Inside Advo­ca­cy Acad­e­my: the rad­i­cal pro­gramme turn­ing angry young peo­ple into activists

“I have really high hopes. We are always taught to aim high, so fuck it I’m aiming high. I want to be president of Interpol or the UN. Just fuck it.”

It looks like a hip­ster cof­fee shop from the front. Vin­tage paint­ed fonts on the win­dow, bunting. Just anoth­er shop space in Brix­ton serv­ing over­priced flat whites and veg­an brownies.

Except it’s not.

It is the Advo­ca­cy Acad­e­my: a social jus­tice fel­low­ship for young peo­ple that’s turn­ing teens and 20-some­things into activists. Can you teach activism? Appar­ent­ly so. Based on the free­dom school mod­el of the State’s 1960s civ­il rights move­ment, the acad­e­my helps the hack­neyed angry” youth become ver­bose social jus­tice war­riors, run­ning head­line-grab­bing campaigns. 

The proof is in the pud­ding. The Acad­e­my spawned 2018’s Legal­ly Black cam­paign which ad-hacked” icon­ic film posters and replaced all the lead char­ac­ters with black actors, putting them up all around Lon­don. The tagline of each read: If you’re sur­prised, it means you don’t see enough black peo­ple in major roles.” You prob­a­bly came across one, or caught it in the nation­al news. 

I meet one of its founders, Liv, 20, at the acad­e­my. She’s fierce­ly artic­u­late, relaxed and warm; chat­ting quick­ly but thought­ful­ly. She describes the real­i­ty of run­ning a viral campaign.

We would meet once a week or once every two weeks, we had our own What­sApp group. It was a lot of admin and bor­ing stuff;” she explains, Brain­storm­ing, shoots, logis­tics – going to par­lia­ment for long meet­ings. There was a lot of meet­ing up every day – unfor­tu­nate­ly dur­ing exam peri­od, just to get it done.” 

It’s a far cry from what you might expect – angry, plac­ard wield­ing march­es or even smug Insta­gram tac­tics. Turns out activism is much like any oth­er job – long hours, hard work – and yes, tedi­um. Plough­ing through all of that requires grit. Liv, who grew up local­ly in South Lon­don; read­ing and study­ing vora­cious­ly on civ­il rights and activism, has it in spades.

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Now an Eng­lish stu­dent at War­wick, she is pres­i­dent of their anti-racism soci­ety, on the youth board of The Change Foun­da­tion [a char­i­ty that uses sport and dance to cre­ate change in young peo­ple] and is work­ing on the rights for a TV pilot borne out of advo­ca­cy ideas. She has a focused mind (already grilling me on jour­nal­ism) anoth­er vehi­cle she may use for her activism. 

Do you ever just chill?” I ask.

Some­times I have fun,” she laughs.

I’m not sure I believe her. 

I arrive at the acad­e­my on a hot day in July, where alum­ni from its recent grad­u­at­ing class are gath­ered to train as change­mak­ers” – men­tors for the academy’s next intake. The space feels like a nurs­ery for polit­i­cal dis­rup­tors. There are cub­by holes for shoes, pegged-up Polaroids of its young activists strung along the walls, book­shelves with Civ­il Rights tomes and Zadie Smith nov­els, bright­ly coloured notice boards plas­tered with activist slo­gans, and a house­plant called Greta. 

Sit­ting on the floor in a cir­cle, are rough­ly twen­ty young peo­ple, aged between 17 and 22, shoes off, shar­ing sto­ries about bound­aries and free speech.

You all have some­thing to say,” chief advo­cate and acad­e­my founder Amelia Viney, tells them. She is a blunt, fast-speak­er with a no-non­sense approach and a nose ring. I need to hear your voices.”

Amelia’s voice dom­i­nates – whether she wants it to or not. Despite her calls for oth­ers to drown her out, you can­not help but hang on her every word. It’s lit­tle won­der she was the pied piper who led so many of these stu­dents here, thanks to her impas­sioned speech­es at var­i­ous South Lon­don schools. Many of the stu­dents relay to me how she stood on tables and gal­vanised them with cries of: What makes you angry? What are you going to do about it?” 

