Young people are amazing, just let them show what they can do
If there’s one cliché that is sure to get the hackles rising in Louise Macdonald it is the time-worn phrase “young people are the future”.
“Well, yeah,” she says, “but they’re actually our present. They are here now.”
Macdonald has been chief executive of Young Scot for six years, a charity that is not so much about engaging young people – but making sure people listen to what they have to say.
In its 30-year history the organisation has gone from strength to strength. Originally a mere cog in the wheel of the Scottish Community Education Council, it is now a charity in its own right with more than 570,000 11 to 26-year-old members across Scotland.
Its aim of challenging the consensus and misconceptions on the young has included a myth-busting programme ‘Truth About Youth’, which challenges the representation of young people as being disengaged or disinterested and in fact, that they have a strong voice that should be listened to.
In a year where young people in Scotland showed what they can do as part of the Commonwealth Games and then voting in their droves in the independence referendum, the charity’s ethos that young people are citizens now and “not just citizens in waiting” has never been more apparent.
“I would say this, wouldn’t I? But genuinely, young people are just amazing,” says Macdonald. “We see that every single day.”
Recently the charity produced its Impact Report – essentially an annual report with a twist – filmed and uploaded to the internet, all in a 48-hour period.
She was extremely proud of the result, mostly because the ideas and the execution came from the young people themselves.
“There is this collective sense that young people aren’t engaged, when so many people, pretty much everyone I talk to, can very easily talk about a great group of young people or a young person that inspires them or is involved in something amazing,” she says.
Nowhere is young people’s input more needed than on the environment. Macdonald is a passionate advocate for just what the younger generation can do and she is no less enthusiastic about ensuring they have a voice on issues relating to the future of the planet.
Earlier this year she spoke at the John Muir Conference in Perth, held to mark the centenary of the Scottish-born naturalist’s death about the issue and since taking part in WWF’s Natural Change project, she has been active in issues affecting the environment.
Macdonald is a member of the 2020 Group, the organisation chaired by former SSE chief executive Ian Marchant and including other notable business leaders like Lady Susan Rice, which is looking at the business world’s role in tackling climate change.
As part of this, the group has recognised it needs to be thinking of the next generation and businesses and NGOs and has nominated 18-year-olds and upwards to sit on the panel. Its inaugural conference is held next month and will include Environment and Climate Change Minister Paul Wheelhouse.
Macdonald said: “I am very excited by this. The group only came together and started their work programme in the summer, but are already such an inspiring group.
“They are young people who are already making their mark and really keen to be part of how you can influence change and be part of changing Scotland towards a low carbon country.”
She says as well as discussing where the country goes after 2020 and achieving targets to cut carbon emissions by 2050, it should be about finding the “next generation” of chief executives who will have these environmental messages at the core of their thinking.
While she says there was “great individual thematic work” going on, particular campaigns, or in specific areas such as schools or universities, “there was nowhere where a momentum could be generated and a catalyst could be created.”
“That’s what the 2050 Group is aiming to do, create that focal point and create the catalyst for other young leaders to start stepping up, not just calling for change but actually asking ‘how do we make this happen?’”
One of the key areas being targeted in the effort to reduce future emissions is behaviour change, moving people to a more sustainable and low carbon lifestyle. And it is in this area that Macdonald says Young Scot is already perfectly placed.
Focusing on the 16+ generation, when people start make their own independent choices and using the famed Young Scot card to pick up points and give rewards, she says the charity can help people make positive choices – such as taking the bus over the car – rather than “unpicking bad habits”.
The Low Carbon Behaviours project is 18 months old, with another six to go and Macdonald already says there has been fantastic insight from young people about what influences the choices they make and the barriers that exist.
“Let’s be clear, though,” she adds “with the best will in the world you can want to use public transport, but if it’s not there or available or too expensive or all those kinds of things, it all stacks up and becomes difficult.
“It’s never enough to focus on the individual and say ‘you must change’.
“It’s always going to be a combination of individual, social and material. Where it does start to line up you see that change.”
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