Co-operatives UK holds second National Youth Summit in Birmingham

Organisations at the event, which drew more than 100 young people, included Co-op Foundation. New Internationalist, Co-op News and Co-operative Climate Action

Issues ranging from climate change to routes into work were on the agenda when young people from across the UK met for Co-operatives UK’s National Youth Summit. In its second edition, the event was held in Birmingham on 5 July to raise awareness of the co-operative business model to a younger audience. 

Opening the event, Co-operatives UK CEO Rose Marley said a survey commissioned by her organisation in 2022 had revealed a lack of awareness about co-ops among young people, with less than 50% of respondents able to name one co-op they knew.

“Today’s event aims to get the co-op message out there,” said Marley, recalling the challenges she faced as a young social entrepreneur seeking funding to get her business off the ground – barriers still faced by young entrepreneurs.

To address these, and encourage young people to make a difference in their communities, the Co-op Foundation will this year launch a new £4.5m Gamechangers funding programme. Foundation CEO Nick Crofts said the fund would be “completely revolutionary” and would aim to empower individuals to “do terrific things in their communities”.

The Foundation is working with the Global Fund for Children, whose programmes associate at the Global Fund for Children, Nasra Ayub, told the Summit the two organisations want to involve young people in designing the application process and criteria for awarding the funding and future strategy.

Related: Co-op Foundation awards £1.4m to small youth organisations

Crofts added that the Foundation aims to reach the young people who would be unlikely to apply otherwise. “We don’t want to accidentally create an accessibility issue to prevent people from applying,” he said, adding that applicants would be fully supported at the pre-application stage. The Foundation is open to different application styles, including audio or video entries. Successful applicants will receive up to £28,000 a year for up to three years to get their project off the ground.

Nick Crofts and Nasra Ayub talk about the £4.5m Gamechangers Fund

The Summit featured a range of sessions looking at the future of work and the AI movement, global youth-led co-ops, campaigning for co-ops, living and spending co-operatively, the next generation of co-operators, climate change, the positive power of social media, media co-ops, and how to empower young co-operators.

Along with the New Internationalist, Co-op News led a session on media co-ops, exploring how they are different from mainstream media outlets. Participants learnt more about how media co-ops work in practice and got an insight into their approach to news coverage.

A 2021 survey led by Bath University found that 60% of young people around the world are “very worried” about climate change. During one of the Summit sessions participants heard from climate change activists who encouraged them to make a difference. 

Related: Annual Q&A – Ana Aguirre, president of the ICA Youth Committee

Indira Mwale and her nine-year old daughter Chizzy talked about their project, Co-operative Climate Action, which supports disadvantaged communities being impacted by climate change in Malawi. Indira explained how the effects of climate change are felt more in countries that don’t have the infrastructure to cope with it. Chizzy described the impact climate change is having in Malawi, where a floods and mudslides in February and March damaged houses, roads, schools, health facilities, bridges, water sources, crops and irrigation systems.

“Get your carbon footprint off our planet now,” was her message.

As part of the Co-operative Climate Action scheme, local groups in Malawi are planting a specially developed bamboo cultivar to meet fuelling needs and remove the need for felling of established forests. Bamboos were chosen because they absorb 30% more CO2 than regular hardwood trees.

Phil Beardmore from Green Door Birmingham warned that while offsetting is a good option, businesses should also focus on eliminating emissions. He added that sometimes terms like “retrofitting” or “net zero” can be words people do not understand. Using common language could also help, he said.

During another session, Dan Sodergren of Great Marketing Works gave tips on how to use AI technology, such as providing context and examples, setting limitations and constraints, breaking down queries into smaller bits, rephrasing, encouraging critical thinking, and verifying the accuracy of the generated response.

The Summit wrapped up with a Q&A session moderated by Amber Sandhu from BBC Asian Network & BBC WM Radio, during which the panellists shares their views on how to get more young people involved in co-ops. 

Anna Loscalzo from the International Cooperative Alliance’s Young European Cooperators Network pointed out that the differences between the various co-op movements around Europe enrich the sector. 

“There are differences that we have to understand. That kind of diversity is rich, powerful, and has a meaning,” she said, encouraging young co-operators to keep going to events, share news, and do everything in their power to speak about co-operation.

Ayesha Di’Angelo from Midcounties Co-op described her society’s latest initiative to have a young person on the main board and setting up a mentorship scheme in place for an experienced board member to mentor them.

This is happening at organisational level, too: Rose Marley highlighted that Co-operatives UK is looking at how more mature co-ops can come together to help younger co-ops. 

Pete Ashton from Loaf worker co-op said his co-op feels it has a duty to pass on experience and stories to help other co-ops set up. 

“It’s easy to be an insular business, but you have to remember that we got where we are because of others – and others will get to where they’ll want because of us,” he said. Loaf is one of the supporters of Stirchley Co-operative Development (SCD), a group of local people in housing and worker co-ops who are building an affordable and eco-friendly residential and retail premises in the heart of Stirchley.

Oliver Probert-Hill, a member of Youth Parliament for Cheshire East, encouraged young people wishing to be involved to contact the Co-operative Party or local Lab/Co-op Council. As a member of the Party’s LGBTQ+ committee, Probert-Hill highlighted the importance of using inclusive language and the pronouns people prefer as well as running DBS check on officials and local parties to make sure everyone is safe.

In their closing remarks, the panellists encouraged young people to get involved, ask questions, talk to people, network, join the movement and have the courage of their convictions. They pointed out that co-ops are a toolkit that can be used to achieve something that cannot be done in another way.