After the riots (2)... what young people think

    4 September 2011

    In the second of our "After the riots" series, Jim Davis of the Children's Society reflects on the differing responses of young people... and adults.

    A week ago, I was at this year's Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham.

    The Children’s Society was a partner at the festival and we were giving seminars, highlighting our campaign to support young runaways and promoting the Good Childhood Conversations. The seminars and presentations had been agreed months before and included a consultation session with young people about well being.

    Our session was based on a series of activities around the theme of happiness and sense of place and neighbourhood. But given the recent riots and disturbance it seemed ridiculous not to ask young people what they thought about those events. So we added a graffiti wall to our list of activities and asked young people to say why they thought some young people took part in the riots.

    The results were interesting. The comments of young people included the dismissive and angry: “cos they are greedy”, “they are on benefits and want things for free”, “it seemed like fun to them”.

    But other comments were more reflective and considered: “they see adults do these things and join in”, “with the cuts and everything some young people feel hopeless”.

    In many ways the comments made by young people are similar to those made by adults - they reflect a range of opinion and ideas, they are diverse and reveal a degree of confusion and uncertainty, as well as firmly held beliefs and ideas.

    What struck me was not so much the views expressed by young people, but their eagerness to make their views known; to express their opinion and to emphasise the point that young people are as different and varied as adults.

    The real contrast was when we took the graffiti wall out onto the festival site.

    I wanted adults to see what young people had written and to add their comments and views. But they were not so eager. One or two did add their views, mostly because they had witnessed something and had been touched by the riots in some way. But standing with a large graffiti wall of young people’s comments did not attract attention in the crowds. One woman actually pulled her husband away telling him not to comment.

    I took to standing by the queues by the food stands with captive audiences and invited people to read and comment. Their discomfort was palpable, the polite and embarrassed "hmms" and grunts an indication that a bacon sandwich was more on their minds.

    Perhaps that is understandable. Unless we are directly affected by these troubles we might feel it is best just to keep out of the way, that other people better qualified should deal with it.

    But young people don’t have that option, they feel implicated, involved, judged, part of a generation that is failing to live up to expectations. They have to speak up, to comment, to have an opinion and present their ideas. But they also need a chance to speak out and to be heard. Through our Good Childhood Conversations we seek to give them that chance and to give adults the space to reflect.

    It's not as though we are dealing with anything new. Our graffiti wall had a quote from the Greek philosopher, Plato, when he said all those years ago, “What is happening to our youth? They riot in the street, they disrespect their elders. What is to become of them?”

    Jim Davis

    Good Childhood Advisor, Campaign for Childhood Division

    The Children’s Society