Our outgoing Director of Strategy and Communications, Matira Wheeler, reflects on six years at Young Westminster.
Wow, what a six years. I joined Young Westminster as Communications and Marketing Manager on secondment from John Lewis in January 2018 and was due to only be on loan to Phil and Helen and the growing YWF community for five months. Very quickly it became clear to me that this was a special organisation, looking to work differently and creatively to strengthen the power of local grassroots and community organisations, against a backdrop of major funding cuts to the services that young people and families relied upon. Phil found a way to create a permanent role for me, initially shared with the Young Hammersmith and Fulham Foundation, and I joined the team. John Lewis supported the move to a local charity on the doorstep of their Head Office in Victoria and even went on to invest £10,000 as one of our early Founding Partners – just one of the many examples of equitable, long-term partnerships in Westminster.
I was new to the world of Westminster, communications, youth services and not-for-profits; learning on-the-go as we grew. And that spirit of learning has been an ongoing privilege throughout my time here – whether that’s around the transformational impact of youth work for young people, to what meaningful youth voice really means from our talented young ambassadors to the mechanics of running a start-up organisation in its early years to specialist research skills from our friends at Rocket Science and PR tips from the many pro-bono agencies who have offered guidance along the way.
Working for a small charity is massively inspiring, fast-pace, stretching and enriching. I couldn’t recommend it more. Especially working for a local organisation alongside people who care deeply about communities. I’ve had an insight into how London works; its structures, its policies, its people. This has been amplified by time I’ve spent with Clore Social Leadership, Centre for London, the YPF Trust and more recently King’s College London and I am particularly grateful to YWF for looking for creative ways to support its team to learn. I have loved working with our team, trustees and the interns who joined us over the years – Rashma, Marium, Anika, Jamil and Eleanor – and YWF’s 200+ Members and Partners. I won’t be going far, just across the river to join the UAL team at London College of Communication and I look forward to popping back to say hello.
A few moments really stand out. Hosting a photography exhibition on Carnaby Street, recording a podcast led by young voices to launch at the Saatchi Gallery, our Five Years Young celebration at The National Gallery. Our Patron Cllr Hamza Taouzzale becoming the youngest ever Lord Mayor. Westminster’s youth workers on the Piccadilly Lights in the midst of the pandemic as part of our collaboration with the street artist STIK, and again more recently when Charity Film of the Year, The Hand That Helps, featured on Europe’s biggest public screen. Three major research projects, A City Within A City and Our City, Our Future 2020/21 and 2023/24 – training young people as peer researchers to find out what it’s like to grow up as a young Londoner today and facilitate the YWF community to take action based on what we discovered. Young people spoke of feeling heard and of recognising their own power. It has been a joy to work alongside these young changemakers and they’ve taught me the importance of listening and being led by those closest to the issues.
All these moments demonstrate what can be achieved when organisations come together. Charities, businesses, young people and public sector organisations have lots to offer one another! It takes a village to raise a child. And that is the greatest learning I will take forward from my time in Westminster. Safe spaces, trusted relationships, inspirational activities and support networks come in many forms, from many individuals and organisations working together tirelessly and passionately for brighter futures.
When you’re travelling to work, look around. Find the youth clubs, community centres, schools. Can you get involved? Forge a new relationship with the organisations around you that are helping London to thrive. Join a mentoring programme, offer inclusive and accessible work experience, fund local established projects and those already doing the work. There are Young People’s Foundations like Young Westminster across the country that can help.
Last year Ezra Collective won The Mercury Prize, played Glastonbury and were named Time Out Londoners of the Year. They met in one of London’s youth clubs. Accepting their Mercury Prize, drummer Femi Koleoso said: ‘This moment we’re celebrating right here is testimony to good, special people putting time and effort into young people…I look at what youth clubs allowed me to have – that’s what makes me want to champion them’.
I’m sure I won’t be alone in saying their speech brought on some tears. Youth workers deserve to be championed by all of us, they deserve to be on the Piccadilly Lights every day. The world’s oldest youth club, St Andrew’s, opened in Westminster in 1866. These special places have changed the lives of young people growing up in our city – shout about it!