Beyond the ballot in Birmingham

Bite The Ballot is a party-neutral youth movement on a mission to engage, inspire, and empower young people to participate in democracy by using their voice and their vote.

Unlock Democracy Birmingham has partnered with them several times since Bite The Ballot landed in Birmingham in September 2014, and almost a year on the results are showing.

From Millifandom to 16 year olds voting in the Independence Referendum and being excluded from the EU Referendum, the demands of youth politics are increasingly visible and finally being heard. 

To find out what it takes to get young people to talk loudly about politics, UD Birmingham's Chair Tom Pratt  spoke to Sawsan Bastawy, Bite The Ballot’s Community Engagement Officer in Birmingham, about direct engagement, mobilisation, lessons from the past, and plans for the future.

Bite the Ballot is a national campaign designed to get young people engaged in politics and voting- how does a local branch contribute to that aim?

Having people on the ground around the UK enables us to engage directly with the people we’re targeting- 16 to 24 year olds. Our Community Engagement Officer (CEO) Programme has installed CEO’s in Local Authorities in Basildon, Bedford, Birmingham, Cardiff, Cornwall, Coventry, Durham, Nottingham, and Wiltshire, and we are still expanding. By using this model, we have direct access to Elections Offices in local Councils, where we can access useful data, resources, and support, and take problems that young people are having directly to the Elections Office. For instance, The Guild of Students at the University of Birmingham reported to us that they felt students would be more likely to vote if polling stations were more accessible to them, and so we went directly to the head of the Elections Office and suggested that a polling station be put on campus.

Additionally, and most importantly, being on the ground enables us to access young people in schools, colleges, universities, youth/faith/and community centres, and anywhere else we can find young people and marginalised groups. Direct engagement is absolutely vital to our work. We create spaces in which young people can empower themselves to use their voice and take that important first step- registering to vote. Our acclaimed interactive democracy workshop, The Basics, is at the centre of our engagement work. In Birmingham alone, I have delivered The Basics to 1,700 young people in the last ten months. When we’re not delivering The Basics, we’re holding registration rallies, mobilising and training young people to take our message to their communities, lobbying decision-makers, and building unique experiences and events with other local grassroots organisations, thus strengthening the bonds of local democracy.

Have you found young people receptive to your message?

Absolutely, and people are not only registering to vote, they’re volunteering valuable time and skills, they become Bite The Ballot Ambassadors, they take the cause to their communities, they email or speak to me after a workshop or event, they visit me in my office. I didn’t expect to receive so many messages, emails, and visits from young people who are frustrated and want to do something to empower their generation to claim back their part in politics. When I started this role, I thought that spreading this movement meant that I would be doing most of the talking. In fact, the reverse is true. My entire role is about creating spaces, be it in a classroom, or online, or in my office, where young people can speak safely about what is making them angry, or offended, or disappointed, or passionate and inspired. I’ve listened to young people tell me about their experience of being stop and searched, or of surviving war, or of seeing something traumatic and being unable to help. The role of a CEO is to create a space, prompt a conversation, listen, and call young people to action by taking their passions and turning them into action.

The good news is that they’re responding to that call. In February 2015, on our second National Voter Registration Day (NVRD), we put 441,000 people on the Electoral Register, breaking the world record previously held by (USA campaign) Rock The Vote. As a small and highly dedicated team, a result like that was unprecedented. We surpassed (almost doubled) our aim of registering 250,000 people during NVRD 2015, and we could not have done so had young people not been willing to hear our call and spread the message.

Which other communities have you reached out to in Birmingham?

I’ve reached out to every community I can find. Primarily, I work with young people who are in education, and the British Somali and British Chinese communities. There are many communities who aren’t responding, and who I’m working hard to get on board. There exists an underlying mistrust towards anyone who wants to talk about politics. It’s hugely difficult to access communities when the leaders of those communities are unresponsive, but we know from experience that when people invite us in to deliver a talk or The Basics, they can’t wait to invite us back. I spend a lot of my time reaching out, trying to make that initial contact and breaking that barrier. Fortunately, we’ve also had a lot of success, and we’ve reached three or four thousand people with the message in Greater Birmingham.

Recently, Bite the Ballot Birmingham held an exhibition called ‘Beyond the Ballot’ in which 9 young people delivered speeches by a variety of political figures on issues including British democracy, equality and freedom. Was it easy to compile the speeches? Why were certain speeches chosen? How did reading the speeches affect the young people taking part?

Our show, Beyond The Ballot, A People’s History of Democracy, was the result of a conversation with my Ambassadors some months ago. I opened up a conversation about history and asked them to do some research and find a person in British history with whom they felt a personal connection. Once they’d researched and found a person they felt connected to, they took turns reading out loud that individual’s account of the struggle for freedom, democracy, and equality. It was a fascinating and sometimes moving conversation. I knew that we had to share this, and so we opened up the conversation to the public. Over the following months I invited every young person I came into contact with to get involved, and the result was a show at mac Birmingham on August 1st. Nine young people read the accounts, letters, diary entries, and speeches of people (many, long dead) who they felt a personal connection with. Performances ranged from William Wilberforce to Bernadette Devlin, Olaudah Equiano to Emma Watson. There was also an additional performance in which the group imagined what Malcolm X might have said in a speech he delivered in Smethwick just nine days before he was assassinated, about which little is recorded.

I think the young people who took part in Beyond The Ballot felt privileged to be sharing their passion for a person and a movement towards democracy; and, for many, that they are alive to see the change that so many of these historic figures fought for but didn’t live to see.

What’s next for Bite the Ballot Birmingham?

We’re making everything bigger and better. In September we’re launching #JustTalk, an initiative by Birmingham BTB, Birmingham’s Youth Champion Councillor Kerry Jenkins, and youth activist Luke Holland. #JustTalk will be a one-off 240-person session of The Basics, in which we aim to have 120 Councillors and 120 young people playing The Basics, debating on issues they care about, and ultimately swapping contact information and staying in touch. The mission is to foster a meaningful dialogue between decision makers and young people. It’s no secret that there is little conversation between young people and decision-makers. This event is about putting decision makers and younger constituents in a room, and helping them to start that conversation. In addition, we hope to hold a registration rally in Small Heath Park in September/October, with an aim of registering 1,000 people to vote.

We like to aim big, and to be bold. It is an incredibly exciting time to be a young person challenging systems of power and strengthening democracy. We invite everyone to be involved.

To contact Sawsan please email birmingham@bitetheballot.co.uk
For more information about Bite The Ballot visit their website, watch their (fantastic) videos, and follow them on Twitter

Guest Blogger: Tom Pratt, Unlock Democracy Birmingham Chair