Meet … Debs McCahon, CEO of the Woodcraft Folk

‘Sometimes we, adults, say we want to consult young people when actually we tend to set the agenda. We should be working with them’

Debs McCahon joined Woodcraft Folk in 2008 and was appointed CEO in 2020. Previously joint CEO, she has had a variety of senior roles including membership development manager and head of development. Her current remit includes everything from project development to finance, youth engagement and co-ordinating the forthcoming centenary celebrations of the co-operative movement for children and young people, founded in 1925.

How did you get involved in the co-operative movement? 

When the opportunity came up to join Woodcraft Folk I thought it was an interesting chance to combine my professional experience with my lifelong interest in the environment and sustainability. Having been involved in youth work for the whole of my career this is the only place where I have seen multiple generations engage in activity and learn something from each other. It’s very, very special.

What does a typical working day look like? 

As CEO I do a lot of work around planning and problem solving as well as finance and fundraising issues. We closed our London office during Covid-19 and chose not to reopen, so I work from home in Leicestershire. I spend a lot of time trying to secure the funding we need for projects to continue. Our staff are spread across the UK from Brighton up to Glasgow and I support good communication between the central organisation and residential centres so staff and volunteers are all working in the same direction. We are all still getting used to life post-Covid and not travelling as much as we used to, but I do visit groups and branches, and network with other youth organisations. Our core senior management team includes heads of centres, members and resources, so 26 staff members in total. As CEO I oversee all that. There is really no such thing as a typical day – there are always new challenges. In two and a half weeks’ time, we will be having an international camp. My working week will be about setting things up – one of my jobs will be helping to build a solar power system bringing us the electricity for the camp!

How can co-ops engage young people?

It is about involving young people, finding out how they wish to be engaged and using communication channels they use themselves. And what do we mean by young people? Listening at Co-op Congress it tended to be about graduates, but from the Woodcraft Folk perspective, we are involving children as young as 10 in decision-making, helping them influence change. Our Kids Got Rights initiative is an international project bringing together partner organisations across Europe, raising children and adults’ awareness on children’s rights. Sometimes we, adults, say we want to consult young people when actually we tend to set the agenda. We should be working with them. When you see a nine-year-old in communication with an adult it’s very empowering.

How can the co-op movement help Woodcraft Folk achieve its goals on sustainability and climate change?

From the retail point of view, the co-op movement is already doing so much in terms of choices – such as changing the packaging of products to make it easy to reduce carbon footprinting – but there is still a lot of education needed. We recently launched a carbon literacy project teaching people about the carbon value of choices they make. It would be really interesting to work with our retail societies to try to share some of that information. But they are already doing a really good job raising awareness. 

What is the vision of Woodcraft Folk and has it changed since its beginnings in 1925? 

Some things would be very familiar to original members. We are still creating co-operative communities and camping in fields – it’s important members are still being given the chance to live those co-op values in that kind of way. We do a lot more outreach work and have a strategic plan about increasing participation. We have 300 local groups, six residential centres 5,000 young members and 3,000 adult volunteers. There is a lot more school-based and project work. In places such as Bradford and Leeds, we are working with Co-op Academies Trust to engage young people, identifying what they want to improve in terms of green social action in their communities. We are still internationalist; our outlook on peace and justice has not changed – we have just built a new peace garden in the centre of Leeds.

When we first started it was all about creating international connections after World War I so people had a greater understanding of each other. It has evolved into far more. There is lots of educational work and we are involved in projects like helping to build schools and creating an allotment in a refugee camp in Western Sahara. 

How does Woodcraft Folk help with the challenges facing young people today? 

There are two very significant things we do – helping to develop critical thinking skills by the education we offer around social change and exploring topics in a deeper way than simply engaging on social media or limits of the school curriculum. Woodcraft Folk is about social connections and making lifelong friendships, which is really important in supporting young members. We now proactively target schools where we are trying to ensure as many young people as possible get the benefit from what we are offering. We are looking for ways we can engage children who would not traditionally come to Woodcraft Folk. There are residential camps for people who do not attend local groups, one for older children aged from 13 to 14 focused on mental health. Covid was difficult but also special. We launched Dream Big At Home, an online version of Woodcraft Folk with Zoom sessions and engaged over 12,000 young people. If you had asked me at the start of the pandemic would we be able to deliver Woodcraft Folk online I would have said no – but in our first week of online singing and storytelling, over 1,500 people turned up…

How are you planning to celebrate the Woodcraft centenary in 2025? 

There will be a special camp in July /August 2025. We hope to host an exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester sharing our banners and badges but that has yet to be confirmed. Currently, we have a working group and are consulting young members about what they wish to do. Ideas already include Guinness World Record attempts, a big sing around and a book about the history of Woodcraft Folk. 

What do you like most about your job? 

One of the best parts is seeing people who maintain contact with individuals for decades. I have heard many stories of volunteers now in their 70s and 80s who are still in touch. One of the lovely things about being here so long is watching children grow up into young leaders. We are about to go on international camp for 2,500 children, which will be a real launch pad. It should have happened in 2020 and was delayed because of Covid and it will be wonderful to see those young volunteers working together and empowering each other.