“If you are from government, I am not talking to you.”
Not quite the reception I hoped for when I went to meet young people from the youth centre in Brixton, South London, to talk about legitimacy. In Brixton, as in Regina in Canada, two very different parts of the world, I heard young people tell CPI that their governments – local, city and national – need to build a better relationship with them, starting face-to-face.
In this deprived area of London, where the taxi driver told me not to walk alone, I appreciated that these young people are vulnerable – but strong. They told me they fight daily to stay alive, survive in tough communities and show face – all important life skills they have had to learn early the hardest way.
They rightly wanted to know what made me so qualified to even talk to them. I had to dig deep and open up a little. It was well worth it but it had me wondering, could governments do this?
What does ‘listening’ actually mean?
I learned that young people want to see where conversations they have with government end up once officials shut their notepads and return to their day jobs. They feel over-consulted and under-valued through the process.
Legitimacy starts at the front line of government. Job centre staff who look like they care and teachers who don’t get upset that you don’t think you can revise for your exams. It requires people who represent government at the front line to know them and their lives but it felt like they were being shoehorned into boxes that didn’t fit for them and their tough starts in life. It feels as if government is trying to make young people fit a mould created by an older, white, mostly male and more privileged group of people who only value exam results and clean accents, they said.
They simply want a chance at life, at a job and not to feel like failures because they find exams tough (you would, too, if your Mum was crying at night wondering how to pay the bills). They want to be educated through work experience, life skills and with role models who care, who live near to them, and not run back to their posh homes away from them. Many said, however, that they needed a degree to start at the bottom rung of the ladder of a supermarket – even business is not on their side, they felt.
There are vital life skills these young people have, other young people should perhaps have, but they seem to not be valued enough or honed by government, teachers, job centres or businesses. The young people do see themselves as being of help to government, if “they” really listen to us, they said. But first they must to know us, earn our trust, then policies will become more effective and we will see a difference in our lives.
Real nation-building in Canada
Government is a big mystery to the young people we met in Brixton and also in Regina, Canada, where indigenous young people opened up their hearts, minds and feelings to us and the Public Policy Forum to discuss legitimacy and what it means to them.
They all said they felt they needed to be the experts in their own lives, their cultures and history as well as government experts to be able to even talk about this issue, so we broke it down, we opened up, ditched the technocratic language and here is what we found:
In Canada, the young indigenous people we spoke to said government, even when it does listen, looks uncomfortable with feelings. But facing the future after a terrible past requires feelings to come to the surface. Can government “do” feelings they asked? Even ones this painful? Although an inquiry had recently uncovered the pain inflicted on their communities, it is still rarely discussed outside of government and media, they said.
The government of Canada has been talking about reconciliation and truth, many said, but what do those words even mean? What is “nation to nation” when there are over 6o indigenous nations? It would appear language, a stiff upper lip and protocols remain substantial barriers.
The system is one that no one in this youth group understands but their impression is that it is not geared towards listening and empathy. Is the UK system working well for the young people and minorities in the UK, they enquired? If not, why do we think it can help us build relationships of this complexity here in Canada? Perhaps we need a whole new way of doing government, they suggested?
The young indigenous communities in Canada have incredible strength rooted in a tough past and present, yet like the young people we met in Brixton, they, too, are willing to try at least to talk to government, if government respects them. Their history is complex so a first step to “nation-building”, they said, is building trust and knowledge across Canada and in schools about who they are. “People still look down on us”, they said “but they are not proud of us because they don’t know about us”.
And like our young people in Brixton, they do want to succeed, to have a chance at education and jobs like everyone else, and to become self-sufficient, too, but not to be squeezed into a box that suits the majority as a condition of that.
There is much to do but to even get to the heart of this will require more patience from us, a concerted effort to show our human side, to connect with young people as young people, not as the adults we wish they could be. The question is, can government find their human side fast enough so as not to lose another whole generation?
CPI will be publishing a paper on how governments can start to build legitimacy in the New Year. Our thanks to the Public Policy Forum of Canada and the young people who gathered at the First Nations University on 29 November. For more details about this event, click here to read an account from the Public Policy Forum’s Allan Clarke.
What is legitimacy to you? Where do you see legitimacy working well? How governments work with citizens to build legitimacy is a big question for CPI.
Find out how to get involved in our Finding Legitimacy project
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