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Review: #LIFTChange Children of the Revolution. Reviewed by Ben Walters

Change is hard. Children of the Revolution – the third event in Change for a Tenner!, a strand of LIFT 2014 dedicated to discussing and generating ideas around social and political change – offered some good examples of how it can be realised and some intriguing rumbles of things that might be on the horizon. But there was also a consistent sense of the value of working within existing structures – and a conservatism in the evening’s own formal approach that didn’t always work in favour of sparking new ideas.

The evening was divided into two halves and chaired by Amy Lamé, host and co-creator of Duckie, recent candidate for selection as a Labour parliamentary candidate and, we learned, founder at 16 of her local Amnesty International branch at home in New Jersey. In the first half, nine panelists, most under 30, each engaged in some way with pursuing shifts in social justice, spoke for a few minutes, presenting their credentials and a key idea or two. They ranged from 26-year-old former Swedish Pirate Party MEP Amelia Andersdotter to Holly Baxter, co-founder of feminist media-monitoring blog The Vagenda; from former Labour councillor Mike Harris to Heather Kennedy of rent-fairness campaign Digs. The second half adopted a Question Time format, with the speakers responding to queries from the floor.
There was plenty of food for thought, much of it predicated on the gap between government and ‘real life’ and the alienation felt by many, especially the young, from political process. Harris shrewdly engaged with the event’s venue – Peckham Liberal Club – to argue that, in the past century, political party activism was closely bound up with general socialising. These days, social media might be a good channel for some types of campaigning, most of them pretty shallow, but major political parties have little traction there and teenagers are more likely to connect to fringe or special-interest groups (as one audience member testified with relation to his own children).

Throughout the evening, however, many of the speakers insisted that while people might feel alienated from the current political system, it can still be highly effectual for those who manage to engage with it. “Legislation matters,” said Andersdotter; “formal politics matters,” said Duncan O’Leary of think tank Demos. Harris pointed out that the number of people in the room – about 50 – would be enough on most local councils to swing decisions about hundreds of millions of pounds of spending.

“Engaging with the political system is still a viable thing,” echoed Adebusuyi Adeyemi of the Young Fabians, who organised a day of change for the NHS that encouraged health service workers to put themselves in the position of those they supposedly served. It secured 800,000-odd pledges to do things like improve the taste of children’s medicine. Hardly revolution – yet, as American-born community organiser Betsy Dillner suggested, change is often about the incremental “slow slog” rather than wholesale upending of the status quo. Baxter testified that sceptical teenagers can quite quickly (“it takes about half an hour”) be won over to campaigning causes through the use of “tiny examples” drawn from their own experience, such as problematic content in women’s magazines. Historically speaking, we heard, periods of meaningful change have often resulted not from seismic ructions but pressure from the fringes of established institutions, or bold action by those who already hold privilege. Andersdotter claimed “we simply need somebody in some position of power to grow a backbone”.

The event’s billing framed it as an inquiry into how Generation X-ers could get out from under the weight of the Baby Boomers. Yet there wasn’t much progress on that question. The most intriguing contribution of the night implied that we might just have to skip those twenty-, thirty- and fortysomethings and look to those still in adolescence to generate a real sea change. Emma Mulqueeny of Young Rewired State, a global network of under-18 computer programmers, talked about “97ers” (ie. those born in 1997), who are not just digital natives but social-media natives, and whose political consciousness has taken shape within the austerity era. “These kids are much more empowered” in many ways than their elders, Mulqueeny said. “By 2020, they’re going to be working around the world and they’re going to be working together… They think completely differently to how we do… We need to look at what we can do to support them.”

For all its stimulating ideas, though, the event lacked dynamism. Its multiple voices were wide-ranging but not always clear – I struggled to get a sense of what Young Rewired State, the Pirate Party or Lili Dmitrovic’s People’s Republic of Southwark actually do – and the evening’s structure didn’t allow much space for intellectual cross-fertilisation. There were also technical issues working against engagement: most of the speakers’ faces were poorly lit, for instance.

The night might have benefited from a much more a tightly defined central question that each speaker could have illuminated from a different angle. But the problem was really more fundamental than that, and to do with the conservative panel format itself: ten people on a raised stage with a microphone; 40 others sitting facing them being spoken to. As one audience member suggested, this was not a set-up likely to foster any radical new thoughts or experiences of empathy. But it was an honest attempt. And change is hard.

Read our interview with co-curator Charlie Tims here.

Find out more about Change for a Tenner! here. LIFT have commissioned Run-Riot to report on the Change for a Tenner! series. Follow the hashtags for updates - and make yourself heard #LIFTChange #LIFT2014

Some details on the final events:
Some People Think I’m Bonkers, But I Just Think I’m Free (Weds, June 18, at The Yard), compered by comedian Ivor Dembina, celebrates eccentricity in the company of campaigners - from naturism to the restoration of British Rail.
This State of Independence Shall Be (Weds, June 25, at Wilton’s Music Hall) investigates “the art of declaring independence…featuring micronations, communes and subterranean living”, hosted by Hammer and Tongue’s Michelle Madsen and Sam Berkson, and including Lise Autogena, resident of Denmark’s experimental community Cristiania.
The Change For a Tenner! Finale (Thurs, June 26, at Shoreditch Town Hall) takes the form of a “revolutionary gameshow” in which the audience decide the rules and allocate the box office takings to a cause (or anti-cause) of their choice.

Change for a Tenner! is curated by Charlie Tims, Shelagh Wright and Peter Jenkinson. Producing Assistant Alicia Graf. Commissioned by LIFT and supported by Festivals in Transition - Global City Local, Imagine 2020, and House on Fire networks, with support of the Culture Programme of the European Union.

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