While 48 per cent of the country wallowed in despair and a shellshocked Boris Johnson emerged to deliver a shaky speech on the EU referendum result, Elijah Walters-Othman came up with a plan. The 16 year old, from Manchester, was too young to vote on the Brexit decision that would affect the rest of his life, but the fallout that ensued after the votes were counted left him in a state of alarm.
“When I woke up on the day that Brexit happened, I went downstairs and I saw the news and everyone in society was in a state of chaos,” says Walters-Othman. “Everything was divided, there were people on TV breaking down and crying. And then I thought to myself: if young people could have voted at 16 they could have been the ones to make the difference.
“I’m not saying it from a political perspective, as in whether or not we should have remained or left, but it’s just that empowerment alone that young people could have made the difference. We weren’t given that chance, despite it being our future.”
“I came into Reclaim and for some reason I wasn’t feeling down. I was the exact opposite.”
A-level student Walters-Othman is one of a number of young people working with youth-led charity the Reclaim Project. Founded in 2007 by Ruth Ibegbuna, it is a non-party political organisation that aims to challenge inequality by offering a voice to young people from working class backgrounds and encouraging them to become leaders.
On 24 June, Walters-Othman headed to the Reclaim Project’s office in Manchester city centre and spoke with his peers and mentors about how they could respond to the disruption and uncertainty in the political atmosphere. “I came into Reclaim and for some reason I wasn’t feeling down. I was the exact opposite,” he says.
“I was really excited and really hyped up. There is another person who comes here, and we both came in on the same day with the same idea: we said we could turn this into a massive opportunity for young people because they were cut out of the equation and they could have made the difference. I believe that this is the time when we can now push for change and see young people taking the lead.
“We’ve always had the idea that there is a massive disconnection between the working class and politicians and the feeling that we’re not entirely represented, but I think after Brexit it became so much more apparent to other people as well, to the point where people are willing to invest in change because they can see that things aren’t the way they should be and it needs to take a new direction.”
Fourteen-year-old Cara Kennedy joined the Reclaim Project in 2015 after her mother saw a leaflet advertising the charity. She hasn’t yet chosen her GCSE options, but thanks to her involvement with the Reclaim Project the teen has been involved in planning community development projects and has even pitched for funding in Dragons Den-style scenarios.
Like many young people across the UK, Kennedy says she felt “shut out” of the decision on Brexit. “We felt that we weren’t listened to or represented at all,” she says. “We felt like we didn’t have a voice, and seeing as it was our future that they were deciding it felt very unfair.”
Together, the young people at the Reclaim Project hatched a plan for a new campaign to put young people’s voices at the forefront of decision making. Out of the embers of the Brexit referendum, the Team Future campaign was born. The initiative aims to encourage young people to call for bold and ethical leadership, and to hold politicians to account.
“Despite all the issues that young people are affected by, young people have never really been at the forefront of it,” says Walters-Othman. “We’re told a lot that young people are the future, but how often are we given the opportunity to lead it? It’s about young, working-class people being able to take the wheel and drive change in a way that will benefit all of society. We go through the same experiences that many other people do and we go through all spectrums of life, and that, in my opinion, is what a true leader should be.”
Team Future’s ambitions are big. The young people are planning to recruit 5,000 new voices from across Greater Manchester, and they are looking for 50 new ambassadors, aged between 12 and 22, to help them take the campaign across the UK in the hope of gaining nationwide televised coverage.
“We’re going to be recruiting people from different areas from the UK and leading marches,” says 15-year-old Hamaad Akhtar, who goes to school in Salford. “We’ve got some corporate partners funding us. We’re going to be doing the marches and making a manifesto. We want people to know that there is something wrong and there’s something that needs to be changed.
“I don’t like a lot of things but I don’t want to be one of those people who just sits there and moans about it. I want to try and make a difference.”
The team are planning to draw up their manifesto in March, with a view to organising marches in 15 cities across the UK in time for the EU referendum’s first anniversary.
“I guess where Team Future comes from is the fact that young people can be bold in leadership, they can be ethical in their decisions to help people, and they can be hopeful,” says Walters-Othman. “One of the greatest things about the power of the people is that you can hold your representatives to account when your voice is heard. They are there to represent us and to make our communities as ideal as possible.
“Many young people feel disadvantaged simply because of their postcode and where they are from, and that can play a really big factor in deciding whether or not they want to pursue a certain ambition, so I think leaders should take that into account and ensure that they do whatever they can to provide the platforms and opportunities so that young people can do these things. Postcodes shouldn’t matter – it should be something we can embrace.”
In a small boardroom in the Reclaim Project’s office, the young people nod their heads in agreement.
“I think we need more young people represented because so many working-class people are looked down on,” says Kennedy. “Politics is for everyone, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or where you are.”
Project lead Roxy Legane, who is working with the young people to deliver the Team Future campaign, says: “It’s always inspiring with our young people because although they are feeling negative, what comes out often is positivity, so what they brought was lots of hope into the office after the EU referendum when a lot of us were feeling quite bad about it.
“What they were feeling negative about was I suppose in their communities they saw lots of cultural divides, but they also saw a backlash from wider society, particularly at northern working-class communities facing the blame for the outcome. They were watching all these divides going on, and that’s what they felt negative about, and being aware that as young people they could be a positive hope in that and bring people together.
“In terms of the turnaround, it was very quick. They always look a lot more positively than we do as adults. They continued to be resilient.
“It’s been such an organically grown campaign and we didn’t predict it. It was really youth-led with young people coming in and saying they wanted to do this thing. We’re going to be looking at city selections from the end of March onwards and then taking national days out in June.”