Thursday, 25 May 2017

‘We don’t really do it like that, dear’

Young people don’t like being talked down to. So one east London housing association has set up a youth empowerment board to give them a real voice in their community. Katherine Levy meets some of its pioneering members

Imagine if a 16-year-old could help govern their own social landlord. Imagine if they could implement strategies to tackle anti-social behaviour on their neighbourhood estates.

Well, Poplar Housing and Regeneration Community Association, a Tower Hamlets housing association, is helping them do just that.

Unlike other youth groups set up by social landlords across the country, Poplar HARCA’s youth empowerment board has a constitution and sits parallel to the association’s joint estate panel. In other words, it has real power to bring about change.

YEB member Tamanna Akthar is 17 and feels she is making a contribution to her community. ‘I liked that the board offered us a chance to make decisions which would affect us,’ she says. ‘This opportunity is rare.’

Poplar HARCA’s YEB meets once every two months to discuss housing and development in the area. ‘At our last meeting we talked about getting involved with the local community safety officers to combat anti-social behaviour,’ says 22-year-old Mamunur Choudhury.

‘In my local park we have a problem with some boys loitering around, which doesn’t create a good environment. With our chairwoman we discussed what steps we could take.’

Aleef Ahmed, resident empowerment officer for Poplar HARCA, oversees the running of the board. He says all residents are benefiting from the young people’s creative ideas on regeneration plans and issues such as anti-social behaviour. ‘Board members greatly value their strategic input at a senior level,’ he explains.

Getting involved

Nineteen-year-old Sumaia Mashal is a full-time pharmacy student at King’s College London and chairs the YEB. ‘Currently zero per cent of young people report crime in the area,’ she says. ‘Poplar HARCA had a leaflet to encourage young people to report crime, but it wasn’t effective - it looked like a leaflet you would pick up at a doctor’s surgery. So we’re designing a new leaflet, which attracts attention. It’s colourful and uses language that young people can relate to.’

Poplar HARCA’s YEB was set up in March this year. Fintan Tynan, resident empowerment manager for the association, saw that young people wanted to get involved in governance, but were struggling with big obstacles. ‘We found that we’d get young people involved but not with lasting success,’ he says.

Mr Tynan decided to explore the issue further. ‘Last September I approached members of a youth organisation called Leaders in the Community. I asked if they were willing to look at some of the barriers putting young people off getting involved and challenge them. They said yes.’

Tackling the situation head on, Mr Tynan held three workshops with the young people from LIC. He explained the governance framework and asked about their experiences of attending the adult board meetings. ‘They felt they were over-formal,’ he says. ‘Often the response to their suggestions was, “We don’t really do it like that, dear,” which they found frustrating.’

Mr Choudhury felt his views weren’t taken seriously at such meetings. ‘It’s just an uncomfortable situation for someone who’s 19 or 20,’ he says. ‘They [young people] go there and they think - this is not for me.’

Ms Mashal had a similar experience of an ‘unfriendly’ meeting, which meant she didn’t attend a second one. ‘Aleef Ahmed spoke to me afterwards and said, “If you don’t feel that your views are being put across, how about getting involved with this new group, YEB?”,’ she explains.

Mr Tynan recognised the key to the board’s success would be ‘getting endorsement’ from the adult boards. ‘They unanimously supported the development of the YEB,’ he says. ‘They were really impressed by how much work the young people had put in. That gave us the green light, and then we started with promotion and recruitment.’

Through an informal interview process, 30 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 were selected from the 72 who originally showed an interest. The YEB did not require any funding; the resources were already embodied within the resident empowerment team.

A key moment for the YEB, as Mr Tynan explains, was recognising that the young people overwhelmingly shared the concerns of adult tenants. ‘Their main interests were the development happening in the area, housing-related issues and community safety. If I do the same exercise with adults, they are often the same priorities.’

In June, two members of YEB attended the Chartered Institute of Housing annual conference in Harrogate, offering advice on how the industry can engage with young people rather than make them feel excluded. Mr Tynan is confident that YEB has put youth involvement on the national social housing map.

‘I don’t know if any other associations in the country have young people involved in governance. As far as I’m aware, Poplar HARCA is the first involving young people at that level.’

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