Young people, activism & the web: Speaking Out in a Connected World

[Summary: Sharing slides and notes from a children’s sector conference presentation]

I was speaking earlier today at the Children England & NCVYS ‘Speaking Out’ conference on the topic of ‘young people, activism and the web’. The conference was predominantly attended by staff from third-sector organisations providing frontline services for children, young people and families, so I tried (not entirely successfully in a short slot…) to cover a mix of examples of youth-led use of the web in campaigning at the national level, and some practical steps that organisations, who may not be campaigning organisations, can take to make the most of the web to engage with young people and get their voices heard.

A slightly adapted version of the slides can be seen via slideshare below, and I’ve tried to write up some notes with links to relevant resources as well.

Notes and Links

I started planning the presentation by posing the question “How can young people use the web in activism?”, which pretty quickly, as I turned to watch a Twitter stream full of tweeting from the University College London students occupying their University, making extensive use of different digital media challenges to get their message out, and with members of UK Youth Climate Coalition celebrating their success keeping Chris Hune at the climate negotiations in Cancun by mobilising hundreds of people by e-mail, Facebook and Twitter to flood the Number 10 switchboard with calls, that the question was really “How can they not?”. The web is right at the heart of much modern youth action – and yet so many organisations still struggle to engage with online spaces.

As I put together the next slides, however, I was quickly reminded that the web alone doth not change create. Earlier this year I came across a Facebook group set up by young people campaigning against the use of Mosquito sonic weapons against young people in Barnsley, and I fired up Facebook to grab a screenshot of this today’s presentation – hoping I would see stacks of campaign updates. Yet the Facebook group, which when launched had quickly accelerated to over 700 members, was standing stagnant, the top updates as spam, and apparently no real action having been taken further engage and mobilise the young members of the group. So whilst young people may turn to social media tools when they’ve causes to campaign on, and they may have the know-how to set up Facebook groups and YouTube channels, the skills, support and connections needed to campaign effectively remain as vital as ever. As the Young Foundation put it, many young people are plugged in, but with their digital skills untapped.

Resources like Act by Right (and the great Act by Right on Climate Change remix by Alex Farrow), the Battlefront campaign toolkit, and a wealth of web pages about campaigning with the web, can provide some of those skills through the web itself – but there is also a need for youth organisations to work directly with young people to support the development of critical campaigning skills. Just before I spoke today, John Not, General Secretary of the Woodcraft folk, gave a last-minute presentation and shared the inspiring work they are doing to offer support to young people who are passionately campaigning right now on the issue of University Fees, demonstrating some great leadership on how organisations can provide responsible backing to youth-led action.

Helping young people to make connections with decision makers, through sites like TheyWorkForYou.com and WriteToThem.com, with the press, through the leverage that organisations might have, and with other campaigners, through spaces like TakingItGlobal and Battlefront is also a key role that adults can play in supporting young people to use the web for positive activism. There is also a need for organisations to think about how they support young people to make safe and effective use of the web in campaigning.

Many organisations, however, might not see their role as supporting general youth-led activism, but there are still many ways digital tools can support the delivery of participative practice. Online spaces can help organisations to engage young people, to communicate and co-ordinate, and to amplify their practice; and to ensure that young people’s views and insights on key aspects of a service, or key local issues, are heard and valued in decision making.

In thinking about how to engage with young people online it’s important to understand the different ways young people use the web and to think about whether a project is trying to engage young people who are already into an issue, or whether it’s trying to attract attention of those who are predominantly ‘hanging out’ online – spending time with friends and paying little attention to organisations and issues in the digital space. Good engagement also starts by listening (I mentioned Google Alerts as one handy digital listening tool, but there are many more), and starts from where young people are, whilst seeking to support young people to move beyond their starting point (a theme I initially developed in talking about youth work values and social media in the Youth Work & Social Networking report (PDF)).

Using online spaces to communicate involves finding the right tools for each job, and, finding out the right ways to use them. For example, Facebook profiles, groups and pages look very similar – but offer nuanced different ways of communicating with young people and creating online community. Quite a few of the practicalities of using different social media tools for youth engagement, including issues around organisational policy and safety concerns are covered in the ‘Social Media Youth Participation in Local Democracy’ report and in posts on Youth Work Online.

I ended today’s presentation by taking a look at three big policy agendas which have a digital edge to them, and trying to relate each to a critical question for organisations working with young people – but the full articulation of each of those I think will have to wait for a future blog post…

Further links
For those who were at the conference, and have made it reading this far without being overwhelmed by lots of links (and for anyone interested), a few more bits that might be of interest:

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