Skip to main content

Social Action in Practice


In this blog written for the Centre, Jack Welch, one of our Young Researchers, reports on his personal experiences from and thoughts on the Portsmouth Youth Social Action conference, held on 16 February, 2017.

Image of brainstorming


Not so long ago, the mention of ‘social action’ in a voluntary context would generally be regarded as little else than another buzzword to be included as part of an already expansive collection.

That was my initial reaction, at least. Since the transition of government in 2010, we have already had ‘big society’, and, before that, ‘participation’. Priorities change, depending on the political weather. As with most opinions, they are open for change and reassessment, and youth social action, in particular, represents a wider umbrella term for all acts of activism in which young people can take part.

By the government’s own definition, from the Office of Civil Society, social action is: 
‘… about people coming together to help improve their lives and solve the problems that are important in their communities.’

On the surface, it is vague as it needs to be. Social action manifests itself in the form of many aspects of community development, literally or more figuratively. From formal volunteering in an organisation to befriending and co-production, research has shown an upward trend in young people engaging in some kind of social action.

In the past two years alone, the #iWill Campaign, set up to help 60% of young people aged 10-20 become involved in social action by 2020, have calculated that 42% of 10-20 year olds have, at least, taken part in something ‘meaningful’ once in that last year. By most accounts, according to the data gathered, there is a marked benefit in terms of life satisfaction and increased resilience to challenges they might face in their lives.

Numbers are of little significance though, in proving impact, compared to witnessing the testimony and evidence of individuals themselves, which is why the Portsmouth Youth Social Action Conference made the personal value of social action a driving focus for its event. Hosted by Portsmouth Together, it was valuable to see a more equal balance of young people and professional attendees in the room for the day.

What was immediately striking, from the line-up of diverse speakers in the morning agenda, was just how commonplace certain terminology had become. As Steve Frampton, Principal of Portsmouth College, remarked, we are now in need of a ‘Curriculum for Life’ (more detail on its definition here) to ensure that social action can be embedded earlier on, through education. A campaign led by young people is now a movement across distinct sectors in society, especially education and voluntary.

Full-time volunteering, as presented by speakers on behalf of City Year, is another example of how young people are willing to commit to social action, in this case for at least a year of their lives. The evidence has already pushed government to pursue a review of how full-time volunteering can be given legal recognition in the UK. As highlighted by Deputy CEO of Step up to Serve (#iWill Campaign), Rania Marandos, there is, however, still a visible gap in the numbers of young people taking part in any kind of social action, let alone full-time, when compared from the most to the least affluent backgrounds (9% in 2016).

I was very interested to hear, in the course of the panel Q&A following individual presentations, a question raised by an audience member, about how disabled people can be engaged in social action. Most were giving encouraging overtures and their support to ensure those with additional requirements have the same level of access to take part but, as with employment, this is not always easy to put into practice and barriers are still to be overcome for all social action opportunities.

Within workshops, it was interesting to hear just how many attendees (who are not exclusively within youth sector provision) had heard of few or no examples of the benefits of youth social action. Good practice sharing is vital and a common aspiration to ensure there is greater success within the social action framework, but even for charities (as I was gathered from group discussions), this does not always present itself as we would like to believe. Additionally, many businesses and other organisations with a smaller capacity, who would like to take on more volunteers, are often limited in giving support and training to support those who could be engaged. For small institutions, such as local museums, who depend on volunteers, they are likely to lose out on this opportunity most.

For every barrier though, the benefits outweigh these recurring problems: inclusion, responsibility, empowerment and personal development prime examples of evidence of the strengths of social action.

Whether a revolution, or simply the next phase of enhancing our society, youth social action looks set to stay for the foreseeable future. While its benefits, which seem obvious, make it a worthy theme of development in the political spheres and beyond, it needs to find a way to serve a much wider group of beneficiaries and to be taken up by other than the usual suspects within the sector.

This is something of which the #iWill Campaign and other supporters are fully aware. For cities like Portsmouth, a good case study of social action taken seriously, cutbacks in public funds have meant its own youth projects have had to acclimatise to a less hospitable climate. While we may take these projects for granted, continued squeezing of resources will ultimately diminish the level of work able to be accomplished, regardless of the high ideals we place on its societal value.

It is time this imbalance was addressed.