By Tom Kingsbury | Political Editor
The Youth Speak Forum 2021, a youth event themed around UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) eight, decent work and economic growth, was held on March 27.
The event was designed to help the current generation of young people discuss and find solutions to major problems facing them today.
Shnay Chohan, host of the event, began the day by talking a little about why it was themed around SDG eight.
The goal of decent work and economic growth, he said, was all about people working in good jobs and business using their resources well, as well as efforts to reduce inequality and prevent exploitation.
He also thanked AIESEC, a youth leadership organisation, for helping make the event possible.
Also discussed throughout the day was the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted young people by disrupting their studies and making the jobs market more uncertain than ever.
Attendees of the event included Larissa Kennedy, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) and Joe Griston, who has made two billion-dollar startup companies, as well as a panel who discussed reducing inequalities.
The NUS President began her talk by discussing some of the past achievements of the almost 100-year-old students’ union.
She pointed out the fact that when it was founded, an influenza pandemic was present, and talked about the challenges facing students today as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Students are feeling “exploited and erased”, she said, being forced to pay for housing they cannot access and last year’s switch to online learning without the preparation or infrastructure to do so seamlessly.
Kennedy said universities are seeing “students as pound signs, not people”, and that students were “essentially lied to about what was possible” in this academic year for the sake of securing their tuition fees.
Education, she argued, should be a fundamental and public right, not a privilege that means “saddling us with debt”.
She stressed the importance of using the resources we have to make a change, saying: “let’s be infuriated”, and channel this into collective action.
She called for free, accessible and lifelong education, and the need to decolonise education – to eradicate the systemic discrimination built into the education system.
Griston is Chief of Talent at Arrival, an electric vehicle company which was recently valued at $13bn.
He began by describing the exponential growth of technology, and how young people today are the first to grow up with connected technology.
He stressed the importance of adaptability and open-mindedness to new technology, giving the example of how Netflix would never have thrived like it has if older, larger media companies had not resisted the growth of the internet and had bought into streaming.
Listening to how existing businesses have been doing things, he said, can often be the wrong move, and past experience can sometimes be a detriment when the way of doing things shifts.
He described his unconventional model of recruitment, hiring people not based on experience but potential, and valuing emotional intelligence more than certain skills, with the idea that skills can be taught much faster and easier than a good mindset.
He also explained how the business was centered around the people making the biggest impact, and not the time worked there or seniority.
To Griston, businesses must “embrace new technology, hire the greatest young minds and set them free.”
Panel on reducing inequalities
Chohan chaired the panel, which consisted of Harvey Matthewson, the Disability and Health Commissioner at the UK Government’s Social Mobility Commission; Dominic Arnall, Chief Executive Officer of LGBT+ charity Just Like Us; Jessica Macias, CoFounder of Leadaprenuer and women’s advocate; and Esther Odejimi-Uzokwe, Programme Director at 10,000 Black Interns.
Macias spoke about the way in which the gender pay gap – currently at a mean of 6.5% or £1.65 an hour – literally devalues the work of women.
She said this is despite women asking for pay raises more than ever and a higher female graduation rate than male.
She added that many women need more flexible positions because they are a carer, and are much more likely to apply for a position if flexible hours are offered.
Arnall described some of the effects of the pandemic on LGBT+ people, saying that they are more likely to have more important relationships with people outside their household, making the pandemic particularly tough.
He added that intersectionality was especially an issue, and that being LGBT+ as well as a member of another protected group was even more difficult. People who were LGBT+ and black, he said, were the most affected.
Arnall also noted that we must try to avoid using people as encyclopedias – constantly making those under a protected characteristic carry the weight of having to represent their group whilst they are also trying to live their lives.
If you do want to find out more, he said, you should do some of the work yourself, and pay people to share their lived experience with you, rather than expecting it for free.
Matthewson talked about changing attitudes towards disability, noting that there have been improvements but that there was still a “friction caused by lack of understanding of disabled people” and that it was important to educate and talk about inequality.
He spoke of the difficulty of finding employment when disabled, saying: “Many employers looked at me and wrote me off straight away”.
He also explained that disabled people have been hit very hard by the pandemic – especially during isolation, as mental health struggles can often come with a disability. He said people should ask questions and take a personable responsibility when it comes to learning more about inequality.
Odejimi-Uzokwe detailed the work of her organisation 10,000 Black Interns, renamed after the success of the 100 Black Interns programme, which partnered with investment management firms to offer more places for black interns.
She said there was almost a ‘gaslighting’ of young black people, who were told the structural inequalities they were facing were not there, for a long time, and that it took the killing of George Floyd last year for societies to do more to address structural inequalities.
These inequalities were exacerbated by the pandemic, she said, as those with less opportunities or connections were in an even more difficult place than before.
“Who you know becomes 50 times more important than in a face-to-face world.”
Odejimi-Uzokwe said it was important to have an open honest dialogue, and to do the boring things like reading books on inequality to help combat the situation.
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