I am not sure if there are very many authorities that have involved young people quite as much as we have,” says Andy Neal, interim manager for Sunderland Council’s youth development group. Looking at the range of projects set up in the city over the last year, not to mention the awards the authority has picked up, it’s hard to disagree.
Neal, who has been involved in youth services for 23 years, has a great belief in young people. In response to the 2005 Youth Matters green paper, he helped develop a youth board made up entirely of 16- to 19-year-olds to administer the government money that backs up the strategy – the Youth Opportunities Fund and Youth Capital Fund.
The board’s success is flagged up in the Children’s Plan, which was published in December and sets out the Department for Children, Families and Schools‘ plans for the next 10 years. “Young people really are at the heart of it and they make all the decisions,” says Neal. “We’ve actually employed young people as a core team, and they work with a group of volunteers.”
The core team comprises four youth advocates, who are given accredited training in youth work and grant-making from bodies such as the charity YouthBank UK.
Members of the youth board are hands-on at all levels, from meeting the groups and guiding them through the application process to inspection and review. It has unlocked a wealth of potential, talent and enthusiasm, and this reflects the scope of the 36 projects that have been funded so far. About 220 young people have been directly involved, and more than 2,600 have accessed the projects. “This approach gives them real ownership,” says Neal. “It stimulates ideas that on paper you wouldn’t necessarily think much of, but turn out brilliantly.
“We’ve had projects such as Diamond Kitchens, a group of young disabled people who wanted to develop a restaurant. We’ve also had a portable football cage – complete with floodlights – that can be set up in car parks, an absolute magnet for young people who see this at their local Sainsbury’s. Overall it’s resulted in a good, geographically balanced cross-section of projects.”
Neal’s advice for councils wanting better involvement with young people is simple: “You’ve got to have participation at the top of your agenda. You’ve got to be fully committed to supporting that process, that’s the main thing – and have a resource behind it.”
The youth board has had many positive knock-on effects. For instance, bids for funding are now much more likely to be led by the young people themselves. “They’re working as a team, learning a range of skills. And it leads them on to other things, like the Sunderland Youth Parliament,” says Neal. “Many young people in the city have also been directed away from antisocial behaviour and crime, I’ve no doubt about that.”
Young Asian Voices is one of the projects that has benefited. Although the group has been around for 10 years, it has only recently been offered the keys to its own premises after a successful application for £25,000 capital funding. This has been entirely the result of young people working together, with only minimal guidance from adults.
Project co-ordinator Ram Kumarewarabas appreciates every penny: “With that money, we were able to pay for renovation and fixtures and fittings for the ground floor of the building. The young people have worked really hard over the years to fundraise for a centre. They’ve been trying since the project started, so this is really good news.”
After a peripatetic existence, meeting in the offices of other organisations, the group now feels it has more legitimacy. “Ninety-nine per cent of the young people are born in Sunderland but they don’t actually feel proud of Sunderland,” says Kumarewarabas. “They’re treated like guests in other centres. By having this space, it gives an identity in the city for the project and ownership for the young people.”
YAV is relatively small, with about 300 members. But it is one of the main groups in the city serving ethnic minority communities, and Kumarewarabas thinks it can now go from strength to strength. “This shows to the young people that, if they volunteer, there’s a final reward at the end of it. It’s a big response in relatively little time.”
For further information, contact Young Asian Voices on 0191 553 7717
This article appeared in the 7 February issue under the headline “Taking ownership”