“I want to dial down our nation’s toxicity” – An Interview with Ruth Ibegbuna

March 1, 2021   By Katy Oglethorpe interviews Ruth Ibegbuna

Ruth Ibegbuna has devoted her career to amplifying the voices and broadening the life choices of young people – particularly those from working-class, BAME and Northern backgrounds. Her current work includes joining up community members scarred by Brexit divisions, and starting the youth-led Rekindle School in South Manchester.

What created your passion for youth-led community activism?

I started off as a live-in teacher in a boarding school, so I had a bird’s eye view of the expectations put on talented, privileged children and I got to witness very positive outcomes for them. Moving into the state sector, I loved my work but I felt we weren’t ambitious enough for working-class children. We treated them as consumers – we didn’t appreciate that they had their own vision of what a better society looked like, or could grow into influential people in their communities.

I left teaching to set up RECLAIM, looking at how to help young black boys feel like future leaders and overcome the negative rhetoric in the media. Later we worked with working-class white and Asian young people too, exploring things through the prism of class. We looked at what happens when you focus on the talents and strengths of these communities, and give them access to the networks and the support they need.

[the grades scandal] summed up how we view our young people and the disregard we show for their happiness and life chances

What impact have you seen Covid have on young people?

There have been a couple of points in the last year that have really spurred on my work with young people. First – the grades scandal of last summer. To me it summed up how we view our young people and the disregard we show for their happiness and life chances. Expecting them to cope with lockdown, missed education, and then to have their grades artificially managed down – it was terrible, and should have been a huge national turning point.

Second, was the free school meals fiasco. Watching Marcus Rashford, a young Northern black man, get it so right while the government was getting it so wrong, and watching community after community step up to support people. It was one of those moments when the truth was revealed and people recognised something powerful – communities were putting a mark in ground on what was acceptable – and hungry children was a line they weren’t prepared to cross.

Tell us about the Rekindle School you’re opening in September?  

We’ll be based in South Manchester, offering four hours’ education after school – along with a hot meal. It’s not a school for young people for whom everything is going great – it’s for those struggling in mainstream education who need to fall back in love with learning.

The whole project is youth-led. The trustees are aged between 18 and 24, leading on governance, safeguarding, partnerships – everything. They’re currently writing the curriculum, which covers things from the British empire, to how to budget responsibly, to changemaking in the community. We’ll eat together every night and make sure everyone gets home safely at the end of the evening.  

VIDEO: An Interview with Jaiden – a young trustee at Rekindle School

Your current project takes community members on ‘cultural exchanges’ with their neighbours – what inspired this?  

The Roots Programme came out of the Brexit referendum – watching the level of anger in the country and the lack of understanding across different communities. We’re a small island but we don’t seem know to coexist; how to show compassion to people who make different choices and have different political perspectives. I wanted to dial down the toxicity and try to understand where other people were coming from.

In a ‘cultural exchange’ you meet someone from a different background. You spend time in their homes, sharing food, hopes, dreams, fears, loves – then invite your partner back in return. In the future we’re planning to swap pupils from the state and public sector. 

We’re a small island but we don’t seem know to coexist; how to show compassion to people who make different choices and have different political perspectives.

Could these exercises in empathy change broader society?

I would love to invite people in political leadership to take part in a cultural exchange. We need more compassionate leadership. We have so many leading us who have not had normal lives, and therefore their levels of empathy and awareness are limited – it’s not even their fault. But there is an opportunity for people in positions of influence to step into someone else’s world and ‘just be’, without trying to fix them, offer solutions or be in a position of power. And then have the grace and humility to invite someone back to see your life and judge you.

there is an opportunity for people in positions of influence to step into someone else’s world and ‘just be’, without trying to fix them

What’s been your experience working with local government?

I’ve often swerved working with local government because previous experience has shown they can slow the work down, to a point where it can’t have the same impact.

Young people need to feel they’re involved with something cool, urgent and dynamic – that things are happening. Sometimes working with local authorities can stop that. What I’d like to say to people in local government is: work alongside us – don’t be nervous about the innovation, don’t be nervous about it being youth-led. So much of time youth are ‘consulted’ – it’s so dry – and it’s always the same kind of young people being involved.  

What will you be speaking about at Stronger Things?

My talk’s going to focus on the power of young people in communities, and the power of working-class young people particularly. It will focus on young people having agency over their own lives, and will ask when we’ll stop looking at their age and background as a deficit when in fact there’s so much resilience, strength, creativity and ingenuity in our young people – so much that’s possible when we put resource behind it.

I want to hear about the innovation and the connection that’s out there – that’s what’s been sustaining me and keeping me going. But I’m also hugely concerned about the lack of respect for the work that communities have been doing, and the lack of infrastructure that’s holding everything together. I hope that Stronger Things will be a chance to put some of this to rights.


Ruth will be speaking at New Local’s Stronger Thing event on 9 March, alongside Jaiden, a young trustee at Rekindle. Sign up here.   

Join our mailing list