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17 October 2005

Kierra Box

10 people - Alice O'Keeffe meets a young campaigner on a serious mission to change

By Alice O'Keeffe

I was prepared to dislike Kierra Box. Glancing through her CV, I imagined she would be one of those geeky child politico-prodigies we all love to hate. Aged just 20, she has already won awards for her youth organisation, Hands Up For . . . She has had pieces published in the Guardian and out-debated David Miliband at the Labour party conference. She is a patron of the National Youth Agency, alongside Melvyn Bragg and the Archbishop of Canterbury. She has advised the government on sexual health and school dinners. Such frenzied activity is enough to leave your average twentysomething feeling defensive.

But where I was expecting an uber-confident, probably posh, know-it-all, I found a likeable and truly remarkable young woman. Decked out in scruffy flares and more rings than a Camden market stall, Box is unassuming and initially quite shy. But boy, when you get her started on politics, she leaves you in no doubt that she means business. “I don’t think of what I’ve done as amazing. I thought some things were wrong so I tried to do something about them – that’s just a logical progression. I always find it much more surprising that people don’t get involved in anything.”

It was Hands Up for Peace, the organisation Box founded with some friends in the run-up to the Iraq war, that established her as the unofficial spokesperson for British youth. The idea was a simple one: to collect paper handprints on which children wrote their feelings about the impending conflict, paste them on to sticks and “plant” them in Parliament Square. “It was only afterwards that someone told us the idea was a brilliant piece of marketing,” she says. “We just thought it up in five minutes.”

With impressive determination and media savvy, Box and her friends collected nearly 3,000 hands from young people across the world. They were displayed in both Parliament Square and Hyde Park, and the concept has since been copied by protest movements everywhere, from Brighton to Australia. And it didn’t end there. “We realised that we weren’t just fighting against the war, we were protesting about the lack of structures through which we could express ourselves.” The group was renamed Hands Up For . . . and launched as a web discussion forum where young people could access debates and information on a wide range of issues.

Since then Box has brought the same energy and creativity to a baffling number of projects. She devised her own curriculum for citizenship classes, which was piloted in several schools in London and Oxford. It is based around three areas – sustainability, politics and social issues – and is highly imaginative, using games to provoke children into thinking critically about issues around society and governance. Her current preoccupation is young people’s sexual health, and she is conducting her own research into sex education with groups of primary-school children.

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Where does all this energy and political passion come from? Box insists that her parents, a typist and a social worker, aren’t particularly politically active: “I have to ring my dad on election day and persuade him to vote.” But she does say that her family made politics relevant to real life at an early age. They encouraged her to join Children’s Express, a press agency for the under-18s, where she cut her teeth in politics and reporting. “It was very helpful for me to find a place where adults listened to what I had to say and took my opinion seriously.”

Box passionately believes that children and young people have the right to have a say in the policies that affect them. “Perhaps I do know too much now to really be the ‘young person on the ground’,” she says. “But I go along to every meeting and I think, I’m glad I’m here, there needs to be a young person here. So many things that affect us are decided with no consultation at all.” She sees herself going into youth work and campaigning, and aims eventually to become Commissioner for Children. I think they could safely give her the job straight away. Will she change the world? We should all hope so.