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Giving young people a voice


A group of OUP staff recently gave time to volunteer for the Orwell Youth Prize (OYP) by analysing entries for its 2020 competition.

OYP is a political writing initiative for 12-18-year-olds across the UK, and aims to encourage young people to debate the society they are a part of and the society we should be striving for. The theme for this year’s competition was ‘The Future We Want,’ and despite lockdown conditions the number of entries more than quadrupled compared to previous years, so the need for volunteers was higher than ever.

As part of OUP’s volunteering scheme, employees can take two days’ paid volunteering leave per year (three in the US) to support charities and initiatives with an educational purpose. With the world in lockdown, we had to get creative and find new ways for employees to make the most of their volunteering time virtually. We already had an ongoing charitable partnership with OYP, so saw an opportunity to extend this and encourage staff to give their time remotely.

OUP employees joined a group of 170 virtual volunteers, including academics, editors, PhD students, professional writers, and journalists who used their literary expertise to offer personalized feedback to entrants and help with the sifting process for judging. Analysis of the collective entries revealed themes of mental health, the climate crisis, social media and tackling racism to be clear concerns for young people seeking to create a better future.

Speaking of the experience, OUP volunteer Emma Collison said: ‘Volunteering to help longlist entries for the 2020 Orwell Youth Prize was such a fantastic opportunity. I was very impressed with the standard of the submissions and the range of genres with which the applicants were experimenting. Given current circumstances there was a strong dystopian strand through much of the writing but many of the pieces were also funny and touching. Ultimately it was an uplifting experience to be able to engage with such imaginative writing from young people from such a wide range of backgrounds.’  
Grace Ranola also took part as an OUP volunteer, and added: ‘It was a privilege to read the emotive and forceful responses to this year’s Orwell Youth Prize theme. Several of the pieces have really stayed with me. Particularly during lockdown I enjoyed the challenge of providing constructive feedback to the applicants. Young voices are important voices, and The Orwell Youth Prize does a great job of underscoring the importance of language to young people, increasing their writing confidence, and working against the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities for young people in the UK.’

The overwhelming number of entries proves that young people have a lot to say about their future—both the future they want and the future they fear. As Director of the Orwell Foundation Professor Jean Seaton explained, ‘We were so proud that young people turned to the Prize as a way of saying what was important to them during lockdown. We had to scramble an army of volunteers to give them feedback, and fan out to writers and political players to respond to their ideas. Everyone wanted to help because everyone knows these voices tell us things we need to know. And we listened to the wider story the entries told us—we will honour that creativity and bleakness in the coming year.’

Read about the winning entries

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