What young people need to feel engaged in culture

Aliyah Irabor-York (bottom row, centre) shown with other Pupil Power members
Aliyah Irabor-York (bottom row, centre) shown with other Pupil Power members

The founder of Pupil Power argues that a seat at the table and the opportunity to contribute to how society is shaped is one way to help young people feel better engaged in education, work and culture.

The most common phrase I hear, notably in the sphere of education, work and culture, is: ‘Young people are the future.’ Although true, I despise it for several reasons: young people shouldn’t have to feel the burden of the damage caused by older generations, and then pressured to have all the answers; and, importantly, we aren’t just ‘the future’, we are ‘the now’. We should feel activated to play a part in our communities and societies because we are living here today, which is why, after attending a National Education Union (NEU) conference two years ago, aged 16, I set up Pupil Power.

Aiming to fuel initiative and cultivate a sense of agency within the classroom and beyond, Pupil Power is challenging the reimagination of the 21st-century education system. It is the norm in too many spaces to have a room of adults talking about youth-related issues, without a single young person present. We, as young people, have something to say on what we like – or, in most cases, dislike – on matters we care most about. In my eyes, this is the perfect reason to facilitate a space for us as young leaders to share opinions and ideas. Pupil Power demonstrates the healthiest ways that collaboration and co-production can take place as we are supported to do so with leaders and organisations that share a similar ethos – this includes, most recently, the Children’s Research Centre and the Edge Foundation and KCL ‘Young Lives, Young Futures’ Research project.

Generation Z is unapologetically charismatic, critical and creative. Our energy and curiosity to explore the world around us drives us to point out the flaws and start conversations about how things could be better. Whether on education, climate or human-rights injustices, we are eager to be solution providers.

Young people understand that art is power; yet there is consensus that progress could be made to ensure it is accessible for all

In the summer, a focus-group poll of young people I conducted showed how important engaging with galleries and museums is for young people. I found it fascinating to unravel how much young people enjoy learning about historical and contemporary art. They understood that art is power, that it can be influential in improving your mood and act as an escape from other issues in society. Yet there was a consensus that progress could be made to engage more young people and ensure it is accessible for all. Insightful and relevant questions were asked to figure out exactly what young people from the ages of 11 to 21 truly thought limited or increased their engagement with museums and galleries.

The majority of the young people in our network are from minority ethnic backgrounds, and there was a consistent response relating to the significance of the representation of Black people in art in order to connect and feel seen. This sparked discussion on what, and who, is displayed. Additionally, there was a desire for more information on different careers in art and museums, for in-person as well as for online experiences, and for making museums accessible no matter your background. This cannot happen without us young people. I found there was a huge appetite among young people to take responsibility and to consult on boards, councils or committees.

So I leave you with this: Whoever you are, whatever role or responsibility you have in your community or organisation, reflect on how inclusive you are of the most marginalised voices, including young voices. Young people, more often than not, are used to their ideas being overlooked or consulted as a ‘tick-box’ exercise. Are youth perspectives an add-on or an afterthought, or are they truly embedded within your framework? If they aren’t, what are you waiting for?

To find out more about the work I do within and beyond Pupil Power, please check out our website and social-media pages. We are always looking to connect with young people, leaders and interested organisations that can support our work.

A version of this article first appeared in the winter 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

Art Fund is currently fundraising to raise £1 million for museum projects that inspire young people. Find out how you can help #EnergiseYoungMinds.

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