Fellow of the Month

Ruth Ibegbuna

RUTH IBEGBUNA

United Kingdom,

Ruth Ibegbuna founded RECLAIM to tackle the UK’s low rates of social mobility. RECLAIM is building a new strand of working-class youth leadership with the mission of “being seen, being heard and leading change”, coming out of the most marginalized areas in regional cities with a powerful influence on politics, the media, and mindsets locally and nation-wide.

This profile below was prepared when Ruth Ibegbuna was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.

INTRODUCTION

Ruth Ibegbuna founded RECLAIM to tackle the UK’s low rates of social mobility. RECLAIM is building a new strand of working-class youth leadership with the mission of “being seen, being heard and leading change”, coming out of the most marginalized areas in regional cities with a powerful influence on politics, the media, and mindsets locally and nation-wide.




THE NEW IDEA

As major capital cities increasingly attract the country’s top talent, financial resources, service industries, government structures and even citizen sector resources, regional cities and their sprawling suburbs are at risk of being left behind. Ruth Ibegbuna set up RECLAIM in 2010 to activate the latent talents of young people in those working-class areas that are most at risk of being excluded from meaningful life opportunities and mainstream society. She has developed a mechanism to spark individual-level change, and link this to fundamentally challenging the UK’s damaging cultural conception of why the poor are poor. Ruth’s youth-led regeneration approach constructs cohort groups of 30-40 young peers aged 13-15 from across a tough neighborhood, who launch their new leadership journeys by designing their own Youth Manifesto and recruiting active support from citizens and businesses in their local area. Over the course of 8 months, they engage with a series of carefully designed RECLAIM leadership challenges, from constructive dialogue with the police and local decision-makers to starting their own youth-led projects for local and national-level change. 

 

Ruth’s new idea rests on the innovative methodology she has designed to deeply engage a sector of youths who would never normally engage with existing programs or social action. She is bringing young people who often struggle both academically and in the home on a transformational, long-term journey to become their communities’ powerful changemakers: local role models and activists for social justice at the national level. Her innovation resides in three key insights. First, she is re-defining what leadership means: demonstrating that the “disadvantages” faced by young people who face the greatest challenges in pressurized communities can be inverted into powerful “advantages”: unique skills, resilience, and strong local leadership. Second, her youth-led approach and peer-to-peer marketing is changing incentive structures so that teenagers who would never normally come forward self-nominate to RECLAIM. Third, rather than create diversionary activities to keep young people out of trouble, RECLAIM brings them outside of their comfort zones with a focus on activism, challenging them to exercise their political voice and tackle the social injustice they experience head-on. Furthermore, where existing school-to-work programs focus on creating single-track avenues, for example into construction and hairdressing jobs, RECLAIM co-creates unique leadership plans for every young person, whether this means going to university, crafting non-traditional career paths, pursuing entrepreneurship or becoming a caring mother not reliant on state support. 

 

Ruth’s approach works at multiple levels to disrupt society’s conception of why the poor are poor. She is systematically bringing working class youths’ position in UK society from the periphery into the core: activating their political voice and changemaking potential at the school, community, and national level; designing new paths into employment that reflect the genuine ambitions of working-class youths; and creating bridges to key institutions, businesses, the media and policy-making. Ruth is ultimately changing society’s expectations for working-class youths by putting young people from deprived backgrounds in places and positions where society would not expect them, and ensuring they are “being seen, being heard and leading change”.




THE PROBLEM

Britain has some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world. OECD figures show earnings in the UK are more likely to reflect your fathers' than any other country - a pattern which has been entrenched since the 1970s. Income inequality between the rich and the poor is one of the largest in Europe. These national trends hide an even more entrenched north-south divide in the country. Investment and resources flow disproportionately into the south: in the most recent economic boom, employment grew by 16% per year in London, but just 1% in the North’s poorest regions. As industry transitioned to a service economy, and the trade union movement declined sharply, whole geographic areas and working-class neighborhoods had been left behind, stuck in a cycle of intergenerational poverty and marginalization. 

 

Young people growing up in these clusters of poverty face an inter-connected set of challenges, from gang culture and limited job prospects, to struggling school systems and over-stretched social services. Many come from single-parent households or face unstable family lives, and struggle to find adult support or local role models, contributing to lower educational achievement, levels of confidence, and aspiration. These challenges are compounded at the root level by a negative cultural mindset and perception of what it means to be poor, with words like “benefit scrounger” imbuing the media. This national narrative both undermines marginalized youths’ self-belief and runs throughout Britain’s institutions affecting schools, the citizen sector, media and the policy-making agenda. 

