Youth activism in Newham; some reflections on what we learnt from a co-produced research project undertaken in the middle of a global health pandemic 

We write this blog as part of a wider ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ research project team, who are taking a co-production approach to research in order to find out if being involved in activism has the potential to improve youth mental health. We are working alongside co-research teams in Blackpool, Cornwall and Brighton and our role was to observe youth activism in the London Borough of Newham and to report on what it looks like, who is involved, and capture accounts of its impacts.

And when we say ‘we’, we mean us – Ishrat Hussain, a young person who is part of the HeadStart Newham project team, and Amanda Taylor-Beswick, an academic based in a university (Queens University Belfast). We have been co-leading the research together here in Newham and felt motivated to share what we had learnt. Whilst we write this blog together, we want to acknowledge that we have worked with other youth and adult co-researchers on the project and their thoughts and contributions have also influenced how we went about this work. We have actually written another blog about how our co-research team has worked together. Alongside our differences in age, background and experiences, are many things we have in common, some of which includes our shared belief in the right for young people to be heard and to have a stake in things that matter to them and things that have an impact upon them. For us this was a very good basis to unite us in our work together – to understand better if involvement in activism can be beneficial for young people. 

Our research started just as the Covid-19 pandemic began, so we couldn’t meet ‘in-person’, nor could we meet physically with young people in youth clubs, schools, buildings, or in social learning spaces like we had originally planned. We therefore needed to adapt and decided to take an ethnographic approach to our work. Our work involved observing young people designing and participating in activities about things that matter to them and planning the steps they could take to drive change – youth activism.

At the outset of our research, Sarah, who is a Co-production Practitioner with HeadStart Newham, provided us with a most brilliant map of all the youth services in Newham, which helped up to understand more about the range of groups and campaigns going on.  We identified three different youth activism campaigns happening in Newham that we wanted to observe: a Youth Climate group, a Youth BAME group, and a Youth Futures forum. Because of the pandemic, each of these groups were held using various online platforms.

Ethnography is a term used in research that is about observing people as they take part in a particular activity in a particular environment, to learn more about what happens and how they interact within that space.

Screenshot of a Virtual Reality space created by young people in collaboration with Immersive Computing Labs to ‘experience’ impacts of Climate Change.

We asked permission to go along and observe – sometimes we went together, sometimes just one of us went. Whilst we could have likely got on with our work after Sarah had paired us up, we found the input from Sarah and Laurie, a Data and Research officer also from HeadStart Newham, at our research meetings valuable to thinking through our next steps and what we were learning as we went along. This then helped us decided who we might reach out to and how we might go about building our connections. Sarah’s relationships with some of the other group leaders made it much easier for us to ask to attend groups and observe them. Laurie joined us to take notes about us as co-researchers, given that we were working in an unfamiliar way and in unfamiliar spaces. Laurie’s notes provided interesting insights about our co-research relationship and approaches and helped us to think about what was helpful, a hindrance or important.

Our observations offered us insights into current day youth activism in Newham, where the importance of having spaces to discuss and mobilise for change today and in the future was strikingly evident. We observed there was notable engagement when partnerships with young people and adults was genuine and shared. We also noticed how passionate young people in Newham are about issues that matter to them, and how well some organisations understood the importance of making it possible for young people to find ways of having their voices heard.

Other things we noticed were the range of different ways people could take part, sometimes called the methods used for engagement. For example we observed virtual reality or immersive technology used to ‘experience’ and to open up discussions about the planet and climate change; we observed the use of new and emerging technology like avatars to connect, to discuss and to inform policy decisions; we learnt that activism that takes place through online platforms can be as effective as activism that takes place in-person; we saw how genuinely inclusive and creative group facilitation supported young people to make their points and to have them recorded and heard; we learnt that how a group is facilitated is really important to talking ‘with’ and to young people; we learnt young people and adults older people work best together when the decision-making is shared, the conversation is balanced, and the activism young people believe to be important is not dismissed.

A key finding from our observations and discussions with young people and youth workers was that the transition from in-person activism to online activism can be difficult. While it does become more accessible to some young people, we found that others may be digitally disadvantaged and lack the facilities needed to take part in campaign groups that meet online. Nonetheless, some groups were able to overcome these limitations by providing young people with the equipment necessary to experience and contribute to activism online.  

With the help of Laurie, we created a visual diagram to capture our learning as an ‘ecology of youth activism’ in Newham. An ecology describes how different parts of a whole system can interact and relate to one another. We wanted to make visible the various factors that appeared important to facilitating and mobilising inclusive youth activist groups in the online:

Find out more

Click on each title in the image to find out more.

Find out more
Youth Activism in Newham Ideas / Creativity Engagement Values Campaigns and Themes Funding Participation

Youth Activism in Newham

A representation of an ecology of our findings from observing youth activism in the London borough of Newham.

Ideas / Creativity

Young people worked with adults in these campaign groups to outline and find solutions for some of the issues they were affected by.


We observed engagement to be arranged and organised through a range of digital platforms. One group was hosted using Virtual Reality. We were really struck by the increase in young people's engagement noted by the participation youth workers due to being able to be an avatar.


We noticed that young people were passionate about the issues that mattered to them, and that youth groups were making it possible for young people to be heard.

Campaigns and Themes

We observed a Youth Climate Change Assembly, an Embrace to Celebrate Group about diversity, culture and representation, and a Future YOU Future Me group.


A key finding was that the transition from in-person activism to online activism may be difficult. ​

While it does become more accessible to some young people, we found that others may be digitally disadvantaged and lack the facilities needed to participate in campaign groups that meet online. ​

Nonetheless, some groups were able to overcome these limitations by providing young people with the equipment necessary to experience activism online.


We saw really inclusive and creative group facilitation - that supported young people to make their points and to have them recorded and heard​.

​We learnt that how a group is facilitated is really important to talking 'with' young people​.

​We learnt young people and older people work best together when the conversation is balanced and the space is a shared one.

Image 1; Ecology of Youth Activism in Newham (Nothing About Us Without Us, 2021)

You can click on each of the words / parts of the image to find out a bit more. Alongside this ecology, we also have two particular comments to share about how activism is understood and described by young people in Newham. When we asked young people to tell is what the term activism means to them, they told us:

1. A campaign where you actively try to make a change
2. Voicing opinions about important matters

What also came through strongly was that young people are not living their lives waiting to grow up or working solely towards ‘transitioning into adulthood’, a phrase we have come across when others (often adults) talk about young people. We learnt that youth, as a life stage, needs to be valued and celebrated as other life stages are, that young people’s contributions should inform how their worlds are understood and they should be involved in how it is constructed. The wisdom of adults is important to young people, but they too have views that are equally relevant and important.

We hope this blogs gives you a flavour of what we have been up to as co-researchers in Newham, and some insights in to the things we have been learning and discussing. We are looking forward to joining up our findings with our co-research colleagues in Blackpool and Cornwall, and you can hear more from us all when we host a Resilience Forum on 22nd July 2021. In the meantime, don’t forget to check out our other blog on how we worked together as a co-research team.

Thanks for reading, Ishrat & Amanda

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