What Would A Youth-Led City Feel Like? - Brum Youth Trends Keynote Speech


What does it mean to be the youngest city in Europe? What does it means to be young, digital and diverse? What would a youth-led city feel like?  Is that what Birmingham feels like now?

Or to put it another way - so what? What now? We’ve established the fact but has the purpose been defined? We’re quick to talk about it as an asset of Brand Birmingham but what about the accountability that comes with such an honour? Why is our city’s leadership - in the broadest sense - lacking youth representation?

We could and should be leading the way globally as a youth-governed city.

There’s a lot of buzz around diversity - and efforts like the mayor’s leadership commission is pushing forward the conversation - but a lack of data around the average age of young people entering into positions of real influence and when you look at the intersection of age with class, ethnicity, sexuality etc - is this city really for all young people?

How can we look at why young people aren’t attending traditional arts and cultural provision, if we don’t factor in what time the buses finish? How can we understand how young people see careers without understanding what they want from life, and relationships? How will we retain our top talent, if we don’t know what young people value from a city? We need to ask better questions, and join up our thinking. This is our attempt to do that. Young people, policymakers, SMES and national companies - you are all in this room. We’ve all taken the step to be here and that should be praised. But there’s work to do.

We, and many others, want to know WHO RUNS BRUM? We don’t want an answer - we don’t expect one name - we recognise that all of us should play a part - but we want to make sure this a city that doesn’t just ask it’s young people to speak. It affords them the respect to sit down and listen.

That’s what today is about. We know that young people appear to move at whiplash speed: changes and challenges to language, strong yet fluid values, and a lack of fear around talking truth to power. It’s often hard to get a sense of where they are at - most of my team is under 30 but we still make sure not make assumptions about what all young people think and feel.

Last year we were shocked to find no non-sector or non-issue specific research into youth in Birmingham. It simply didn’t exist. So we made it. And we opened it up as our gift back to the city - a tool of collective intelligence pooling as much rich insight together on frankly a lot of goodwill, passion and belief but also on 5 years of our experience as a collective of companies working around youth engagement and creativity - we help young people tell stories, we help connect them to organisations, and we humanise data.

That’s what we’ve done. Created a pioneering report for the city, Brum Youth Trends, which asks young people what they think and feel about themselves, each other and the city from housing and transport, to arts and culture, to retail and brands. We want to get to know this city's reason for being: it's under 25 population. And we want you to know them too.

This year we tripled the number of questions, built a gamified portal to capture them on, and doubled the number of respondents. Our report is made up of 1200 responses from 14 - 25s across Birmingham - their answers to our survey, their explorations in our focus groups, their stories from our projects and programmes. We pulled this together, with the help our partners and associates, to craft trends and recommendations which we think will improve the city's services, products, places and people.

And there is so much in the report - from how they feel about the B word (Brexit) to how they actually use the internet. Insight like when looking towards the future, 68% agree or strongly agree with that they have ‘skills for the future’ whereas only 3% strongly disagreed. But when asked what those skills are 39% aren’t sure - so there is clearly confidence, but not clarity on skills needed for employability. 15% seek no careers advice and over half get it from their parents - what does that mean for how they make decisions about where to live, what to study, and what kind of work is for them?,

And there’s so much more. 25% weren’t sure how to describe Birmingham and 78% feel we’re viewed negatively by those outside of the city - this is a huge opportunity to brand brum and let young people get in on building the narrative.

I’m going to talk you through some of the trends today but it doesn’t end here - read it, download it, scrutinise, play with it.

Generation Do It Yourself

Generation DIY IS Birmingham. Thriving independent retail scene, incredible art, grassroots movements for change and a bold attitude of if ‘they won’t build it, I’ll make it myself’.

It’ll come as no surprise that YP are forging their own pathways, self-medicating through arts and exercise and working in a-typical ways ( or actually redefining what’s typical).

The word to sum up young Brum right now is resilient.

But we we’re asking what this means for institutional support and accountability - resilience should not be codified for ‘put up and shut up’ - we need to find ways to foster this DIY attitude which makes young people so inherently innovative and creative whilst also stepping up and encouraging them with support and help when they need it. Above that how do we make the most of it! With so many businesses at risk of not keeping up with times, this is your key! Young people see the world differently - how can you work with them to get some new perspective?

Anxiety is an epidemic

The trope of an entitled millennial is not one that rings true with young Brum - they are hyper aware of the pressures they face and the intense cycle of curated online personas, ‘an always on’ culture and overloads of information most of which they can’t decifer as true or fake is leaving young people with dangerous levels of anxiety. It’s a tough time to be young - we need to start from a place of compassion and breakdown these lazy stereotypes that young people have the world at their fingertips - even if that’s true, the pressure is crippling. Today is World Mental Health Day - what would it look like for Birmingham to be heralded as a place that takes youth mental health seriously - that supports deep intervention, talks openly, funds civic innovation in this area.

Deepening the divide

Whilst the willigness to build better relationships with young people is arguably there, so many organisations just keep getting it wrong. Tokenistic gestures, expecting young people to work for free, and painfully patronising comms is a story we know too well but young people are savvy, critical and have the tools to call out what’s not right. This cannot be an excuse not to try. The divide between young people and institutions appears to be deepening - a further breakdown in trust, feeling that the city isn’t built for them -  these are wildly serious issues that we cannot afford to ignore and especially not in such an exciting time for Brum!

