The power of youth
Last summer’s riots demonstrated how disenfranchised some young people are from their communities. Beena Nadeem meets the teenagers teaching social landlords how to put that right
If you want to know how to engage young people - why not just ask them? That was the message that came through loud and clear at the 2012 Youth Conference hosted by arm’s-length management organisation Homes for Haringey last month.
The one-day event aimed to teach 90 attendees from housing associations, local authorities and charities how to enable young people to get involved in local decision making and in improving services.
It was organised by Haringey’s young advisors - a group of 20 young people from the borough, which is ranked the 13th most deprived out of all 326 UK local authorities, and the place where last summer’s riots began. They are involved in a wide range of projects to improve their area, often driving initiatives like this event. The group, which was set up in 2007, usually meets at least once a month, but in the run-up to big projects like the Youth Conference, they get together every day.
Paul Bridge, chief executive of Homes for Haringey, who works closely with the advisors, says he is now considering appointing some of them to his organisation’s board.
Their work was recognised by the Tenant Participation Advisory Service in July 2010 when it awarded the young advisors its best practice in youth involvement award and also in 2008/09 when it won a best practice in the community award.
TPAS chief executive Michelle Reid, who was a speaker at the conference, points out that everyone did a lot of talking about young people before the riots, but not enough of it actually involved speaking to the young people themselves. ‘I think recent events mean people are now more ready to listen,’ she said.
So what advice do the young advisors have for social landlords wanting to get more young people involved in their communities and housing? Read on to find out.
‘Young people engage better with other young people - especially their peers,’ explains 20-year-old advisor, Derekston James. ‘I can speak to my peers - we have our own language that a lot of older people might find offensive. But you have to be able to open your mouth and make people realise you’re trying to do good.’
While some advisors encourage their friends to get involved in their communities, others like 17-year-old Joy Owusu speaks at local schools. ‘I know people there and I understand their issues… I ask them what they don’t like about the community and what they could do to make it better,’ she says. For example, ‘if there’s someone whose keen on growing things, then we can get them involved in that way - something like planting green areas in the community’.
What, though, is the reason young people get involved in the first place? Payment for training, prizes and acclaim are appealing, but seeing positive changes in their communities as a result of their work is what provides young people with the real buzz.
Ms Owusu, who joined Haringey’s young advisors during the school holidays three years ago, says: ‘I am now in a project where I give the local community skills that I have learned. I’m talking to councillors, older people and youth workers about how to get funding for the area and how to network.
‘I am normally really shy; but with this I feel confident, I know what I’m talking about,’ she says.
Ms Owusu adds that when young people are given the opportunity to influence something locally, such as the design of a new playground on The Sandlings estate in Wood Green, ‘there’s more pride [in it]. It’s now being looked after more’.
For the youngest advisor, 15-year-old Jimmy Russell whose training started at just 11, the initial incentive was making friends.
Meanwhile, Mr James admits that boredom drove him through the doors of the local youth club and to becoming an advisor. ‘I had nothing better to do,’ he says. ‘You could say the reason was that I wanted a reference, to get into college, but I’ve got a place and I still come back.
‘I now speak to people I would not normally have spoken to. I get involved, and look out for the community,’ Mr James adds.
On the margins
Homes for Haringey’s youth outreach community officer, Marlon Bruce, says it is also important to make real efforts to involve young people who are currently ‘not engaging in youth services’.
‘People [in youth centres] are already engaged; it’s the young people who are marginalised who are the ones we can’t reach that way - single parents, drug abusers and those exposed to violence, asylum seekers, prison leavers - all kinds of residents,’ he adds.
‘They are [part of] the community we are trying to change for the better,’ he explains. ‘If you are making policies about them, you have to speak to the people it affects.’
Mr Bruce says being a known face in the community helps when he approaching these people. ‘But breaking down groups is not easy.
‘It’s important to be honest, tactful. Not to have all the answers.
[A rapport] doesn’t happen in weeks, it often takes a year.’
Create an attraction
Something as simple as offering free food at a youth club can get young people involved in a consultation about something in their community.
‘We once offered free food and drink, but when that was finished everyone stayed and we discussed various issues,’ says Ms Owusu.
She warns organisations not to rely on social media to consult young people. ‘No one takes Facebook seriously,’ she says.
‘I’ve never had a serious conversation on Facebook,’ adds Mr Russell.
Seeing results is the best way to keep young people engaged, Haringey’s young advisors agree. ‘We set up the first youth-led community in London - like a residents’ board, everything ran through us,’ sums up Mr James. ‘If we had an idea, then we looked for funding for it. I moved from having nothing to do, to realising the potential in this and started to see a difference in what it was doing for our community.’