When Ndidi Okezie was announced as the new chief executive of UK Youth in October 2019 she was “very intentional” about the upcoming job; taking considerable time between leaving Pearson plc, where she had served as vice-president of the education company’s secondary school portfolio, and stepping into the charity.
“I have been excited about roles before, but it was nothing like this,” she says, voice cracking with amusement at the memory.
“I thought so hard about where I really wanted to be as the CEO, and I did so much preparation work. I am the geek who googled ‘top business books to read for a CEO’ – and then I bought them and made my way steadily through them. I was ridiculous.”
The opening weeks of her tenure in January were, aptly, textbook: beginning exactly as Okezie had planned.
“I kicked off with a listening tour and met every single member of staff, either individually or in very small town halls. The charity was in a different place to what I had expected in terms of its culture and strategy, less ‘baked-in’, which was a good thing for me.”
Anyone who started a new job in 2020 will recognise these opening moments as the calm before the coronavirus storm and, sure enough, six or seven weeks into the job, everything Okezie had meticulously planned for was being thrown out of the window.
“I spent so much time knowing that I intentionally needed to build up trust, and show my character to the people who I needed to follow me – personal face-to-face interaction was my key weapon,” she says.
“Now I was going to need to keep building trust, but also thinking: ‘We are going to have to make significant changes and everyone will have to trust that I am not a mad person.’”
It was far from the only challenge – Okezie also had to contend with a new and urgent reality for UK Youth. In the first weeks of the pandemic the charity, which supports networks of youth organisations around the country, was hit by an income loss of more than £2m, the closure of its Avon Tyrrell outdoor learning centre and the cancellation of major fundraising events due to take place in the spring and summer.
“We went from an organisation that was stable and poised for growth to one that was suddenly having to think about survival,” Okezie says.
“We furloughed 65 per cent of staff and then started thinking: ‘Oh my Lord, how are we going to get through this?’”
And there was yet another layer of complexity for the charity – that even though no one could have predicted the specific challenges of a global pandemic, UK Youth was nonetheless set up to tackle them.
“We exist because young people are in a spiral, and we clearly see the impact that Covid-19 is having on young people,” says Okezie.
“Problems with digital inequality, health and safety and online safety, mental health – none of these things were new to us, but there was a broader societal awakening to them, and all of those issues were most certainly exacerbated by Covid.
“We did not have the option to close shop and figure out what we were going to do, because we exist for the youth sector, and needed to be there for these organisations.”
As with so many charities, UK Youth was “bombarded” with demands, requests, and calls for help in the first phase of the pandemic.
At one point, Okezie says, she was sitting in on four working group meetings a week, across sector bodies, government officials and other networks. “Everything was go-go-go – I don’t think my feet touched the ground for six weeks.”
If ever there had been a critical moment for the charity’s mandate it was now – and it struck at the exact moment its resources had been decimated.
Young and Black
UK Youth survived those first six weeks thanks to relentless prioritisation, with all of the organisations’ energies invested in three simple objectives: to preserve the ongoing stability of UK Youth; to respond to the needs of young people being affected by Covid-19; and to deliver broader support for youth workers across the country.
“With these clear buckets of priorities in mind, we stopped everything else. If it wasn’t this, it was not happening,” Okezie says.
The precedence of supporting the needs of young people bolstered the charity’s groundbreaking response to the Black Lives Matter movement, after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed by police in the US.
“When those murders happened it swept across every area of my life, of my organisation’s life, the lives of my staff and the communities that we work with,” Okezie says.
She describes herself as a “skilled compartmentalist” with a gift for separating the different elements of her life – “if work is challenging you can double down on making sure things are home are OK, that you are taking care of yourself, and vice versa” – but adds that “for me, and for so many people, the thing about 2020 is there has been absolutely no reprieve. There is no area of life that has not been viscerally challenged and contended with.”
In the wake of the killings, she describes a moment where she was “doubled over in pain at what had happened”.
She says: “I was so beaten down, the emotional reservoir was drained, and there was nothing left.
“I was spent. I felt overwhelmed and helpless, and on top of that we were getting messages from young people in youth organisations expressing the same feelings. My instinctive response was: ‘I don’t have the capacity for this. I’m balled up in the corner, I’m the chief executive, and I can’t even get up.’”
Yet the overwhelming need of the young people the charity worked with – “they didn’t know where to go or what to do with this emotion” – rapidly gave way to a realisation that Okezie was in a position to help.
