Giving voice to Brixton’s youth

Just four miles separate the UK Houses of Parliament and Brixton’s Marcus Lipton Community Centre but their proximity matters little given the disconnect that exists between the two.

For the young people who frequent the youth centre, the legislation that dominates parliamentary discourse could not be less relevant. For them, life is about looking for a job, staying out of trouble and finding somewhere of their own to live – increasingly a pipedream given the high cost of renting in the UK capital.

Last month the youth centre played host to a #FindingLegitimacy event staged by the Young Lambeth Co-op and the Centre for Public Impact. We were there to find out what government legitimacy means to young people, with 20 people from the youth centre, including youth workers, and members of the Lambeth Youth Council, all taking part in the discussions.

Among them was Ira Campbell, the Centre’s managing director and someone well versed in the trials and tribulations facing the young people he works with every day. A veteran of the South London youth scene, he believes that opportunities – “proper opportunities” – are what government (both local and central) is failing to provide.

“Young people keep hearing this stuff about jobs and apprenticeships,” he say. “But the reality is that apprenticeships sound good on paper but don’t unlock the kind of opportunities they are looking for. If you’re 19 or 20 and have been through the criminal justice system, you’re likely to be told to go get and apprenticeship somewhere. But £4 or £5 an hour is not enough to live off. The other option is something like going to work in Pret or doing some painting and decorating, but these aren’t long-term careers for most.”

It’s good to listen

At our event, politicians emerged as distant figures, totally removed from the experiences and aspirations of Brixton’s youth. Securing better representation in terms of ethnic diversity is only one piece of the puzzle, what’s more important is the way in which elected representatives actually represent their communities.

“It comes down to having real dialogue,” says Campbell. “It was good to have a local councillor attend the #FindingLegitimacy event but it was interesting that his first presumption was that all young people wanted was work experience. I also noted he said that if we wanted to talk to him we had to go via his secretary to arrange a time and date. It really demonstrated the mistaken assumptions that adults often have about young people, and the hierarchical system that prevents better conversations taking place more frequently.”

He goes on to say that there is a great deal of frustration, and even anger, about the fact that politicians appear unable or unwilling to really listen to what young people have to say, especially as they themselves are happy to talk – at length – about their own priorities.

“Young people hear a lot of politicians talking and talking but then nothing ever seems to happen,” says Campbell. “But they just need to start being honest – if something can’t happen then sit down with them and explain why that is the case. But we don’t even get those connections. This means that for the young people I work with, ‘legitimacy’ isn’t even a real word. It has no meaning or relevance. They just see other people getting money or looking after their own.”

Moving beyond the classroom

Education is another area that is having the wrong kind of impact. Instead of preparing young people for the real world, it is seen as leaving them with far too few skills and with academic knowledge that is of little use

“There is a big focus on maths, English and science but there isn’t enough guidance about how to work best with other people, or about being exposed to other cultures in a working environment,” says Campbell. “Young people think that work experience should start much earlier – at about the age of 12 – and then do it every year so by the time you finish school you have a far clearer idea about what you want to do and what kind of environment you want to work in.”

He goes on to say that government needs to reset its education system around what actually works for young people. “A lot of these young people can’t handle college – sitting in a classroom is something they struggle with,” he admits. “So it is a case of looking around for other alternatives in adult education where it can be more mobile or done online or virtual reality teaching or something like that. Only then will they start to feel that education is something truly valuable.”

Rebuilding trust

The bottom line, though, is that trust between the young people of Brixton and their government has long since eroded. Government, for them, represents another world, one that is so distant and far removed that it has almost evaporated as a source of legitimate representation.

“As far as they are concerned, they don’t feel that government does anything for them,” says Campbell. “Firstly, this is because they are young and secondly as the vast majority of those who come to the centre are are an ethnic minority. When they see government, they see police, their own lack of education, they see all these middle class white people who all seem to be working against them.”

So what will happen if nothing changes? “There will be a real disjointed generation,” replies, after a pause. “Young people will keep worrying about the future and still feel cut-off from what is happening in Westminster. Take Brexit – lots of people afterwards came up to me and said they voted to stay or leave but they didn’t know what they were voting for either way. And the younger ones were all upset about not being able to vote on something that would affect their future.”

Rebuilding the relationship between government and the Brixton youth they are supposed to represent will clearly be no quick fix. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. On the contrary, the sooner this takes place the better – only then will government legitimacy in this corner of London be restored.

Photo Credit: Tristan Bejawn

 

CPI will be publishing a paper on how governments can start to build legitimacy in the New Year.

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 

FURTHER READING