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Supporting the next generation of community leaders

Posted on 13 June 2017

If a person of a certain age is asked to think back to happy moments in their childhood, what they often conjure up is a picture of themselves in a park.  It’s certainly true for me, growing up as I did on the edge of Bold Venture Park, within a bike ride of Sunnyhurst Woods and beyond that the bleak wilderness of the Lancashire moors.  These were places where, as young people, we were able to escape adult control, to test boundaries, to forge friendships and to take risks.

Being free to explore the world around you is fundamental to every young person’s developmental journey but is every young people able to access the same opportunity? And what happens when this need to find our limits and find our feet plays out in the global glare of cyberspace rather than under the watchful eye of our community in public space?

Better, more empowered neighbourhoods
As a community charity Groundwork aims to help everybody within a neighbourhood feel better equipped and more empowered to take action to improve their surroundings and, in the process, their own prospects.  But we’ve always taken a particular interest in helping young people become the active citizens and decision-makers of tomorrow.   This is not just because we believe in investing in those who will need to be stewards of our shared environment in the future but also because young people suffer environmental injustice now.

The facts and trends have been well established over the years.  Young people spend more time in green spaces than other age groups yet have less say over what happens there.  Children growing up in more disadvantaged areas have access to significantly less high quality green space than their more affluent counterparts.  Yet being in contact with nature on a regular basis is shown to help children’s cognitive and emotional development and creates a pattern of behaviours than can lead to healthier lifestyles as an adult.

The next few years are going to intensify these inequalities further.  A squeeze on public spending is forcing councils to prioritise services.  Adult social care and child protection are accounting for bigger and bigger portions of the budget leaving parks and other community facilities – in particular open access youth services – increasingly reliant on volunteers or at risk of closure.

The only way to turn this around is to refocus our attention on the assets at our disposal.  By this I don’t just mean the land and the buildings that communities are being asked to take over in the (often vain) hope that they can replace public funding with commercial revenue, but also the passion, creativity and ingenuity of people who care about ‘their place’.

Unlocking the leadership potential of young people
Many young people have these qualities in abundance but a gradual loosening of the physical ties between people and place means they aren’t often being harnessed.  This is the driver behind Groundwork Youth.

For more than three decades our work has shown that, with the right motivation and support, young people can lead debate and delivery aimed at making their place – and the planet – better now and more sustainable in the long term.  Through our programmes we have introduced hemmed-in city kids to the great outdoors, helped young people find their spirit of adventure and used practical environmental action as a platform for building confidence, skills and careers.

Last year this amounted to young people giving more than 200,000 days of their time to improve their neighbourhoods.  We think we can do more, but we need to work differently to achieve it.  We will continue to employ expert youth workers to engage directly with young people on their terms and on their turf.  However we know, given funding constraints, that our reach is limited.  To combat the consequences of both reducing public spending and increasing climate change impacts in our communities we need to find new ways to mobilise many thousands more young people to become ‘young green leaders’.

Addressing inequality
Groundwork Youth is an opportunity for us to enhance our hands-on support for young people most in need with a campaign to generate a wider appreciation among young people of what they can do in their community to bring about change.  It is also a chance for us to equip a wider network of adults – in particular local community groups - with the skills and support needed to attract young volunteers and unleash their creativity in building networks, raising funds and raising the aspirations of their peers.

We aim to do this by running social media campaigns, publishing resources, providing training and working with a wide range of partners and their networks.  Crucially, Groundwork Youth will be informed by an advisory group of young people and rolled out with the support of a national network of young ambassadors.

We know young people care about their environment and we know green spaces are beneficial to young people’s physical health and emotional wellbeing.  The rise in social action and the power of online networks demonstrate that when young people devote their time and talent to a cause it can have a transformative impact, both on them and on society.  Through Groundwork Youth we aim to put that power to work in a very practical way to change places and change lives.

> To find out more about Groundwork Youth visit the Youth Hub.

Post by Graham Duxbury

Chief Executive - Groundwork UK