Showing the positive face of being young in hard times

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ON the face of it you wouldn’t want to be a young person right now.

Spiralling tuition fees mean the average student who starts university next year is likely to leave with debts of around £50,000, while those who decide to try and find work face a daunting prospect, with youth unemployment at a record high.

Add this to continuing stories in the press about knife crime, gangs, anti-social behaviour – not to mention the summer riots which wreaked havoc across London, Birmingham, Manchester, Salford, Liverpool and Nottingham – and young people in this country could be forgiven for not wanting to get out of bed in the morning.

The riots in particular have sparked a national debate about the state of our society. It is from the embers of this discussion that a new community project, run by the Three Faiths Forum, has emerged in Leeds aiming to give voice to the untold stories of young people who are making a difference where they live.

The Untold Youth is part of the Undergraduate ParliaMentors Programme, which also has youth schemes in Nottingham, Manchester and London, and highlights the different ways young people are defying the negative statistics that so often seem to define them.

Leeds University student Solene Wilson is one of three volunteer youth workers involved in the Leeds project who have spent the past three months interviewing young people in the city about the work they do in their local communities. Together they have contacted various sixth forms, schools and community projects across the city to speak to young people and are using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to reach a wider audience and raise awareness about their campaign.

“It’s really important to me as a youth leader to speak out about this because young people are constantly being portrayed in the media as hoodlums and I just think this is a major wrong,” says Solene. “As someone who works with young people, and is a young person myself, I think this does a lot of damage because it creates a stigma even though I know that a lot of young people play a really positive role in their local communities.”

Among those they spoke to were members of the Leeds Silver Steel Sparrows, winners of the National Music for Youth Awards in 2009 and one of the best youth steel pan bands in the country. Solene, 19, says its members come from places like Chapeltown and Holbeck and are a great example of young people actively making a difference in their community.

“We spoke to one of the teenagers involved and he told us that being part of the group boosted his self-confidence. It also helped him make new friends and instead of being bored with nothing to do it allowed him to practice his skills and be part of something positive,” she explains.

Youth crime is undeniably an issue in the UK, but Solene feels it has created a false perspective of young people in this country. “Some young people do bad things and nobody condones that, but 50 per cent of media coverage about young people is do with crime rather than portraying a positive image. Most young people are not on the streets causing trouble, they are in school or out doing good things and making a difference.”

Chaya Fligg, 17, is involved in various Jewish community events and helps run a children’s service in her local synagogue. “I am also involved with a scheme called ‘Leeds leaders’ in which I volunteer regularly with different aspects of the community including the welfare board charity shop, the Zone, a youth club for children in which we run regular programmes, and a residential home where we interact with the residents by playing bingo and reading to them.”

Noah Levy, also interviewed for the project, works as an organiser in local Jewish groups. “A very special thing about the Jewish community is that everyone is willing to give time to those who need assistance, and from a young age I have attended communal events such as the remembrance service in the town centre,” he says.

For Solene, such stories and many more like them offer a more accurate portrait of young people in Britain today. “There are a lot of young people doing inspirational things but we still get this completely inaccurate image of them in the media and that is why we’re doing this campaign, we want to redress this imbalance because if no one stands up and says something then these attitudes won’t change.”