Telling students & young people where political institutions live


Door-stepping the institutions, talking and listening to students, and joining up the city’s groups and societies – & why social media can help, but cannot replace face-to-face contact

Being a bizzy bee.

It’s emotionally exhausting that’s for sure. This evening I visited Long Road Sixth Form College for their open evening, went to a meeting with the ethical societies of Cambridge Hub, and popped into a social with the newly-formed Cambridge Green Students. Yesterday I was at Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services’ AGM followed by a workshop with the charity Cambridge Online, ending with a catch up with Martin Lucas-Smith who has launched this superb online tool for cycling and transport campaigners. On the Monday before that I was at a presentation by two Cambridgeshire County Council officials on the National Graduate Development Programme for Local Government. Two further events tomorrow, two on Friday and then I’m going to collapse. And it’s not as if I work full time. (As I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts, illness prevents me from doing so).

Being a community activist is hard work

It also can come with negative connotations too. A local busy-body poking their noses into everyone’s business, and/or being particularly loud and/or opinionated. When I was in community development policy in central government several years ago, I went on a number of visits all over the country. With the people and communities I met, I’d often be warned in advance of someone who fell into that negative stereotype – before being introduced to or doorstepped by them. Hence wherever I go, that’s always at the back of my mind – if not the forefront.

Treading around eggshells with no shoes on

My point here is about being aware of, and sensitive to other people and what they do. It can be frustrating – especially with institutions that have full-time well-paid members of staff. Sometimes you just want to stand up and let rip verbally. I don’t think I’ve actually done that yet – but there have been times where I have been tempted. The thing is, kicking sand in people’s faces seldom goes down well – especially if you need them or the institution that they represent ‘onside’.

Running very hard, but running on a hamster wheel

It’s one of the criticisms often thrown at leftwing political activists – they may work very hard, but is the work that they do having any impact? I looked at this in a previous blogpost when a number of people in the local trade union movement worked very hard to get over 100 people to turn up to an event, then failed to make anything of it. (See here). It’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in institutional feedback loops. How is feedback from people/activists/customers etc fed into the organisation’s decision making processes? What’s not working, why is it not working, what new can be tried, what will be done next? It’s also one of the reasons why I instinctively prefer more discussive gatherings  – especially ones that encourage the input of those turning up. Perhaps I’ve been to and/or spoken at too many traditional conferences where only the headline expert speakers get to make significant contributions.

Why not just volunteer for one charity or group in Cambridge? Aren’t you spreading yourself/time/resources too thin?

In my case, I spent several years in both Brighton and Cambridge volunteering for single organisations. Enjoyable and learning experiences they were, I don’t think I’d get the personal satisfaction from repeating them again. The main reason though is that what I want to achieve is something that cannot be delivered by a single institution. (ie a city-wide community development strategy, and all the benefits that a functioning one could deliver). The problem I’ve found is none of the institutions are doing what I believe needs to be done. (Despite various efforts not just of myself but other people too – the problem is an institutional, not an individuals’ one).

Why won’t they reply to my emails?!?!

Now, I’m the worst when it comes to replying to emails. I don’t know why. I just ‘freeze’ with emails. So I’m a bit of a hypocrite when complaining about other people not doing the same thing. Yet I’ve noticed across the piece the lack of responses to people from various groups and organisations trying to reach out has been an issue. Local authority employees trying to engage with schools and colleges, the police trying to get movement from local authorities, student groups trying to engage with community groups, community groups trying to engage with colleges, university societies trying to engage with each other…something’s not working.

You’re harder to ignore when you’re standing in front of them

I tried to get in touch with one of the senior managers at Long Road Sixth Form College not so long ago regarding encouraging their students to use the Cambridgeshire community website Shape Your Place, (SYP) examining the possibility of some joint workshops. I did the same with many of the other further education institutes in Cambridge. Not one got back. As it turned out, others inside local authorities – including holders of elected public office, had tried similar. Yet they too got no response. So this week, I doorstepped Long Road Sixth Form College. Literally. They had an open day for prospective students and I turned up.

For the record, Long Road’s open day was superb – the staff and students displayed both a knowledge and passion for their subjects that was on a completely different planet to what I remember of the open days that I went to at Cambridgeshire’s colleges in the mid-1990s. The place was crowded and buzzing. Students were all in colour-coordinated T-shirts and seemed extremely well-briefed on what they were there to do too. As someone who had not been there since the late 1990s, it made things so much easier in terms of who I needed to talk to.

Politically-aware young people across Cambridgeshire and beyond turning up the volume

The first place I went to was the media studies room – simply because the community development council officials in Cambridge want young citizens to start producing digital media content for the website, reporting on what’s happening in their local area. It’s simple really. Go to where your interested audience happens to be rather than sending them an email hoping they’ll come to you. The media students there talked about what they were learning and what they wanted to go on to do. I pointed them to the SYP website and said here was a platform to showcase their work. I also challenged them with their future projects – inviting them to choose something along a theme of reporting about somewhere they had been to, or something that had happened in their area. Essentially giving them a purpose.

