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We have been silenced for too long – it’s time for a youth revolution

So we’re getting ‘back on track’? That may be true for middle Ireland, but not everyone.

RECENTLY, PEOPLE ARE talking more regularly about how Ireland is getting back on track. We are overcoming the recession, things are looking up, apparently. Maybe for middle Ireland but not for everyone. What about the young people growing up in poverty, who don’t have a voice and don’t believe anyone is working to make things better for them?

Take the young people in Future Voices that I work with every week. These bright teenagers coming from tough backgrounds, are constantly experiencing inequalities that believe they have no control over.

Inequality is real

Take for example, some of them being denied the right to sit higher level subjects at Leaving Cert which they are well able for, and forced instead to take ordinary level subjects – severely affecting their future educational options – because their schools cannot accommodate two separate classes. It’s hard to imagine this DEIS school occurrence happening at a private school.

Others in the group who are trying to make a better life for themselves, are also denied the right to study in a calm after-school study environment, away from sometimes dysfunctional homes, because they don’t have the financial means to pay €180 per term for this study club privilege at their schools. In all these cases, there are no fee waivers for those whose parents are on social welfare, all of which occur at schools classified as deprived.

Others amongst them with recognised disabilities are not given provisions they are entitled to.

Held back by prejudice

Or let’s focus on the wider questions of marginalisation and inequality that they experience. Why is it that these young people must give fake addresses in order to secure a part time job, because if they reveal the truth that they are from Finglas they will automatically be discriminated against? Or the fact that they are constantly harassed and intimidated by the Gardaí because of the areas where they are from?

Even as these bright, articulate, and well-mannered young people are trying to make a better life for themselves, they are constantly being held back by prejudices and told not to aspire.

Lives are being shattered 

Equally, I think of the many other young people I know – well-educated, driven and enthusiastic – who are stuck in a cycle of unemployment and relentless JobBridge schemes. Forgotten about and unseen by a government that talks of a new sense of optimism.

I also reflect often about my own brother, growing up in poverty and who left school with no qualifications and no hope, who struggled unemployed for five years until he could take it no more, and ended his own life at 21.

So who represents them? These young people don’t believe that anyone hears what they have to say, and when they do speak out they don’t believe that anyone listens. Who represented my brother? The sad reality is that he, like many other young people in Ireland, was invisible. These are the hard truths that we as a society must face up to.

Empowering marginalised young people 

In pondering these questions, this led Future Voices to create a new project, Youth:Elect, to give hope to our young people on our current programmes that a different way is possible. A way in which they have a voice, role models and the confidence to put themselves forward as change-makers.

Youth:Elect will work with a group of young people under 30 from marginalised backgrounds who intend to stand for election to the Dail in 2016. We are working in partnership with all of the main political parties in Ireland as well as having a number of spaces reserved for individuals hoping to stand as independents.

The year-long programme will empower each of these young people who will stand for election to become strong voices from within their communities. The programme will focus on practical skills needed for them to run a successful election campaign, and demystify the process for marginalised communities.

Advocates for change

However, the programme is also geared around the importance of effectively representing their communities and in helping them to individually develop what they stand for personally, centred on what matters to their communities and separate from their party politics. In employing this grassroots community leaders model, it is our hope that these young people will continue as advocates for change after the election, regardless of whether they win, in speaking out about the issues and injustices and making change happen for their communities.

If we can have more representative political systems, maybe the young people of Future Voices would not feel so disenfranchised about the decisions being made by the elite, about the daily issues which affect them, and which they currently play no part in.

Mairead Healy is Chief Executive of Future Voices Ireland. She is also an Ashoka Fellow and a campaigner.

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