She found­ed the acad­e­my in 2014 because she was, her­self, angry. Work­ing then as a par­lia­men­tary researcher in West­min­ster, with a back­ground as a civ­il rights lob­by­ist in Wash­ing­ton DC, she saw a yawn­ing gap in the UK for a real youth movement. 

What I saw work­ing in West­min­ster was that work­ing class kids would come to MPs with ques­tions or prob­lems and just get patro­n­ised,” she says, Often they wouldn’t have the tools to effec­tive­ly com­mu­ni­cate their issue, but they weren’t told this – they were giv­en a pat on the head. I used to think – these kids don’t need pity, they need power.”

The aim of the acad­e­my is to do just that; to empow­er young peo­ple to chan­nel their anger into action; to give them the tools to make a change: I believe in order to get from where things are now to where they could be in a gen­er­a­tion, every­body who has a toolk­it – who knows how to win – has to build the infra­struc­ture, the insti­tu­tions, the struc­tures that will allow us to trans­fer that knowl­edge and those skills to the young peo­ple that are going to lead us to a bet­ter place.”

She began recruit­ing the way she always has – by ask­ing young peo­ple with no access to pow­er what makes them angry; on bas­ket­ball courts and estates over Peck­ham and Brix­ton. The geog­ra­phy was no coin­ci­dence. Lam­beth is one of the poor­est and most dan­ger­ous areas of Lon­don. Stats from House of Com­mons Library show that South­wark had the high­est num­ber of knife crime inci­dents in 2017 – 2018 with 860 offences. With over 100 knife deaths in Lon­don already this year, this is a dan­ger­ous envi­ron­ment for young peo­ple to grow up in. Amelia believes this is a gen­er­a­tion of local kids forged in fire” but not just by threats of vio­lence – by wit­ness­ing true inequal­i­ty. As one of the young activists says, of her rea­sons for join­ing; No way I want to be just anoth­er black woman rais­ing two kids alone on a coun­cil estate.” 

The acad­e­my was born in these envi­ron­ments, and is pas­sion­ate­ly local. We start­ed with no mon­ey and lit­er­al­ly 12 kids in a leaky hall with home­less peo­ple sleep­ing in it,” Amelia says. We are now a 350-hour, 300 vol­un­teer youth movement.”

I only speak when I need to – I would rather push the kids for­ward,” she tells me, after I wit­ness her chair­ing a spir­it­ed dis­cus­sion over the use of the word gay”. Eigh­teen-year-old trans man Isaac has just voiced dis­com­fort with how casu­al­ly the word is used as a slur. He is part of anoth­er of the academy’s bur­geon­ing suc­cess sto­ries, Straight­Jack­ets: a group cam­paign­ing for LGT­BQ+ sex and rela­tion­ship edu­ca­tion to be manda­to­ry in schools. They were respon­si­ble for the wide­ly-report­ed faux Ofst­ed ban­ners, post­ed out­side schools across south Lon­don and con­demn­ing them for fail­ing to pro­vide an LGBTQ cur­ricu­lum. One of these now hangs in the loo at the academy.

Our plan is to rewrite the sys­tem,” says Isaac. My younger sis­ter is only just start­ing pri­ma­ry school and I don’t want her to have the same sort of edu­ca­tion that I did.”

Yet – in a state­ment that could eas­i­ly belong on the Advo­ca­cy Academy’s walls – there is no judge­ment in the con­ver­sa­tion I see, only learn­ing. Offence can be tak­en, and not­ed, but it is then explored. The con­ver­sa­tions here are open and often uncom­fort­able. They have an oops” and ouch” pol­i­cy which, at first glance, seems child­ish and vague­ly nau­se­at­ing, but is sur­pris­ing­ly effective.

