Rax interview with Nelu Miah

In July, New Internationalist will publish the Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit. It is aimed primarily at teachers and students of Citizenship Studies in UK schools but in fact it can be used by anyone seeking to engage more actively in the world around them. 

The Toolkit is a landmark in textbook innovation, graphic style, approach to content and attitudes to learning. It also contains exclusive interviews with a range of voices, from popstars and politicians to young active citizens. Over the coming weeks we will be posting the full text of the Rax interviews.

At the age of 17, Nelu and a group of friends had the vision to start off a youth club in their community, as there was nothing for young people to do in the area. This is the story of how he and his friends succeeded in making their idea for change become a reality.


What change have you brought about in your community and why?
At the age of 17, some friends and I started off the A4 youth club. It made a big difference in our lives and the lives of the youth in the area. It took us all away from the street corners as there was nothing to do in the area before and the club gave us all somewhere to go. It was a warm environment, where people could chill, hang out with their friends and do something constructive and positive with their life. We were thrown in at the deep end and we had to make it all work and be professional. We learned a load of things that have come in very handy for the rest of our lives. We were young people doing it for ourselves but we wanted to make it work and we did. We organized trips, events, activities, a football team, taking young people away from the community, showing them other things, and broadening their horizons. None of us were able to acknowledge it at the time but later on we all realized that it was a real learning curve, it was all positive.

What difference did it make that you were youth from the same area, starting this project up and running it for yourselves?
That really broke the ice. All the youth trusted us because we were one of them. We weren’t adults from outside the area, telling them what to do. It gave everyone the opportunity to mingle together, all the ethnic groups and ages. Everyone could come in to the youth club and actually engage with each other. Because we were slightly older and were born and raised in the same place, the youth gave us a lot of respect, which we gave back. It was all part of us getting along with each other, as we are part of the same community. It gave the younger people the confidence to be around us and engage with us, even mingle with us in discussions. It doesn’t matter whether you’re young or old, a conversation that actually engages someone in terms of someone sharing their thoughts, their views on everyday life, helps you work things out – it’s a good influence on all of us. Especially the way society is today, it tends to be hard, people don’t really engage with each other. It’s very important that youth clubs and youth organizations and young people themselves actually engage with each other.

What steps did you take to make all this happen?
We spoke to a lot of the young people first to see if they would be interested and then we spoke with the older people in the community, especially the people who ran the Tenants and Residents Associations. We were bringing them the ideas of what could be positive and constructive in the area and because they were the older generation looking at us, teenagers, wanting to do this, they were thinking this is something that’s great. We made sure we really knew what we were talking about first. After that, we had to get in contact with the right people in the Council who were responsible for youth. They were really supportive to us and told us how to set up our own organization, so we had to form our own constitution and make it official. Then we had to do fundraising.

What kinds of skills were important in fundraising?
Communication skills are really important and this was hard for us at first, but we were a good team. We had to get together and work hard to be able to conquer this. But we were also able to go and get help from experts in that area, people who are professionals in these kinds of things. There are organizations that are there for you that will help you, we just did a little research to find them and the fact that we were young people doing it for ourselves really impressed them. It was all our own ideas and all our own passion but they helped us get that into the right kind of language to make successful applications and fill out forms so that they made an impact. They made us have to face the real world and get professional about what we were doing – you know, this is the real world, this is what you have to do, this is the manner you have to do it in. You have to break things down – you may have a fantastic idea but you have to break it down and explain it in the right way otherwise it won’t work. You have to work out what’s the best way of going about it. We also made a film to show what was happening in the area, how much support we had and how much we could do to help the youth in the area. That also got people really interested because they could see that we were doing stuff already on our own with no backing.

What were some of the highlights for you when you were running the youth club?
Personally, the whole thing was so rewarding, it gave me a deep sense of self- satisfaction. I felt really pleased that I was actually helping someone and that someone would want to come back to me and get more help. For example, in the early days, we didn’t have much funding and we only had a few facilities, an old snooker table that was donated to us and a table tennis table. One day, I was playing table tennis with a younger kid and he was so keen to learn. I could see that he had a lot of potential as a player but there were certain areas where his technique was lacking. So I suggested to him that he could hold the bat in a few different ways and how he could clear a shot differently. He was really keen. At that point I thought, wow, he is really listening to me, I’ve got his attention. I know it sounds like a small thing but that was really rewarding to me. And after the session, he asked me when was the club opening next and when could he come back and play me again and learn some more. From that moment, I felt really different. It was really inspirational to me. Because at the time, I was only 17, it was a big step for me mentally, for me to be going out of my way to be actually helping someone else and at the same time, to be feeling good about it. When I experienced that, I thought, ‘this is what I really want to do’.

You have to realize there was nothing for anyone young to do. We were all coming off the streets and the street corners and then to have someone picking up on something and learning something and doing something positive, it meant a lot to me. It makes you feel really good about yourself.

What kind of difference did you make to the community as a whole?
To be honest, as soon as the youth club started, it made the community as one. Before the youth club, everyone was kind of separated, people weren’t talking to each other, everyone had their own little gang. Then, as soon as the club was open, everyone was engaging with each other. Now everyone knows each other, everyone is together and it’s great. It’s peaceful. It’s a friendly environment, and that’s what you want society to be. You want it to be friendly, you want it to be comfortable, no matter how old you are.

What would be your three top tips for young people who want to start off their own youth club?
If you’re a young person wanting to inspire other young people and you want to get into community activities, the first thing you have to do is get the right people together. You have to form a team: it’s very important to have the right group of people there who you can all trust and work with well; all sharing the same thoughts and all sharing the same passion. Second, get yourself around to all the local community groups, representing yourselves, letting them know what you want to do, getting their support and getting across the positive ideas you have and inspiring them with the same ideas. Finally, you need to get in touch with the right people. For us, it was the local authority. Then, because you have the support of the local community behind you and your group is able to represent the passion and positive ideas you have, I am sure that the local authority will help you to get to the next step from there. You have to have the right vision and then know how to break it down and make it clear so that anybody can understand it and will be inspired by it too.

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