Taking a pivot-step: activism to policy – and back.

After almost 5 years working with Youth Policy Labs, I will be leaving my role at the end of February to take on a new challenge with NCVO Charities Evaluation Services.

I am incredibly proud of things we have achieved during my time with Youth Policy Labs (YPL). I believe we have made a significant contribution to the youth and international development sector: the Baku Commitment on Youth Policies, our Youth Policy Reviews & Fact Sheets, authoring the global research piece “From Rhetoric to Action”, supporting The Commonwealth’s YDI, as well as directly working on the ground in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, and Mongolia. I believe we have challenged the youth sector – and have not always won friends because of it – but I hope we have made a contribution that has improved the way governments support young people’s development through our research and assistance.

I cannot thank Andreas, Cristina, and all the team I’ve worked with since 2012, enough for the work we’ve done, the laughs we’ve had, and the phenomenal organisation we’ve built. My role in leading our consultancy work, primarily with UNICEF, has been a challenge – as you can read here – but my time with YPL has been the most rewarding part of my professional life so far.

So why am I leaving?

As someone who has studied and researched career development – particularly of those working in the non-profit sector and in the millennial generation – I want to explain some of my thinking about this transition and the reasons why I want to return to work in the UK.

I find it useful for my own self-development to explain these decisions, but I hope it may help others too. Practically, I write a lot of these thoughts down in a journal, but given the many conversations I’ve had with people who struggle with understanding and planning their careers, I want to articulate three of the questions I’ve considered here as well.

Question 1: Where does my work fit in time?

For the first six months of 2016, I volunteered extensively with the StrongerIN campaign to keep Great Britain a member of the European Union. We lost – and I took the losing hard.

The UK now faces one of the most challenging periods of its recent history. The decision to leave the EU is fraught with difficulties, and has demonstrated the division, inequality and disenfranchisement that exists in our country. Whether you voted Remain or Leave, none of us want to see a country so divided and in conflict with itself.

The decision to leave the EU has great personal impact: my partner is Spanish and lives in the UK. Our future is subject to the extensive negotiations between the UK and EU once Article 50 is finally triggered. But ours is just one story within a much larger context. The UK must answer fundamental questions about the state of our country, our place in the world, and whether we remain a tolerant and inclusive society – one that has been achieved through decades of campaigns and struggles.

In the UK, it is also a tremendously difficult time for the voluntary sector. Charities and voluntary organisations are an integral part of how we improve the lives and opportunities of communities in the UK. And they are increasingly essential in providing vital services: the British Red Cross supporting the “humanitarian crisis” in the NHS; foodbanks set up to provide emergency support for those struggling financially; charities leading the fight against diseases; youth charities stamping out bullying in our schools; community centres ending loneliness amongst the elderly; youth work transforming the lives of young people; or start-up social enterprises changing the way we deliver social work or promote higher education.

But they are increasingly constrained, distrusted, and lack the recognition they deserve. Worse still, they face the simultaneous challenge of being on the brunt end of severe funding restrictions while attempting to meet an increased demand – particularly for those running social and healthcare services. In all spheres, the voluntary sector is the frontline in providing services for the public. More than ever, they need championing – and practically supporting – to ensure they survive, are effective, and can build a fairer, more united Great Britain.

None of our political, economic and social challenges – severe government cuts, wage stagnation, rising inequality, child poverty increasing, and support for Brexit and ring-wing populism – exist in isolation. Whether it is Brexit, Trump, the surge in support for right-wing nationalism across Europe, it is clear that mainstream politics has failed to respond to the needs and ambitions of citizens across the Western world.

Question 2: What is the contribution I want to make?

This radically changing political environment has made me consider where my professional time is spent. While it is tempting to be continually outside of the UK, there is a battle of ideas for the future of our country underway. And I want to be a part of that.

For the past 10 years, I have worked with the youth sector in the UK, Europe and internationally. But I have always felt that there is a risk that the youth sector becomes filled with “professional young people” who lack the rigour of a solid professional background. Since my time with the National Youth Agency, I have always adopted an organisational change approach to youth participation and services: we must transform entire organisations for services to radically change for young people. This inspired my decision to undertake an MSc Organizational Behaviour at Birkbeck College. Having originally trained as an actor, this felt an important step in my professional identity.

I took – and grappled – with this approach with UNICEF Kazakhstan in changing the way public services are delivered for young people. I have found it fascinating to work in many different contexts and see how by understanding and supporting staff – as well as fostering a different culture and organisational environment – we are able to deliver better services and improve the lives of those who use them. While I have applied this work in the youth sector, I feel rooted in a larger organisational behaviour community.