Declar­ing oops” acknowl­edges a mis­spo­ken state­ment, ouch” denotes offence. What hap­pens next is hon­est and respect­ful discussion.

Don’t call peo­ple out’, call them in,” Amelia says. You can’t can­cel peo­ple in real life, that’s not a thing.”

I wasn’t entire­ly sure what I expect­ed an activist school to look like, but it wasn’t this.

Akhera, 18, centre

Activism, the Gen Z Insta­gram boast of choice, has become a some­what com­mod­i­fied dis­ci­pline. Recent­ly the term has been thrown around so much as to become some­what mean­ing­less: every sec­ond celebri­ty and col­lab­o­ra­tion is empow­er­ing”, every new ad cam­paign makes an avari­cious zeit­geist-grab by stand­ing for some­thing”. A bunch of kids in South Lon­don meet­ing up to talk about activism could have been a cir­cle-jerk of virtue sig­nalling. It was not.

The fel­low­ship involves three res­i­den­tial retreats and week­ly evening gath­er­ings. They work on gen­der, race, class, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, through the lens­es of edu­ca­tion, hous­ing, dis­abil­i­ty, work, finance and more. Accept­ed advo­cates are expect­ed to cre­ate and run their own grass­roots cam­paigns, with help from vis­it­ing activists, politi­cians and aca­d­e­mics, and then deliv­er a speech in parliament.

It is open to any­one enter­ing year 12 or 13, based in south west or south east Lon­don. You don’t need good grades to get in, just a good atti­tude. The appli­ca­tion involves an online form, a three-minute video on what makes you angry” and an infor­mal inter­view with Amelia.

We were stripped down to what our iden­ti­ty is beneath, dur­ing our inter­view,” says Akhera, an 18-year-old stu­dent, pierc­ing­ly bright and elo­quent; wear­ing den­im dun­ga­rees and a scarf tied in her hair.

She’s part of this year’s cohort and a pas­sion­ate advo­cate for edu­ca­tion­al reform who is cur­rent­ly cam­paign­ing for a more nuanced dis­cus­sion of colo­nial­ism, impe­ri­al­ism and com­mon­wealth his­to­ries in UK schools.

Some chil­dren, like me, are sec­ond or third gen­er­a­tion migrants and we nev­er hear our sto­ries told, or even a crit­i­cal analy­sis of colo­nial­ism and what it was, is and has impact on,” she says, I grew up in a rad­i­cal house­hold – my dad is a Ras­ta, my mum was a Ras­ta for a time, they both have very spe­cif­ic ideas that come from being sec­ond gen­er­a­tion migrants from Jamaica. It may be a polit­i­cal house­hold, where we would dis­cuss these issues around the kitchen table, but it’s one that had no means of access­ing pow­er – we’re work­ing class, we live on a coun­cil estate near here. We were able to dis­cuss things, but not act on them.”

What attract­ed her to the Advo­ca­cy Acad­e­my, was the abil­i­ty to act on these ideas, but also the fact it was selec­tive: Amelia came to our school, stood on the tables and said: Some of you in this room will think this is for me’ and some of you will not want to be involved and that is total­ly fine.’ That space to choose whether I real­ly want­ed to be involved, that real­ly spoke to me.”

The Advo­ca­cy Acad­e­my, much like Amelia, does not fuck around. Indeed, when one of the young women present iden­ti­fies the aim of the Acad­e­my as sup­port­ing youth issues, Amelia is direct.

No, with all due respect, young peo­ple are just the start­ing point,” she says blunt­ly. The net aim is jus­tice; I expect you to go for­ward with that. I haven’t giv­en you these skills so you can go off and be bankers.”

On the day I vis­it, the young grad­u­ates learn the prac­ti­cal approach­es to take as a leader in any giv­en sce­nario. Yet, not all those present will make the cut. The acad­e­my has high lev­els of sup­port, but it also has high expec­ta­tions. No one here is pan­dered to. It’s tough and smart, and you have to be both to keep up.

