Gabrielle Mathews  aged 22, from Coventry, is a long-term champion of #YouthVoice and has just graduated with her first degree (Intercalated Global Health BSc) and is continuing her studies in Medicine at Imperial College London. She is now the youngest member of the NHS Assembly, one of the first Youth Expert Advisors at NHS England and Improvement, having volunteered for the NHS Youth Forum. She is the former chair of the Young Persons’ Advisory Group at Birmingham Children’s Hospital and in 2018 was selected as a #iwill ambassador for health at Step-Up-To-Serve. Earlier this year, Gabrielle was appointed to the oversight board at the Research and Economic Analysis for the Long term Centre at The Health Foundation. She has also worked as a young technical advisor to the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre with Public Health England and was recently awarded a Diana Award for her advocacy work. Continuing our series of interviews with youth voice champions, ‘YoungVoicesHeard’ heard about her journey and hopes for the future.

What motivated you to first get into the world of youth participation/advocacy/social action?

I was really lucky to grow up in a family and community where the value of standing up for what you believe in was really impressed upon me. Since primary school I’ve taken part in fundraising for local charities including Myton Hospice and volunteering including taking part in Operation Christmas Child annually, which I loved. However, the first social action opportunity that I personally sought out and took part in was when I joined the Birmingham Children’s Hospital Young Person’s Advisory Group (YPAG) at age 15. It was such an honour to find my voice and opinions really valued as I sat on interview panels including for the Trust Chairman, worked on the design of new buildings and met so many amazing other young people. The environment and experience empowered me to truly understand my rights as a patient which was so valuable when I fell ill soon after. I was able to articulate what mattered to me which, at the end of year 13, was sitting my exams including one in hospital. That experience set me on the path I am on now, wanting to see the magic that BCH has, spread across the whole NHS and also pursuing a career in medicine, which I hadn’t even considered before I started volunteering there.

Who have you been inspired by/role models and why?

I am driven by a desire to see a society without so many of the injustices that I have struggled with or seen my peers face. I want all children and young people to be supported to live a life that they want to. This vision provides huge inspiration to me, as do the people that I meet and stories that I am privileged enough I hear on this journey. After being awarded a Diana Award for my work, I was asked to reflect on what her life and work meant to me. In my mind, she stood for inclusivity, warmth, and the strength in symbolism and gentle challenge to push for change. These are three qualities that I really hope to reflect in myself, as a youth advocate I want to honestly represent the children and young people that I work with, and being open to hearing all facets of their stories is of the utmost importance. Being warm and approachable is of equal importance. I’ve found that I am most capable of influencing change when I truly engage with policymakers and leaders in an open way, talk with them to find where their reservations are, and address them as honestly as I can. I’ve taken on roles because the symbolism of having a young person in that space gives me a platform upon which I can stand and call for more voices like mine to be heard and role model how next time, they can truly work with young people.

What other youth voice projects would you recommend or admire?

I most admire the youth voice movements that we are currently seeing around climate change and racial inequality, seeing individuals who may not normally engage with political discourse finding their platform and articulating their experiences is so awe-inspiring. The way social media is being levied as a tool to share resources and have more conversations around these issues is a pleasure to see and I can’t wait to see the change that is affected.

What are your top five campaign/or priority issues for change?

My vision is that every child and young person is supported to live their life as they would like to, and this is currently impossible in light of the huge societal inequalities that we face. The top five issues for change for me are:

1. Rapid action to tackle the climate emergency.
2. A more holistic approach to education including a focus on citizenship and health literacy throughout the school system which should include seeing students as partners who can shape the school environment and curriculum. (I explored this in my dissertation on Health Literacy and it really changes student outcomes)
3. Affirmative action to overcome race and gender inequalities in the workforce.
4. Increased provision of social care and support to relieve the burden on unpaid carers.
5. Cross-sector working between local authorities, education, NHS, police, and many more to tackle the crises of poverty, obesity, and youth violence.

What have you been doing during COVID lockdown?

During COVID19 I co-led a campaign #YoungPeopleMatter to draw attention to the issues that children and young people were facing in lockdown. There was increasingly negative rhetoric in the media, focusing upon them flouting the rules. However, I saw CYP fail to be addressed by the government, facing huge uncertainty about education and their future, struggling with their mental health due to increased pressures on friendships, relationships, and increased anxiety whilst all their support networks including the youth sector pulled away. The campaign brought together a huge coalition of charities, which we convened, including Stonewall UK, The Prince’s Trust, UK Youth, British Youth Council and many more to tell young people that they do matter, direct them to online resources at this time and formed a group which wrote official government guidance directed at young people. The final part of the campaign was a call on the government to directly address children and young people. The government has still not responded to these requests and as such CYP have had no voice at all during this crisis. #YoungPeopleMatter

As we return to ‘normal’ I plan to attend more events remotely but also to continue to focus on the strength in collaboration. I sit as a youth representative on the ‘BackYouthAlliance’ and I can only see value in organisations working synergistically.

What are your hopes and fears for the new normal post-COVID? I really hope we can emerge to a new world where we are all more closely attuned to what is important to us and to the world around us. This time in lockdown has been an interesting mix from people discovering new hobbies to exploring inequalities that they had previously been unaware of. My Instagram has been flooded with banana bread, NHS donation challenges (Run 5, Donate 5, Nominate 5) and more recently incredible conversations about racial inequalities and the Black Lives Matter movement. I only hope that this new reflection continues post-Covid, that we remain aware of how closely interlinked all our lives are in society and are able to leverage that to lead to positive change. As a youth expert advisor in the NHS it has been amazing to see the system move rapidly and adapt at a speed that I never thought possible to care for the most vulnerable. Watching the dedication of peers who graduated early to start working on wards and staff who were working weekends and bank holidays to make sure that guidance was published for the public. I hope that as we return to normal we don’t forget the sacrifices that were made during this time, 181 NHS Workers in England and 131 care workers have died doing their job and caring for others. The respect we have for the NHS, that was so evident in weekly applause, needs to continue and include true support not just gestures. The speed at which the NHS was able to adapt is something that I would love to see continue, the willingness to try new ways of working would be so beneficial and I hope that is not lost in a return to ‘normal’. We need to hold onto those new ways of working.

Do you feel #youthvoice is being heard enough in society?

Youth voice is definitely not being heard enough in society and to me will not be until we recognise young people as partners in affecting change. Currently, young people are not seen as capable of participating in decision-making and that is what has to change first. We need to engage with young people in all sections of society, help them to develop the skills to be able to understand their life and the society in which they live (citizenship skills and literacy) and empower them to feel like they can influence it.

What top tips would you give older people and decision-makers to be more effective at listening, responding, working with, and for Young People? 

To be really conscious that when you engage with young people and hear their experiences that it is meaningful. Meaningful to me means having the courage to listen openly and to hear the conclusions or suggestions they might draw and challenge them. I don’t suggest that we challenge an experience a child or young person has but the conclusions that they draw from can only be strengthened by discussing it with you, with the wealth of experience you have in understanding the context, previous work, and limitations of the organisation within which you might sit. Listening without an intent to change or truly engage is worse than not-listening in my eyes.
Here is an extract from my blog about engagement for #iwill

Last word – This is one of my favourite quotes

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead


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