‘When you look at it you feel trash’: how young people view their areas
Rys Farthing spent five years asking children and young people about the state of their local ‘ends’. Here’s what she found:
‘If you could see [our area] through our eyes
Only then would you realise
The conditions of our community
Please take this as a positive opportunity’
A poem written by 15 and 16-year-old women, aimed at decision-makers
In principle, devolution should help focus economic regeneration in two parallel ways; firstly, it should encourage renewed focus on growth at a local scale and; secondly, it should encourage decision-making power to shift towards local citizens. Or so the argument goes. For young citizens, particularly those from low-income communities, both of these ‘in principle’ shifts are welcome, but all too lacking in reality.
Between 2010 and 2015 I worked alongside young people from low-income neighbourhoods across England to identify the key issues and challenges in their areas, and supporting them to lobby and campaign for solutions they developed.
Perhaps I should have predicted it, but I was consistently surprised by how important local approaches, and being able to be involved in local decision-making processes were to them – everything devolution should be about.
The state of their local ‘ends’ (neighbourhoods) were raised by every group I spoke to. They talked about their areas feeling – and being – unsafe, and looking ‘terrible’.
Young people described rundown buildings, graffittied streets, footpaths covered in dog muck as ‘ugly’ and ‘gross’ and not looking posh:
Me: … we’re talking about living in Moss Side and where you’d live if you had a magic wand. You’d go for (neighbouring area), Lisa. Why (neighbouring area)?
Lisa, 12: Because it’s more safer, more posher.
Me: What’s posher?
Lisa: Posh people.
Sandy, 12: Not necessarily posh people but there’s more attractive areas, like there’s no rubbish out there on the floor.
As another 15-year-old put it, ‘I hate mess. I don’t like it because when you look at it you feel trash, your ends are trash’.
While we may think of ugliness as a trivial matter, for these young people it was inextricably a matter of injustice. They were aware that their city centres were clean but if walked a few streets out of the city centre, to ‘where people lived’, it was ‘dirty again’.
They were aware that they lived in these dirty areas and this was seen an indication of their value in the eyes of decision-makers. Two young women who suffered the great indignation of growing up in an Olympic borough in London said it perfectly:
Basmah, 15: You know for the Olympics, they’re so sly, they get all of these cleaners in that specific area…
Saba, 15: Exactly. So people are “oh, wow, London”…
Basmah: “London is so clean!”
Saba: But it’s not clean at all.
Basmah: But come to (neighbouring area)
Saba: If you come to the more less-developed areas like here, like Tower Hamlets, like (neighbouring area), you see there’s mess everywhere. …
Basmah: [The Olympic clean up] was annoying because why don’t they do it at a point when there’s people that don’t live here, we’re going to make it look nice for them, but us, yes, you make it look like what, you make it look like it’s a dust bin. That’s up to everyone just littering, and then that’s it, they’ve gone, they’re not going to clean it any more, they make it look ugly for us, but people that don’t even live in the country, they make it look nice for them.
Saba: Exactly. Rest my case. And it’s not even that.
Me: So, what?
Basmah: They say, they think of us as less important people.
They wanted the clean up to continue, well beyond the Olympic village, to the whole of London, so their neighbourhoods too, could be ‘maxi-developed’. That this had not happened, in London and the other cities involved in this research, reconfirmed to these young people that they were not taken seriously by those with power. It was understood as a slight against them and an assault on their perceived self-worth.
However, far from producing a sense of passive embarrassment about their neighbourhoods, the work we did together demonstrated an active anger with decision-makers about their neighbourhoods. They chose to actively engage with policymakers and politicians, no light decision on behalf of these young people who, at various points described politicians as ‘liars and hypocrites’, ‘racist’ and ‘useless’.
Despite this lack of trust, I watched 11-year-old boys write letters to their members of parliament inviting them to swap housing with them for a week, to ‘see how stressful it is’, 15-year-old girls talking about holding ‘sit-ins, like Gandhi’ in parliament about their ‘trashed’ housing, and teenagers working together to make their police commissioner walk around their neighbourhoods with them so they could show him exactly what they saw on their walk to school everyday. The drive to get involved and make a change was massive.
But decision-makers didn’t always match this drive. I watched MPs arrive at youth clubs only to turn around 10 seconds later in the lobby because more important matters had ‘turned up’, and local authorities tell young people they had no right to contact their mayor because only the designated youth mayor in their area could do so. As one eleven-year-old boy put it ‘at least we’re helping the government, but the government is not helping us, but that’s not fair’.
The promise of devolution then, is pretty powerful indeed for young people. It’s exactly what they want, a focus on local economics and local regeneration, led by local people. The trick, as always, is going to be tackling the adultist views our decision-makers often have, and opening up pathways to support decision-makers to work alongside young people to make positive changes. Young people are possibly the biggest asset many of our local areas have, but they need to be able to realise it.