My experience of Sheffield’s Festival of Debate: Rage Against the Machine

25th of April 2023, Sheffield Futures’ Young Advisors put on an event for the Festival of Debate discussing ‘Young People and Politics’: interviewing panellists from the police force, youth cabinet, activism groups and local councils in the renowned venue of The Leadmill. A few weeks prior to this I’d said I’d host it. “Sure, fine.”

It’s the kind of thing where in the moment you want to people please, and push yourself, and not pass up on an opportunity – but when you mention it to everyone else they think you’re at best ‘brave’ or at worst ‘slightly insane’. It’s not that dramatic co-hosting a small debate to maybe 50 people on a Tuesday night, but being 17, having very little public speaking experience, and in fairness, quite a lot on, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like questionable idea.

It wasn’t just going to be me – John would do it too, but he’s got this kind of thing sorted, and not the intense need for organisation and preparation that I appear to possess. Don’t worry, I made us both checklists.

In the week or so before, I said “It’ll be fine” and didn’t really consider it too deeply. Then a few days before, I realised I’d actually have to say something on stage. So, I wrote myself a script and then scrapped it ‘cause I knew it would sound rehearsed and opted for bullet points instead. This I printed and distributed alongside approximated timings for each point because – as we are quickly establishing – I like to have a plan. I also made sure to check everyone’s pronouns, and that I at least knew their names – which I thought might be key.

A few hours before, I made my way to town, headed in the wrong direction, and arrived after slightly more time, exercise, and frantic Whatsapp messages than intended – great start.

It was really impressive though to be inside The Leadmill and feel like, for a few hours, it was our space.

A few charities started to set up and we took pictures in front of banners, blue tacked flipchart paper to the walls, that kind of thing. Then swung between meeting the ‘audience’ and hanging out in the green room thinking about all the musicians who’ve sat on that sofa, and the packet of Percy Pigs that no-one was brave enough to open.

The panellists for the night were: Danielle Spencer (police), Django Perks (youth cabinet), Maleiki Haybe (local councillor – Green party) and Zac Larkham (activist), and we had a really good debate. Audience participation, couple of heckles, the lot.

In fairness I did very little on stage aside from call John ‘old’ in the first few minutes, and meekly try to hurry along audience questions which were threatening my perfectly tailored timetable.

Django, from the Youth Cabinet, is only 16, so I felt in awe of his composure and eloquence as I sat trying to stop my leg from shaking under the table, alongside Maleiki too: both young enough to make you feel hopeful if you’re under 25, or slightly embarrassed if you’re much older because of how much they’ve achieved. It was great to have Zac there as well, who clearly displayed passion for justice and an understanding of the importance of youth power and unity – having them sit beside Danielle demonstrated the power of these sorts of events.

With respect and clarity, we managed to touch on so many relevant topics and hear from the varying opinions within the room. She was fantastic too, remaining confident and assertive: displaying her own interest in hearing youth voice, while using the evening as an opportunity to discuss police behaviours and really listen to what we had to say.

At the end I managed to remember to thank everyone: ‘the venue, the amazing people who made this happen, you guys for coming!’ Probably a bit unnecessary, it wasn’t the BAFTAs. But we were grateful as we’d managed to pull it off. Not perfectly. We hadn’t filled as many seats as tickets sold, and somewhere Maleiki was gripped in a heated discussion on the foolishness of youth optimism – but I walked away with a lot of nice things said, a shed load of free stuff from the police stand and, well, one less thing to think about.