In the latest issue of Dazed, we turn the spotlight on the journalists, young politicians and activists steering the agenda for young people in the UK — from writers like Ash Sarker turning up the pressure for equal representation in parliament, to Lily Madigan, Labour’s first transgender women’s officer. Below, we speak to each campaigner about how they’re fighting to ensure that young people have a say in the future of our country.
UK universities have traditionally been a hub of youth activism; but according to arms trade activist Jess Poyner, students should be casting a critical eye on the dirty money within these institutions. “Rightly, many students have protested UK military involvement in conflicts around the world, most recently the attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. But students need to be aware that their university has contributed towards the development of arms sold to countries with appalling human rights violations such as Israel and Saudi Arabia,” explains Jess Poyner, who just finished her tenure as the Universities co-ordinator for the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). “Universities have direct investments in arms companies, they’re even at recruitment events. A study I carried out on 22 universities revealed they’d received £40 million from arms companies to carry out research.”
Poyner has worked on campaigns fighting against racism on campus, university investments in fossil fuels and the support of arms trade – while they may not immediately seem interconnected, to her, they’re all human rights issues. Britain is now the second biggest arms dealer in the world. While the government recently sent almost £200 million to Yemen for aid and claims to be at the forefront of responding to their health crisis, UK weapons companies have made £6 billion from Saudi Arabia since they started bombing the region. “We need a bit of utopian thinking to help us work out what we want the UK to look like one, two, 20 years from now,” says Poyner. “And university is a great place to start.” (KA)
Moved by an honest talk with her mother at 16 years old about Somali culture, Fatima Awil was left curious. While she found lots of beauty in the country’s traditions, her mother bluntly denounced female genital mutilation (FGM) as “one of the bad ones”. “Since I was a little girl I have been passionate about eradicating FGM,” she explains. “I just couldn’t understand how such a harmful practice could be justified.”
With more than 5,000 cases of FGM recorded by the NHS in England last year alone, those who view female circumcision as a rite of passage are finding ways to evade UK laws. And, since most victims are children who are unlikely to call the police on their own parents, it’s incredibly tough to prosecute. “It is child abuse,” says Awil. Somalian women accounted for more than a third of the victims. Awil, now 22, works as a bridge between her community and the government via grassroots organisations like FORWARD and Youth For Change, a global network fighting for girls’ rights worldwide.
Having spent years of “winging it” in activism herself, Awil attended a training session at Campaign Bootcamp, an organisation that teaches young people to run their first campaigns. “It is hands-down the best training course I have attended,” she says. “As a young activist you face so much tokenism. I’m tired of being in spaces where people discuss us but don’t let us partake in the decision-making process to change our future. I truly believe that change must come from within the communities who are affected. We are best placed (to say) how the government, legislators and other individuals involved can go about ending FGM culture.” (KA)
“I’ve always been an activist, first and foremost,” says journalist and political commentator Owen Jones. His words, which appear centre-stage in newspaper columns, Twitter TLs and fiery calls to action spat across rallies and protests, are what he calls his means to fight, a platform where he can “agitate for the causes I believe in”.
From his initial work with trade unions to his monumental books The Establishment and Chavs, and mass campaign work across the UK, Jones is one of the most vocal, visible figures in the British political sphere. A passionate advocate for the young working classes, he raises the forgotten up, critiquing those at the top for their brutal action and unfeeling inaction. “Young people often find it difficult to see the language and issues they care about in politics,” he says. “For a long time what politics has done well is (say), ‘We can do what we want to young people because they won’t vote.’ But what we saw in the election was that this actually wasn’t true. Young people played a critical role in stripping the Conservatives of their majority, and they can continue to do that.”
