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Strengthening Youth Voices: Nottingham's Young People Manifesto Campaign

Strengthening Youth Voices: Nottingham's Young People Manifesto Campaign

By Heidi Shewell-Cooper

This story is an extract from 'Hungry For Change', a new book featuring case studies from schools' organising across Citizens UK. Edited by Dr Sebastien Chapleau. Download the full, free e-book and other publications here.

In mid-2022, as the Nottingham City Council local elections were on the horizon, there was little excitement or expectation for change in the solidly Labour-run Council. Historically low voter turnout, especially among young people, hinted at a lack of engagement.

By all accounts these local elections had the potential to pass by under the radar generally, and certainly for young people – who after all, couldn’t even vote – so why would they care? However, a transformative movement was quietly brewing, and by May 2023, a week before voting, the young people of Nottingham stood eye to eye with local political leaders to make a significant impact on local politics.

The roadmap to that moment started the summer before with a small group of organised leaders dreaming of what the ‘world as it should be’ could look like for young people from across the city to have a voice within the machinery of local politics.

The result was the initiation of the Young People's Manifesto 23 (#YPManifesto23) campaign, an ambitious effort to give a voice to young people across Nottingham.

The campaign extended its invitation to alliance members, non-members, schools, and youth groups, fostering a collaborative approach to envisioning a city where young voices mattered in the political machinery. It was important to create an active participatory democracy that each group of young people could experience, as well as be taught. So, how did the Young People’s Manifesto achieve this?

We organised

We were determined that any Accountability Assembly would be young people-led. The planning team worked backwards to create an achievable timeline; dates were set, and information was communicated. Young people were invited to sign up for a launch after-school face-to-face event. 120 gathered and young leaders set out the plans.

We listened

The heart of the campaign lay in listening. Organisers taught the method and specifically how young people could go back into their schools, colleges and other networks to listen to their peers. Young people collectively committed to listening to an impressive 3,000+ of their peers! Primary children set up their own listening stations at lunch and break times, carefully planning their rota. Previous work signposted that mental health would be one big problem to address, so young people were charged with bringing back specific issues around mental health as well as their two other top areas.

We planned

Our second face-to-face gathering a couple of months after the launch was an important democratic moment where we shared the top problems. Young leaders from participating schools were able to co-lead this and the majority of the time was given to testimonies and ‘open mic’.

Their ‘problems’ were:

  • Mental health: young people did not have enough people to talk to/places to go about their concerns
  • Cost of Living: many stories of how financial pressures impacted young people and their families.
  • Safety: young people didn’t feel safe in their neighbourhoods and city centre.

So, how would the young people go from feeling overwhelmed and disempowered by the huge problem of the Cost of Living? Only by breaking the problem into smaller, more specific ‘bite-size’ chunks would they start to see a way forward, to determine some clear asks of decision-makers. The young people, school staff, organisers and campaigners all worked towards a public accountability Assembly, a week ahead of local elections.

We negotiated

But before that public moment could happen, the young people’s campaign teams needed to present and negotiate their asks with key leaders from the Labour, Conservative and Independent parties in Nottingham. An invitational video from the young people secured a meeting.

We acted

The Young People’s Accountability Assembly, in April 2023, was ambitiously young person-led. The sheer number of young people leading and managing the process had not been seen before, and the adults from 33+ member organisations were there in solidarity.

‘As a parent of a young citizen of Nottingham, I am fully supportive of the concerns raised by them and will use my vote on their behalf, according to the party and representative who is most aligned with these issues, and most committed to addressing them….. We need councillors who are willing to listen and really hear what our young people are saying about what affects them – that is what will make a difference to parents like myself when using their vote’ The Labour and Conservative leaders had the opportunity to share their vision for Nottingham and the young people voted for the most compelling on the night. It was dramatic, insightful and challenging. Parent, on the weight of those able to cast votes the following week

We followed up

Six weeks after the public event, post-election and the reinstatement of the Leader of the Council, a delegation of young people did the most important organising work of follow-up. They had secured positive responses to each of these asks on the specific issues they had identified from the big problems and wanted to know what progress there had been.

The follow-up is on-going, the young people have negotiated a meeting twice a year and have also committed to work on these issues themselves, for example sharing ideas and resources to address the cost of living and being willing to work on the Council’s UNICEF Child Friendly City Award. The impact continues to ripple too, young people who have followed through the process have a greater understanding of what could be possible, they are better equipped to know how they can work for change with others, they have a toolkit of skills, experiences and methods to deploy, leading to increased agency and confidence. Staff too have benefitted from following a cycle of organising through the rhythms of a school year and are better able to dovetail community organising and the Alliance within the school ecosystem. 

As Joanny says here, she can do so much more than ‘just speak’ and the Young People’s Manifesto has been part of that realisation.

When I was introduced to Citizens, I was terrified because I would be in a room with grown adults and share ideas in front of an audience. But when I spoke for the first time at an event that's when I realized that I could do so much more than just "speak". I started to come up with my own ideas and implement it in school, I started joining Zoom meetings, joining campaigns, and attending delegate assemblies. I spoke out loud, not even nervous this time, in front of so many people. Now, I am considered a leader, someone who is actively involved. I now support other young people speaking and finding their voices too, which is incredible to see. I am now a leader who is ready to create some change and I can't wait to help young people become leaders too. Joanny, Year 10

Watch Nottingham Citizens Young People's Manifesto
A young girl is speaking on stage, smiling and is surrounded by a group of pupils.

Many schools (primary, secondary, and sixth form colleges) choose to become members of Citizens UK to build a better, fairer society.

We work together to make change on the issues that matter, from campaigning for zebra crossings on dangerous roads, to reforming the immigration system, to the Living Wage campaign.

Using Community Organising, students, teachers and parents can work together to drive community-led solutions to big and small problems, that work for everyone.

Find out more about how your school can become a Citizens UK member.

Posted by Shazia Begum on 22 Jan, 2024