 

A range of services is available to try to support young people from vulnerable backgrounds. Statutory services offer a safety net, providing treatment for young people with extreme behavioral or learning challenges, but do not invest in preventative work or unleashing the future potential of young people. The limited state funding which is available for broader youth work (called the “pupil premium”) is available only to programs that raise academic results, treating the symptoms of inequality rather than the root cause. Youth groups and charities provide activities such as music or sport to “divert” youths away from crime, but these provide only temporary fixes. Some non-profit organizations run leadership programs, or support young people to enter university. However they routinely struggle to engage the young people who could benefit most – and end up supporting star students from poor postcodes who already stand out above their peer group. They are failing to genuinely widen access to opportunity, and are contributing to brain drain out of marginalized areas. 

Crucially, existing programs fail to fundamentally challenge and change the UK’s perception of the poor. Without breaking this cycle at the level of the individual and unleashing the voice of working-class youths, whole communities of youths will be left to follow in the footsteps of their parents, peers and neighbors, trapped in marginalized geographic pockets, misunderstood by policy-makers and stereotyped by the mainstream media. In this disempowering setting, it is easy for youths to become disengaged from politics and the rest of society, meaning the very people who are most affected by policy and social inequality cannot exercise their voice to change the system.




THE STRATEGY

Ruth aims to change the national narrative in Britain, re-defining the role of working-class young people in society. Her ultimate aim is to turn social injustice and structural disadvantage on its head, by transforming the most marginalized communities from within. To achieve this, Ruth has designed a three-part strategy: first by working at the individual level to ignite at-risk youths as changemakers, second by translating this activism into new pathways to employment and leadership, and finally by bridging this individual-level change to affecting public perception and policy. 

 

Ruth’s strategy begins at the level of the individual: creating a transformational journey for at-risk youth to unleash their potential as changemakers. RECLAIM launches with a powerful social action methodology. Selected youth from across a neighborhood form a peer cohort and are brought together for an intensive, 5-day launch. They co-create their own ‘Youth Manifesto’ to address the unique challenges most affecting their lives, with straplines ranging from “put down the guns” to “stop harassing us”. The young people then campaign for hundreds of local families and businesses to commit to the manifesto, and spend the next eight months creating and implementing solutions to each of its statements. For example, a group of girls faced with sexual harassment attracted funding from the police, conducted surveys and assemblies about harassment in schools, organized a rally, and successfully lobbied police to place more officers in key locations. RECLAIM staff and volunteers offer a flexible range of training throughout, including media training, public speaking, and policy and decision-making structures in the UK and Europe. 

 

To spearhead a mindshift in the young people Ruth has developed an additional suite of leadership challenges: for example, youth are tasked with designing events for disadvantaged groups, including for recent migrants, the elderly, and even the police force. Through careful monitoring and evaluation, Ruth has developed best practices in her approach, succeeding in raising program completion rates from around 60% in the first cohorts in 2008, to 90-100% in 2013. Participation in the program is entirely voluntary and Ruth works hand in hand with young people so that they have ownership over RECLAIM’s culture, activities and peer-to-peer spirit, and so that their activities truly resonate with their interests. 

 

In addition to the social action focus, Ruth has embedded a parallel strand of work for intensive pastoral support throughout the program. Youth are matched with long-term mentors, each trained by RECLAIM, to unleash their personal resilience and self-esteem in their crucial teenage years. RECLAIM’s approach attracts a much more diverse pool of mentors than existing programs, sourcing them from within the local community, many under the age of 25. RECLAIM’s impact reports show that mentoring has a transformative effect on the mentors themselves, with retention rates above 90% and improved employment rates. 

 

Rather than creating a “quick fix” solution shaping young people to fit into traditional career paths, Ruth’s strategy is to help them create their own credible and unique leadership and employment paths. The second part of Ruth’s strategy is therefore to translate youths’ changemaking skills into career progression through an additional year-long programme called RE:CRUIT. By this point, the young people have developed the self-confidence, stability in their personal lives, and interpersonal skills needed to take advantage of a second level of mentoring: career mentors from professional backgrounds. The young people are challenged to develop unique leadership plans based on the personal skills they identify, ranging from running a local business to entering the legal or banking sectors. The result is often a strong focus on entrepreneurship, with RECLAIM alumni starting successful music groups and fashion labels. The RE:CRUIT program puts youth through a series of hands-on workshops and challenges needed to compete on an equal footing in today’s society: networking, CV-writing, making impressions, demonstrating your skills, and mock interviews in local businesses, all from the early age of 15. 

 

The final step in Ruth’s strategy is to shift images and perceptions about the working class across Britain through RECLAIM’s mission of “young people being seen, being heard and leading change”, which runs as a consistent thread throughout the RECLAIM model. Every RECLAIM and RE:CRUIT activity creates bridges into existing institutions like the police, fire brigade and local government, maximizing local resources for financial sustainability and sustained impact. For example, local shops contribute food and event materials, all printing is done by the BBC, RECLAIM has attracted legal, accounting, office space and event venues free of charge, and local businesses contribute mentors, training, interviewing, work experience, and sponsorship money. Ruth has also brought multi-national corporations on board, creating an avenue for investment into suburban areas with Google, Sainsbury’s and Cisco for example. This approach not only creates a scalable financial model for locally-led regeneration; more importantly all of these actors start recognizing the skills and leadership abilities of youths, transforming their understanding of the stigmatized local area. 

