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Young People’s Activism in Times of Austerity

Introduction

Hi my name’s Liz and I’m a second year PhD student in the Geography department, where my work focuses on young people’s activism in times of economic and political change. My research is done in collaboration with the young engagement organisation RECLAIM, and explores the following questions: Why might young people get involved in activism, and what kind of campaigning work are young people doing? How does learning about politics from a young age impact young people’s lives? And how are small charities managing after a decade of cuts to public services?

In depth…

RECLAIM is a Greater Manchester-based youth leadership and social change organisation committed to supporting working class young people to have their voices heard. Young people (aged 11 and up) working with RECLAIM campaign against a number of issues including young people’s exclusion from political decision making, a lack of representation within politics, and negative class stereotypes. 

We know that economic cuts, also described as austerity measures, in the UK and across parts of Europe over the last decade have had devastating impacts on public services, and, affecting young people in particular, youth services. These austerity measures are experienced differently across social groups and places around the UK, and we know that working class communities and charities have been disproportionately affected by cuts to services and the changing funding landscape. In this context it’s important to explore the ongoing marginalisation of young working class people in political decision making, and how young people are campaigning and engaging in activism in times of economic, social and political change.

Picture of three boys on a bridge in London, one is wearing a t-shirt that says “working class young people being seen, being heard and leading change. RECLAIM.”

My research involves working with staff and young people at RECLAIM over a year to explore the kind of activism and campaigning young people are doing and why, how young people feel about gaining a political education at an early age, and what impact austerity measures have had on RECLAIM. Each day is a bit different, but mainly the research involves going along to events and workshops run by or for young people, going to team meetings, hanging out in the office and doing some interviews and workshops with staff and young people at RECLAIM. In the current global pandemic all face to face fieldwork has stopped, and instead I am following team meetings and other activities online and delaying some of the research with young people until the social distancing measures are lifted and it is safe to continue with face to face research. 

I hope this research will provide some important information about how young people are pushing for social change, what supports young people’s activism and what acts as a barrier, and what small charities are doing to manage a difficult funding situation.

Picture of a group of young people and RECLAIM staff and volunteers outside Rochdale town hall holding placards. 

My Route into Geography

I’ve done quite a few different things over the last 10 years and I never imagined at 18 that 10 years later I would end up doing a PhD in Geography – as you’ll see I took quite an unusual route to get here…

I really loved languages and reading in school and I was interested in learning about the cultures and histories of different countries so after trawling through university prospectuses and getting advice from teachers I decided to apply for a languages undergraduate degree. I went to Exeter University to study French and Italian, which included a year abroad. Doing a languages degree was great because alongside the language classes (French and Italian grammar, speaking and translation), I also got to study French art, Italian novels, and the history of both these countries. But the real highlight was doing a year abroad teaching English in Rome, I made lots of friends, visited some beautiful places, and ate A LOT of delicious pizza and ice cream!

I also did some modules outside of my degree in politics and international relations and for the three years that I was in Exeter I was very involved with Amnesty International and did a lot of campaigning against human rights abuses across the world, including a lot of work on gender equality and women’s rights, which is something I’m still passionate about.

When I left Exeter I was fortunate to get a paid internship with a small project in London called the MsUnderstood Project, working on young people’s experiences of gender inequality. Following this I worked briefly as a teaching assistant in a year 1 class, and in a bookshop as a Christmas Temp, and then got a job as a research assistant at the University of Bedfordshire where I stayed for two and a half years. My job there involved working with young people to think about the best ways of protecting children from harm, and how to improve services to make sure they listen to children and work in the best way to support children and young people.

All these experiences instilled in me a real desire to work to support young people to have their voices heard in a variety of settings, to make sure policies and systems work for young people, based on their expertise, and to work to challenge wider structural systems that typically exclude children and young people from power and decision making. When the opportunity came up to do a PhD in collaboration with RECLAIM, who are doing brilliant work on these issues, I thought this be a fantastic research project to work on, and so far it definitely has!

Going further...

  • For more information about Geography at MAnchester, visit the website: https://www.seed.manchester.ac.uk/geography
  • Amnesty International UK is the organisation I first started working with when I was a student, to find out more about their work to protect human rights across the world you can check out their website here: https://www.amnesty.org.uk
  • The MsUnderstood Project was set up to improve local and national responses to young people’s experiences of inequality. The project has now finished but you can find information about the project and a number of resources on their website: http://www.msunderstood.org.uk
  • The University of Bedfordshire have a number of resources, many created in collaboration with young people, aimed at improving support for young people who have experienced harm. You can find out more about their work here: https://www.beds.ac.uk/ic
  • You can find out more about RECLAIM and the brilliant campaigning work they are doing here: https://www.reclaim.org.uk 
  • A recent campaign run by young people at RECLAIM was the #IfWeDidThis campaign, you can watch the video here: https://www.reclaim.org.uk/ifwedidthis
  • Kids of Colour is a Manchester-based organisation which provides a platform for young people of colour to explore race, identity and culture and challenge the everyday, institutionalised racism that shapes their lives. Their website has loads of brilliant videos and information about upcoming events (when these are back on): http://kidsofcolour.com
  • If you are interested in campaigning work Campaign Bootcamp have interesting and informative blogs, along with other resources to help you get started: https://campaignbootcamp.org
  • To keep up with me, check ut my Univerisity of Manchester page: https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/elizabeth.ackerley-2.html




 

My Journey as a Geography Student

Introduction

I’m Alex, a 2nd-year Geography PhD student in the School of Environment, Education and Development at the University of Manchester. My research is focused on grasslands, and using new sensing technologies to better understand the ecosystem processes that take place in them – mainly cycling of carbon, nutrients and water. I look at images taken from satellites and drones to study the landscapes over a much larger scale than would be possible on the ground, which means we can monitor how climate change is affecting these environments, and predict what might happen in the future.

