Daniel Lawes is a 19 year-old activist from Manchester, currently studying History and International Relations at the London School of Economics. He is an #iwill ambassador, Diana Award recipient, and in 2016, he founded the non-profit organisation YouthPolitics UK with the aim of engaging young people with the democratic process. He was one of the youngest CEOs in the UK at 17. Continuing our series of interviews with youthvoice champions, ‘YoungVoicesHeard’ heard about his journey and hopes for the future. We also asked what advice he would give to young people starting out and to older people listening.
What motivated you to first get into the world of youth participation, advocacy, and social action? “Without a doubt, the main catalyst for my involvement in social action was the EU Referendum in 2016 when I was 16. It wasn’t necessarily out of frustration of the result, but because it encapsulated a larger sense of apathy towards politics by our generation. Young people were overwhelmingly disappointed by the result but hadn’t engaged in the process that made the result a reality. I wanted to do something about it. In order for young people to initiate change, they needed a comprehensive understanding of our democratic structures. For me, the best people to emphasise the importance of young people gaining such an insight into politics, were young people themselves.
Can you tell us more about how you turned these beliefs into action? We founded UK Youth Politics to provide young people with the skills needed to make social change, by providing free training in public speaking, campaigning and policymaking. Despite starting as a local initiative in Manchester, the organisation has gained national attention for its grassroots projects and youth-led focus. Priorities over the next 12 months include supporting an expansion of the team as a new generation of young activists to join the organisation. We’re also embarking on new branding, social media, and online training strategies which should ensure that the organisation becomes a leading figure in #youthvoice movement during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the work of the organisation grew, I became further involved with other projects. In 2016, I became an ambassador of the #iWill Campaign, coordinated by Step Up to Serve to promote youth social action. I have since represented the campaign at events, speaking on panels and helping to advise on its public affairs strategy. In his role as an ambassador, he was invited to meet former Prime Minister Theresa May and discuss the impact of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU on young people.
What topics have you championed? I am a passionate advocate for further mental health funding, having coordinated YouthPolitics’ #OnMyMind campaign which lobbied the Department of Health for additional funding to CAMHS. In addition, I’d like to see more focus and attention on climate activism, seeking to ensure that young people are involved in climate diplomacy and using political structures to influence change.
Who have you been inspired by/role models and why? My role model is someone who is often discarded from history; Claudette Colvin. In March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks defied segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did exactly the same thing. Her courage in defying racist policies truly at such a young age blows me away every time I hear the story. In addition, her insistence on her constitutional right to remain where she was demonstrates how important educated citizenship really is. She is a testament to the courage, intellect, and power that young people have.
What youth voice projects do you admire? The past few years have seen a huge increase in the number of youth-led organisations forming. That has only been possible because of pioneers such as the ‘British Youth Council’, ‘My Life My Say’, and the #iWill Campaign in breaking down the stigmas attached to youth leadership. But projects I admire the most are ones such as ‘Reclaim’ in Manchester, that work to empower young people on a grassroots scale, reaching people that larger organisations often miss.
What are your top five campaigns/or priority issues for change?
1. Youth inclusion in policymaking; more serious steering groups attached to the work of government bodies to advise, consult, and influence policy – especially during the Brexit process. This includes fighting for a dedicated Youth Minister and increasing the number of Members of Parliament under the age of 30.
2. Increased funding to youth services; over 600 youth centres have shut down since 2010. That is unacceptable. How are young people from all backgrounds supposed to reach their full potential if they don’t have the opportunities to do so?
3. Increased funding to youth mental health provisions; from my experience, this has been an issue which unites young people. It is a devastating reality that only 1/3 of young people get the mental health support they need. This needs to change.
4. Promoting citizenship education to those in need; this has been a priority since I first embarked on my social action journey. Young people from all backgrounds need to be aware of the democratic process and how they can initiate change.
5. Fighting for a shift in policy on the issue of climate change; young people have spread the awareness about climate change, and that’s an important step. It’s now time to influence decision-makers by using the political process to cause a shift in policy in favour of green energy.
What are you doing during COVID restrictions? We have all had to adapt our campaign work during the Covid outbreak, but social action certainly hasn’t stopped. If anything, it has presented us with new opportunities to connect and do everything online; from team meetings to training events. I am still fortunate enough to be able to commit to speaking engagements online, so I’ve still been active in policy consultations and roundtable discussions.
Do you feel youth-voice is being heard enough in society, such as participation in the COVID national debates? Covid-19 has exposed a harsh reality about society. Young people are not given a seat at the table. Youth voice relies on two things, young people being active and decision-makers being receptive. Sadly, the latter of the two appears to be non-existent at the current time, despite our best efforts. Under 18s being unable to submit questions to the government briefings exemplify this perfectly. Granted, the government is extremely busy – but young people have pertinent concerns about our education, jobs, and life post-pandemic. It is essential that the government listens to these concerns and acts upon them.
What top tips would you give to other young campaigners/changemakers to get their message and across and achieve their goals for change and social action?
My advice to young people consists of two key parts. First, never doubt your ability to make a change. It sounds clichéd but never underestimate the power of knowing that if you work hard, change can come. You may face some criticism along the way, but just know that you’re campaigning on an issue for a reason. Find that reason and hold tight to it.
Second, use your age to your advantage. Not only are young people more creative and driven, but they can mobilise in numbers adults could only dream of. Be cheeky and don’t be scared to ask for something if you want it; whether that’s hiring a free venue for an event or a sponsor for some money – the worst thing they can say is no. I’ve found throughout my experiences that nine times out of ten, whenever I have asked for help from an organisation or an individual, they have been delighted to. So just go for it!
What top tips would you give older people and decision-makers – in listening/responding?
Young people are not the issue, they are the solution. It may seem a daunting prospect to give young people a seat at the table but I can assure you, you will not regret it. In fact, feedback I often receive is that it is one of the best decisions that an organisation has done. If you are working on an issue that young people face, in government or on a charity level – it only makes sense that we should be consulted and contribute to finding a solution. A policy concerning the rights of demographics such as particular religions or genders would not be passed without properly considering the viewpoints of those who the policy would affect. So why are young people any different?
What’s your current policy priority going forward?
To ensure that young people are at the table when decisions are being made. It is one thing to be consulted, it is another to be actively involved in policymaking. This is incredibly important during the Brexit process in particular, quite simply because so much is at stake. I’m looking to working with parliamentarians, ministers, and organisations in order to ensure that any youth inclusion is meaningful and not tokenistic. In the future, I hope to utilise the media in order to achieve this aim.
What national change would you most like to see that would increase youth-voice/participation in society? Compulsory political education in schools. It is something I will keep fighting for until the end, as educated citizenship should be the foundation of every liberal democracy. How can equality be ensured when only a certain few are aware of the workings of the democratic process? For me, it is the crucial key to unlocking a society in which all are able to participate and in particular, where young people are aware of their ability to enact social change.
Any last Words..
Young people may make up twenty percent of the present, but we are one hundred percent of the future. Treat us as such.
This interview series is part of Young Voices Heards response to the PowerofYouth Challenge 2020 set by the iwill campaign for youth social action.