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  • 2 Oct 2018
  • Saba Shafi

Creating the UK’s first campus for young activists

Saba Shafi, Director of Development, Advocacy Academy

As 2018 draws to a close, it would be easy for the civic-minded to give up hope. With increasing polarisation and anger on both sides of the political divide, what kind of society are we leaving for the next generation? The statistics tell a downright depressing story: 60% of young voters say they don’t understand how decisions are made about local or national issues. 88% feel that their voice doesn’t matter.

As far as the numbers go, these young people might have a point. Politics today is as exclusive as it is depressing. Only 10% of senior civil servants come from less affluent families. More than a third of MPs were privately educated, despite this elite group making up less than 7% of the population. Let’s not forget that entry into the political class remains dependent on a merry-go-round of unpaid internships and personal connections afforded to the privileged few.

If an ordinary young person is angry about the refugee crisis, sexual violence or the cost of housing, how do they even begin to make change?

That’s the question The Advocacy Academy was built to answer. We are a youth movement working with young people with lived experience of injustice and inequality, giving them the knowledge, skills and confidence to create a more fair, just and equal society. We believe that change must be led by those whose future depends on it. Unlike privilege, power cannot be given; individuals and communities must take it for themselves.

We began with 12 teenagers, a shoestring budget and a community hall with a hole in the roof. Since then, our weeklong pilot has grown into a six-month Social Justice Leadership Fellowship, created with the participants it aims to help. This ambitious programme consists of more than 350 hours of demanding workshops, speakers, discussion groups and real-life scenarios. Advocates learn what it takes to win system-level change by lobbying in Parliament, running grassroots campaigns, building broad-based alliances and taking to the streets.

Since 2014, we have taken 67 young people through the Fellowship, and have reached 800 more through workshops delivered in schools and youth centres. To date, each of our Advocates has graduated with more confidence, increased civic participation and are extremely likely to recommend The Advocacy Academy to their friends. They have gone on to work with NEON and Campaign Bootcamp, be featured in the Guardian and on the BBC, and lead national campaigns. Our Advocates are formidable and tackle difficult issues head on. Each of them has gone through a journey which has made us proud. Jake convinced his Principal to re-write his school’s inadequate mental health policy. John-Paul launched UnDivided – the official youth response to Brexit. Jemmar writes for the UK’s leading intersectional feminist journal and, as we pen this, a new generation of Advocates are gearing up to tackle some of the biggest challenges of the 21st Century, fighting to decolonise the school curriculum and raise awareness of the radicalised sexualisation of women of colour.

The Advocacy Academy is now at a turning point in its own journey. Since that first community hall four years ago, we have been looking for a space to call our own. After years of working from our living rooms, trawling the land registry and chasing false starts, we are more than a little excited to announce that the search is finally over. In a few short months, we will open the doors to the first campus for youth activists in the UK. From nightly meals and community meetings to screenings and round-the-clock youth programmes, this centre will connect a new generation of young change-makers from across South London. In the heart of Brixton, this 1,000 sq. ft. property will provide a hub where young people will come together to tackle issues in their community, working with local organisations and experienced activists to build a resilient and tight-knit community that wins real and lasting change time and again.

We want to create a space that would be an organising centre first and a headquarters second, where young people regardless of race, class, immigration status or gender identity, will find safety, support and solidarity in this second home. They will arrive with individual stories of alienation and oppression and find that they are not alone; that in collectivising our experiences and voices, we can build the power to change not just one case, but entire systems.

To turn this space into the community hub we envision it to be still requires a lot of work but every day we are getting closer to our goal.

In our Advocates’ own words, “Justice happens when someone a bit like me and someone a bit like you sit in a room a bit like this and decide that things are going to be different. But we can’t do it alone, so leave your creps at the door, lay down the world’s burdens, this is your blank slate, place to create, safe space, home.”

To find out more about the Advocacy Academy, visit us here.

Saba Shafi has an MBA from Wharton and eight years of management consultancy experience. She kicked-off her career leading healthcare initiatives in refugee camps and diversity and inclusion programmes in graduate schools in the US. Saba is passionate about growing The Advocacy Academy.


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