“We have to make politics less dour,” adds Jones, who regularly writes about mental health and drug abuse issues, as well as cuts to vital public services. This means making youth issues a priority, and giving a platform to the most marginalised: the working classes, people of colour and women. Jones cites direct action groups UK Uncut and RECLAIM, alongside musicians Akala and Stormzy, as some of the social and cultural catalysts mobilising change. What’s more, as a gay man railing against unjust social systems, Jones spotlights some of the most urgent queer issues, such as racism in LGBTQ communities and rampant transphobia: “We mustn’t forget that gay rights in the 80s were a fringe issue. This is our moral panic, and history can be such a damning judge.” (AC)
“I get loads of requests to talk about things I fundamentally don’t give a shit about – like ‘Should white people wear bindis?’” exclaims journalist Ash Sarkar, 26. The Muslim north Londoner is reinventing political punditry with her fiercely feminist frankness, catching the attention of BBC’s Newsnight and Channel 4’s controversial talkshow Genderquake. Her success hasn’t resulted in complacency in her fight for representation in politics, however. “Getting brown faces in high places isn’t worth a damn if ultimately they’re reinforcing the same old power structures. When it comes to media appearances, you have all the political value of a tap-dancing dog to the producer,” she explains. “If you are trying to achieve your goals playing by the rules of their game, you’re going to lose.” As an editor at alternative left-wing outlet Novara Media, Sarkar challenges power, racism and austerity. For her, journalism is activism. “There is a tremendous sense of urgency. There’s an urgent danger with white nationalism and poverty but we have a credible socialist alternative – so there’s also an urgency based on hope.”
Sarkar has argued with every pale, stale male on UK terrestrial television to highlight her cause, including a memorable clash with Piers Morgan about singing the national anthem in schools. “That was just funny – I could tell he was getting really wound up,” she says. “People always try to paint you as a caricatured thin-skinned, PC-brigade snowflake. As an unreasonable leftist!” With each impassioned television appearance, Sarkar cements herself as a political force – and always starts and ends with her signature gun fingers. “I always did them in photos at school, I thought I was being hard. Being a bolshy little teenager has never left me, I guess.” (KA)
“Politics can’t be left to the politicians,” says journalist Conrad Landin. “Real change will not be achieved through voting alone. Many ballot-box revolutions have ultimately failed because they have not been able to mobilise a mass movement.” As the Scotland editor of the Morning Star, Landin zooms in on lesser-known issues that are crucial to the current moment. He’s uncovered the blacklisting of union activist workers, and is all for renationalising the railways. What’s more, his work against corruption has even led him to revisit past governments’ dark secrets. Landin found that, during the miners’ strike in the 80s, the Thatcher government secretly supported ‘scab’ (non-striking) miners in its attempt to undermine radical trade unionism. “So many stories of injustice are ignored by the British press… This kind of investigative reporting becomes a form of activism in itself.”
Without a commitment to laying bare all injustices in society, the Morning Star team wouldn’t have been able to lead on the ‘spycops’ scandal, which revealed how undercover policemen and women used fake identities and entered into relationships with activists they were sent to monitor. “The deception of activists into long-term relationships by police officers is something many people didn’t think could happen,” says Landin. “But it did, and possibly still does.”
Even though railways and construction-worker rights don’t make for the sexiest political soundbites, digging into the secrets of the state is what makes Landin’s work truly radical. “Journalists such as Paul Foot have had a lasting impact on society thanks to their dogged pursuit of unfashionable subjects, and asking questions that are truly uncomfortable for the establishment,” he says. “It’s an essential component of journalism and of a healthy democracy.” (KA)
At 18 years old, Lily Madigan achieved something brilliant, becoming the first transgender women’s officer for the Labour party. In her role, she’s led a successful campaign to save Sure Start centres from Tory cuts, and convinced the council to protect local refuge funding – all this while battling vile transphobic abuse online and off. Youth participation in politics, especially from those who the Tories ignore, is more vital than ever.
“We can do better to accommodate everyone,” says the now 20-year-old Madigan, who has learned to rise above the unwelcome distractions. “I love my platform and I’m so incredibly grateful for it. The biggest lesson for me has been that I don’t have to engage in negative things. I can say no to this TV debate, and I can just block this transphobic person without responding.”
Having joined the Labour Party because of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the rousing 2017 election manifesto, Madigan hopes to continue pushing for better funding and access to public and specialist services that help and protect trans people along with other minority groups. “The young have a lot of battles that we need to fight,” she explains, “whether that’s against the damage that capitalism has done to our environment, fighting the increasing marketisation of education that lumbers students with debt and mental health issues, or fighting for adequately funded public services which have been privatised or gradually defunded by a neoliberal regime.”
