Young People's Anonymised Testimonials Pave Way for Change
The last months have put into stark relief the challenges facing young people today. The Everyone’s Invited movement, which began in 2020 but came to mainstream attention in March this year, saw thousands of young people come forward with their own anonymised testimonials about the sexual harassment, abuse and misogyny they had experienced from their peers in schools and universities across the UK.
Almost 3,000 institutions around the UK have been named to date, their anonymous nature posing significant challenges to the organisations trying to respond.
People have rightly been shocked by the revelations, although perhaps we should not have been, given how many of these behaviours are recognisable from our own lived experiences. What is new, however, is the environment in which these issues are playing out today.
The class of 2021 is living at a moment in which technological development and societal change is moving at pace, posing ever more complex challenges and threats. Many teachers and parents were aware of the problem of sexual harassment among school pupils but not the full extent of it, or the arenas in which it takes place.
What is interesting about this issue is that it was brought to our attention not via traditional media reporting, but through the activism of alumni and students – not only via the Everyone’s Invited site, but direct approaches to institutions through open letters. This was driven and amplified by a social media campaign, owned by young people, of which teachers, parents and even the media were broadly unaware.
This is illustrative of a continued rise in proactive engagement from a younger and highly technologically-savvy demographic, that is unafraid to challenge the status quo.
One cannot help but be impressed by how those driving the campaign managed so effectively to galvanise their contemporaries into speaking out. The light shone on these issues, and the dialogue that has ensued, can only be a positive development.
However, while Everyone’s Invited were clear that they wanted this to be a constructive listening and learning exercise, inevitably the issues played out differently in our current febrile media environment. In these, and other debates, it is easy for matters to be harnessed by reporting and campaigning that distorts them into highly divisive issues.
For organisations such as schools, it can be very challenging to achieve thoughtful, balanced dialogue and decision making in a media landscape that seemed so intent on polarising opinion and driving clicks.
In the case of the reaction to Everyone’s Invited, the campaigning group itself attempted to step in to cool tempers, stating that it was concerned that it risked implicating “certain demographics and institutions with a disproportionate amount of blame that does not reflect reality.” But this did not stop a slew of sensationalist reporting targeting individual institutions.
Against this backdrop, the following learnings emerge:
The ongoing importance of horizon-scanning
This is nothing new, but the pace and scale of potential social media reaction is. Organisations should think carefully about broader societal trends and conversations, and how they could impact their world.
#MeToo began as a Hollywood movement, highlighting the treatment of female industry professionals by men in positions of power in film and television. We saw it move progressively to the music industry, then corporate sectors, through to political life and beyond.
It is not surprising that it would also impact schools and universities – particularly since some of these behaviours are so universally recognisable.
Organisations must listen as much as they transmit
The recent OFSTED report into sexual harassment highlighted the mismatch between what we, as adults, think young people should learn about, and what they feel they need to discuss.
People feel increasingly enabled to speak up about key issues, and have multiple platforms on which they can form a collective and make their voices heard. It is critical that people feel listened-to and acknowledged – if they are not, then they will take the discussion elsewhere.
You cannot communicate in silos
In this ultra-connected world, you can expect information to be shared across multiple groups very quickly, and on a number of platforms. Organisations should encourage more collaborative discussions among their stakeholder groups, understanding that there may be a range of differing opinions and experiences within those groups themselves.
Also, being aware that issues can easily be conflated and weaponised in an increasingly agenda-driven reporting environment. Looking beyond Everyone’s Invited, it is alarming to see how schools and universities are being increasingly becoming caught up in the so called “culture wars” and targeted by activist campaigning groups, often intent on negating reasoned discussion and using threats to silence those with whom they disagree.
The environment will continue to be complex, challenging and often emotional. Being able to steer a path through sensitive issues requires significant skill and judgement.
Our advice is to ensure you are listening to your key stakeholders and aware of the channels on which issues are being debated. This will enable a strong, informed and collaborative dialogue.
Providing you keep engaging effectively to maintain the trust of your key internal audiences, you will be able to weather a temporary external storm, no matter how unpleasant and unfair it may seem at the time.
Photo credit: Everyone’s Invited