How to engage with young people: Lessons from Reclaim Project

Alumni lead Katie Cosgrave presented lessons from the organisation, set up to work with working class youth in Manchester, at the Practitioners Forum

Ask any co-operative business to list some of its biggest challenges, and more likely than not the issue of ‘engaging young people’ will come up. Almost one third of the world’s population is under 18. Young people have an influence on decision-making at all levels; they are future members, customers and colleagues.

At the 2018 Practitioners Forum, organised by Co-operatives UK, Katie Cosgrave from the Reclaim Project looked at the issue of engaging and campaigning with a younger audience. How do you reach a younger demographic through campaigning? Who really benefits from the campaigns? And how can you reach the ‘unreachable’?

Reclaim is a youth leadership and social change organisation set up in Moss Side in 2007 to enable working class young people to be seen, be heard and lead change. It was started by Ruth Ibegbuna, a teacher, who was one of many to be angered by how the shocking murder of 15 year-old Jessie James in broad daylight was reported. To the media it was the death of another black youth in an area rife with crime and drug use.

“The image of young people in Moss Side at the time was that they were thugs, in gangs, and up to no good,” said Ms Cosgrave, youth engagement officer at Reclaim. “Ruth knew differently. She knew that they were clever, articulate and had the answers – they just weren’t being asked the right questions.

Related: ‘Young people want an equal society’ – interview with Katie Cosgrave 

“Ruth organised an event for 30 young black boys from the area who, during their half term, spent a week talking about stereotyping, racism and representation. They worked on how to articulate their problems without sounding like they were kicking off.” This first event evolved into a campaign, and then the Reclaim Project.


Presenting alongside Ms Cosgrave was Olivia Clarke, a 16 year-old student who has worked with Reclaim for several years. She first attended Reclaim events as a “shy young girl” – drawn in by free food.

“It was goodness knows how many chicken mayos and KFCs later, that I realised that I had a passion for political change. It was then that I became an independent young woman!” she said.

Olivia Clarke
Olivia Clarke, a student who works at Reclaim

“My point is, that in order to engage young people, you have to give them something – specifically, something free. Free food or tech – they’re the two things that young people love the most. I can almost guarantee that attendance will be high if there’s a freebie. There will be people who just come for that freebie – but by the end of the session you will find a core group of people who will actually want to work with you on whatever your campaign is.”

Asking the right questions.

Ms Cosgrave highlighted how it is unlikely that anyone aged 12 would say they are interested in politics, for example, “but you just need to ask different questions”.

“If instead you ask ‘Do you care how you are educated?’, ‘Do you care how many people are in your classroom?’ or ‘ Do you care how you get to school or what the bus journey is like?’ then yes, they’ll be interested and they’ll have a lot to say.

“It’s about removing the terminology. Young people just want honesty. Tell them what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And keep them updated.”


Creating a manifesto is another good way to start a campaign. “It’s a professional document for young people to refer back to,” said Ms Cosgrave. “They can see what they’ve stated, what it is that they want to do.”

Reclaim runs a conference week where young people are given space to discuss ideas around leadership, activism, enterprise and community development – and at the end they create their own manifesto.

One such manifesto led to the creation of Moss Side Pride, a 2015 event entirely run by 14 and 15 year olds, which brought 1,500 people together at a food festival in an effort to celebrate Moss Side’s diversity and remove some of the stereotypes people had about the area.

Be proactive

“Companies need to make more of an effort to get involved with us,” said Ms Clarke. They need to start engaging with young people, rather than complain about young people not being engaged.

“You’re not going to find out our opinion without asking us. So ask us what we feel, what we think and how we can help. We’re young, but we’re not stupid. We do have a voice and an opinion. It may not be as advanced an opinion, but it’s still an opinion and that opinion matters. We’re not scary, and we don’t bite either.”


A lot of terms used when talking about young people are overly negative, said Ms Cosgrave. So start talking positively about them and represent them in a way that they would be proud to be represented.

“When something represents you, you want to look at it and say ‘Yes, you haven’t done a disservice to me, that absolutely represents me’.

“If you have boards or are doing consultations, make sure that everyone there represents a different part of society, so young people can look and think ‘Yes, I look like them, I sounds like them, I could be in those positions’.”

But it’s also important not to stereotype or use tokenism, added Ms Clarke. “I don’t choose where I live – that place doesn’t label me. OK I may be poor financially, but I’m rich in values. I don’t need money or a postcode to define me.”

She related a story of how a politician, campaigning in her area, asked if he could get a picture with her. “I had to tell him: ‘No, I’m not your little campaign prop’! Just because you pose with a young person doesn’t mean you benefited them or worked with them.”

Encourage actions

Use a simple campaign that involves an action that young people can take part in. “The young people I spoke to before I came here liked Movember, Odd Sock Day (for bullying), no-make-up selfies and the polished man campaign [which challenges men (and women) to paint one nail and raise funds and awareness for children affected by violence globally] as they were something they could do,” said Ms Cosgrave. “You have to take part physically – then they start  conversations.”

Hashtags go a long way

“Social media is often shown in a negative light,” said Ms Clarke. “The benefits are never really talked about – like how it educates people without realising it.

“Social media, to a certain extent, is the only education working class people get, especially politically. It’s broken down and presented on a platform that is accessible to everyone from all walks of life. Using social media to engage young people automatically shows them that you’re willing to engage with them in their own spaces. And those spaces to talk can start with a hashtag.”

In this article

Join the Conversation