News analysis: A new breed of volunteer emerges

Francois Le Goff

A think tank report urges the sector to engage with young people on their own terms.

Hooded teenagers may provide the answer to the Government's long-cherished dream of community renewal, a report by think tank Demos said this month.

The report, Start with People, argues that far from being apathetic, young people do want to improve their communities, but on their own terms.

It looked at the work of five voluntary organisations funded by the Big Lottery Fund and identified a new breed of volunteers that it calls 'Hoodie Two Shoes'. These are highly motivated young people who volunteer in a way that is rooted in their own experience.

One example of this new phenomenon is Sharmarke Hersi, a former gang member who lives in Camden, London. With the help of Envision, one of the charities examined in the report, Hersi recently set up his own martial arts training and DJ skills workshop to keep young people off the streets.

"He might have never got involved in his community otherwise," says Tom Doust, co-founder of Envision.

Doust says there are other young people like Hersi. This year, the charity launched a pilot project in north London for teenagers who have been expelled from school. One group is making a film about issues that matter to them.

"These young people are more concerned about getting a job than about climate change," says Doust.

Breaking with tradition

The report suggests that these new forms of volunteering are a world away from the traditional village halls and coffee mornings. It says that teenagers need to take the initiative themselves, rather than being forced into 'worthy' activities in which they are not interested.

"Volunteering shouldn't be about giving up time to do something unrelated to the rest of your life," says the report's co-author, Paul Skidmore.

He adds that civic participation only works when it is 'real', as opposed to the artificial or simulated relationship youngsters have with institutions such as schools. This makes Envision's work much more appealing than citizenship programmes taught as part of the national curriculum, which promote the Government's antisocial behaviour rhetoric.

As one of the pupils quoted in the report puts it: "Citizenship sucks.

It's patronising. Telling a bunch of 17-year-olds once a week 'don't spit, don't swear' is ridiculous. I know what's good for me."

Skidmore criticises voluntary organisations that approach young people with an agenda. "Some come with a menu of activities, a simple model that they can replicate and roll out at the national level," he says. "Envision is not driven by targets and project outcomes, which gives it the flexibility to respond directly to young people's ideas."

Doust says his charity is different from others, such as People & Planet, that seek to motivate young people around their own charitable aims.

"We will not come in with our agenda and say 'climate change is a big issue, what are you going to do about it?'" he says. "We put the emphasis on young people's choice and ownership of ideas." He explains that the projects set up by teenagers are their own - not those of their schools or external organisations that tell them what they should do.

People & Planet, which raises awareness of global issues such as poverty and climate change among 16 to 18-year-olds in UK schools and universities, suggests ideas such as getting fair trade supplies in canteens. It teaches sixth formers how to write press releases and lobby at local and national levels.

Meredith Alexander, head of campaigns at People & Planet, insists the charity is not a volunteering organisation, but a campaigning one. She says young people are invited to put forward their own ideas so long as they fall within the charity's three charitable purposes - poverty, human rights and the environment. "Tackling crime is not within our remit," she says.

Justin Davis-Smith, deputy chief executive of Volunteering England, agrees that voluntary organisations don't always put teenagers in the driving seat. "One of the recommendations made by the Russell Commission was that there should be more scope for young people to come up with their own ideas," he says. "Voluntary organisations aren't particularly good at engaging with them. They don't know how to sell volunteering and it often comes across as a bit old-fashioned."

Envision's approach is not suitable for all voluntary organisations, because many need a constant flow of volunteers to support their work.

"There are basically two models," says Davis-Smith. "One is about getting people to volunteer for your cause, and the other is more youth-led. Both should be developed further."

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