Serena Johnson and Sophie Simpson, co-founders of Conscious Youth, have been working to reach young people in their community of Kirklees, West Yorkshire, since 2016.

Their approach is to start conversations with young people about their skills and passions, before developing a plan around those conversations and working with young people to help them achieve their goals.

Headshot of Aisha Suleiman next to the EMpower and Yahoo Finance logos.
Aisha Suleiman, Chair of Amazon’s Black Employee Network

From today, Conscious Youth’s work will be supported by a new cash donation and partnership with Amazon’s Black Employee Network (BEN). The partnership will include Amazon employees running workshops, providing office space for events, entrepreneur workshops to empower future sellers, and access to technology education programmes such as AWS Educate and Amazon Future Engineer.

Aisha Suleiman, Chair of Amazon’s Black Employee Network (BEN), said: “Conscious Youth have proven that their model and approach to community engagement is hugely successful, so we’re delighted to further support their work – particularly at a time when communities are facing a new set of challenges during the COVID-19 crisis.”

We spoke to Sophie and Serena to find out more about Conscious Youth and the partnership with Amazon.

How does Conscious Youth approach community engagement?

An image of Sophie and Serena from Conscious Youth, they are wearing t shirts with their logo on it.
Sophie Simpson (left) and Serena Johnson (right) from Conscious Youth.

Serena: “When we first launched in 2016, Kirklees had seen youth services cut back in the local area. We spotted a need for a new approach to youth work, one which is strongly youth-led and felt within the community, rather than another top-down solution. That means we start with young people’s skills and passions, and we then we reverse engineer plans around those conversations.”

“Everything starts with conversations in the community. We use a model called Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), designed to identify and optimise strengths that exist already. So what do these young people care about, and how can we help them to bring about change as ‘active citizens’?”

“Those conversations are always fascinating. With a few simple questions, a young person who might otherwise be considered ‘disengaged’ will open up about identity, heritage and culture. We might ask: If you could change anything in your community, what would it be? From there, we identify the practical steps to bring about change, and educate these young people on how they can gain public support, access funding, lobby local government and have their voices heard.”

“We’re focused on facilitating real, long-term change than providing hand-outs in the short-term, and our work has proven that model to be successful.”

Can you tell us about specific campaigns or initiatives?

Sophie: “One of our biggest priorities right now is Youth Central, a virtual youth centre launched earlier this year to bridge the gap for young people during lockdown. Geared towards young people aged 12-19, Youth Central gives them instant access to video resources, live chat and video sessions, and new opportunities.”

“We hope the platform has given them hope and a sense of community during these uncertain times and will continue to grow once we are out of the pandemic.”

“We have a new programme called Breaking Barriers that brings together several projects to bridge the gap between young people and local authorities, education or health services, and other key stakeholders. One of our standout projects is Conscious Girls, which is designed to be a place where young women can get support with self-care and confidence; and the Bring Back Our Park Campaign has been hugely successful in raising funds for a revamped community play area.”

What are the outcomes of this approach for communities and individuals?

Serena: “The Bring Back Our Park Campaign has been a big success, and the council will start work soon on a new community play area. The young people involved also gained the skills and confidence to raise money and awareness.”

Sophie adds: “That campaign shows how we can make money work harder. It started with a £5k donation and we have grown that to £95k through council-matched funding, Home Office ‘Pocket Park’ funds, private partnerships, crowdfunding and much more.”

“Conscious Youth started with an original cohort of 24 young people, who played a key role in shaping our work and who now act as our steering committee and as role models to other young people. They are aspiring barristers, solicitors, doctors, nurses, TV producers – it’s such a pleasure to see them successful in their own right, and giving back to the organisation.”

“One of those individual success stories is Layla, who was still finding her voice and way in life when we met her in 2016. Layla benefited from our Stepping Up, Stepping Out programme, designed to build mental and emotional resilience, and she went on to help us further develop that programme.”

Serena adds: “One of Layla’s priorities was to overcome a fear of public speaking so she could pursue a career in law. After a couple of years working with her, Layla was on stage addressing 5,000 students to become Student Union President – and she won! She’s now on track to become a barrister.”

How can the Amazon team help Conscious Youth and young people to achieve their goals?

Serena: “Our core aim is to foster a new generation of ‘active citizens’ through community engagement and cohesion. Our message is that this is your community, and you have the power to change it for the better.”

A group image of team members at Conscious Youth.

Sophie: “That’s why engaging with an organisation like Amazon is so valuable, because they can provide the skills, experience, role models and inspiration for many young people. Not just to think big, but to understand the practical steps to achieve those ambitions.”

“Amazon employees will be getting involved with workshops, supporting our existing programmes, working directly with young people in the community, and helping out through education programmes like AWS Educate or AWS re/Start. We can also incorporate Amazon training opportunities into the Youth Central platform.”

“This will be particularly important as we respond to demand across the north east, not just Kirklees and Huddersfield, during the COVID-19 crisis.”

“Ultimately we want to address the shortfall of young black role models in areas such as government, technology and innovation – that’s a responsibility we take seriously! Both Amazon and the Black Employee Network can play a vital role in changing the way we think about success, community and black achievement in this country.”

“Conscious Youth represents hope and possibility – that message is loud and proud.”