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Why don’t teenagers have a greater say in their future?

Speaking out., CC BY-NC-SA

I’m 14 and live in Manchester, UK. I want to know: why do we have no say in our future, from Brexit to having no say in school?

– Anonymous.

This article is part of I Need To Know, a Q&A service for teenagers by The Conversation.

Thanks for the question!

If you’re thinking you should have a say, I agree with you. Your school would seem fairer if you had a say in how the rules are made (some schools do this by running a school council). And Brexit probably feels really unfair because you have to live with the consequences, even though you didn’t get to vote on it.

I think both your school and the country would be run better if you had a say. As a student, you’re an expert in what it’s like to attend your school. If you had a say, your school could learn from your experience and include your ideas.

So why don’t you have a say? In most democracies, there are actually rules against it. In UK general elections you have to be at least 18 years old to vote, though Scotland and soon Wales can include people as young as 16 in some votes, and there is a campaign to change the rules and lower the voting age to 16 for all elections nationwide.

Read more: We must seize this chance to bring young people into the heart of British democracy

Even when there aren’t rules, adults leave young people out in other ways. For example, many local council meetings are at 7pm or 8pm on weekday evenings – that’s very inconvenient for most teenagers, on a school night. At other times, adults let young people have a voice but don’t give them power to change anything. That’s not a proper say.

A lot of young people feel this way. In this report from UK Young Ambassadors and the British Youth Council, only 8% of young people said politicians knew what was important to them. So, I thought a lot about your question, and came up with some advice about how you can have a say.

Get organised

Young people can build power by working together. You can start by finding other people who share your interests. This might mean joining a community group, or getting together with friends to form your own.

Decide on what you want to achieve: your big idea. Then break it down into smaller, achievable goals. A good example of this has been in the news lately. Right now, all across the world, school pupils are protesting against their governments’ inaction on climate change.

Greta Thunberg strikes every Friday. livoeian/Shutterstock.

But this global movement didn’t start big. It began with just one person: Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old from Sweden (she was just 15 when she started striking). You can read her post about how she started organising the strikes on Facebook.

Learn from others

There are lots of organisations already up and running, which help young people organise, raise their voices and develop their skills. For example, there are youth councils all over the UK, including in Manchester, as well as other youth groups and community organisations such as Citizens UK. Write to a local group to see what they can do for you.

You can also get ideas from young people in other places. For example, did you know that in some parts of New York, people as young as 14 get to vote on how money gets spent in their communities? This is called participatory budgeting, and it gives the whole community a bigger say on how public money gets spent. Maybe your school council or local community could do the same?

Students vote during participatory budgeting in New York. Costa4NY/Flickr., CC BY-NC

Write to your representative

Even some of the traditional ways of making your voice heard can be powerful. For instance, you could write to your Member of Parliament (MP). MPs depend on the local people, who they represent in parliament, to tell them about the issues that concern them. MPs can support a cause and might even be able to vote to make a new law in parliament. It’s your MP’s job to listen to you, whatever your age, and you can write to them any time.

The Children’s Society has a guide to letter writing, and lots of other advice on how to make a petition to show you’ve got lots of support, or how to use art and photography to raise your voice.

Don’t just write one letter: organise others to write, too. Keep a record of when you wrote. You are likely to get a response from your MP, but if it’s not the response you wanted, keep writing. Ask questions like “what information would it take to change your mind on this?” or “how many names would I need on a petition to show you that this needs your support?”. Don’t give up.

Two tips for talking to a politician: show them why your issue is important, and explain what you want them to do and who it will help. Be as specific as you can, and give evidence wherever possible.

Get creative

You can express your opinions, share your research or raise awareness of your issues in all sorts of ways. This could be through art, music, social media or some other way. In Manchester, young people who are caught up in the justice system are working to influence reform with grime lyrics as part of this project by the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

Teenage activist Amika George started her work against period poverty on social media, and her campaign has already won £1.5m in funds from government to support women who can’t afford the menstrual products they need.

There are loads of tools which could help you to get a more meaningful say in your school, community or country. Reach out to people you know. Find out their skills and work together. And if there’s something you want to change, do some research. See what other young people have done.

Because when young people get organised, they have the power to make the world a better place – for all of us.

If you’re reading this and you would like some advice about having your say, on an issue that matters to you, or in the place where you live, leave me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer you. You can also find me on Twitter (@bennosaurus).

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