By YHA Chief Executive James Blake
In YHA, we have a 90-year history of quiet radicalism. Not beating down the doors, or shouting from the rooftops, but pursuing practical change with steady determination.
We were founded in 1930 on a principle of inclusion. It is written into our charitable object that we exist “to help all, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside, and appreciation of the cultural values of towns and cities.” In modern terms, to ensure everyone can access the outdoors, nature, heritage and culture. For nearly a century our hostels proudly display a plaque confirming that “this youth hostel is one of many, both in this country and abroad, where young people, regardless of race and creed, may spend the night.”
So, inclusion remains at the core of our purpose and the primary focus of our latest strategy: Adventure. For the first time and a lifetime. – where our top priority is to ensure that all really does mean all.
The impact of the pandemic
Over the last year we have been reflecting on how we can make this a reality. COVID-19 has shown us the value so many of us place on accessing nature and culture, and the stark reality that over two million young people faced lockdown without access to a garden or local green space. As our hostels opened up, we welcomed more people from all parts of society than ever before, but this has shown us how many more we are still not able to reach.
Raising up new voices
In September we published Outside Voices – a unique project exploring connections between people and places. With contributions from a diverse range of individuals and community partners, we gained new perspectives on the outdoors and access to green and blue space.
Outside Voices was part funded by the National Lottery Emerging Futures Fund. We are delighted with the project book and accompanying illustrations by Dr Pen Mendonça. If you’ve yet to engage with the project, I would encourage you to download the e-book and benefit from the perspectives of our contributors.
Through the illustrations and interviews, photography and poetry, the project gives a platform to the previously unheard and provides greater insight into lived experience of inequity and exclusion. Vitally important issues that challenge YHA and the wider outdoor sector to listen more, learn more and – crucially – do more.
Support where it’s needed most
We have a track record of targeting support to young people and families with the least access to adventure and the most to gain from outdoor activity. For nearly 30 years the YHA ‘Breaks’ programme has offered bursaries to individuals and groups who haven’t used us before. Our 90th-anniversary appeal, Project90, has already funded breaks for 400 families who would not otherwise have had a break – either due to the pandemic or existing challenges worsened by the crisis.
Empowering communities through partnership
We know that we can only succeed if we work with others. Through Outside Voices we saw the richness of small groups and organisations, both locally and nationally, who are working to support inclusion in the outdoors. We want to learn from, support and strengthen the capacity of these groups. To use our influence as a national charity to make a difference locally – dismantling barriers to access and meaningfully broadening participation in the long term.
This is why, in a significant new step, as part of our response to Outside Voices, I am pleased that we are launching Outdoor Citizens. This community of practice draws together smaller outdoor charities and organisations in the field of access and inclusion to share their insight, innovate and learn together.
Alongside this, we are working in partnership with Natural England on a programme to listen to, work with and support community leaders with funding and new partnerships. The opening meeting was held in December at YHA Chester Trafford Hall and brought together a broad range of leaders in outdoor access to start to set the agenda for the year ahead.
Learning from experience
We will use our platform to amplify the lessons from of a variety of lived experience. To highlight authentic voices and to learn from those who know what we don’t, to ensure we evolve for the benefit of all.
Our strengths lie in our heritage, our size, supporter base and sense of purpose. We will use these to connect people and to deliver support. We have been delighted by the response of our membership to Outside Voices. Our movement recognises and endorses the need to broaden our appeal and diversify our base.
Embedding equity, diversity and inclusion across the charity
Our strategy commits us to ensure that those who stay with us, benefit from our provision and support, and our employees and volunteers, reflect the demographics of England and Wales. This means looking hard at ourselves. With our people and teams, we are working on how we embed equity, diversity and inclusion across the organisation.
Structurally, we are making progressive changes. As a youth charity it’s crucial we hear from young people. To engage young people in strategic decision making and to strengthen youth voice in our governance, we established the Youth Advisory Team. Because we know that increasing access includes diversifying access to power and influence. The first cohort have made a fantastic contribution and I thank them for the difference they’ve already made. More of this to come.
Inspiring the next generation
Sticking with the subject of youth engagement, this year we successfully delivered the first Generation Green programme. The 16-month project, funded by the Government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund, is being delivered by the Access Unlimited coalition. At its end, it will have provided over 100,000 opportunities that connect young people with nature. Supporting young people from a more diverse rang of backgrounds to gain access to routes to employment outdoors – through residentials, outdoor learning, new jobs, training, and volunteering.
If you cannot see it, you cannot be it. It is only by finding ways to diversify our own workforce and that of the wider outdoor sector today, that we can build towards a more inclusive and representative future.
The benefits of the outdoors are profound and personal
YHA supported me as a young teenager facing challenges at school: building confidence in myself and opening up my eyes to a different world which led to a lifelong love of the outdoors. But it is not lost on me that, while in a small way I bring lived experience of the power of YHA to transform young lives, it was easy for me to find welcome and comfort in the outdoors and in hostels. I faced almost none of the day-to-day hardships and barriers that prevent so many from being able to experience a journey similar to mine.
That is why I feel acutely a responsibility to take practical steps to overcome these barriers – pursuing change with the steady determination that is our hallmark. Everyone has their own unique experience of challenge and marginalisation. The overlapping of discrimination and disadvantage brings complexity and nuance which we are only beginning to understand and can never fully overcome. But hostels are by their very nature places of engagement. Where people from different places and backgrounds can meet, spend time together, and through shared experiences find points of connection and commonality that help them move forward in their lives.
Through projects like Outside Voices and Generation Green, initiatives like Outdoor Citizens, partnerships with small charities and local groups as well as national organisations like Natural England, contributions from members new and old, and a staff and Trustee body drawn from a cross section of society, we can create many more opportunities like this.
“We are YHA. Because where you go changes who you become.” That’s our saying. But we are learning that it isn’t just where you go, but who you take on the journey with you, and who you meet on the way.