Young volunteers and social action: The task for universities, the voluntary sector and communities

Emily LauEmily Lau, winner of the New Researchers Prize at this year’s Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference, is a lecturer at the Faculty of Education, Canterbury Christ Church University. She is completing her PhD in Education looking at young people and their experiences of social action.

At the NCVO research conference in September, I presented my paper which looks at how universities have a vital role to play in creating spaces where young people can actively explore their own role in civil society.

Becoming more engaged

The paper describes the launch of a new university module where undergraduate Early Childhood students worked in partnership with a local voluntary organisation and alongside young children, to design and conduct research. Together they looked at children’s agency and the social inequalities facing children and families within early years’ services. As a result of this module we saw a number of changes:

  • Students started to understand the challenging issues facing the voluntary sector and the context they would be working within as early years’ practitioners.
  • The students’ thinking shifted from a focus on their own skills, to a more socially active position, understanding themselves as drivers for change within society.
  • During the module we saw the number of students volunteering increase and become more interested in campaigning and social action.
  • By asking students to advocate on behalf of children, the module added the responsibility of representation and advocacy to their learning experience. The experience led students to challenge their own values.

Higher education and the voluntary sector working together

Higher education remains an important place for young people to explore and debate about the future and what it means to be a local and global citizen. Schools, colleges and universities are often where most young people will first engage in volunteering, giving or campaigning.

Given the important role of developing the socially and politically active young people of the future this is best done in partnership with local communities and this is where the voluntary sector has an important role to play. Higher education and voluntary sector partnerships offer opportunities for learning within both teaching and research, and opportunities share and grow this learning. The voluntary sector can play a crucial part in facilitating that action by supporting young people to lead their own projects.

While this work is widespread, there is still so much further to go, as sectors coming together, to drive these projects further and to ensure they are sharing this work, focusing on its importance in developing the socially and politically active young people of the future.

Young people volunteering for social change

After decades of hearing about young people’s lack of engagement and apathy, the 2015 UN World Youth Report highlighted that while young people are turning their back on traditional political structures as mechanisms for change, they are increasingly using their own social action to impact community and national level change. From Girlguiding and their #plasticpromise to Groundwork’s young volunteers planting and protecting green spaces, the voluntary sector plays a key part in that action.

During November’s #iwill week, the campaign is urging everyone working with young people to advocate and profile the work of young people and the partnerships behind them. The recent climate change march – where millions of young people took time out of school and marched voluntarily to demand change – showed that young people are uniting through the causes they are passionate about.

Building alliances, within the voluntary sector, schools, colleges and universities, and within our communities is one way we can encourage young people to make a positive difference to others or the environment. This is something which is particularly needed in the current economic and political context.


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