“Getting involved in social action gave me the opportunity to challenge myself and encourage younger people to challenge themselves too” Bethan, 13, #iwill ambassador.
My first week on the road was with charity, Step up to Serve, co-ordinators of the #iwill campaign. The #iwill campaign is all about encouraging young people to participate in meaningful social action to create positive change.
I join Step up to Serve during their annual #iwillweek, a national week designed to celebrate the great and awesome things young people are doing across the country in their communities. My week started off in Westminster for a meeting of the #iwill ambassadors. A group of 10-20 year olds chosen from around the country. Each ambassador is on an incredible social action journey with some like Bethan Havard and Millie Walker volunteering at their local guiding group and others like Conner Dwyer and Joe Porter having started their own charities or campaigns (Strong Young Minds and Undivided).
What each of the ambassadors have in common is that they are incredibly passionate about the work they have done and want to share with other young people what they have experienced. Almost all young people start volunteering initially because they are encouraged to do so by another*. Whilst that sounds obvious, it highlights the importance of engaging with influencers to promote social action and who better to do so than guys their own age who can tell it like it is. It is very apparent that this is a youth-led campaign with the majority of #iwill trustees being young people.
I ran a workshop on blogging for the #iwill ambassadors and the potential to raise the profile of a campaign and issue on a global platform. The #iwill ambassadors are a seriously inspiring and formidable bunch and frankly I could write a blog dedicated to just talking about each of them and I urge you if you have five minutes to read their bios here (in particular those of Connor, Luke, Joe and Roxanne who I was lucky enough to spend some time getting to know).
I will mention one ambassador however, Anita Dennison, a courageous young girl from Northern Ireland. Anita, like many other young people, experienced bullying at school however she refused to be defeated and as such set up her own anti-bullying campaign www.dontbullycampaign.com. Since then Anita has gone on to be a TEDx speaker and is regularly invited to talk on TV and radio about the issue. Anita is seriously articulate (in fact she speaks faster and more eloquently than my brain can even think!) it is hard to listen to her now and see how she could ever have been bullied. Anita’s engagement in this cause has clearly shaped her and meeting her really makes the case for the character benefits of social action.
The ambassadors and I visited the house of commons for a reception with the MP of Civil Society, Rob Wilson. The last time I had visited parliament, I was around 9 years old on a school trip. As I wandered down the stone corridors chatting to the ambassadors I was reminded of myself at a similar age. By nine, the most I had achieved in the way of social action was to make a sixer in the brownies guides, (the gnomes of 1997 11th Gloucester Hucclecote Scout Group) and to be honest it was on age rather than merit! These guys on the other hand are absolute champions of social action, raising the game for society and their peers.
My next visit was to a business breakfast led by CIPD. Part of #iwill’s strategy is to raise the status and weight afforded to social action in the recruitment of young people alongside traditional academics and work experience. The aim of the drive is to improve social mobility for young people who aren’t necessarily born into a social network of work experience opportunities in their aspired fields. Research suggests that whilst employers may value it, less than one fifth ask about social action at application and only a third at interview. There is an education piece here for wider society of the benefits to young people of participation in their communities. If this is advocated by key influencers it is hoped we can better demonstrate to young people that volunteering and campaigning are a valid route of developing skills crucial to the workplace.
From Westminster I headed off to Surrey and to Carshalton Boys Sports College for their First Give programme final, led by Amy and Neil. One of the other limbs of the #iwill campaign is to support and encourage education establishments so that social action becomes part of daily life for young people. The Carshalton boys have spent the last few weeks in their citizenship lessons researching a charity of their choice, making a video and preparing a pitch to their year group as to why they should win the £1,000 donation prize.
Ben**, one of the boys, has a mother with motor neurone disease. It is clear that Ben’s three team mates have really engaged in their research as they talk to their peers about the condition and the four have made a powerful short film about Ben’s mum. I was a little worried as we watched it together and I looked around the room, hoping that none of the boys would titter or mock Ben. I need not have worried. The group were entranced, watching thoughtfully in total silence broken only by occasional gasps. After the film had finished, it was heartening to see a number of the year group lean over and pat Ben on the shoulder or offer him words of support. It was profoundly moving to see how this condition delivered honestly and simply in a relatable context had clearly touched that year group.
My final visit was to Barnet Hospital with the Royal Free Charity who have launched a youth volunteering programme across their three hospitals as part of the #iwill campaign. The Royal Free Charity is an example of a charity that is very rooted in the hospital it serves, as you walk in the doors its distinctive purple is present in every corridor, with posters encouraging new volunteers and a jumble sale in the entrance manned by two (extremely chipper) retirees.
Royal Free Charity, in partnership with #iwill, have worked tirelessly to make volunteering in hospitals accessible to young people. The programme is co-ordinated by Desiree with support from Brad and Jenny and has over 60 young volunteers with more on boarding each week. I was reunited with Melina, #iwill ambassador who has been volunteering at the hospital as a dementia companion and is now embarking on training more young people to become ‘dementia friends’. Melina gave me some tips on the most helpful way to converse and engage with some of the more severe dementia sufferers.
As I watched the young people wandering around offering cups of tea, dancing and chatting to patients, Desiree, youth co-ordinator, passed on to me an observation that was once made to her. Young people and dementia sufferers are often nervous or hesitant about talking to new people, yet when the two meet and there is a recognition of those things in the other, barriers can dissolve and interactions can happen in the most gentle, yet genuinely beautiful ways.
The #iwill campaign is led by youth and implemented by organisations across society and as such I’ve been lucky enough to have witnessed young people creating positive change across all of the employment, voluntary sector, education and health sectors this week. I could not have asked for a more diverse first week on the job and I want to thank Dom, Sam, Karine, Charlotte, Emily, Lucy, Kerri, Sophie and the team in particular for allowing me to join you in your quest to promote youth social action.
P.S. Next week I am off to Rays of Sunshine, a wish-granting charity for children with serious and life limiting conditions.
** Real names have been replaced.