Lessons in activism from Generation Z

by Olly Buston

I was on a big Zoom gathering recently with lots of amazing activists, campaigners, and advocates who were all working in different ways to try to make the world a better place.  Part strategy session, part group therapy.  Everyone was a bit down in the dumps about the state of the world, not surprisingly.  On top of COVID people were also struggling to keep positive in the face of the daily stories of institutional racism and violence against women.

But when the question “what do you feel positive about?” was asked the answers came quickly  and were surprisingly unanimous — young people.  It may be an unfair burden to place on them, but it seems us oldies are all pinning our hopes on Generation Z to sort out this mess. 

Our team at Future Advocacy have been incredibly fortunate to support some incredible young people in our work helping the youth-led organization Bite Back 2030 to get up and running. Bite Back campaigns to fix the food system and improve child health.  It has gone from a standing start to having real impact in the space of 18 months.  And that’s largely thanks to the amazing gang of people who make up its youth board and who are right at the heart of everything Bite Back 2030 does.

I’ve learned so many lessons from these fantastic young people.  

The powerful insights of youth

The first lesson is that young people have a huge amount to offer in terms of adding to our understanding of social issues, public policy, and what might actually work.  I never really questioned it before.  But when you think about it, it’s absolutely bananas that the Government can spend 5 years developing a Child Obesity Strategy without ever talking to any young people and by running consultations that most young people wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.

Fortunately this is starting to change.  Health Minister Jo Churchill recently met with the Bite Back 2030 youth board to discuss the proposed Government policy on restricting junk food advertising.  The Minister genuinely wanted to hear about their lived reality of being bombarded with junk food ads.  As Dev put it (flooring the room in the process) “I hear from Deliveroo more than I hear from my Gran”.  (Dev gives a nice video summary of the meeting here).  

Food policy experts often talk about the impact of chicken shops on young people’s health.  They understandably want to try to make them healthier.  But if you talk to young people you learn that the reason they hang out so much in chicken shops is as much because they are safe warm places to meet your mates as it is about chicken.  The policy solution might be more about creating alternative cool, safe, warm places with wifi to meet in than it is about making the chicken slightly less unhealthy. Similarly, If you want to know what’s wrong with school dinners, ask the people who eat them.  

Speaking truth to power

The second lesson is that unlike adults and professional campaigners, young people tend to tell it how it is.  Unburdened by concerns about career progress or managing ongoing relationships or by reputations or by protocol young people can talk to politicians and business leaders in a direct voice that leaves little room for wriggling off the hook.  Just watch 17 year old Anisah nail the Nestle rep in this awkward moment for the food giant.

The media also love young people.  A youth voice can really cut through the constant droning of the  pale, male, and stale.  As authentic, passionate, and articulate spokespeople the Bite Back gang have been in hot demand.  Featuring everywhere from Good Morning Britain, to Radio 4, and even Harry and Meghan’s first podcast.

A moment of reckoning

It’s been an incredibly tough year for young people.  Despite the fact that COVID poses minimal risk to them personally they’ve been forced to miss school, have exam results imposed on them, held captive in campuses, missed sport and parties and hanging out.  Missed Christmas with their families and missed hugging their grandparents.  And all the while being given the impression that somehow they are to blame.

I reckon there is going to be a reckoning. Young people are rising up and demanding a better world after lockdown. Not buying the adult arguments that change is too hard to deliver.

So I was really happy to record this MiniMasterclass with Christina Adane, one of the Bite Back youth board. In this short film Christina gives her top tips on how to become a powerful youth activist.  She should know because she launched the petition that half a million people signed calling on Boris Johnson to provide free school meals during the holidays.  That was the petition that inspired Marcus Rashford of course.  Christina was also recently named one of the top 100 influential women by the BBC.  Not bad for 17.

I hope you enjoy her MiniMasterclass.  And watch out.  Christina and her friends are only just getting started.