When the Observer first joined forces with the innovation foundation Nesta to single out and celebrate 50 organisations “doing radical, useful things, below the radar of the media”, the UK was a very different place from the country it is today.
It was 2012, and the coalition government’s programme of austerity was only just under way. Now, six years on, and local authorities across the country are bursting their budgets. Homelessness rose for the seventh consecutive year in 2017, up 15% on the year before. Britain is preparing to leave the EU, throwing us into the economic unknown. Yet while services are cut, awareness and understanding of issues around mental ill health, gender and sexuality continue to evolve.
Nominations are now open to find 2018’s New Radicals – initiatives and organisations developing creative and practical ways of tackling society’s biggest challenges. The deadline for entries is 11.59pm on 29 April and a panel of judges, which includes the actor Michael Sheen and the novelist Kerry Hudson, will announce the finalists in September.
The New Radicals project was born out of a feeling that the British media focused too much on the negative, channelling its energies into stories of the rich and famous. “This creates a vicious spiral where people think much less is possible than actually is,” says Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta. “It’s disempowering and really corrosive.”
While the word “radical” has taken on negative connotations with its recent association with religious extremism, Mulgan says the New Radicals project seeks to recognise those who are continuing Britain’s long tradition of progressive radicalism. The aim is to seek out those who are “not only challenging the status quo, but are showing alternatives in practice”.
Celebrating “radical” activity in the UK is all the more meaningful in the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which enfranchised all men over 21 and women over 30 who met certain property qualifications. The New Radicals programme is about trying to find the people who, – as the suffragettes did 100 years ago – embody that “bloodyminded, bolshie, can-do radicalism”.
“I suspect that a lot of people wouldn’t say they are being radical, when they actually are,” says Yvonne Roberts, the Observer’s former chief leader writer and one of the founders of the New Radicals programme. “Meals on Wheels was radical when it started because nobody had thought of joining up the new arrival of cars with hungry and isolated old people.”
One of the challenges the New Radicals programme has had in the past is to encourage people to see what they are doing as worthy of celebration, she says. “People often don’t recognise that what they are doing is innovative and that others can learn from it. They think: ‘Well, we’re just trying to make a difference.’”
It’s a Tuesday evening in a co-working space on the outskirts of Birmingham city centre and about 15 under-25s have gathered to tell the Heritage Lottery Fund what they think of the word “heritage”. “The only reason I know anything about my own heritage is because I’ve learned it for myself,” says one girl, whose family is from Jamaica. “There isn’t enough information out there.”
The event is the work of Beatfreeks, a collective of young people that, among numerous other things, seeks to influence the way organisations work so that they better understand and cater to under-30s. Founded by 27-year-old Anisa Haghdadi in 2013, the collective was included in the 2016 list of 50 New Radicals, and has since gone from strength to strength.
“Institutions have the resources and power to change the world, so I got to this hypothesis – young people need these institutions and these institutions need young people,” says Haghdadi. The collective facilitates paid work and training for young people so they can work with organisations that come to Beatfreeks for help.
Birmingham had all these creative young people but no channel to help them do something positive
Beatfreeks has worked with organisations as diverse as Birmingham city council, Unilever, Selfridges and YouTube. Last year, part of the collective was awarded £700,000 to contribute to the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Kick the Dust project, which seeks to get more young people involved in the fund’s work.
Haghdadi says the organisation is very much a product of the second city’s unique characteristics. Birmingham is Europe’s youngest city, with 40% of its population under 25. “Beatfreeks exists because it responded to what Birmingham needed,” she says. “It had all these creative young people but no channel to help them do something positive,. Then there’s the breakdown in trust which is happening nationally between young people and institutions.
“I think there’s a major opportunity in the power of young people. The way that young people think is incredibly diverse,” says Haghdadi. “It is naturally and organically very innovative and there’s a wasted resource there.”
In 2008, trainee doctors Nick Rhead and Simon Jackson were teaching a first-aid course at the Liverpool youth offending service when they asked the group of young people how many of them had witnessed a stabbing. All of them put their hands up. This inspired the pair to create a project, now called Street Doctors, which was featured in the first list of New Radicals in 2012.
The organisation recruits medical students as volunteers to provide specialised first-aid training to young people at risk of violence – young offenders or those living in areas with high rates of youth violence.
“We try to equip young people with the practical skills to act, but more than that, we are trying to get them to join up the dots between a serious injury and carrying a weapon, so they start to see that it’s not just about death or glory,” says Jo Broadwood, chief executive. “You’re also just as likely to end up with a colostomy bag or a long-term disability or serious blood infection.”
Since winning the New Radicals award Street Doctors has set up as a national charity and has grown from six to 18 teams across the UK.
“Last year, 2017, a young man was stabbed and was bleeding really badly. Then one young man stepped forward and stopped the bleeding, called the ambulance and waited with him until the ambulance arrived,” says Broadwood.
“We found out afterwards that he was a young offender who had attended a [Street Doctors] youth offending centre session the week before in west London. To be honest, he probably saved [the victim’s] life.”
End Youth Homelessness Cymru
“With the rise in the number of homeless people sleeping rough, we saw that one of the best ways to address the problem was to address youth homelessness,” says Sam Austin, deputy CEO of Welsh youth homelessness charity Llamau.
The organisation was one of five – including Adref, Gisda, Dewis and Swansea Young Single Homeless Project – to join forces to create the End Youth Homelessness Cymru partnership, which was listed among the 2016 New Radicals.
The campaign worked to raise awareness that homeless young people were being housed in B&Bs alongside recently released offenders, putting them at unacceptable risk of abuse or exploitation. After visiting one homelessness organisation, actor Michael Sheen launched a petition calling for an end to the practice, which was signed by more than 100,000 people.
After meeting with representatives of the campaign, the Welsh government changed its guidance for local authorities around the use of B&B accommodation, specifying that it should only ever be used as a last resort.
Austin says the campaign does not end there. The organisations have worked with young people who found themselves homeless across Wales to develop a plan for a 24-hour dedicated helpline, for which they hope to have secured funding by this summer.
She says the campaign’s inclusion in the New Radicals list was invaluable for their success. “It validated the work that we were doing. It made the Welsh government take notice and got the first minister involved. It’s been a really big deal.”