If you hadn’t heard the name Greta Thunberg before the last week or two then it’s highly likely you will now be familiar with the 16 year-old Swedish girl who has arguably done more to highlight climate change issues in six months than almost anyone since the turn of the century.
She is just one of a growing band of young people determined to break convention in what they see as a necessary tactic to highlight some of the gravest issues mankind must urgently tackle.
Growing up in one of the most deprived areas of inner-city Birmingham, Michael Olatokun (Law, 2014) soon became aware of his own determination to ensure young people and disaffected communities had both the tools and the platform to have their voices heard too.
“The constituency I grew up in had one of the highest rates of unemployment in the UK and was a really challenged area. My parents had emigrated from Nigeria in 1984 and had no connections locally, they experienced some hostility.”
Michael, who currently works for the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law in London, has now spent the best part of a decade passionately raising awareness of politics, education and law with urban communities and young people – something which was recognised with an Alumni Laureate Award (ALA) at the end of 2018.
His experiences during primary and secondary school helped shape a growing belief that the disparities between the haves and have-nots were intrinsically related to barriers preventing people from actively participating in political activity.
“I was one of only three black kids in my year at secondary school and I was bullied quite a lot. It was the first time I had felt there were differences between social classes. Also some of the interactions I had with other students from different backgrounds made me realise that the opportunities they were throwing away would never come the way of people like me. I got quite frustrated and angry.”
Empowering active citizens of the future
But this frustration and anger was soon to be channelled positively. Following one failed attempt Michael then successfully ran for the UK Youth Parliament at the age of 15 and so began his fledgling career in political engagement.
Safe to say if you tried to list the numerous initiatives he has since been involved in you would quickly run out of paper, but his drive is clear. In 2016 alone he helped register over one million first time voters in local and regional elections and the EU Referendum. Despite this he still feels there is an issue tackling apathy and encouraging empowerment with many who feel disenfranchised.
“What is the prevalent mood of people who feel under-represented? There’s clearly a range of policy areas on which the public feel politicians have got it wrong. This is why we’re seeing a more vociferous public voice develop which is providing an opportunity for groups who haven’t been part of the conversation to date to become stakeholders.”
Although he sees the intrinsic value of more traditional forms of political activity, be it face-to-face conversation or debates in town halls, the rise of e-petitions and public marches which have seen millions people engage in the political arena in some form could well be the key to unlocking a new wave of activist.
“I had long been an advocate of more traditional face-to-face activism but by setting a high bar for how people should engage we might inadvertently shame those who might consider using social media or sign an e-petition. Although it might seem a frivolous activity you can underestimate what may actually be a highly considered decision for an individual to post on social media or share a viewpoint which might lead them to receiving criticism.”
“The cumulative effect of all these types of participation can be incredibly powerful and also it provides an entrance point for anyone who has never engaged with an issue to become more active.”
Hope for the future
The political climate we currently have the pleasure of enduring is if anything providing the motivation and inspiration for a new generation of people who don’t see themselves as ‘political’ and it is something in which Michael sees hope for real change.
“Brexit is one of the real rallying points for people who previously would have never said anything about the UK constitution or the operation of politicians. The spark of all these citizens engaging in politics for the first time is really positive.
“And the Nobel Prize nomination of Greta Thunberg exemplifies how there is a new model of leader coming through that doesn't care about tradition or strictures of society and just cuts through all the nonsense and red tape. Youthful and energetic, the more initiatives and decision makers we see who represent that kind of energy the better and more connected we'll be globally as citizens.”
Read more about Michael's work or nominate an ALA before Friday 10 May.
Posted on Thursday 25th April 2019