Meet Lucy and Phoebe – the teenagers with a passion to improve life for Middlesbrough’s youngsters, and a burning desire to smash stereotypes.
Lucy Butchart, 15, was elected as Middlesbrough’s Member of Youth Parliament last month, while 16-year-old Phoebe Teasdale was elected her deputy.
Both of them want to listen to what young Middlesbrough’s youngsters want, and speak up on their behalf.
Both of them want to show adults everything that’s good about their generation.
And it’s clear that in their own way, both of them want to change the world.
Speaking from the council chamber in Middlesbrough Town Hall, Acklam Grange pupil Lucy said:
“We suggest things as young people, but I don’t think they ever really happen.
“People say they’re listening. They say they’re going to do it.
“But even if it does happen, it’s not always what we asked for because I think it’s hard for adults to understand our mindset and our point of view.”
Phoebe agrees, and believes it’s especially important for children and young adults in Middlesbrough to have ambition.
Deputy Member of Youth Parliament Phoebe Teasdale ©Tom Banks 2021
“People’s ambition for girls isn’t as high as it should be and I want to do something about that, especially in STEM subjects like maths, sciences or IT,” said Phoebe, who is studying A-Levels at Trinity Catholic College.
“I think some things are getting better but I want all of our young people to have opportunities to work in great jobs in Middlesbrough instead of having to move away.”
But how are two young women from Acklam going to change the town?
They’ve got a couple of very specific ideas to get started.
Lucy said: “We’re the gap between young children and adults – and there’s not much for teenagers to do. It feels like some adults just want us to stay out of sight.
“During the pandemic, we were encouraged to get outside and socialise but you know what the British weather is like.
“So one simple thing I campaigned to see happen is for more benches outdoors, with shelters so that people can get together to socialise. Somewhere to go and see their friends.”
Member of Youth Parliament Lucy Butchart © Tom Banks 2021
Phoebe continued: “I think we can use the council’s community hubs more too. There’s lots in the hubs for older people but I don’t think people who are our age really get thought about.
“It’s about us being listened to. We talk, but we get ignored.”
But the pair are keen to stress their mission is not to drive a wedge between adults and Middlesbrough’s youngsters – not create an “us and them”, but to make clear what challenges young people face.
Lucy said: “There are stereotypes about young people – that we’re all into anti-social behaviour, things like that – and they are perpetuated by adults in the media and on social media.
“I’m not sure they realise that the tiny number of young people who do those sorts of bad things, they love it when they get that attention. That’s what they want.
“But it affects all of us. It’s going to be hard to change those preconceptions, but we’ll try.”
And Phoebe understands she and Lucy, Middlesbrough’s youngsters – their friends and peers, have their own stereotypes about adults.
“Young people probably think older people can be stuck in their beliefs and prejudices and not give new things a chance,” she said.
“So we definitely do need to work together. No matter what, we’ll make sure that our voices are heard.”
Being elected has boosted the confidence of both young women after a difficult two years.
The pandemic has been difficult for everyone – but imagine how the cycle of lockdowns and school closures affected young people, the opportunities they’ve missed, the friends that might have gone unmade?
“I’m not sure I could have done this a couple of years ago,” said Lucy, who loves performing arts and is involved with the environmental group Young Rangers.
“Just going through the campaign raised my confidence, I’m learning new skills and understanding that my voice matters. Everyone’s voice does.”
Member of Youth Parliament Lucy Butchart, left, and her Deputy Phoebe Teasdale ©Tom Banks 2021
Her younger sister Charlotte, six, was “so proud” of Lucy’s achievement, but she’s modest when discussing the reaction of her peers at school.
Phoebe doesn’t think she needs to be: “I’m sure at the election count, one of your ballots had ‘my queen’ written on it. People obviously love you!”
The 16-year-old herself has always been keenly interested in politics, but her experience of shielding during the pandemic motivated her to make the most of opportunities.
“I felt like I wanted to challenge myself and do something,” she continued.
“I have always been quite confident and extroverted but I think that took a knock during the pandemic.”
Phoebe is ambitious – she wants to study at Oxford University and become a criminal barrister.
Her drive saw her recently interviewing Alan Dershowitz, a controversial US lawyer who defended OJ Simpson, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.
“I’m always trying to network and make connections and make sure I make the most of my position,” she continued.
“There are people in Middlesbrough who need to be represented, that need to be helped.
“I want to show that being a girl, being from Middlesbrough, and speaking in a northern accent doesn’t matter.
“It’s a barrier for a lot of people, but I want to show it doesn’t have to be.”
We are words: Mike Brown
We are pictures: Tom Banks