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Rax interview with UKYCC

In July, New Internationalist will publish the Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit. It's 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.

This is how the curriculum describes the subject:
Citizenship equips students with the knowledge and skills needed for effective and democratic participation. It helps students to become informed, critical, active citizens who have the confidence and conviction to work collaboratively, take action and try to make a difference in their communities and the wider world.

Rax Citizenship Book Cover

We believe that Citizenship Studies is a unique subject; a subject which, when taught well, raises standards not only in exam results across all subjects but in the well-being of the student and in the sense of community in the whole school.

And a unique subject requires a unique textbook. The Toolkit is a landmark in textbook innovation in 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.

The UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC) is the leading youth-led campaign organization in the country addressing the issue of climate change. The Rax team caught up with Alex Farrow (21) and Ellie Hopkins (21) from UKYCC in January 2010.

Portrait of Alex Farrow

Portrait of Ellie Hopkins

What issues do you think most concern young people today?

Many young people today care a lot about justice – what’s fair and what’s unfair. It can be anything, from the treatment of people in sweatshops, to how their school is run.

For UKYCC it’s about fairness too. It’s about how rich countries treat poor countries, whether we help them to adapt to climate change, whether we make up for the pollution we caused in the past, whether we help them to develop in a way that’s less harmful than the way we did, and its about the sort of world we will be creating not only for our children, but for ourselves in a few years time.  

Lots of people call this lots of different things; ‘environmental justice,’ ‘climate equity’… but to us, it's all about ‘fairness’. But let's be honest, what all young people care about (although they may not admit it) is themselves. But tackling issues like climate change isn't just about helping others, we are fighting for a better, safer, happier and more affordable future not only for our children but for ourselves.

How did you get started as a young campaigner?

Casper and Emma, our co-founders, went on a trip to the Arctic with young people from around the world and saw first hand the effect we were all having on the planet.  Inspired by what other young people were doing, they came back to the UK and wanted to pass on the enthusiasm, the energy, and the inspiration they had experienced.  And so the UK Youth Climate Coalition was born.  Since then loads of young people from all walks of life, from all across the UK have joined them.  

From different backgrounds, with different opinions, for different reasons and through different ways, we’ve all come together to fight for a vision that unites us; a clean, just future for everyone.

What is the campaign that you are part of now, what issues are you addressing and what inspired you to get involved?

We’re inspired by lots of things. We’re really inspired by the vision of a clean, 'post-carbon' future. One where everyone can access clean energy, enough food and clean water, and where people don’t fight over natural resources and with lots of great opportunities for all of us to get ahead like green jobs, public transport we can afford to (the list goes on).  Where people are happy in the knowledge that their future, and the future of the environment is safe. But sometimes we loose that perspective, we forget about the future because there are so many things that need to be changed now. 

But that’s when working with young people is so great. 

From the very start we’ve been inspired by the actions, commitments and energy of other young people around us.  From around the globe or maybe our next door neighbours, it’s the passion, ideas and creativity of ordinary young people that spurs us on to keep going - even when things are tough. 

What kind of work did you do to inform yourself of the key issues and what tips would you give young campaigners in this stage of 'critical thinking and enquiry'?

The challenge with key issues is that the problems and the best way to solve them are constantly changing, so as soon as someone has written a book about it, it’s already out of date.  The internet is probably the best resource around and there are some great blogs and websites out there that take what’s going on and make it accessible and normal so people understand it. There's a lot of stuff out there - some of its good, some of it not so good, so the main tip is to be careful and make sure you know where its coming from.  If you're campaigning on something, there's probably an opposing group too so it is important to be clued up because it takes a lot of work to build campaigns up, but not a huge amount to bring them down.   

In the climate world however, the science and theory is all pretty complex and while its good to have an understanding of it, being an expert in it all doesn't necessarily mean that's going to be effective in inspiring others to act.  For us it was about making it relevant on a personal, real level.  If we could take big problems and make it something that actually affects us, then we stand a much better chance of getting other people on our side and involved in our campaigns. 

One of the things that we're really strong about is talking and sharing everything we do with all the Youth Climate Coalitions from around the globe.  Information is crucial and to save time it's' better to share the knowledge we have within the movement by talking and listening to everyone else working with us.    

Did you ever use experts to back up your cause or inform your cause? How important do you think this is?

Of course it’s important to use facts, figures, statistics and quotes to back yourself up. Sometimes they can be really useful to show that adults who have researched this stuff support what you are saying. But be careful. You don’t want to sound like you’re just repeating what other people have said, especially if you don’t know much about who you are quoting.  Often the most powerful way to express your cause is to be personal.  Tell stories about how it affects you, your friends or your peers. Tell people how we are all coming together to tackle these issues, and then tell people they should join that cause too.

