“We are immensely grateful,” said the man from the Foreign Office, “for letting us host this event here.” When you looked round the room, you could see why. There were young black men and women, in suits and smart dresses, young brown men and women, in suits and long robes, and young white men and women in suits and summer frocks. The Grand Reception Room at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has a gilded ceiling and Corinthian capitals, has been used for receptions for world leaders from many different ethnic backgrounds. But not all that many of them went to schools where most of the pupils were on free school meals.
It’s too early to say whether many of the people in that room will become world leaders, or even civil servants who might help the man from the Foreign Office feel a bit less embarrassed about the fact that most of the people who come into that room are middle-class and white. But it’s very clear to anyone who spent five minutes with them that these young people are going pretty damn far. “This,” said the woman at the microphone, quoting Churchill, “is not the beginning of the end, it’s the end of the beginning. It is,” she added, “the start of your leadership journey.”
The woman at the microphone was Andrea Cooper, the chief executive of an organisation called UpRising. It was started five years ago by a think tank called the Young Foundation to try to do something about the fact that most of the people who have power in this country – in politics, and the media, and business, and the law – are middle-aged, male and white. “There are, said Cooper, “60 young people here who are each committed to leadership and social action for 50 years. That,” she said, “is one million days”.
When you saw them come up to the microphone, and talk about the things they had done, and the things they hoped to do, you didn’t doubt that that commitment was real. “Social action has transformed me,” said a young man in a very smart suit, in a presentation he performed to music. “As Gandhi said, to change the world you first have to change yourself.” “My mentor has taught me discipline,” said another. “I’ve learnt,” said a young woman with wild red hair, “that through hard work and practice, I can achieve more than I thought possible.”
It’s the kind of thing you might expect people to say in a religious meeting, or perhaps in an Olympic training camp in what used to be the Soviet Union. But this wasn’t a religious event, or a training camp, or even one of those weird weekends where people suddenly announce all the mistakes they’ve made to a hall packed full of strangers. This was the graduation ceremony for the nine-month “leadership programme” run by UpRising, and it seemed to be about young people who hadn’t grown up with all that much, but who still looked at the world around them and wanted to give back.
“I’ve realised it’s the things you do within your own community that completely change the things around you,” said Qayum Mannan, who had just read a poem he’d written. “It’s like the butterfly wing thing. A small change in a chaotic system will completely change the outcome.” He’s working, he told me, on a poetry project with young offenders. His father, who’s from Bangladesh, worked in factories and restaurants. His mother, who’s also from Bangladesh, did piece-work as a seamstress. Qayum is working as an intern with an inter-faith charity called The Three Faiths Forum. He’s planning to study public policy or politics at UCL.
“My parents are cleaners and caretakers,” said Nikita Hayden. “I was the first person in my family to go to university. “ She managed a project called FutureWeek, which brought 30 11-13 year-olds from a school in a low-income area onto a university campus, and aimed to help them think about, and build on, their skills. “Most of them,” she said, “didn’t think university was an option. Now quite a lot of them think it is.”
“My main campaign,” said Mizanur Rahman, “was Mealshare.” He lives in Tower Hamlets, which, he explained, has the highest rate of child poverty in the country, but an average salary (because it includes Canary Wharf) of £58,000. He, and the other people in his group, got local shops to donate food for shared meals in the community that were like mini-festivals. Mizanur is working as a recruitment assistant in Ilford, but wants a top job in business, in HR.
In the five years since UpRising has started, six young people have gone on to become local councillors. Some want to change things through politics. Some want to make it big in business. But they all want to make things better for people who don’t have as much as them. They have begun to do this through projects they have started and run as volunteers, but many want to do it through social enterprise. “I see entrepreneurship as creative problem solving,” said Wayes Chawdoury from Birmingham. “I want to solve problems in a different way.”
Anisa Haghdadi, also from Birmingham, started her first social enterprise when she was 15. It was a dance-based community project aimed at people who “weren’t doing academically so well”. Since then, she has gone on to train, coach and mentor young people from the age of 15. She has recently started Beatfreeks, a project which uses art, dance and poetry to help young people make changes in their lives. She has funding from a long list of businesses, but in the long term she expects it to pay for itself. There’s an events programme, an online TV platform, an academy and a “youth engagement” consultancy. She has just been given a British Empire Medal for services to young people. She’s 23.
Barbara Uzodinma, a lawyer from Hackney whose parents are from Nigeria, has started a website called Law and Enterprise. It offers information for people starting up a social enterprise, and helps them find partners to help make it work. Lawyers pay a fee to be in the directory, and the website now covers its own costs. Jason Gibbs, an UpRising graduate born in Tottenham to a Bajan father and an Indian mother, has started a website called comparetheuni.com. “I didn’t even know the name of many universities until I was in the sixth form,” he told me, “and I found that many of my friends were making the wrong decision about where to study”. The website was started with help from an “angel investor”, but it’s now making money. Jason has been offered a training contract with a law firm, which will also pay for him to do an MBA. “I’m interested,” he told me, “in commercial businesses and social change.”
In this, he is clearly not alone. There are, according to Social Enterprise UK, 70,000 social enterprises in this country, employing more than a million people and contributing £18.5bn to the economy. Almost a quarter are run by people between the age of 25 and 44. They’re twice as likely as mainstream small and medium businesses to be led by someone from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background, or by a woman. Nearly a quarter have trade with the public sector as their main source of income, but more than three quarters don’t. Social enterprises are growing faster than mainstream SMEs, and are increasingly thought to be more efficient at delivering public services than the bodies that have done that work before. Social enterprises, in other words, look like a big part of the future, for public services, and social change.
These young people certainly look like the future. They look like what David Cameron probably meant when he talked about “the Big Society”. They also look, at least in that room at the Foreign Office, full of energy, and zest, and drive. They were very, very full of zest two weeks ago, when some of them met David Cameron at a special event at Downing Street. I saw them just before they left. “His stance and body language was so powerful,” said Alan Cooper, when I asked him at the graduation ceremony how it had gone. Did he talk to him? “Yes.” And did he like him? Cooper smiled, and it was a smile that seemed to sum up all the joy in that room. “Yeah,” he said. “He was alright.”