And anger is fun­da­men­tal. What makes you angry?” is, after all, the recruit­ing ques­tion. Every­one here is angry: from today’s youth leader Dar­cy and her yearn­ing for rad­i­cal edu­ca­tion reform, to fel­low leader Liz, who makes an impas­sioned plea for con­struc­tive dia­logue with north­ern charm and a Ghana­ian flag wrapped around her dreads. Anger is the lifeblood of the academy. 

I had so much anger before I came here. I would just snap at any­one who said any­thing to me that was even remote­ly offensive,”says Mel, a 19-year-old Latin Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent, who cam­paigns for men­tal health sup­port in schools. She grew up near Brix­ton in an immi­grant fam­i­ly and says she felt the taboo around men­tal health in her com­mu­ni­ty sharply. 

There’s too much stig­ma there still,” she says, allud­ing to her own strug­gles, and ref­er­enc­ing the fact her local school had one coun­sel­lor who left and was not replaced, I don’t think any­one should grow up feel­ing there is some­thing wrong with them.”

Her expe­ri­ence with the acad­e­my – which she joined after Amelia vis­it­ed her school – has helped her chan­nel her anger. 

We were just a bunch of angry kids who blamed the gov­ern­ment’ or our teach­ers’ for every­thing,” Now we know what sys­tems are in place and that it’s not just the gov­ern­ment’. We know where to pin­point, we know strate­gies and tac­tics and we know how to build up our pow­er. The acad­e­my helps you nar­row your focus and fig­ure out what the prob­lem is and not just see it as this huge umbrel­la. It has giv­en us a language.”

She seems remark­ably calm for some­one who is angry – though it may be the fact she has a stonk­ing cold and is hug­ging her knees in her over­sized Green­wich Uni hood­ie. It may be the fact she has replaced her mis­di­rect­ed anger with an impres­sive sense of steely ambition. 

I have real­ly high hopes. We are always taught to aim high, so fuck it I’m aim­ing high. I want to be pres­i­dent of Inter­pol or the UN. Just fuck it.”

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The trans­for­ma­tion of these kids into hyper-artic­u­late activists is a con­sis­tent theme in my con­ver­sa­tions with the young wannabee changemakers.

I was put into a box and I could bare­ly open my mouth. If you had met me back then, before the acad­e­my, I would have just whis­pered my name,” says Jem­mar, a 22-year-old-BAF­TA-win­ning doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er and acad­e­my grad­u­ate, whose fast-talk­ing pas­sion seems baf­fling­ly incon­sis­tent with this ear­li­er description.

She tells me about her teenage years spent in Jamaica with her fam­i­ly, and how she strug­gled with the colourism the rife homo­pho­bia. I was bul­lied for the colour of my skin and the way I looked. I was so low – I tried to fix’ the prob­lem’ and bleach my skin and chem­i­cal­ly straight­en my hair. I want­ed lip reduc­tion surgery and a nose job. I would put a peg on my nose for hours every day.”

The fam­i­ly returned to the UK when she was 16 after her grand­fa­ther had a stroke. I became almost a full time car­er for my sib­lings here in Brix­ton, while my mum looked after her dad in Harles­den. Around that time, bleach­ing my skin and doing my hair stopped being a pri­or­i­ty but I still was so angry about being made to feel I wasn’t beautiful.”

I ask what inspired her to apply to the acad­e­my, when she first heard about it through friends. Kylie Jenner’s lip chal­lenge” she replies, to my sur­prise, The craze that hap­pened to make everyone’s lips look like mine, when I was try­ing to get rid of mine – I was angry about that.”

Her film, What Do You Mean I can’t Change the World?, which won the 2019 British Acad­e­my Children’s award for Best Con­tent for Change and came about through a con­nec­tion made at the acad­e­my, cen­tres on her rela­tion­ship to beau­ty as a young black woman. She is mov­ing­ly ver­bose – both in per­son and in the film – about exist­ing in a world that taught her the def­i­n­i­tion of beau­ty was the oppo­site of what she is. 