What tips would you give young people about how to be a good advocate for their campaign?

There are 3 really major things you can do to make yourself a good advocate: be innovative, be accessible and be personal. 

These days there are so many campaigns for so many issues that lots of people just don't know where to look. You need to stand out from the crowd, whether that be in the actions you take, the way you talk or the colour of your website - people will sit up and pay attention to something they've never seen before. 

You also need to be accessible to your audience.  For us, we know we are communicating to young people, so we keep our language normal enough for someone without a PhD to understand and we keep everything low-cost so you don't have to be earning to take part.  We also make sure that we communicate issues in a way, which makes them relevant to young people, so focusing on cheaper bus fares and green jobs rather than nuclear power stations and carbon emissions. 

Finally, you need to be personal.  Stories and humour are really important for this as people will connect with you and what you're saying.  If you can tell a story that says how something is affecting you, and how it will affect them too, you'll have their full attention and they'll really want to do something to change that.

In what ways is 21st-century technology important for campaigning and how does your campaign use it?

We wouldn't be here without it!  21st-century technology is incredible and it’s only through the wonders of the internet that UKYCC and groups like us are able to exist.  

As an organisation we want everyone from all walks of life, from all across the UK to have the opportunity to be involved in what we do and that's possible with new information technologies. We are all based in different towns and cities all around the UK, yet we are all working together.  Our main form of communication is email, but speaking is definitely much more effective and we use online chats and conference calls so we can all chat.  We share files, documents, pictures and stories through online storage spaces, emails, blogs and vlogs (video blogs) to tell people outside UKYCC what we are doing, bring new people on board and tell them exactly what we are doing through social networking sites and share ideas and resources through websites.  If used right, the Internet can be an amazing tool!

What kinds of actions have you taken part in and why did you think they would be affective?

People in UKYCC have done a range of actions, from being arrested for non-violent direct action against things like the expansion of Heathrow airport or the renewal of the UK’s nuclear weapons, to all calling the Prime Minister office at the same time to tell him the same message. As an organisation we try to focus on really positive actions that show people that we are young, engaged and proactive, and that we can have fun whilst making positive change. We’ve become known for our flashmob dancing outside Parliament, and recently we even manage to hire a massive projector which we used to put messages onto the side of Parliament'. Again, it’s all about being fun and innovative but having a clear and understandable message. But remember: if it’s not fun, it’s not the right thing to do!

What are your main tips to getting press coverage?

Again, be personal and know your audience. If you are writing for a local newspaper try to link what you are talking about to an issue, place or person in that area. Telling stories is still a great way to communicate. Actions can be really useful for getting press coverage, but make sure it's for doing something positive. Make sure your communication with the media is clear and concise: this is who you are, this is why you care about the issue, this is what you are doing and this is why.

What are the main obstacles you have come up against and how did you overcome them?

Money is always a big problem for young activists and campaigners. The way of getting around that is different for everyone, there's not one catch-all rule or secret. Sorry!

But what always solves this sort of problem is a good analysis of it, then a lot of hard work in overcoming it, even if that means sitting and writing funding application after funding application or developing the confidence to ask for stuff in kind. And don't be afraid to ask for help! There are loads of people, young and older, who will be keen to help you out if you ask.

Another problem young campaigners come up against is being heard and taken seriously. It's easy for adults to brush aside what a young person is saying because they assume it will be childish or silly. But stick at it. By communicating in new and innovative ways, by talking sense and by seriously challenging the way they work and what they do, they will have no choice but to sit up and listen - especially if you have lots of people supporting you!

What key advice would you give young people who want to set up their own campaigns?

Go for it! As long as you show people that you are enthusiastic, passionate and you have a good idea and the willingness to work hard, the rest will follow. Know/be clear about what your aim is, that way you'll know when you've achieved it. - don't just string random events together!

As a young person growing up with stories about Global Warming, war, economic collapse, global poverty, pandemics, street violence and terrorism, life can look pretty frightening. What could you say to give young people genuine positive hope for their future?

The silver lining in today's tragedies and issues is that it gives us perspective. We can use our experiences and understanding of how the world works to create new and innovative ideas, and we can use our youth and energy to then put those ideas in place. Our vision for a better future can drive us to make that future happen. As our lives stretch out before us, we have the power to make change happen, but that only comes when you know what you want to change. So take a good look around, understand the problems we face, and then turn in a new direction and take the path that leads to the world and the future you want to see. That's what we are doing, and we can honestly say that, as corny as it sounds, the feeling you get from taking that control is amazing.

Learn more/get involved: UKYCC or UK Youth Parliament

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