We Belong is the first UK-wide charity to be set up and run entirely by young migrants. It aims to make young migrants collective voices heard to ensure they have a say in shaping their future and can contribute fully to their communities and beyond with opportunities to thrive despite of where they were born.
Its main campaigns in Education, Immigration & Youth Leadership provide young migrants with the confidence and skills to take action against injustice.
As Outreach Officer, I am the direct contact for young people to reach out to We Belong regarding their situation, motivated by my personal experience of the government’s hostile environment policies. I facilitate regular events, bringing young people together and working alongside education institutions and civil society organisations to provide young migrants with information and wellbeing support.
Becoming a Trustee at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation and getting involved with the Power Sharing Project gave me the incredible opportunity to conduct this conversation with young people whose needs are often underrepresented in decisions that affect them, positively influencing my perception of civil society’s power and recognition that access is important for groups such as this in society. At We Belong, we believe we can create a society where all of us can make the fullest contribution and have our voices heard and respected and SMK provides the ‘Power Sharing Project’ platform for just that.
In our exploration of power with SMK, ten members of We Belong from across the UK participated in a workshop discussing the barriers to influencing change in our communities.
It was essential to begin the session by asking each young person what the word power means to them because the definition of power is subjective. For some, power was the ability to say no, the freedom to do anything you liked, the capacity to change the behaviours of others around you. These responses strongly echoed two main factors in our power: ability and influence.
Many in the session viewed power as a positive, non-static thing which allows individuals to have the ability to make decisions that hold influence on their chosen outcome. The level of influence is based on the societal position that the individual holds. Although this particular group of young migrants didn’t feel as though they had a lot of influence, if any, within their communities, they acknowledged that they did have power because of the choices they could make in their day to day lives. The choice to attend the ‘Power Sharing’ workshop and share their experiences to help shape the support offered to the same communities they come from was one example.
The conversation starter of defining power got us thinking about what the future of civil society—particularly groups that advocate on behalf of young migrant communities—should look like. And we talked a lot about our personal experiences in childhood, schooling and local communities as young migrants in the UK. The group further explored power through the lens of their personal and public communities. To my surprise there was very little debate on the identification of what their community was, we spent more time talking about who is responsible for making change.
Some young people spoke of their experience of not feeling heard in their communities on issues that affected them, for example their experiences in early education. The combination of language barriers and cultural difference around unspoken norms in their countries of origin, made it extremely difficult to have their say. They were taught to not challenge systematic ideals and they never saw themselves represented in the positions of power within the schools from staff to other beneficiaries. Two participants spoke about the newfound confidence they had by comparison. This workshop demonstrated that there is power in having your community, your identity, and your culture represented in spaces where decisions are made that directly affect you.
The workshop enabled us to understand how powerful it is to have the voices of those with lived experience at the table. We understood that there’s much work to be done, especially in sparking and maintaining conversations, widening access in representation to decision-making levels within organisations and accessing those people with power in organisations and in local government. Our ability to discuss and share our experiences with power is inextricably linked to many young people with lived experience.
What we can take from this is the importance of a collective and meaningful dialogue towards change. From listening to participants in this session, there was an understanding of young migrants seeing themselves and their place in society through a different lens to those in positions that make decisions which affect their futures. The young people’s perceptions of the possibility in getting their voice heard on issues that matter to them were jaded because of what they had experienced in their personal and public communities; both in their countries of origin and in the UK.
My takeaways from this workshop are that it is essential for all of us to work together to identify the issues that underrepresented groups face. Young people at We Belong are committing to something greater than their individual selves, so it is not enough for civil society organisations to reap the benefits and offer minimal representations. The history of power illustrates the benefit to progress is having those with lived experience leading the change. Better integration and sharing the power is a collective responsibility which will result in young livelihoods being changed in an effective way.