Making co-ops fairer for young people

Insights from Tommy Kirkwood of WEEE Renew, the Co-op Group Young Members’ Group and the Greater Manchester Youth Combined Authority

Tommy Kirkwood is the digital lead at Greater Manchester Youth Combined Authority, a member of the Co-op Group’s Young Members Group and has just set up his own tech co-operative. We caught up with him after he spoke at the UK’s Co-op Congress in June. 

WEEE Renew is a new technology co-op set up to try to close the digital divide. At the moment it is working in Greater Manchester but has ambitions to go UK-wide, helping as many people as possible along the way. It wants to give people digital access, regardless of their circumstances – through phones, laptops and the internet – opening the door to working from home, completing school work at home, and searching and applying for jobs at home. 

It was founded earlier this year by Tommy Kirkwood, and runs on a simple premise: WEEE Renew collects donations of old devices (with an initial focus on phones) that have already been factory reset, then uses an internal grading system to decide whether the device will be sold in a public-facing online community shop or goes out through its community gifting scheme. It will also work with a recycling partner who will give cash value for devices that are beyond repair or too old to use. 

“We are setting up a map on our website at the moment, which will show the location of secure donation boxes, and you can also post them to our registered address or arrange collection,” says Mr Kirkwood. 

“In terms of the shop, I’m hoping that at some point in the future, we could have a proper in-person community shop, but for now it is online only. The shop is there to support us as a co-op, so we can achieve our purposes, while providing affordable phones to the public. Nothing in the shop will cost over £50.”

For the community gifting scheme, WEEE Renew partners will pass on referrals for digital access. “We’re launching applications soon for free devices, and if we don’t have a device available at that time, there will be a waiting list.”

Mr Kirkwood adds: “We’ve not had any brand spanking new ones yet, but down the line, you may get an organisation donating a bulk lot of completely brand new phones, or we might get a second-hand one that someone’s just got for one month and before deciding ‘oh the new one has come out, I’d better get it’.”

While WEEE Renew provides the hardware, it is partnering with other organisations and can make referrals for digital education or assistance. “We can show someone how to use a device – or if the tech is completely new to them we’ll make a referral to local digital help scheme.

“Part of this is about bringing a community together and making sure that everybody has equal access to the technology and the knowledge of how to use it.”  The organisation is also exploring options around internet access. 

Membership of WEEE Renew is £1 and can be paid online. “I formed it as a CIC first because I wanted to get it started quickly, and as members joined, we converted it to a multi-stakeholder co-operative. This allows different people in the community to become members, from the workers and the people who donate the phones, to the people that phones are gifted to and the shops where donation boxes are kept.”

At 16, Mr Kirkwood believes he may be the youngest co-operative CEO in the country, but his journey to getting involved with Salford City Council – and co-ops – began over four years ago. 

Equal opportunities for young people

“I’ve always been interested in making sure that everybody has equal opportunities and about four years ago, young people in Salford were facing a lot of issues, and weren’t being listened to. The Youth Council and youth councillors helped solve a lot of these issues, and I wanted to get involved,” he says.

The Salford Youth Council is open to anyone aged 11-21 who lives, is educated or works in Salford. Mr Kirkwood joined in 2016, and was elected as Salford’s representative on the Greater Manchester Youth Combined Authority (GMYCA) in 2018. This is a board consisting of 42 young people aged under 18 (or under 25 if you have special educational needs). In 2020 he was elected as the digital lead for the GMYCA.

Tommy Kirkwood (centre) with Andy Burnham (Mayor of Greater Manchester) and Shekinnah Wilberforce (Our Pass) at Co-op Congress (Photo: Co-operatives UK)

Through the GMYCA, Mr Kirkwood was involved in developing Our Pass, an opportunity pass for young people in the Greater Manchester area which gives free or discounted travel and access to exclusive offers and opportunities. “Andy Burnham [mayor of Greater Manchester] came to the YCA saying ‘I want this opportunity pass for young people, but I want you guys to design it’. 

“And so we got to work. Andy very kindly gave us some budget to hire some designers, and we co-produced it and came up with a few names. The name and design was voted on by the YCA and a few local councils, and it’s been really well received. I met Rose Marley [Co-operatives UK’s chief executive] though that too, as she led on Our Pass for GMCA at the time.”

A call to co-ops

Mr Kirkwood’s next step into co-ops was a call from the GMYCA youth worker, who invited him to take part in a panel discussion on youth for the Co-op Foundation; he became a founding member of the Foundation’s Youth Advisory Group – 10 young people aged 16 to 19 years old from Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region who work together to get involved in funding decisions, learn new skills and also get a unique view of the charity sector.

“And then I decided to join the Co-op Group as a member, but this was a long process because I was under 16 At the time and so I had to go through the whole rigmarole of calling them up. Around this time, a new GMYCA youth worker, Les, told me about an opportunity that had come up called the Co-op Young Members Group. I was umming and ahhing because it originally used to be that you have to be 18-30 to be on there, but that’s been lowered to 16-26. Rose encouraged me to apply too. It was a long process but I did the interview and I got the job. I’m the youngest person on the Co-op Young Members’ Group.”

What does he want to achieve through this group? “I think it’s about trying to make co-ops fairer for young people,” he says. 

“For example, if you want to vote at the Co-op Group AGM, you have to have spent £250 throughout the year. What student or young person can afford £250 in the Co-op? No offence to co-ops, but they are pretty expensive. I have already suggested to Helen Grantham [Co-op Group secretary] that the voting eligibility threshold should be lowered for members who are under 26.

“There are some real opportunities for co-ops, but there does need to be an overhaul when it comes to young people. There are some amazing people in the movement, who do want to fight for positive change, but these opportunities need to be taken.”

Mr Kirkwood has found support and community within Salford City Council, the GMYCA and co-operatives, but his original inspiration and motivation stems from closer to home.

“My drive comes from the fact my mum’s never given up – we’ve had a hard life but we’ve fought and come through it. She’s raised me as a single woman while being self-employed and home educating and she’s absolutely amazing. If I had to name one person as my inspiration it would be Emma Kirkwood.”

Mr Kirkwood has been home educated since he was nine, and he and Emma have also set up a charity – the Home Education Opportunities Group, which provides opportunities, grants, exam funding, and days out for other people home-educating – which they co-chair. 

And he has no plans to slow down any time soon: he wants to grow and develop WEEE Renew, continue work with the Co-op Group on youth issues and plans to stand for Salford Young Mayor in 2022 – all with the ultimate aim of making opportunities, democracy and co-operation fairer for young people.

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