Since she found her voice at the acad­e­my, Jem­mar is now fierce­ly polit­i­cal. At the last gen­er­al elec­tion I was so excit­ed to vote I ran to the polling sta­tion so fast I actu­al­ly left my fam­i­ly behind!” she laughs, I love pol­i­tics and pol­i­cy and I’m on the British Youth Coun­cil now, doing pol­i­cy work with young peo­ple internationally.”

The acad­e­my may be polit­i­cal, but it is not par­ti­san. The acad­e­my has vis­i­tors and speak­ers from all polit­i­cal par­ties and encour­ages advo­cate par­tic­i­pa­tion in West­min­ster. This stems direct­ly from Amelia’s own politics. 

We accept peo­ple from all polit­i­cal par­ties and none,” she explains, and we pro­mote vot­ing. It is very rarely suf­fi­cient but I think it is always nec­es­sary, even if that’s a spoilt bal­lot. We would work with peo­ple from almost every admin­is­tra­tion because I believe prag­ma­tism has as much of a place in jus­tice as prin­ci­ple does.”

She told me I would be in a space where a lot of peo­ple would be shar­ing sto­ries about racism and she want­ed to know how I would nav­i­gate that space as a white man. She asked what I was going to bring to the space… My answer was: I’m just going to listen.”

Bel, a soft­ly-man­nered 19-year-old engi­neer­ing stu­dent, is cur­rent­ly strug­gling with that prag­ma­tism to prin­ci­ple ratio. An engi­neer­ing stu­dent at Edin­burgh, he is one of the only stu­dents who lives in an arguably more afflu­ent area of South Lon­don, yet he has an uncom­fort­able rela­tion­ship with mon­ey. He is hop­ing to become an advo­cate for de-growth” which he describes as resilience build­ing in com­mu­ni­ties and not nec­es­sar­i­ly just grow­ing the economy.”

Though he sees mon­ey as inher­ent­ly some­what evil, he sees the neces­si­ty of hav­ing at least some of it, to get shit done.

I am just angry about every­thing though,“ he tells me, Prison, school, hous­ing. I’m angry about how all of these per­pet­u­ate each oth­er. There’s no way to change any of it with­out destroy­ing it, with­out rad­i­cal­ly decon­struct­ing all of it.” There’s a vein of hope with­in his hope­less­ness, yet he appears crushed by the weight of the world.

I always want­ed to do good, not only for myself, but for oth­er peo­ple,” he says of his rea­sons for first apply­ing to the Acad­e­my. Dur­ing his ini­tial inter­view Amelia chal­lenged him on race – anoth­er issue he feels pas­sion­ate about.

It was uncom­fort­able. She told me I would be in a space where a lot of peo­ple would be shar­ing sto­ries about racism and she want­ed to know how I would nav­i­gate that space as a white man. She asked what I was going to bring to the space.”

And what did you say?” I ask.

My answer was: I’m just going to listen.”

I ask Amelia, as a white Jew­ish woman, how she does the same. 

That is a huge part of how I nav­i­gate my role,” she explains, adding that the point of priv­i­lege is to use it respon­si­bly. A lot of peo­ple, out of fear of tak­ing up space that isn’t theirs, take the skills their priv­i­lege has giv­en them and leave, but that is not the answer for jus­tice. I use my priv­i­lege to ensure that I deliv­er a new gen­er­a­tion of change-makers.”

She does this by ensur­ing that the move­ment is large­ly run by alum­ni but also by pro­mot­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty. We don’t oper­ate sin­gu­lar­ly for peo­ple of colour, or peo­ple who are queer or dis­abled, we oper­ate in a tru­ly inter­sec­tion­al and move­ment build­ing way, and that is because we believe that famous: Ain’t nobody free till everybody’s free.’”

The academy’s pul­sat­ing ener­gy – which is pal­pa­ble when you vis­it – is due to the fact it acts on its beliefs. These young peo­ple are not just the­o­ris­ing about activism. In fact, the grass­roots cam­paigns start­ed by these young activists are thriving.

