As we crawl towards the 29th March, the date Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, our society remains totally divided. In fact, 69 per cent of us feel that the referendum has increased divisions, according to a recent poll. However, more than ever we must search for the people who are responding and doing amazing things to bring people together. Well, look no further, as the charity ‘My Life My Say’ (MLMS) and its ‘Democracy Cafés’ are doing just that.
MLMS empowers young people to engage in democracy by providing members with a space to communicate and the tools to lead change in society. Their mission is to rebrand politics and redefine the way we debate for the benefit of young people.
Since 2016, and as Brexit continues to be the agenda of an older generation, the charity has aligned itself with an optimistic approach towards a post-Brexit Britain. Its advocacy arm is now pushing parliamentarians to include young people in the debate, especially evident through their All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on a Better Brexit for Young People (BBYP).
For our younger generation, MLMS is acting like a beacon of hope in the Brexit quagmire.
I want to talk more specifically about MLMS’s outreach work. Termed a ‘Democracy Café’, these are an adaption of a 17th-century coffee house tradition encouraging informal meetings where young people of all backgrounds and ideologies are given the chance to discuss the policies and issues that concern them. They are the charity’s distinguishing feature and have been described by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, as ‘a unique and innovative way of consulting youth views’. The charity has held 83 cafés with most of them taking place outside London. This week I attended the charity’s 84th, at their event ‘Building Bridges: A Youth Vision For A Common Future’.
Situated on the 39th Floor of the Canary Wharf building, the event attracted over 200 people. It was an inspiring venue in the financial heart of the capital which is so often the place that symbolises our social divides and unfair society.
The event hosted a brilliantly diverse list of speakers, clarifying the charity’s agenda. MPs Stephen Kinnock, Caroline Lucas and Tom Brake all spoke. There were also speeches from those outside the political bubble, including social media influencer Nissy Tee, pro-Brexit campaigner Joe Porter and founder of the SheEO alliance, Esther Akpovi. Each speaker carried themes of encouragement, self-belief and team work. ‘Compromise is not a dirty word’, Stephen Kinnock insisted. Meanwhile, Caroline Lucas showed solidarity with America’s own symbol of youth and progression, representative Ocasio-Cortez, by promoting her ‘Green New Deal’ economic policy. Nissy Tee urged us to ‘reach out, and across’ whilst Esther Akpovi struck the most poignant note, getting the crowd to repeat, ‘I am going to get exactly what I want and I’m not going to stop until I get it’.
Which is exactly what it felt like as the audience were invited to begin the Democracy Café. How it works is the audience, split into smaller groups, prioritise the issues that concern them the most. Then, the top three issues from each group are ranked and discussed, which in this case were Crime, Mental Health and Brexit. What follows is an honest discussion where participants tackle these issues and open the door to new solutions. This is a bottom-up approach where members from the floor dominate the microphone and say how they feel, regardless of opinion.
This was my first Café, but I am now sure this is the way we are supposed to engage with each other. A democratic process to prioritise discussion, followed by an honest debate with one another. It created a level playing field where all ideas were welcomed and applauded, encouraging a higher level of interaction. In the same discussion were two young men, one with a ‘Leave means Leave’ t-shirt, and another presenting a ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ sticker. They sat with each other in a Brexit debate, a matter which so obviously divides them, but they were respectful, honest and mature. Compliments that are seldom applied to our legislators.
In June, it will be three years since the EU Referendum result and in that time British society has regressed. The ideological wounds that were so painfully opened by Brexit have only been worsened. In fact, the last few months have seen new levels of social and political unrest. Children have boycotted school, images of men in yellow vests harassing politicians have become common, MPs have quit their parties in the face of rising levels of racism and xenophobia, and young men continue to die on our streets as rising levels of knife crime symbolise our fractured society. As the year progresses I feel the negativity growing like a crescendo and I am not sure how much more Britain can take.
However, I am certain that with charities like My Life My Say the momentum can be shifted. When a diverse group of enthusiastic young people gather to examine the issues we face, there can only be beneficial outcomes. This is how we create new ideas and promote positive change. For people like me, who often struggle to stay motivated by our politics, the hard work and creativity of groups like My Life My Say are essential if we want to rebalance the perspective and reintroduce hope.