Reflecting back over my last two years as chair of British Youth Council, and the prior year as a trustee is significantly harder, weirder and less straightforward than I would have imagined. The past three years have definitely been varied – both in terms of what young people have prioritised via British Youth Council and of the challenges our generation has faced. Did I expect to be finishing during a pandemic, and to have all our activities and meetings happening digitally since February? Absolutely not. But despite finishing in very odd circumstances, I consider myself to be unbelievably lucky to have chaired the charity over these two years.
I have been privileged enough to work with talented, young trustees and a wonderfully dedicated staff team. I have taken the priorities of young people directly to Number 10, and represented younger generations at home and abroad, and so much more. This was a brilliant and challenging role, leading a progressive and important charity, and I will always be hugely thankful to the members for electing me in September 2018.
In a way, my two years as British Youth Council chair have been a story of two halves.
On the one hand, the British Youth Council has increased the number of young people meaningfully engaged with, and in particular have reached more disadvantaged young people, and given a platform to overlooked groups such as young carers. We have successfully launched several new initiatives that I firmly believe will benefit young generations and society as a whole, like our Bank of England Youth Forum. We have continued to tackle big issues that matter to younger generations much earlier than other organisations, such as via our Youth Select Committee enquiries into pressing issues like body image in young people and tackling knife crime. We’ve also been at forefront of influencing the decisions being taken at the heart of government through DCMS’s Youth Steering Group.
The trustee board has moved forward in our collective knowledge and understanding of good governance, and I also believe our reputation as a youth-led charity has influenced other charities to see the benefits of having young trustees. There’s plenty to do to ensure we are continuously improving for our members, but I can confidently say we are more upfront, and transparent with our members than many other organisations about where we can improve.
On the other hand, it has felt more and more challenging to persuade people with influence to truly commit to meaningful, long-term engagement and discussion with younger generations. All too often, young people or representatives are invited into the decision-making room, and asked if we think a youth-focused plan or strategy is ‘good enough’. More often than not, if that young person says ‘no’, even if we then clearly explain why nothing will change. Why then, are organisations and leaders asking for youth feedback, if not to take it onboard? What is the point of inviting young people into the rooms of power, if not to treat them as equals? Why are ‘adults’ allowed to say no, but young people are expected to ‘take anything we can get’?
Do I believe that young people are more valued, treated with more respect, and provided with significantly more opportunity to influence government policy that directly impacts them than I believe we were back in September 2018? Unfortunately, no, and I wouldn’t be honest if I said otherwise. It would be easy to conclude that “we’re in a pandemic, of course, meaningful youth engagement is less of a priority” but this is the wrong conclusion. I have always believed that if young people (who are inevitably going to have to shoulder the impact of Covid-19 the longest) are not properly considered and consulted about our collective approach to tackling the pandemic, then these generations would become more disillusioned and left behind in the future.
Young people are struggling through the same storm of the pandemic that older generations are, but to say we are all going through this storm in the same boat is wrong. Education has been severely disrupted. We face the worst employment prospects of any generation. Our generation has devastatingly poor mental health. All of these are already difficult enough issues to face, but we must always highlight the fact that young people from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority communities are disproportionately negatively affected compared to their peers. The fact that we have seen no clearly defined national strategy to address this inequality should be a cause of national shame, and it is unsurprising to me that it is predominantly young people standing up and speaking out about this.
It has never been more important to value the voices and opinions of young people, and yet it can often feel like it has never been so difficult to get into the room where decisions about us are made. The British Youth Council continues to grow in importance, relevance and progressiveness, and I’m confident Sarah Staples, the new Chair and the team will continue to push forward on behalf of young people, ensuring that young voices are meaningfully heard. I sincerely hope those who are decision-makers and those who can affect change will reflect, and rapidly improve how they work with young people as partners. I am very excited to see what the trustees and charity as a whole achieve over the next few years, and will always continue to champion #YouthVoice.
I want to thank our wonderful staff for supporting both the board as a whole and myself personally over the last few years. It has never failed to impress and amaze me quite how much impactful work we deliver as a small charity, and a significant proportion of that is due behind the scenes efforts of our entire team. Similarly, I absolutely cannot praise the trustees enough for the standard they hold themselves, and deliver, too.
I count myself fortunate to have led a board as young, diverse, and talented as British Youth Council have. Charities that serve young people are stronger, more resilient and more relevant when they have young people on their governing bodies. After sitting on various charity trustee boards, I can confidently say that the British Youth Council trustees understand their roles better and their responsibility more seriously than boards that fit our charity sector norm of older, whiter, and more male. Our young members are incredibly lucky to be supported by such wonderful and passionate people.