What are the issues facing young people in Britain today? What should youth services be doing about them? The main issue must be giving young people a voice (vox) - something adults rarely do and, when we do, do we really listen? For example, when a young person says they are being sexually abused...?

So, what better way to enable young people to speak than to organise a platform specifically with that purpose in mind: a national young people's VOX POP wherein young people throughout the nation will be able to discuss the issues and send delegates to London to share their concerns with Ministers and other Very Important People?

This IS a laudable project initiated by the National Youth Agency and, to make sure it includes all young people, an equal opportunity clause is included: Vox Pop aims "to be representative of all young people, regardless of race, gender, class, religion, mental and physical abilities and sexuality." (I suppose someone has to come last?)

However, simply including a statement is meaningless. A structure must exist to ensure that all young people participate and are invited to participate.


So, when I (Jan Bridget, Joint-Co-ordinator, Lesbian Youth Support Information Service) received the various packs of information about Vox Pop I contacted the National Youth Agency and asked Merlynne Francique how she (NYA) were going to meet their second aim, i.e. to be representative of all young people? Her response was that she had met with the regional representatives and had emphasised the need for all young people to be represented. I then asked whether she (NYA) had done any outreach work to, for example, black young people, to ensure that they would be included. "Yes!" was the firm answer, "We have contacted several black groups..." I then asked if she (NYA) had contacted lesbian and gay groups. Answer: "Oh, no. You are the only group to contact us!"


Having discovered that Lancashire were going to participate in Vox Pop I contacted John Woolf who is co-ordinating their involvement. I asked him a similar question: "How are Lancashire going to ensure that all young people will be represented?" He responded by saying that Lancashire would use a structure already in place, Youth Forums, and that he would expect the representatives from these Forums to be able to take on issues concerning all young people, including, for example, young lesbians. To be fair, in response to my telephone call, John did invite LYSIS to participate!

The information distributed by Lancashire regarding Vox Pop includes "It is hoped that the young people would be representative of as wide a variety of sectors of the community as possible and would include males and females, as well as those able to make known the views of minority groups and whose ages span the range 14 to 25."


LYSIS have received a letter from Melvin Riding, Principal Officer, Youth & Community Service, St Helens Metropolitan Borough Council, which invites me, and - I think - six young people, to the Regional Vox Pop Conference. He enclosed a suggested list of issues for me to choose from (three) which I felt were important to young people in my area (hopefully with consultation). The selection should be returned to enable St Helens Youth & Community Service to select six issues for discussion at the Regional Conference. The issues identified, after consultation with St Helens Youth Forum, were: Homelessness, Sexual Health, Young Carers, Sexism, Racism, Ageism, Drug & alcohol misuse, Further Education, Unemployment, Benefits, Abuse (Sexual, physical, mental, verbal) and Bullying. The letter stated "We can't guarantee your issues will be discussed but we will try to identify the most popular, the young people from St Helens would like to discuss the plight of young carers as identified at their local conference."


If you are honest you will agree that the youth service is made up primarily of young people who are white, heterosexual, male, middle- and working-class. If you were to ask a group of politically aware young black people what the main issue facing them was they would speak in unison: Racism! Other issues would include homelessness, unemployment, education, alcohol & drug misuse, etc. If you were to ask a group of politically aware young women what the main issue facing them was they, no doubt, would answer Sexism, followed by other issues such as homelessness, unemployment etc. If you were to ask a politically aware group of young disabled people what the main issue facing them was they would probably say Ableism, and then go on to include other issues. If you were to ask a group of politically aware young lesbians or young gay men what the main issue facing them was, they would respond Homophobia/Heterosexism.

This raises several points regarding the process of participation and issues to be discussed. First of all, it is unlikely that Homophobia/Heteorsexism or Ableism or Classism will be discussed at the North West Regional Conference as these are not included in the list. Secondly, given that the majority of young people involved will be white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle- and working-class men, it is unlikely that they will prioritise Racism, Sexism, Homophobia/Heterosexism, or Ableism. Thirdly, even if minority groups were able to state their needs, e.g. it would seem that working class young mothers are vocal at the St. Helens Forum, the structure, at least at the Regional level, is divisive: if there are only going to be six issues, which oppressed minority takes priority? Of course, the other issues identified will be of importance to most young people, minority youth in particular given that, because of oppression, they are more likely to be homeless, unemployed, on benefits, bullied (being prime recipients), misuse drugs and alcohol, with further education not being an accessible option.


Even if lesbian and gay youth, young black people and disabled youth were to find their way to either a Local, Regional or National Conference, would they really want to go? Would they really feel welcome? Would they really have the courage - given that the majority of other participants will be homophobic, racist and ableist - to take part? Would the other young people actually give them some space? Would the structure enable them to take part - even if they could get there? Would their comments be taken on board? Would their experiences be respected?

Until the time has come that all youth work is anti-discriminatory and includes all young people then this kind of process will, inevitably, leave out minority groups. What is needed is a special structure to ensure that the concerns of all young people are included, i.e. a special homosexual youth forum, black youth forum, disabled youth forum, working class young people's forum, ensuring that young women who belong to each minority group either have a separate forum or that the structure ensures their full participation and challenges Sexism. This should be facilitated at Local, Regional and National levels and, if your response is "but we've tried to contact them," then the question must be raised: Who does your youth service serve? [This would probably be the most important issue/lesson to come out of Vox Pop]. I leave you with the questions: Has this been a painful process? How accessible is your youth service to all minority youth?

P.S. When youth services are being forced to cutback due to the recession perhaps a good yardstick would be to consider those young people most at risk, i.e. minority youth!

© Jan Bridget 1993