A divide is deepening also between young people - increase in youth violence, concerns around transport safety - young people are being lumped in one group in one minute and viciously isolated by labels in the next. How do we move from multicultural to intercultural? How do we maximise the potential by connecting our many generations? We need leadership that recognises this divide, and brings young people into finding the solutions.

Digital (In)Equality

Young people use the internet as an extension to and not in replacement of their everyday activities. They are acutely aware of the impact of digital on their productivity and wellbeing and increasingly are unplugging or detoxing.

Again we see an old trope dubunked - the narrative says that young people are closed off from society with their heads only in their phones. No.

Young people go out, they exercise, they socialise - and they use digital to enhance and complement this not in place of it.

Digital rights is an area that we need to look at - many young people are conscious of how how brands, orgs and even the city uses their data - they are aware of digital manipulation and the fact that, to be honest if it’s free then you are the product.

Only a select few use the internet to innovate - this promise that if you learn to code, or buy a camera, you’ll be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Jamal Edwards, just doesn’t fly with a lot of young people, especially not young women of colour. We’re asking why the golden gates of tech only appear to open for some young people and we call on you to change it. 5G test bed, silicon canal, the most start ups outside of London. We know it. But how do we make young people reap the benefit?

Owning the other

We often forget that with young people the emphasis is on the people part - the ‘young’ shouldn’t be another defining labels they feel they need to break free from but rather than invitation for us to give them opportunities to underwrite risk, to play with who they are and to take charge of their lives. And young Brum ARE taking charge.

They are merging their many selves; their blurred binaries and disrupted boundaries. They are using the labels that ‘other’ them to unite them and to build communities from - they embrace the multi-identity and refuse to be boxed in or held back. Young people are empowered and reclaiming who they are and at the same time they are frustrated and disappointed with the systems in which they are ‘othered’.

Callout culture is igniting this fire - giving them fuel to speak up on social injustices. Young people are political: their existence is political. We’ve made it that way. Let’s not lose any energy, potential or talent by using words like hard to reach and disengaged. Birmingham, we can do better.

The Way Forward Isn’t One Road, And It Definitely Isn’t Straight

Contemporary pressures of needing to earn during education, managing family expectations and dealing with everything else I’ve mentioned  means that often young people’s journey are disrupted and rediverted. They may take temporary work, move house, or change education routes to follow a newly emerged passion. They may simply be rejecting a path that society has laid out for them. But isn’t this the creative, self-starting, problem solving attitude exactly what we encourage them to have? So why do we penalise them for it on their CVs or typecast as them as disengaged if they pursue something we don’t seem worthy.

The truth is the city is stronger when we all play our part, the part best suited to us, so we need to move away from this expectation of a linear career progression. Young people are moving forward - but maybe not on the path you expect.

I’m exhaustingly excited and optimistic.

So much is happening right now - the city is in rapid redevelopment and if that development isn’t for young people - to give them space in the city, to value their voices and perspectives, to model a fair, just and equal city where all people can thrive, then what’s the point of it?! I am having many positive conversations at all levels about desperately wanting to include youth in design, delivery and evaluation of services and products - and equally with young people about the grand visions they have for themselves and for the city  - the will is there. Businesses and influencers turning up and listening and reading the report shows the will is there. Young people sitting down to take the time to fill out the survey - it’s there.

I’m so ready to shake things up - to get people talking - and to continue our role in brokering deeper connections. I want to confidently promise the young people I work with - and this little I’m cooking here - that they can be the future mayor, the future chancellor of aston uni. I want to be a part of securing them that future by making changes today and I know by coming here you’re behind that too.

So go. Read it. Download the 2018 report now FOR FREE. Get it around to your staff, your mates, your local MP. Spread the word.

We’ll continue to drive this work - feeding back your pledges to the young people and holding you to account - you’re welcome.

We’ll be back here for Brum Youth Trends 2019 - and we’re working towards a West Midlands Youth Trends in 2020 that we need you to get behind if you think it’s useful. We want to understand what differences and similarities young people in Walsall and Sparkhill - especially in the run up to CommonWealth Games and Coventry City of Culture. Tell us if and how it’s useful - and of course we need more pioneering sponsors and supporters to make it happen. Speak to me or Amy if today’s got you pumped or frustrated - both are good.

We’ve tried to make sure we’ve heard from young people with lived experience and policy makers who can influence the decisions that can work with and not against these trends.
We’re also trying to humanise the data in this report by bringing a couple of stories to life through the data visualisation and we’ll be capturing your  promises and reflections on our pledge wall so we can better galvanise support and most importantly, action.

Lasly there is time at the end of today to carry these conversations on and to connect - please also sign up to our STEAMLab where we’ll take one of the trends and work together to commit to finding action.

A quick thank you to our sponsors and supporters - especially those who got behind us early and dealt with my rants in their offices. All the speakers, performers, DJ and of course the contributors to the report. To the town hall who have let us bring this to the home of civic debate in Brum. My amazing team who never ever fail to amaze me. To all of you for coming to the first  - this is a dream - to have so many people in one room genuinely wanting to affect change at business, policy and ground level is a little overwhelming.

Finally, a massive thank you to the young people from Birmingham - across schools, colleges, Universities, youth centres, in parks and on streets - for sharing so generously how you see the world and for giving us the opportunity to serve you better.

Written by Anisa Haghdadi for 2018’s Brum Youth Trends: Summit

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