Athian Akec is a strong young voice in politics. He’s a Youth MP for Camden (his local area) and has been vocal on climate change, racism and other social justice issues.
The future of politics may well lie in young people like Athian. As part of celebrating International Youth Day Naked Politics spoke to him about how he got into politics, Black Lives Matter and creating movements for change.
Hi Athian, how did you first get interested in politics? Was there a moment that inspired you to get involved?
If you look at my generation, we’ve grown up in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the emergency of the Black Lives Movement and climate change movement. I think that many young people, I’m just a product of those events. For example, if you look at the cuts to youth services to schools, the welfare state in my area, all these things are inherently political, so the only way to solve them is by political solutions. I think that’s why a lot of people my age become politically active.
What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement and do you feel like this is a movement that could create systemic change?
The Black Lives Matter movement first started during Obama’s presidency- but I think the time we’re living in now there’s a much larger cross section of society willing to get involved. I think it’s really putting pressure on the powerful.
In Britain we’re terrible at talking about race- but I think there are increasing conversations on social media, in journalism, schools and households about how systematic racism is affecting black people’s lives today. I think moving forward I don’t think there’s any going back, there were thousands and thousands of people protesting. But it’s important that we translate this energy into tangible systemic change in the criminal justice system, the economy and the welfare state. We need lasting institutional change.
For young people who aren’t black, do you have any bits of advice about how to be a good ally?
Information is key, people need to investigate and read up about what’s happening. But I think we also have to be careful to not personalise this. Most of the problems we have (economic, racial, environmental) are not because of individuals, but because of existing systems.
Even if we have loads of really well meaning individuals, if we don’t change how systems work then we won’t get progress. So it’s about embarking in collective action to try and solve these issues and putting unrelenting pressure on those who hold power. We shouldn’t excessively personalise this.
For example, there needs to be a real exploration of the number of school exclusions. Serious work needs to be done there as black pupils tend to be excluded at a disproportionate rate. Work also needs to be done in terms of the criminal justice system- 12% of the prison population is black, despite making up only 3% of the general population. Punitive policing with higher stop and search rates for black people as well is also a huge issue. Black pupils are consistently the most under-predicted group in terms of grades.
So, you must address the disproportionately but also the root issues. Racism, intersecting with badly designed systems creates these problems. Prisons are used as a way of badly tackling social issues, rather than addressing the root issues of why people commit crimes. So young people need to think about changing systems collectively as well, not just their own personal responsibility to learn and read more about racism.
Coronavirus has been disproportionately affecting young people and Black and minority ethnic people in the UK. What do you make about the government’s response?
The government is woefully failing around the disproportionate impact that Coronovirus is having on young people, and young BME people. Every crisis in the broken economic and political systems we have results in those who have the least paying the most. The government and (opposition in holding the government to account) need to do a better job.
It’s difficult to speak on behalf of a whole nation, as there’s no simple fix for the disproportionate impact coronavirus has had it’s a complex issue. But moving forward after the coronavirus the opposition needs to lay out clearly an alternative vision to the country. Only 6% of the UK want to return back to the pre-coronavirus economy so there’s a cry for change. People are sick of the status quo and if you look back in history the creation of the NHS or building more social housing that was all done right after World War II. So if Labour want to win power they need to create a radical alternative vision for the country.
What’s your advice about what young people can be doing to get actively involved in creating change?
It requires a combination of different things. Continuing with the sharing of information on social media, participating more in community organising. Young people have very rightly been at the forefront of different movements and protests we’ve seen recently.
I think the spectrum of what’s considered to be politics is quite narrow within most people’s minds, when actually community organising, activism and many other things are inherently political. Standing up for equality, justice and fairness are all political acts. The day will come where my generation are in positions of political leadership and the way we do it will be radically different to how things currently are.
What should politicians be doing to reach out more to young people?
A good example is American politician Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, she knows how to connect with young people. Providing something radically different is key. Young people’s material needs in terms of social housing, climate justice, investment in communities need to be addressed. Young people would be much more likely to vote for them.
Politicians also need to be more effective at using social media to reach young people. If you want to reach the next generation of young people.
I also think creating easier paths for candidacy to become an MP is important. The ladder towards getting there is way too complicated and more progressive parties in particular who claim to support young people should put in these measures to ensure new generations of talent have a way into positions of power.
If I was Prime Minister I’d provide a radical vision addressing people’s needs, I’d connect with young voters, I’d engage with movements that are unfolding all across the UK. It would be a major overhaul of our economy and political and social systems. Young people are interested, engaged and enraged. It’s just about whether politicians can address young people’s concerns.
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