Youth engagement is an important concern for the UK’s retail co-ops as they look to encourage a new generation of members and leaders.
The Co-op Group has a Young Members Group (CYMG) which does campaigning and educational work as well as providing representation on the National Members Council.
Saul Deeson, a member of the CYMG who sits on the Members Council and also serves as a Member Pioneer, says: “We aim to inspire and enable young people to be proponents of societal change. This time last year, that took the form of an educational programme, responding to young people’s needs during the pandemic.
“We also participated in the Co-op Foundation’s Lonely Not Alone Campaign, Fairtrade Fortnight, and held various workshops to help young people share their voices on Co-op projects, such as Co-op Live.
“Our current project aims to create fairer access to education and employment for young people, while sustainability and climate change are another two key focuses of ours.”
Online working has helped the CYMG team deal with the Covid-19 situation, he says. “Most of the current team joined after the start of the pandemic, so we were all familiar with remote working. Digital projects have allowed us to connect with young people more easily, and the feedback we’ve received on our online workshops and sessions has been positive. More widely, we’ve noticed the pandemic has adversely affected young people’s confidence in terms of employment and education, but it has also given young people opportunities for greater involvement in their communities.”
During the first lockdown, more than 500 young people shared their concerns with the youth group. “In response, we created and delivered a series of online sessions, called BOOST, to provide young people with opportunities to build motivation, confidence, resilience, and develop practical skills.
“The topics included mental health, community engagement, and personal development, and overall, we had 101 hours of participation. Several CYMG members also involved themselves in local community initiatives and projects during the pandemic.”
And there is more to come, with CYMG working alongside the Group’s Membership Participation team.
“We are focused on increasing youth membership,” says Mr Deeson, “and giving young people more opportunities to have a meaningful say in the organisation.”
This includes consultation on the Co-op Live arena, a new arena venue under construction in East Manchester.
“Our work on Co-op Live exemplifies this well,” says Mr Deeson, “as we reached out to young people to ensure the arena experience is relevant to them.
“Young people face an array of issues from social mobility to ambiguity over the planet’s future, so we aim to ensure our projects are pertinent to younger and future generations. Youth participation is a huge part of that, and we regularly promote opportunities for young people to get involved with us through Twitter.”
He adds: “We’re pleased and excited by how many young people engage with social issues, campaigns, and champion co-operative values and principles. Today’s young people will be tomorrow’s leaders, so the UK is fortunate to have proactive youth.”
But he warns there is still a gap in understanding what co-operatives actually do. “Many young people see the Co-op solely as a food store. Greater reach and project impact will help bridge this gap, but improved education and communication around the movement are needed to help reach that point.
“Co-operatives across the country are involved in fantastic work with the potential for lasting impact; sharing that work and continuing to engage with young people and the issues dear to them are among the best ways to increase the movement’s momentum.”
At Midcounties Co-op, the Young Members Network has also been playing its part in dealing with the Covid-19 crisis.
Tarra Simmons, general manager for CSR at Midcounties, says youth engagement efforts were at an advantage during lockdown because these already relied on online channels.
“Our Young Members Network was introduced a few years ago – it’s been slowly growing but came into force over the last 12 months because the way we communicate is in the main digitally and through social media,” she says.
With the pandemic and lockdown causing serious challenges for younger people, this put Midcounties in a position to act; it held online events and encouraged its young members to take part in its home delivery programme, getting food to those in need during the crisis.
Then, at the end of last year, the society asked its young members what they wanted help with. “Mental health care was high on the agenda,” says Ms Simmons. “There are a number of challenges and we talked about practical solutions”.
The society worked closely with mental health charity partners such as MIND and to offer wellbeing sessions.
Another focus for Midcounties was “not losing momentum with our youth engagement”, adds Ms Simmons. The society’s engagement work at schools, further education colleges and universities was disrupted by lockdown – but was transferred online, to offer interview skills sessions, seminars and virtual work experience.
The society is also looking at ways to improve and increase democratic involvement for young people, and arranged for the Young Members Network to meet with the co-op’s board and Member Engagement Committee.
“All our elected members shared their journey and looked at a vision for future,” says Ms Simmons. “We looked at how to get our young members a voice on the board. This year we held our first elections for Young Member places on our Member Engagement Committee and it’s gone brilliantly, we had more nominations than we expected. It gives our young members under 30 a voice directly into the boardroom.
As with other retail co-ops, Midcounties is campaigning on issues which resonate with young people, such as the environment, and diversity and inclusion. “With regard to our climate action, building to COP 6, we’re listening to young members to see how they react to that and to our wider sustainability initiatives. We’ve had a lot of feedback and we find that the more you do in these areas, the more people want you to do.”
Young members are also involved in the commercial side of Midcounties’ consultations, on product development, with their voice “absorbed in all the feedback. Going forward we’re looking to segment this feedback out and listen to what they are telling us as part of our five-year plan.
“Listening and development workshops with young people are a part of that. We’ve held seven of those recently that will directly influence our longer term sustainability strategy, plus 20 Your Co-op Conversations on a range of subjects which have all involved the Young Members Network.”
Ms Simmons adds: “The pleasing thing is to see how the network has developed – it’s not been held back by the pandemic, it’s excelled, and we’re going into this year with our young co-operators at the heart of what we’re doing with our members. The next step for us is for our young members to work with young members from other Co-ops – consumer or otherwise, in the UK and internationally to promote co-operation; share best practice and act as the movement to bring the change that young people want to see”.