But how suc­cess­ful have they been? Straight­Jack­ets has only just begun, and is in the midst of respond­ing to the government’s – some­what dilut­ed attempts – to pass LGBTQ Sex Edu­ca­tion leg­is­la­tion. Their head­line-grab­bing posters are just the begin­ning, they are now meet­ing with edu­ca­tion min­is­ters about mak­ing real change to the curriculum.

It should be com­pul­so­ry and writ­ten in the cur­ricu­lum: this is what you teach, this is how you do it well. You shouldn’t have a choice, because it is not a choice. You need to open up these dis­cus­sions, espe­cial­ly in the for­ma­tive time of sec­ondary school,” says Isaac, who speaks from per­son­al experience. 

Isaac, 18

Though he comes from a sup­port­ive, and what he describes as very lib­er­al and rad­i­cal” fam­i­ly (“In my house, dis­cus­sions were not just life isn’t fair’ it went fur­ther than that. It was what can you do about that?”) he felt lim­it­ed” at his school. He describes a les­son on trans issues that was par­tic­uar­ly scarring.

That les­son was the worst and most defin­ing expe­ri­ence of my sec­ondary school life,” he says, My best friend said that Bruce Jen­ner was a fake woman. I knew at that moment I would not be able to come out to these people.”

He even­tu­al­ly did – but he was met to much bul­ly­ing and strug­gle, which only served to solid­i­fy his activism. So much so that he even tried to apply to the acad­e­my before he was old enough to. He now has hopes to become a psy­chol­o­gist, focused towards research­ing a more nuanced under­stand­ing of trans people. 

Legal­ly Black – the most pro­lif­ic of the academy’s cam­paigns, has plans to push for­ward with its agen­da, but Liv is aware that its suc­cess does not have a defin­able metric. 

We went into par­lia­ment with it and every­one was like what’s your ask’ who are you tar­get­ing? But our cam­paign wasn’t real­ly like that, it was like, how do we change opin­ions?’” she says, The thing I am com­ing to terms with now is that, once you’ve raised aware­ness, what do you do with that? How do you imple­ment that struc­tur­al change?”

But the tide is notice­ably turn­ing. This is a gen­er­a­tion defined by its abil­i­ty to care deeply about every­thing from cli­mate change to racism. They embody one of the Advo­ca­cy Academy’s char­ter state­ments: There is noth­ing inevitable about injus­tice or inequality.”

Dar­cy believes that the edu­ca­tion pro­vid­ed by the acad­e­my should be the norm for all schools and, after wit­ness­ing the ener­gy and intel­lect among these young peo­ple, it is hard to dis­agree. If the youth – par­tic­u­lar­ly those from mar­gin­alised com­mu­ni­ties, where the acad­e­my most encour­ages par­tic­i­pa­tion – are dis­af­fect­ed”, the academy’s form of edu­ca­tion makes them an affec­tive force for change.

They may have entered with anger, but they are run­ning on hope. I think it is going to get bet­ter,” says Isaac, We are see­ing so much youth activism now and the rise of social media has made it eas­i­er for us to see what’s going on and gain trac­tion from the right com­mu­ni­ties. This stuff isn’t get­ting fil­tered through any­one else now – we are act­ing direct­ly. I have a lot of hope that the world will become a bet­ter place.”

After all, as the acad­e­my grows, so does its ecosys­tem of activists; and its poten­tial: I think we have 50 + alum­ni now,” says Mel, You have 50 peo­ple you can call and be like stand with me’ which is already just such a huge start­ing point.”

None of the young activists who dis­play hope appear naïve to me. The acad­e­my has not taught them that a bet­ter future is inher­ent, but that they are – with the tools giv­en to them by the acad­e­my – capa­ble of forg­ing one.

I can’t wait for the day when I get to show up for these young peo­ple,” agrees Amelia, When they are run­ning the movement.”


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