Informing young people where their political institutions live

Having spoken to teachers and students about SYP, I then moved upstairs to the politics department. There I learnt about what happened when two ministers turned up to the college – apparently the students made mincemeat of them because neither had expected the students to be so hard-hitting in an open Q&A session. (Puffles (*shakes head*) – when will these politicians learn?!?!)

Again, passionate and knowledgeable students who clearly know there are significant problems locally, nationally and globally as well as having a desire to do something about them. Not all of their politics are the same either – Conservative readers of this blog may be somewhat relieved to know that there are a handful of their young activists at the college – though they are outnumbered by the more radical-left activists. What pleasantly surprised me about the college – and I’m comparing it from what I saw during the open day in the 1990s, was the values and ethos were much more evident. Remember in the mid-1990s we still had the hated Section 28. Not only did it make clear that bullying and discrimination will not be tolerated, but it was also very clear that support systems were in place for anyone that experienced it. It made me think: ‘Yes, here is a place where young people are going to thrive.’

As well as listening and learning, I mentioned the My Society suite of free tools that staff and students can use – in particular Write To Them. This stemmed from a discussion about elected representatives and the contact citizens have with them. This got staff and students thinking about a class exercise, where each student chooses one or two issues local to them that they are passionate about, and uses Write To Them to ask one or two questions to each of their elected representatives, to see what response they get. Avoiding the 38-degrees-style problems (see here), it means each politician has to give a considered response to each student.

Just to let East Anglian politicians know, I’m planning to repeat these visits to other sixth form/further education colleges when they hold their open days this term. (The big colleges in Cambridge for further education have students that live across the county – I met some from Suffolk, Essex and Hertfordshire at Long Road). Don’t say you weren’t warned!

Cambridge Hub – university societies greater than the sum of their parts

I shot off to a gathering of university ethical societies straight after for what I thought was a really interesting discussion about how the various societies can have an impact that is greater than the sum of their parts. The one big challenge all the ethical societies have is differentiation in the mind of students: How do you make it easy for students to decide which ones they want to get involved in? Remember Cambridge has at least fifteen ‘ethical societies’ or campaigns active. How can you co-ordinate and collaborate without losing either focus of your aims or control of your actions?

There were a host of things the students mentioned that I was not aware of or had taken for granted too – which I also enjoyed being challenged on. One was around how to reach out to schools – of personal interest as I am a school governor at a local primary school. I assumed citizenship workshops wouldn’t be of interest to primary school children until the students from this project challenged me. The other one was ‘assumed knowledge’ – assuming that people know the same things or have the same skills as we do. So for example I assumed that people had the same awareness of how to use electronic calendars as I do. We also had an interesting discussion about what motivates people to get involved, what methods are effective, how and why. To what extent does the issue/cause matter? To what extent does personal face-to-face matter (and the nature of the person selling the cause)? To what extent does the media/medium matter? Eg was it an email or did you have an inspiring digital video that got you thinking and moving?

Popping into a gathering of Cambridge Green Students

By this time I was emotionally knackered, but plough on I did – to what I hope will be the start of some fairly regular informal gatherings of Cambridge Green Students. The reason being is because I think it is important that local political parties provide opportunities for local people to engage with them in informal settings rather than say at set piece events. I touched on this ages ago in this blogpost. In a nutshell, where is the safe space that people interested in political issues can go and meet party political activists in an informal setting? Cambridge has established Labour and Conservative club houses. Two Tory and one Labour are within walking distance of where I live. But how many non-party types feel comfortable going into those club houses, especially if there is a sign saying ‘members only’?

The Greens (and it’s not the first time they’ve parked their tanks on Labour’s lawn) are hosting a debate on fair wages for low-paid university staff on 16 November (see here). It was on that issue that three of us – me, one of the Green students and a friend who was sceptical of the party’s policies started debating. The questions from the latter were very tough – not nearly so straight forward to argue against. The thrust basically was that Cambridge University is in a global market place for the best academics in the world so needs to compete pay-wise. At the same time, Cambridge University has limited funds so having a pay ratio (the motion of the debate) won’t work because the university cannot afford it. How do you square that circle when restricted by national policy on fees and lack of state funding?

It got me thinking about students taking part in political debates. In a nutshell, I think it is important that students in political party societies go to events where they have their views and opinions cross-examined by those likely to disagree with them. (This was one of the criticisms made by a couple of people at the recent debate on the living wage – see here). I’m not thinking in terms of standing on a debating platform to be shouted at, but thinking more in terms of informal discussions and exchanges of opinion.

Food for thought?


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