The world of youth volunteering can be incredibly daunting. Young people searching for an initial voluntary programme can often feel as if they are constantly met with barriers of age, qualification and experience. Consequently, volunteering can feel like an impossible field to enter. I wanted to highlight my journey into youth activism and show it is never too late to start making your voice heard and to represent other young people.
Before going to university, my experience of youth representation was limited. I had participated in equality, diversity and inclusion services as part of my sixth form college, and had been a school prefect, but I had not participated in any external services. However when I arrived at university, a few factors made me want to find ways to speak up and represent the opinions and experiences of children and young people on a larger scale. Firstly, I began to understand more about the negative experiences that my parents and my non-verbal autistic brother have faced with the NHS children and young people’s service. This stemmed from a lack of understanding from clinicians on my brother’s needs, as well as inflexible treatment plans that disallowed the individual variations that are intrinsic to neurodivergent children and young people. This felt particularly frustrating as my brother is unable to articulate these injustices himself. I felt a responsibility to represent his viewpoint and to pioneer for change.
Another significant motivator to get involved in youth activism for me was my exposure to the health inequalities experienced by LGBTQIA+ individuals within healthcare systems. In medical school, I was exposed to some of the alarming healthcare outcomes for LGBTQIA+ individuals within our healthcare system. In parallel to this, I was shocked by a lack of understanding by clinicians and fellow medical students. I found that this was primarily due to a lack of education on the mechanisms contributing to these inequalities, and an absence of LGBTQIA+ narratives within healthcare. I wanted to do something to raise awareness of the healthcare stories of queer youth, and to advocate for education on the health inequalities experienced by marginalised groups within our healthcare systems. These two factors propelled me to look for ways in which I could make a change outside of my university and social spheres.
As I began this process, I felt as if I was already behind. As a 19-year-old, I had missed out on a lot of the youth voice programmes designed for school-age individuals, and was too young and inexperienced to join many of the more structured advocacy services within the NHS. When I found the NHS Youth Forum, I recognised that this service offered exactly what I wanted. This would give me the opportunity to have my voice represented on a much larger scale, and to collaborate with other young people on projects that I was incredibly passionate about. I got through to the interview stage, and felt very intimidated by the amount of lived experience that the other people in my interview had. When I was initially not accepted onto the forum, this did not come as a surprise to me, as I felt as if I did not have enough experience for the programme. Although this was disappointing, I felt as if I could continue to work on a smaller scale within my university to tackle some of the inequalities I was passionate about fighting against. However, a few weeks later, I got an email asking if I was still interested in the forum. I was incredibly excited to get involved. I am now part of the NHS Youth Forum, and I am enjoying my time incredibly.
There are still times when I do feel my lack of experience. In spite of this, I remind myself of why I am there. I am passionate about standing up for what I believe is right, and this is independent of the amount of experience I have had.
There are three main points that I can take from my journey into youth volunteering. Firstly, it is never too late to enter into activism. Regardless of your experience or your prior knowledge, if you have a passion for something, there are ways in which you can pursue it. Secondly, resilience is paramount to success. You will have times when you feel as if the voluntary field is inaccessible, but if you can pick yourself up and continue to engage with every opportunity that you encounter, you will find a way for your voice to be heard. Finally, if you do feel that something is wrong, you have the ability to take action. Your voice is more powerful than you think.
I am now working on a project within the Youth Forum to identify youth perceptions and priorities in the field of healthcare inequalities. These will then be compared to the views of clinicians to identify differences in opinions. This work involves representing many of the inequalities that motivated me to enter youth volunteering and I am incredibly excited to see the potential impact of this vital project.