As charities and voluntary organisations face severe threats to their work, my work with NCVO will give me the opportunity to work with them as they change their approach, their style, and their way of achieving their goals. By supporting them to understand – and shout loudly – about the impact they are having (and learn from where they are being less effective) – we can strengthen their work, as well as that of the whole voluntary sector. This is an area of the work that excites me – and where I feel I have more opportunity to utilise more the organisational change skills I’ve developed.

The new role will challenge me and allow me to grow, especially by working with different sectors and in a difficult political time. It represents a “pivot” career step: a change that has some continuity – as it is still within the non-profit sector – but that builds upon and extends the skills and opportunities I have right now. It will take me out of my comfort zone, with a wider perspective available, and a more intensive opportunity to work in my home country.

Question 3: Where do I want to invest time?

In 2016, I took 42 separate flights. I was in the air for 153 hours – almost a week of being in the sky. Between September and December last year, I travelled internationally every single week. It has been a wonderful privilege to travel so much – to see so much of the world – over the past 6 years. To some, economy class seats, security lines, and recycled oxygen may be a nightmare; to me it has been a thrill that I have chased.

But I need a break. I have missed too many moments with friends and family; I am too often tired from long-haul travel; and my personal relationships have for too long been characterised by my travel schedule. I need to invest time in my friends and in those I love – something that feels ever more important when so many things in the world seem unstable and changeable.

As well as achieve a kinder balance between my life activities, I want space to invest energy in other projects. For anyone passionate about democratic, progressive, and liberal politics, now is the time to be working and fighting for those values. It is essential that we do not naively hope that things will steadily return to normal. They won’t. While we all might prefer to spend evenings socialising and Saturday mornings under a duvet, we will never see progressive politics return to the forefront by abandoning it. That said, I’m resisting the urge to fill my evenings and weekends with new projects…just yet.

I don’t know how and where I want to do this yet. I want to find a way of being an active campaigner again, but not through the same-old methods. I want to invest time in something – a campaign, a party, or maybe a theatre project – that challenges my own assumptions, that is about listening and reconnecting communities, and engages in a fundamentally different way than we have been recently. Right now, I’m still figuring out what that looks like.

Final thoughts

These three questions were not ones that I sat down with initially and began to answer. They represent a much more logical thread of my thoughts! But they are the questions I have found myself attempting to answer. Career decisions are hard – especially for young people – and I know that I am fortunate enough to have the space and opportunity to engage in such self-reflective exercises. I hope this blog is an explanation rather than an indulgence. If it was more the latter, thank you for reading this far.

In working for such a small, start-up organisation, individuals invariably become synonymous with the organisation. I have always felt tremendous pride by being associated with Youth Policy Labs, and leaving has been a tough, difficult, and emotion decision to take and realise. I will return, I’m sure, to international development; and hopefully with a stronger set of skills and experiences to share.

I will miss our work – and the obscure Kazakh towns that I frequently reside in – but I’m excited by this new role and the opportunity to contribute and campaign again in the UK.

3 thoughts on “Taking a pivot-step: activism to policy – and back.

  1. I am in New York while reading your piece, after yet another security line, economy seat and recycled oxygen experience myself – but also after arriving at an airport crowded with people protesting the crazy #muslimban of the fascist currently occupying the White House. While my eyes took in the scenes at the airport – volunteer lawyers ready to help; thousands of citizens with witty, angry, fierce signs; families waiting for their loved ones in fear and agony – I was wondering myself whether the important battle fields of our time have fundamentally shifted with Brexit and Trump.

    Then, yesterday, I moderated a conversation on inequality with three amazing people. Nikki Fraser, an indigenous rights activist who is as fierce as her tattoos, Hayley Gleeson, who drives youth-led social action and talks faster than anyone I know, and Natalia Kanem, the Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund who is as gentle as she is powerful. We only had half an hour – for which I prepared for hours while the three did not know what was coming and spoke freely – but the short time we had was pure gold. I asked at the end: if over night most of your obstacles ceased to exist and you could do what really matters to you, what would that be? All answers made me think and relate, but Natalia’s gave me goosebumps. She said: “I would be exactly where I am right now because there is nothing more powerful than the idea that a young girl, or a young boy, can freely walk into a doctor’s office and get exactly the medical advice they seek and the aid they need.“ I responded “It’s such a simple idea, yet magical, because it carries all that matters: human dignity.” I rarely have moments like this on stage, and will always remember it.

    All of this is a really long way around to say: It matters to be in the place where you belong, and this changes over time. If you had told me that I would be working in the Gulf region a few years ago I would have declared you insane. And yet, here I am, because it matters and I feel that’s where I can make most of a difference right now. We will miss you, and won’t even try to replace you, but your country is fucked, so all there is to say is: good luck with fixing it.

  2. And now it’s your first day of the new beginning which may feel remarkably familiar very soon because wherever you are you bring who you are.

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