 

Ultimately, RECLAIM alumni become long-term, active changemakers in their local area as well as in the national arena, with a strong voice to increase social justice. Ruth’s approach builds bridges from marginalized communities into the core of London, Brussels and mainstream media, and galvanizes young people to express their voices. Alumni independently broker regular appearances on national TV and radio, and link to politicians and decision-making fora. A group of boys secured £450,000 from the national Cabinet Office to invest in new youth services. When the London Riots broke out RECLAIM youth responded immediately, bringing 15 young people onto national news channels tackling stereotypes. The young people now aim to set up a Youth Think Tank to influence policy from a working-class perspective. 

RECLAIM therefore offers a multi-level, low-cost, and scalable solution to tackle regional marginalization whilst shifting public perception and policy. To date, Ruth’s model has been replicated 15 times in a diverse range of settings across the region. It has transformed the lives of over 750 young people, who in turn have mobilized 25,000 local community-members. However Ruth believes that changing the system and cultural perceptions fundamentally does not require RECLAIM’s direct youth work to expand exponentially to all disadvantaged communities. Rather, she believes igniting the working-class youth voice in key geographies can have a transformative effect on national narrative and policy. For the most impact, Ruth believes her model is best suited to regions with little infrastructure and resources in place. She aims to expand her work through the UK’s Northern regions first, focusing on regional cities and peri-urban areas, before bringing the practice to key areas of the developing world. She has already established ties in Latin America and Brazil’s favelas. Rather than parachuting into a new community however, Ruth’s strategy is to train locally-based teams. She is now codifying RECLAIM’s approach and values so they can be adopted and franchised by a range of partners, local entrepreneurs and established youth organizations. Ruth is also keen to establish a RECLAIM training center, with sponsorship and million-pound investment from multinationals. It will serve as an ongoing demonstration center for the model, earn further income streams, and carry out a long-term strategy to sustainably shift the understanding of other public institutions towards working-class youths.




THE PERSON

Ruth grew up in Bradford, in a working-class city in the North of England. Her Nigerian parents insisted on the importance of education, learning and community engagement. Ruth’s parents brought her along to community organizing meetings from an early age. She attended a series of six state-run schools, and although each one held positive opportunities, she felt her early confidence eroding with every transition. Ruth cared passionately about social inequality, and when she earned a scholarship to a private school she withdrew herself after one day and returned to the state sector as the inequality in educational provision made her highly uneasy. She chose to study at Liverpool University and there met more like-minded peers, who shared her commitment to social justice and equality of opportunity. However even there, she soon realized how little exposure she had actually had to broader social networks and society. She was acutely aware that young people from private schooling and the middle class had been given a huge head-start: they had the confidence and self-esteem to succeed in the system, even when they did not stand out academically. 

 

In school Ruth led campaigns in the Justice and Peace committee. Later, in University, she led the African-Caribbean Society. After university she trained as a teacher. In her first year of teaching, back in Bradford, race riots broke out and Ruth launched a high-profile response to the turbulence, engaging young people from fractured, separate communities to co-create a multicultural festival attracting hundreds of local residents and national press. Gradually, Ruth became known for her flare for working with the most challenging young people. Her pupils consistently achieved some of the best results in the country, and she became a senior teacher leading four departments. Ruth loved the work but felt extremely confined by the formal structures and curriculum. She was routinely rebuked by senior management for her unconventional teaching practices, and felt impeded from innovating or changing school practices more fundamentally. 

 

Frustrated at the limitations of what could be achieved with marginalized young people in the confines of a classroom, Ruth finally quit her job. She resolved to dedicate her life to directly tackling social exclusion and inequality. Ruth accepted a position at a Manchester cultural centre and was tasked with widening youth access, and quickly developed a series of challenging youth programs she could run by leveraging the public venue’s resources. In 2006 Ruth launched the project “Urban Islam’ to address Islamophobia in schools. She worked with Muslim residents and students to create lesson plans for teachers about Islam, and the Muslim teens delivered classes in schools. The program was rolled out to twenty schools across the city. 

 

In 2007 Ruth began developing RECLAIM’s methodology out of her frustration at seeing very few positive role models for black young men in high crime areas. She sourced local mentors and connected them with the first RECLAIM cohort: 45 teenage boys from an area of the city blighted by gun-crime and negative headlines. With virtually no funding, she sourced contributions from local businesses and key individuals. The boys wrote the first Youth Manifesto and led adults in the area in negotiating for better local outcomes. The transformative outcomes on the boys involved, and on the local community, led Ruth to refine RECLAIM’s method, setting up her own non-profit organization to roll out the program full time in September 2010.