In depth...

HOW I GOT HERE:

I always found Geography exciting; thinking about far-away places and the different lives that take place in them was a fun escape from the routine of school life. I visited quite a few different universities before I chose Manchester. This would be my top piece of advice if you’re thinking of moving away – you will do a lot of growing up during your university years, so it’s really important to find the right place. Take a few days to visit different options, get a feel for them, chat to people and imagine yourself living there.

The highlight of my degree was my dissertation project, which was my first taste of designing my own research tailored exactly to the things I most enjoyed. I wrote it about landscape restoration in the moorlands of the Peak District, a place I had visited and loved as a kid which I got to see from a new, scientific perspective. The other most important thing is the friends I made. There are so many ways to meet new people and make friends at university – some of my best friends I didn’t meet until my final year, when I joined circus club.

After graduating I did some conservation internships with two wildlife charities. I was sick of sitting indoors reading about the outside world, and wanted to go and spend time in it! Both the organisations have lots of volunteering opportunities if you’re interested in a career outdoors (links at the bottom). After a couple of months however I’d had my fill of the outside, and moved to the University of Leicester to work as a Research Assistant, making a map of landcover changes in the UK as part of a Europe-wide project. I met so many interesting and inspiring people at Leicester that I realised I wanted to continue my career in academia after all, and this is when I decided to apply for my PhD. There are lots of different routes into academia, so if you don’t know exactly what you want to do then it is absolutely fine to spend some time exploring, doing different jobs or volunteering. That way, when you do finally decide on your PhD topic you know it’s the perfect choice for you.

My first study site, in the Yorkshire Dales

MY RESEARCH:

For me, it is very important in research to feel that you are contributing to something bigger, important and worthwhile, but also doing something interesting and fun day-to-day.

The big picture of my research is focused around climate change, and how we can manage our ecosystems to ensure that they will continue to thrive and provide us with food, fuel, water and other essential resources in the future. I’m interested mostly in the belowground communities of soil bacteria and fungi, which are an essential part of any ecosystem as they keep soil healthy and make it possible for plants to grow, but are often forgotten about (probably because they are difficult to see). I want to know if it is possible to make predictions about these communities – for example how diverse they are, or how active they are – based on properties of the plants that we can see aboveground. To do this I use sophisticated imagery (this is the fun part!); cameras which can see the whole spectrum from ultraviolet to short-wave infrared light, rather than just the blue/green/red we can detect with our eyes. This reveals very detailed information about the plants, which I hope will hold the clues to what is going on in the soil.

Satellite image of the Dee estuary

ACADEMIC LIFE:

There are some brilliant things and some big challenges that come with academic life. The best thing is how vibrant and busy the university environment is; everyone has their own project or projects going on, and there are loads of opportunities to get involved in all sorts of activities. In the past year I have been out helping friends with their fieldwork, running events at schools and museums, helped charity projects, and been on two training schools abroad in Estonia and Austria. You will never be bored! The downside of this is that, as you are trusted to manage your own time, it can be easy to get carried away and overstretch yourself, get stressed out and feel alone in tackling your enormous workload. My main advice is to communicate honestly with your colleagues and peers if you are struggling, as you will find that there are plenty of people who feel the same and are happy to help out.

Going further...

This is a website with some introductory information and tutorials about remote sensing for secondary school learners. Topics range from mapping areas affected by the 2010 Haiti earthquake to correcting distorted images resulted from a plane being buffeted by the wind. It is developed by the University of Bonn, so parts of the website are in German. There’s plenty for English speakers too though! If you’re really keen this might be good to do in a group with a teacher, perhaps as a lunchtime club. Or you could try yourself at home!

This is a mapping project set up by Dr Jonathan Huck in the Manchester Geography department. We need your help to map remote parts of Uganda using satellite imagery, in order to deliver prosthetic limbs to people affected by war.

The Royal Geographical Society has lots of inspiring Geography content on its website. There’s a section for schools, with competitions and events throughout the year for secondary school pupils.

The Wildlife Trusts and Woodland Trust have lots of events and opportunities for getting involved, especially as a young person. Their websites are really informative and easy to navigate.

You will have heard of National Geographic, but I thought I should mention it as this magazine is what first got me into Geography. You don’t have to get a subscription yourself – your school or local library might have one.

Finally, here is the website for Geography at the University of Manchester! It has loads of information about the courses, facilities and research that goes on in the department.