In the future, Madigan has her sights set on bigger political platforms – perhaps even the biggest. “I would love to be the first trans prime minister,” she says. “Think big, and if you fall short, you still tend to succeed.” (AC)
“Manchester has not forgotten you, Stephen Lawrence,” the posters adorning the city read, remembering the black British teenager murdered in a racially motivated attack in 1993. The Enough Is Enough campaign, fighting discrimination and deeply entrenched inequalities, was led by young people’s charity RECLAIM’s then-13-year-old Samuel Remi-Akinwale. Now 18, he continues to challenge harsh realities, fighting for a better youth justice system, education opportunities and a more accessible political arena.
“Young people are assigned a future before they can decide their own path, leading to the death of ambitions,” says Remi-Akinwale, who says that many working-class people of colour, particularly in the north, can feel alienated by insular politics. “It’s clearer than ever that young people’s voices are not valued, we’re only approached as a token gesture. I believe it is our responsibility to amplify our voices through as many platforms as possible.” Exuding optimistic energy, RemiAkinwale is part of a switched-on wave with youth-led campaign group Team Future, who call for a “bold, ethical, and hopeful” politics.
“Working-class young people can be powerful as a collective, and it’s vital that this is recognised,” he says. “Young people are beyond the narrative that they are given.” He calls on the government to engage young people in discussion beyond formal settings, and allow his generation to shape policy-making on areas such as education and the justice system. Remi-Akinwale cites the Never Again anti-gun violence movement in the US as continued inspiration for youth’s boundless capacity for creative critical thinking: “Young people should be able to engage in politics in everyday life in their communities. I know I am not alone in my ambition, and the future looks brighter than ever.” (AC)
We are generation rent, jolted awake by the train line shaking our cupboard-sized flats, falling into debilitating anxiety attacks over sky-high landlord fees. Vicky Spratt, a London-born writer, editor and campaigner, felt the pull to get radical about the current housing crisis while working for now-shuttered young women’s website The Debrief. Spurring a disenfranchised peer group sick of being sidelined into affirmative action, Spratt launched her Make Renting Fair campaign in 2016, holding the government to its promise to ban crippling letting agency fees – a significant victory, but a small battle in the ongoing war for tenancy rights.
“Housing is one of the most serious problems facing this country, despite what the Brexiteers would have you believe,” she says. Working first as a journalist and producer on political programmes for the BBC, it was on The Debrief that Spratt led her campaign for young renters, as well as an explosive investigation into the nightmarish hormonal contraception links to mental health issues, Mad About the Pill. Though she won’t call herself an activist, Spratt believes good journalism always gets to the heart of social issues, shining a light on the need for change. “It’s about telling stories and holding politicians or people in positions of power to account,” she says.
Next, Spratt is releasing Tenants, a book that will drive an urgent conversation on the fucked-up system impacting the ways in which people live all over the UK. Ultimately, she asks our political leaders to engage in a “genuine, serious, and ambitious conversation about how we tackle the housing crisis – beyond the election cycle.” (AC)
JONI ALIZAH COHEN
Every activist has different reasons for devoting their lives to advocacy, but what unites them is an innate sense of what is fair. With a dad who suffered from chronic illness, Joni Alizah Cohen grew up with a “healthy hatred of the rich and the comfortable”. “We were always oscillating between periods of economic certainty and regular redundancies,” she elaborates.
Growing up with the discontent of her community ignited Cohen’s passion for politics. “I grew up in the Jewish community of northwest London: antisemitism, fascism and the far-right, along with the bitterly contested ground of Zionism and Palestine, were talked about constantly,” says Cohen. She remembers channelling some of her frustrations by screaming System of a Down’s lyrics about revolution at 11, and discussing communism with her friends as a teenager.
At 25, she organises with the political organisation Plan C and the trans rights campaigning and advocacy group Action for Trans Health. While protesting for equality can be mentally draining, she now lives in a community of supportive likeminded trans activists. “There’s something special about using your body to fight for a better life, and I would encourage every angry young person to do so without burning themselves out,” she enthuses. “We want long-term, sustained struggle – not a flash in the pan.” (KA)
Hair Alexander Soltermann using Bumble and bumble., make-up Anne Sophie Costa at D+V, photography assistant Gregor Stirling, styling assistant Marina de Magalhaes, hair assistant Brandon Borowski, make-up assistant Azure Bonaldo