The power of safe spaces
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Giving young people the space to speak and be heard is not just a moral duty but they really do have the answers you’re looking for
This week we have watched in a dazed confusion the comings and goings at Number 10 and the shuffling of papers in Brussels. Most of us also know how important it is to hold down a stable job to feed our families and pay the bills, and so this week I have wondered what makes such people go for those top jobs in the first place, only to leave them? Yes, many come back – as is the revolving and sticky door of politics – but it is a huge risk to be in such a job in the first place and then to stand down. This takes courage and conviction but also a certain confidence that power belongs to them and always will.
To most of us, it is a job we would never want, but for the majority of young people, it is a job that is never going to be open to them and a role that is not too interested in them either.
A feeling of immense self-confidence and power must have run through the veins of our leaders from a tender young age.
Many must have known that they had the power to change lives, to make a difference, that when they spoke, people listened and had the confidence to follow their pathway to power, risking their careers, reputations and families to have it. Many had backing, guidance and encouragement all the way.
How this idea of power is understood, shared and perceived by young people has been a project for us at the Centre for Public Impact, as part of our Finding Legitimacy project.
Over the past 18 months, we have looked at how young people feel about their power to change what government thinks of them and their power or desire to be ‘one of them’ – diversity in government is something we have found is important for legitimacy.
The UK has a particularly tricky time letting young people into mainstream debates and young people have a hard time communicating back with power they know little about, not even how it truly impacts their own lives and communities. This is a tragedy and it is having profound consequences.
A feeling that power in this country is not theirs, or will ever be theirs, has led to a worrying disconnect between governments and young people all over the world.
In London, UK, particularly, we talk of young people as victims of stabbing; one young lady told me very clearly that she is fed up being a statistic or a religion or a problem to fix, she is a person and she has ideas and thoughts about how to make life better but she does not feel this power is hers.
We invited two members of staff from the Cabinet Office to come and talk to some of these often forgotten young people and show them that careers in government were theirs for the taking and to ask them what government could do to become ‘a more human government’ in their eyes. This we said, was their safe space.
When I first met them a few months ago, I was blown away by their energy and ideas and desire to speak to a government that listens to them. I think the Cabinet Office was too. Their confidence to speak in this safe space we gave them is in many ways thanks to the Us Programme, that helps young women achieve their dreams, lead by an inspiring young woman who personally mentors them, Victoria Azubuike.
These young women have not found out a way to become youth champions for government yet – they did not even know that is what they wanted until we held this conversation with them – so we will make them CPI’s first youth champions.
They are taking the message that power is theirs – if they want it – and that government will listen – if we make it happen – to young people all over London and in 2019 to the great towns and cities of England and across the world. And do this they must, because the biggest tragedy in losing power, I told them, is not knowing you had it in the first place.
They came to us as confused and dazed, as most of us are watching politics day-to-day, but left buzzing with energy and enthusiasm to be part of their country and to take some of that power to change their own lives, and those of their families and friends.
Spare one moment in your busy day, especially as we mark International Children’s Day, whether you work with power or in power, to listen to these wonderful voices of the youth and be inspired to help them make their world work better for them.
A wise woman once said to me, be careful how you treat the young for they will be looking after you when you cannot look after yourself.
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