This public seminar, the latest in the ISR ‘Good Society’ series, took place on 25th September 2019. It brought together a diverse range of people – from youth workers to foster carers to representatives from energy companies – to think about how we might engage and listen to young people more in our working, and indeed personal, lives. Stuart Dunne, Chief Executive Officer of Youth Focus NW, and young activist Jess Leigh, shared their extensive experiences with us and posed some challenging questions.

Stuart, who has been working with children and young people for over twenty years, began by telling us about some of the work that Youth Focus NW is involved in, its emphasis on youth voice and the provision of spaces for young people to get together and discuss issues that are important to them. Stuart challenged the long-running societal assumption that young people are ‘lazy’ and ‘apathetic.’ There are more young people than ever who want to be involved in making decisions about the world that will impact on their lives for many years to come. Given that we have the theoretical knowledge about the importance of involvement, and the policies and procedures in place which should enable this, Stuart asked why it isn’t happening more. Why are we not involving young people as much as we could when there are so many benefits to be had from doing so?

Jess Leigh gave a stirring speech about the impact her involvement in youth voice has had on her life. It has seen her through some dark times and taken her to some places she had never imagined going, including the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Speaker’s House. Jess reminded us about how the global climate strikes of the previous week, in which millions of young people from around the world had participated, had been started by one girl with a vision: ‘We are a generation of changemakers and dreamers,’ Jess claimed. Jess made suggestions about how we as adults might help young people in realising their dreams. We need to engage, inform and support them, reminding them that they need to take care of themselves as they strive to achieve their goals, and encouraging them to learn from their mistakes rather than being stymied by them.

The audience members were encouraged to think about our own childhoods and about times when decisions were made about our lives that we had no say in. So many of us could relate to those feelings of powerlessness that arose from this, and far fewer of us could recall times when we had been involved in decision-making as children. This proved a powerful way of understanding the importance of listening to children and young people, and it sparked some fruitful discussion. We thought about ways of capturing the voices of those young people who were particularly marginalised and disengaged, and also about ways of ensuring that as many people as possible get to hear the voices of young people. At the end of the session, lots of contact details were swapped and people left with ideas about how they might apply some of the learning from the evening.

Dr Victoria Foster
ISR Associate Director (External Networking)
Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Edge Hill University