Nesta Democracy Pioneers

Democracy Pioneers is an award for innovations that are experimenting with ways to re-energise civic participation and everyday democracy in the UK. This series shares the experience and work of 19 Pioneers and what they hope to see change for their impact to go mainstream.

Highway Hope works with black and ethnic minority groups in Manchester to encourage greater participation in electoral registration, voting and turn out. We do this through our strong connections with nearly a hundred black-led business and faith organisations based in Manchester. We host quarterly meetings with the community and also run supplementary schools, private tuition and summer schools with children which gives us the opportunity to teach young people about the political system and their place within it.

According to the Electoral Commission, one in four black and Asian people and almost a third of eligible people with mixed ethnicity are not registered to vote, compared to a 17% average across the population. The Black and Ethnic minority in Manchester, especially black Africans, have little participation in democratic processes, civic engagement and the electoral system. Our quarterly meetings bring together faith leaders and black leaders of local organisations to address this issue by creating a unified voice for proactive and empowered BAME participation.

Inclusive education is needed to raise the political aspirations of BAME communities

We believe that working through supplementary schools can help to increase an understanding of democratic processes, civic engagement and the electoral system within minority communities. This has led us to deliver political education to eight to eleven year olds that attend our supplementary schools as well as other supplementary schools that we are in partnership with across Greater Manchester. We hope that by learning about the UK’s political system and the opportunities that exist to connect and contribute to it, we can raise young people’s aspirations through civic participation.

We have found that educating BAME communities in formal institutions such as colleges has not been particularly successful. We believe that community organisations such as Highway Hope, should be considered as intermediaries who can work with and alongside BAME communities in a targeted and considered way. A regional pilot scheme for informal and bespoke community education could create a more effective model for educating and including black and ethnic minorities. We believe that providing resources and training for and with communities can increase their skills and confidence to participate in active citizenship, elections and civic engagement opportunities.

Increasing BAME participation in political and public life

In the future, we hope to see more participation from Black and Minority Ethnic individuals in political and public life as well as voting and standing for election, contributing to public debate and policy decisions, and rising to the top in elected public office.

Our democracy cannot be truly representative until it includes the voices, experiences and aspirations of all of its citizens. To this end, we would like to see more diversity, equity and inclusion within the staffing of the public sector, with policies that actively increase the number of BAME individuals that are employed in the public sector. We also need to see political parties supporting BAME candidates to stand for election.

A major hurdle to the increased participation of BAME communities in political life is misinformation and a lack of accessible content. Often, public information and processes are understood differently by those from minority backgrounds; be it because of different languages that are spoken, nuances in meaning that are less clearly relayed and assumptions in baseline understanding.

Whilst this can be in-part addressed by producing information in different languages for the purpose of inclusion, our observation is that this alone does not lead to greater understanding and inclusion. As well as drafting and publishing more accessible information, we need to ensure that the information relayed reaches, connects with and speaks to people from minority communities. We therefore suggest that partnering with grass root organisations like Highway Hope would ensure that information is curated and relayed in a way that is not only culturally inclusive, but that demonstrates to black and ethnic minority groups that they are valued by those in positions of power who are keen to meet them in their context.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new digitised normal, that can be a setback for BAME communities as many things have moved online. This has disproportionately affected pockets of the BAME community, where there is limited computer literacy or access to the internet at home or in public places such as libraries. Addressing the systemic inequality highlighted by the pandemic, should be a priority at all levels of government. Without this commitment, we will continue to see disadvantage and inequality disrupting our communities - and therefore our democratic institutions.

For us, we’d like to have more resources to promote our work widely and engage with a broader network of other black-led organisations and faith organisations. Stronger, more connected networks are what will be needed to raise the profile of BAME communities and place continued pressure on government, the public sector and private sector organisations to make the changes for a more inclusive democratic future.


Esther Oludipe

Esther is Executive Director of Highway Hope