I’ve been in the youth sector for a long time – nearly all my life. As an activist on climate change and children’s rights in the UK, as a professional strengthening youth participation and policy around the world, and through my identity and experience as a young person coming of age in a radical time of change.
But suddenly I’ve got older. Not old, but older.
I’m no longer the youngest person in the room.
No longer struggling to get by.
And I have new positions of power.
As a well-paid, 29 year-old, working for a large charity, I’m no longer affected by the youth issues that I frequently speak about. When I talk about the challenges of housing, of unemployment, mental health or a lack of power in decision making, I’m no longer speaking my reality. I’m no longer in a precarious situation.
These are real issues for young people, but I’m not the legitimate voice for young people anymore. There are better, more eloquent young people who are living this experience that need to be the ones talking.
In some ways this is ok: I’m not pretending that all these issues affect me. You don’t have to be experiencing something to drive change on an issue. But I don’t feel that I’m an authentic voice.
This was inevitable. But as I’m confronted with my own new reality, I’ve begun to consider the ways I act, behave and use my new found positions of power and privilege to champion the cause of young people rather being the voice of youth.
Here’s what I’m doing and think about:
- Stop taking the spaces of youth – As someone known within the youth sector, I’m often asked to be involved with organisations, facilitate meetings, or write on youth issues. Now I need to start saying no. I need to stop taking up spaces where young people could – and should – be. I will be standing down as a CIVICUS Youth Action Team member precisely because of this. Particularly in the international spaces, the definition of youth is often up to 30 or 35 years old. While this is normal in some regions (such as Africa), we have to stop using this is an excuse for extending our own mandates and involvements in projects. Even if we are technically still part of the definition of youth, we must be self-aware to realise when we’re actively blocking younger people from being involved. We have to voluntarily recognise this, step back and allow others – especially younger young people – to take our place.
- Use your positions of powers – No longer being the youngest person in the room has been a strange adjustment – one that I’m still getting used to. But as a manager in a large charity, as a trustee at Girlguiding UK, and (almost formerly) as an adviser to the CIVICUS board, I have a good deal of access – if not outright power – to create spaces for young people and direct action on youth issues. Whether that is ensuring youth are decision-makers in senior appointments, lobbying for dedicated funding, or figuring out how to share the resources of my workplace with start-up youth movements and organisations, I have a position that allows me to champion youth in new ways. The challenge is not to forget youth when you suddenly arrive to a powerful position.
- Give money – I have a good salary and I get this salary every month (this is a new reality and continues to surprise me!). I now have the spendable income to support young people and the causes I care about to a much greater extent. 80,000 hours – a brilliant organisation fostering individual philanthropic approach to work and giving – make a great point: you might be able to make more of a difference through donating a good chunk of your salary than doing the charitable work. I get to work for a charity, but I can also use my salary in a meaningful way. I’m committing to giving more of this salary away. My target today is to get to 5% of my monthly income – not a huge percentage, but a start.
This doesn’t mean that I’m leaving the youth sector – far from it. The issues of children and young people remain my passion: I’m most angry thinking about children denied rights, youth activists imprisoned, or the wicked issues affecting younger people. Overcoming these still requires activists and professionals to stick around.
But my reality is no longer as a fringe theatre actor, full time volunteer, or living pay-cheque to pay-cheque. With this comes new options to better support activism and the causes I care about – LGBT rights through All Out, campaigners through Campaign Bootcamp, and Syrians through the White Helmets – and by utilising the power I hold in organisations.
The photo is Ellie Hopkins and I at Parliament in the Park in 2010, a campaign event during our time as Co-Directors of the UK Youth Climate Coalition.
One thought on “An ode to ageing: losing my youth but gaining new power.”
Hi Alex, this is an inspiring article. I have been reflecting on this lots recently as i am studying youth participation in Hong Kong, and suddenly feel very old. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas for how to ensure we are not mis-shaping realities of the younger generations!