“I realised I have agency, I’m the chief executive, I can do something,” she recalls. “I did not have to turn to anybody to ask permission. That was a real ‘get up, woman’ moment – I realised I didn’t have to ask anyone and there was something I could do.”
This was the moment that sparked Young and Black: UK Youth’s national initiative to create a safe space where young people could talk about their experiences and share what they were feeling.
Okezie sent an email to the entire staff body of the charity, inviting them to take part in a conversation: “There was no mandate, no agenda: it was for people who wanted to join, but the majority of the organisation showed up.”
After sharing her own feelings of pain, others in the organisation opened up.
“Black colleagues spoke so emotionally, so vulnerably, and colleagues from other races spoke with such shock at what they were hearing, and a recognised lack of understanding that this was happening for their colleagues,” Okezie says.
“They were amazing conversations – so uncomfortable, so difficult – but so powerful.”
The charity subsequently moved to extend the reach of this conversation, and safe spaces that facilitated it, on a national level under the hashtag #YoungandBlack. It was joined in supporting the “active listening” campaign by The Diana Award, My Life My Say, and the singer and activist Jermain Jackman, and has run a series of events covering topics such as black male identity in the UK, being black in rural spaces, and the misplacement of black people in education.
The appetite for events has been huge, with more than 300 organisations expressing a desire to be involved.
Okezie believes this reflects not just the positive desire for change, but the ongoing issues with delivering big systems change, as the wider charity sector grappled with issues of race and racism.
“The sector does not feel equipped to talk about these issues,” she says.
“What I love about Young and Black is that I think there is a lack of real, sincere, authentic empathy and understanding in the wider sector. So you are asking people to solve a problem they do not understand.”
Every event run under the campaign umbrella has resulted in overwhelming shock and reflections from white people saying they had no idea what their black colleagues experienced on a daily basis, Okezie says – despite the fact that black people “have been asking for people to make space and implement change for years”.
But it is vital, she stresses, that in trying to confront institutional racism, the sector resists the temptation to run straight to solutions and outcomes.
“You can’t get change without real acknowledgement and understanding,” she says – drawing on an analogy from her early career as an English teacher: “You can always tell the difference between a student who has read the whole book, and someone who has read the chapter you have set them and then asked them a question on. When you have real depth of understanding of an issue, your solution is better informed.”
Bringing hope to a ‘lost generation’
Underpinning everything Okezie speaks about is a profound respect and concern for the young people the charity works with.
And there is no shortage of things to be concerned about, with young people forced onto the mainstream agenda as one of the demographic groups most severely affected by the pandemic.
While less likely to suffer the health implications of the virus, advisers on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies have warned the government young people risk suffering a catastrophic impact as the collateral damage of the crisis. The closure of schools in the first lockdown caused children of all ages and backgrounds to lose basic skills and learning abilities, with children from vulnerable or disadvantaged backgrounds by far the most badly affected.
A recent survey of 2,000 UK 16- to 25-year-olds found almost half of young people in education worried the gap would set them back for the rest of their life, with more than one-third feeling their education had “gone to waste”.
These feelings were significantly more pronounced among those from poorer backgrounds.
More than one in 10 young people aged 16 to 25 who were in work lost their job during the pandemic, with youth unemployment on course to hit its highest levels since the 1980s. Mental ill-health among young people is skyrocketing.
“Whether it’s employability, mental health and wellbeing, learning, serious violence or online abuse, the statistics are shocking,” Okezie says.
“As someone who sits at the intersection of so many areas and support for young people, we truly have not understood that millions of young people did not learn for six months – given that we normally worry about the ‘six-week dip’ of summer holidays – six months, in homes that are unstable, experiencing digital exclusion.”
Then she says, there are the transition moments “that we all take for granted, and that young people have had completely removed from their lives” – important exams, university transitions, transformational phases of their lives.
“The fact that educational solutions have not been joined with the youth sector and the non-formal youth education taking place in the world is a dereliction of duty to young people,” she says.
Yet despite the massive challenges facing young people, Okezie stresses the vital need to talk about this crisis with care, thinking carefully about phrasing – and never forgetting the fact that the subjects in question are profoundly aware of the narrative.
“We can’t just talk about the ‘lost generation’ and then move on to the next sentence,” she says.
“There is such urgency around having a national strategy, and we are so caught up in the pain and the frustration of the moment ourselves, that we are forgetting that young people are listening to us.
