‘Our young people will save us – if we let them’

Teenagers are too often demonised and their ideas ignored, says this educator

Kate Latham

‘Our young people will save us – if we let them’

Inspiration can come from many sources, and I recently took some from an online article by a high school teacher in the US. The article described how each year when she started teaching George Orwell’s 1984, the teacher would create a hostile totalitarian regime in her classroom: becoming dictatorial, setting strict rules about behaviour in class and encouraging students to report each other over the smallest misdemeanour. The teacher had been doing this experiment for years, and each year she “won”: the students conformed to the regime.

This year, however, was different. The students fought back, they railed against the unjust treatment. They banded together and mobilised protest, they involved the American Student Government Association and the school administration. So hostile was the response that the teacher ended the experiment early. The message of the article was this: teenagers know what is right, they seek to fight injustice, they are courageous and bold and full of ideas.

One of the many interesting conversations we had on the Orbit Youth Council’s recent field trip to London concerned the “death of the high street”. Although it’s not always obvious, retail is an important revenue stream to many museums and galleries and we had challenged the young people to review the shops at the venues we visited, with a view to understanding how to set one up successfully. Their observations about things like the importance of price point and consumer demographics led us into a broader conversation about how town centres were changing. We discussed the impact of everything from the internet to austerity on their generation and concluded that being able to have pride in the place they lived was very important.

Peer research carried out in preparation for Scotland’s Year of Young People revealed that young people felt they lacked opportunities to pursue their own interests. In reading over the hundreds of applications we received from young people wishing to join Orbit – which is taking inspiration from the Jupiter Artland sculpture park to shape a new programme of large-scale art projects in communities across Scotland – there was one overarching theme: lack of places for young people to socialise safely and take part in meaningful activities.

We asked young people what they would change about the place they lived. We were told about community hubs which were rundown and neglected, town centres which were deserted and parks which were vandalised and unsafe. We heard about littering and fly-tipping and how this portrayed a lack of self-respect in a community. We heard of a lack of opportunities, lack of pride, lack of cohesion. We heard about “no go” areas and anti-social behaviour.

But we also heard ideas, hundreds of them for how this could be changed. From skate-friendly street furniture to pop-up cafes to sensory gardens to art galleries with a focus on mental wellbeing, young people were full of ideas on how to improve their communities. Alongside recognition that many people in Scotland are living in poverty, and of all the stigma that brings, there was a willingness to change that which many of today’s politicians could learn from.

There was such passion from the young people to take on this challenge and become change-makers. The closing message of 1984 is that teenagers will be the ones to save us. In a culture where they are often seen as “other” – at best as entitled, at worst threatening – it is important to remember this age group has a strong desire for social justice and civic pride.

The power of young people’s ambition and hope can reinvigorate communities across Scotland. As educators, we must do everything we can to ensure their voices are heard – and acted upon.

Kate Latham is head of learning and community engagement at Jupiter Artland Foundation, near Edinburgh

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Kate Latham

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