By Georgia Rigg, RECLAIM project (First published in Outlook edition 64, summer 2015)

Troubled youths

 ‘Troubled’, ‘disengaged’, ‘disenfranchised’, ‘hard to reach’. The mainstream media, politicians and professional practice paint a picture of working class young people as being problematic, troubled and vulnerable victims (Checkoway et al, 2003).

The language that we, as professionals who work with young people, use when talking about, or to, young people is worth serious reflection. In a world where third sector funding is being cut in its millions every year, and charities are having to become more creative in order to keep services alive, describing young people as ‘disenfranchised’ and ‘disengaged’, may be a useful strategy. It may instil empathy in funders, keeping a valuable service alive for another year. Or, arguably, it may instil pity.  Pity may keep funders digging deep in their pockets, but it’s not going to convince them that a working class young person is capable of holding a real position of leadership or power. And what happens when the young people we work with hear that language?

‘Hard to reach?’ questioned one of our young people recently, ‘I’m not hard to reach. You just get the 15 bus to Moss Side’.

And he’s right, they’re not hard to reach. The young people that engage with RECLAIM Project are aged 12-15, and from working class communities across Greater Manchester.  They are labelled as ‘disengaged’, but they attend voluntary sessions outside of school time, during half term, weekends and evenings. Not only do they attend, but they engage critically. We don’t run any diversionary activities, such as table tennis, football, or other ‘fun’ events usually designed to entice ‘troubled youths’ off the streets and into youth centres.  We run intense, challenging leadership programmes where the young people are pushed, challenged and given real responsibility. 


Disruptive Leader vs the Good Citizen

There are several national schemes that exist to engage young people with the political world around them, aiming to do more than just diversionary activities. They are often called ‘citizenship’ programmes, aiming to instill values of good citizenship in young people, challenging them to lead positive social change.

But what do we define as good citizenship?  Westmeiner and Kahne (2004) explore this issue in their research on ‘youth citizenship’ programmes in the US. They define three types of ‘citizen’ that programmes usually have in mind. Firstly, there is ‘The Personally Responsible Citizen’.  She or he acts responsibly within their community, painting walls, picking up litter, volunteering, donating to food banks etc. The second type of citizen is ‘The Participatory Citizen’. This kind of citizen “actively participates in the civic affairs and the social life of the community at local, state, and national levels” (2004: 2).  Where the responsible citizen may donate to the food bank, the Participatory Citizen is helping to run the food bank. Thirdly, there is ‘The Justice Oriented Citizen’.  This kind of citizen “calls explicit attention to matters of injustice and to the importance of pursuing social justice goals” (2004:3).  In the analogy of the food bank, they would be asking why people are so poor that they need to rely on foodbanks in the first place (ibid).

Our programmes at RECLAIM Project encompass all three models, and more.  All types of citizenship are valuable and worthy, but they should be open to critical analysis. Take ‘Personally Responsible’ citizenship, which encourages small, local acts of kindness - this is undoubtedly a good thing.  But as Westmeiner and Kahne rightly point out, ‘volunteerism and kindness are put forward as ways of avoiding politics and policy’ (2004:5).  They may instil a warm fuzzy feeling inside the donor, but in isolation, they do little in terms of leading real social change.   ‘Participatory Citizenship’, on the other hand, may offer more opportunities for social change, as young people have an opportunity to access established power positions.  In the UK, a young person may be involved in Youth Parliament or a local council.  This form of citizenship is most commonly hailed as ‘good citizenship’ by organisations in the UK, and the focus is on entering already established pathways to leadership.

But engagement with powerful establishments, institutions or individuals won’t result in radical change without critical thinking about the role they play in social injustices.  Instead of simply serving the existing structures without analysis, we should encourage our young people to question, challenge and shake up the status quo.  After all, it’s the current status quo that makes it so difficult for working class people to enter into leadership positions in the first place.   How can our young people disrupt a system they don’t understand?   This is why RECLAIM Project calls for ‘Disruptive Leadership’, where leaders and citizens come together to think critically about the world around them, in order to change it for the better.


The Importance of Working Class Pride

It cannot be left to middle class policy makers to be the spokespeople or advocates for working class young people.  Working class young people are more than capable of leading the change themselves, if given the opportunity and the encouragement to be critical, disruptive leaders.

To do this, we need to be having frank and honest conversations with our young people about structural inequality and class. 

Do you identify as working class? What does it mean to be working class?  What is the history of working class communities in Britain? What are the strengths of these communities?

Many working class young people often don’t leave their local area until their late teens, often when entering university, or other middle class institutions. Prior to this, they may not have even realised they were working class, or what this even means; but they may soon become aware of the way they walk and talk. They might feel they’re sticking out like a sore thumb. They begin to look up to leaders and find barely any of them represent them. We have heard this story from countless young people we’ve known, many of whom drop out of university due to feeling out of place, despite being furiously bright.

We don’t want our young people to have to adapt their personalities or accents, feeling they have to mimic middle class behaviour, knowledge or language, in order to get anywhere close to leadership positions.  We work to instill our young people with pride; pride in their community, their heritage, their background.  We want them to see the brilliance in themselves and their peers, so that when they enter a middle class space, they may stick out like a sore thumb but they are able to own their identity with pride. Let them speak up and be heard, flat vowels and all.  Let them critique and analyse the structures that prevent them from leading change. Let them see the value in other working class people and encourage them to enter into leadership positions too. They are not ‘disengaged’ or worth anybody's pity. They are working class and proud, resilient individuals with shared community pride. They understand discrimination because they have faced it, and they therefore make ethical, critical leaders who strive for inclusivity. They are the disruptive, working class leaders of the future.




Checkoway et al. (2003) ‘Young People as Competent Citizens’, Community Development Journal 38(4): 298-309.

The Sutton Trust (2015) ‘Research Brief: Parliamentary Privilege - The MPs 2015’, available from, accessed 15/6/15

Westheimer, J. and Kahne, J. (2004), ‘“What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy”’ American Educational Research Journal 41 (2): 237-269.