“We have to balance the narrative in a way that gives them hope. Yes, it’s awful; yes, it’s problematic – but we are not leaving you. We are standing right beside you, we are going to get through this, and we want to hear from you.”
The ‘strange’ OBE
Okezie couldn’t say whether it was the transformational Young and Black campaign, her relentless commitment to supporting young people, or something else entirely that led to her being recognised for services to young people with an OBE in October. In fact, she has no idea who nominated her for the award.
“You would never find me submitting myself to things like this – I find it very icky and embarrassing. The first thing I did was ask if I could find out who put me forward, and the next thing I thought was – I’m not sure if I would thank them,” she says frankly.
There are multiple reasons for Okezie’s ambivalence towards the accolade. To have just a handful of individuals acknowledged for work carried out by a sea of people felt strange to her; she didn’t know much about the honours system; she experienced “really conflicting emotions about the whole empire thing” and what the honours system therefore represents.
“I did not want to be spotlighted in this way. It felt very strange, so – in the sincerest way – I rejected it,” she says.
“I sent a note to my internal team saying ‘I don’t know who nominated me, and I’m not interested in who did it, either – but can we just say ‘no’?”
A series of challenging conversations immediately followed, with both internal colleagues and family members, who argued the recognition went far beyond Okezie’s personal feelings.
“One of my best friends said to me: ‘How dare you?’” she recalls.
She was ultimately persuaded that the award mattered because it could open doors, and “every time those doors open you are doing something for young people. I was talked into it because of what it would allow us to do.”
She observes wryly that she is yet to see these opening doors in practice, but is willing to be persuaded.
Far more tangible was the reaction to the news, once the honour became public knowledge: Okezie received letters, videos, communications from people she had taught 15 years ago and not seen for more than a decade, an experience she described as totally overwhelming.
“It was one of those moments where, as a black female leader, you are reminded that every step you take, people are watching,” she says.
“The people who have gone out of their way to tell me what seeing those letters next to a black immigrant woman’s name means – I could never have imagined it.” For that, she says, she will suck up the embarrassment and the discomfort.
UK Youth has so far managed to keep its head above water across the pandemic – but, like so many other charities, not without losses.
In October the charity announced 14 of the 39 staff at its Avon Tyrrell outdoor centre were facing redundancy to avoid the otherwise likely closure of the 135-year-old site and, Okezie says, more difficult decisions will likely have to be made in the months to come.
“From our perspective, something has to fundamentally shift for us to push into next year,” she says.
The disconnect between the sector and government is, at this stage, a well-worn frustration for the sector, and Okezie is no stranger to these feelings.
“The amount of time I and my sector colleagues have invested in trying to give government data, insights, working groups – unfunded time we have spent feeding into trying to get things moving – and now it’s November and nothing has moved. It’s ridiculous,” she says.
A £500m Youth Investment Fund, promised by the government in its 2019 manifesto commitment, is also yet to materialise, with Okezie joining other sector leaders calling for urgent funding to save the sector from collapse in a recent open letter to The Times newspaper.
The most disrespectful thing, she says, is the ongoing misunderstanding of what charities are speaking about when they advocate for their survival.
“Everyone understands that when you talk about challenges facing schools, what it really means is young people. When we talk about charities, we mean beneficiaries – and we shouldn’t have to keep explaining that. It’s bizarre that we keep being drawn into this institution over service debate.”
And yet, Okezie is hopeful about the future: she doesn’t know how to be any other way. “It is 100 per cent in my DNA – the unapologetic, unabashed belief that the world can change.”
If there is a single silver lining to 2020 it is that UK Youth has managed to build change drivers in a matter of weeks and months that otherwise would have taken years.
It is now for the charity to leverage the energy, and transform it into something that “doesn’t just plug the gaps for today, but shifts the entire ecosystem for young people forward”.
“That is my hope,” Okezie says. “The vision is a world in which all young people are equipped to thrive – and I choose that word very deliberately, because you can just survive in life.
“I believe that every young person, regardless of circumstance, background and area has the right to a life where they can thrive. I actually believe that is more possible now than ever before.”
And from the person who bought books and studied up on how to be a good chief executive a year ago, does Okezie think that for all the traumas of 2020, the year has taught her something about innovating on the wing?
The question makes her howl with laughter. “I can only say yes because I am still standing,” she says.
“Would I write a blog about it? No. But I am so proud of the incredible people I am blessed to work with, and there really was no guarantee we would be where we are today, so: I take pride in the fact that – somehow – we are still here.”