “challenge the funders and provide a platform for young people to have a voice” about what the real issues are – rather than what funders wish to pay for. Funders must remain adaptable and consider whether “Agreed outcomes – do they restrict?” in the face of the necessary flexibility charities are being asked to show.

“Challenge the funders and provide a platform for young people to have a voice”

A different civil society

By the end of the day, there was agreement that we need to re-examine what we mean by the ‘youth sector’. “[There are] Positives and negatives of talking in those terms”. Young people themselves need their views valued and amplified in the debate; perhaps professionals need to develop and strengthen the skills of listening and learning from young people, rather than talking on their behalf. There needs to be clarity on which young people we need to listen to, for example some of those who are most disadvantaged or disengaged. Business, communities, adult and young volunteers all have their roles in ensuring good outcomes for young people.

As Civil Society Futures has travelled around the country, people have expressed a sense of powerlessness – the feeling that things are ‘done to’ people without their involvement in them. For young people, this feeling is particularly profound. And for organisations who work with young people – and for their funders – this creates a vital challenge.

How can we give young people a sense of control and choice over their own lives? How can we do the hard work of making sure we listen not just to the loudest voices, but to the silenced, too? As history moves fast, can the youth organisations we have inherited from the past become tools for young people to shape their future themselves? Because if we do not, we will soon find we lose relevance.