Give young people power and they'll use it well
Friday, January 11, 2019
I'm always amazed at how the stories written by Enid Blyton retain their appeal down the generations. The ways of life and modes of behaviour they reflect are entirely alien to the majority of children growing up today and yet something about the characters and their relationships seems to endure. I've never thought this more than when reading the ‘Naughtiest Girl' series of books with my seven year-old. If you don't know it, it's all that you would expect from the genre - capers and calamity at a boarding school in the heart of the English countryside. What makes Whyteleafe School different - and this is no doubt where the appeal lies - is that the children make the rules. This being Enid Blyton, that doesn't lead to a descent into Lord of the Flies savagery but to a well-ordered school community with complaints heard and consequences agreed at a weekly meeting presided over by firm but fair monitors and an egalitarian sharing of resources.
Although it's easy to scoff at the jolly hockey-sticks naivety - and a modern reader certainly has to gloss over some of the attitudes on show - the overall impression left on a young reader is still a good one: give young people power and they'll use it well.
We're currently trying to put this principle more effectively into practice in our own organisation. Although Groundwork is committed to youth participation, this isn't reflected in our governance structures. In our national and local operations we benefit from the support of many volunteer trustees but, in common with many charities, those we recruit tend to be of a similar age and demographic. Partly this is a consequence of the types of people in society who feel being a charity trustee is ‘for them', partly it's a matter of availability (with many more retired people able to give their time than those in full-time work). However, it's also undoubtedly due to a failure of imagination and leadership on our part in terms of demonstrating the relevance of the role to a wider audience and recruiting on the basis of difference rather than familiarity.
Campaigns being run by Step Up To Serve and the Social Change Agency, backed by the Charity Commission, are aimed at encouraging more organisations to think about how to engage young people as trustees. We've decided we should walk the talk and recently invited a young person to talk to our board about the practicalities and pitfalls. What was noticeable about the encounter was that it was as much about allaying the fears our trustees had of ‘getting it wrong' or being tokenistic as it was about ensuring young people felt equipped to take on the responsibility. Would our meetings be too dull? Is our language too impenetrable? What kind of support should we put in place? The answers were reassuring and the practical advice invaluable.
Young people want to be trustees for the same reason as everyone else: because they care about a cause and want to help; but also because they want to get something out of the experience for themselves. Yes, young people coming into a boardroom may initially feel daunted and have a lot to learn, but isn't that part of growing up and all helpful in terms of preparing for the world of work? Boards shouldn't be expected to ‘dumb down' their business or put special provisions in place but recruiting more than one young person at a time will provide some valuable peer support - and reflect the fact that not all young people see things the same way.
As an organisation focused on improving the quality of life in communities now and promoting more responsible stewardship of our environment for future generations, engaging young people as agents of change is critical to our mission. Our ability to do that will only be strengthened by having young people contributing to our board discussions. We can't promise exciting adventures and lashings of ginger beer but I hope we can offer an experience that's rewarding for young people and revitalising for our organisation.
Graham Duxbury is chief executive of Groundwork