Young people as equal partners for change

Published: 27 September 2021 
Author: Moira Sinclair OBE, Vivienne Jackson 
A group of young people sit outside on green grass smiling while a young woman in head scarf takes a group selfie of them.
Photo credit: Beatfreeks

What we’ve learned so far about investing in youth-led change, and what funders all need to do better.

Three years ago, PHF joined forces with Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the #iwill Fund to establish Act for Change Fund: a £3.6 million partnership for young people in the UK to challenge social injustice, find ways of overcoming inequalities and lead change on the issues they are experiencing. At this year’s Association of Charitable Foundations’ conference focussing on community, identity and belonging, we’ll be sharing our experience, From Voice to Power: Funding Communities of Youth Led Change and Social Action’. The session will set out what we’ve learned so far about investing in youth-led change, and will feature young people leading campaigns and those supporting them, to share messages with funders about what we all need to do better.

A missing piece of the youth sector puzzle?

When the fund kicked off in 2018, there were very few grant-givers in the UK investing in young people’s campaigning and changemaking – especially in young people experiencing structural injustice and inequality. Those young people are furthest away and excluded from traditional British political institutions and power structures and are sometimes lazily portrayed as politically apathetic.

The reality is very different. We heard from young people and youth workers that marginalised young people know exactly what they understand is unjust and want to change. The problem is that there are so few places for under-resourced young people to incubate and develop their talents, dreams, energy and insights for leading change. To activate their power, find like-minded peers, and work with others – including adults – in ways that could lead to social change. Chrisann Jarrett, CEO of youth-led campaigners We Belong and independent consultant, makes this point clear:

There is a pipeline of empowered young people but no clear pathway for young people to engage in activism within these organisations and in their communities. Investment into youth voice, development and leadership comes to a halt and is not harnessed or deployed in a strategic manner. Opportunities are therefore missed and where opportunities for young-people do emerge, there is a risk that organisations are ill-equipped to respond.”

This vacuum should concern us all. Sutton Trust’s Elitist Britain research paints a picture of a country whose power structures remain dominated by a narrow section of the population. The question then must be whether our system is currently fit to produce the answers and action we need to solve our colossal environmental catastrophe and the equally pressing crises of social justice. Young activists are consistently overlooked. As young people from community organisers Together Creating Communities/​Trefnu Cymunedol Cymru say:

Imagine being told you are uneducated and too young to understand politics. But politics isn’t just men in suits, it affects us all. Young people know and see things that adults don’t. We want you to know we have power, and we can make change with support.”

Pathways to youth power

The good news is that there are all kinds of innovative and imaginative pathways for youth-led change. Beyond the cliched image of young campaigners holding a megaphone at a demo, we have seen a rich patchwork of approaches: community organising across identities and localities; co-production with policy makers and practitioners in the secure estate, social work and mental health; rights-based approaches working with regional politicians; healing and arts-based approaches that profoundly reimagine our social and political system; movement building; civic leadership training to bring marginalised young people into systems of power; youth voice as tool of social or political critique. The breadth is inspiring, as is the nuanced way in which organisations may use one or several of these approaches to activate, sustain, train and hold young people making change.

Our learning is that investment in this area is likely to involve longer term commitments and it may involve looking at reach differently. For much changemaking work, young people need time and trust: to learn about the past and present; to garner skills and influential networks; to think deeply about the change they want to make; to strategise and forge relationships with allies and peers. A small group of young people may be intensively active, complemented by peers who are more loosely influenced to take action, with many more young people reached by campaigns and social media. One brilliant example of this is Coventry Youth Activists (CYA), young people campaigning about online disability hate speech, but whose reach and impact runs into several thousand.

The sustainability of youth changemaking movements will also involve compensating young people. Not all young people want to be paid for making change, but young people who experience poverty – and especially where this intersects with race, gender and/​or disability and other social structures – are the least able to give up time for free. Young activists who become increasingly expert in youth movements should be rewarded for their skills and time and young people’s contributions drawing from their lived expertise should be recognised financially.

Community, identity and belonging

Funding youth-led change underwrites possibilities for young people to explore and put into practice new and positive understandings of identity and community. All the young people we’ve met through Act for Change Fund have had their identities maligned and stereotyped, for example, through racial injustice, homophobia and transphobia, misogyny, disability hatred, migration prejudice or mental health stigma and fear. Challenging hate and taking action for your rights is not an easy path, but can lead to the emergence of strong communities and self-identities, as young people who have felt marginalised reclaim what belonging means to them. As one young activist from Kent Refugee Action Network said:

Making change can be heavy, but it can make you strong.”

New communities form

As part of the Fund design, bringing together young people and staff from funded organisations has resulted in new and fertile relationships and the identification of shared change goals, such as the development of the Listen Up Manifesto to government and policy makers, insisting that young people take their place in making plans for the post-Covid recovery. Young people may be active around a particular issue, but they learn from and appreciate other young people working in different social justice realms. Communities of allyship expand and shift as this happens.

We’ve seen in practice through our funding that young people and adults are equals in and for change, and that if voice’ means that young people get a mere say in campaigning, that’s not enough. Adults need to look at where they can act as allies to young people and explore the different forms that this takes. Inevitably that will mean a ceding of power. What networks of influence can adults offer young people? Can adults accept it when young people see things differently and go with the energy? Can adults fund a project where young people hold power to spend money on the campaigns that they think are important?

Register here for our session at the ACF Conference on 6 October to hear much more about how funders can support young people as equal partners for change.

  • Act for Change Fund is a joint initiative between Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, working in partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund. Both foundations are acting as match funders and are awarding grants on behalf of the #iwill Fund.
  • The #iwill Fund is made possible thanks to £50 million joint investment from The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to support young people to access high quality social action opportunities. Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation are acting as a match funder and awarding grants on behalf of the #iwill Fund.
Moira Sinclair
Chief Executive
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Programme Manager, Act for Change Fund