Louise Macdonald

Louse McdonaldClare Logie interviews Louise Macdonald, CEO of Young Scot, the award winning national youth information and citizenship charity for Scotland.

Louise is also a current Board member of the Scottish Children’s Reporters Administration (SCRA). Throughout her career Louise has been involved in a number of local and national volunteer positions, including Chair of her local CABx, a Community Councillor, and as national Trustee and Scottish Chair of the RSA. In November 2009 she was also elected to the Board of ACOSVO. Most recently, Louise has been appointed to Scotland’s 2020 Leadership Climate Group, and is Chair of the Public Engagement Sub-Group and 2020 Group Ambassador for Young People. She is also on the Oxfam Scotland Advisory Board, and the WWF Scotland Advisory Board.

On the day that the world reflected on the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream’ speech, I found myself preparing a pile of questions in preparation for interviewing Louise. The young people she supports and steers will be community elders in 50 years’ time, so I wondered what she thinks they will face on that journey and what she believes she can do to help.

Clare Logie So, you were born in East Lothian, Louise. Have you always worked in Scotland?

Louise Macdonald Not at all; I began my working life as a journalist in Burton-on-Trent and Derby, working on local papers. I then worked as part of the team that set up the ‘Sunday Scot’ (which not many people remember!); that publication only lasted around 6-8 months but I continued working in tabloid journalism until I finally admitted to myself that I really wasn’t enjoying it any more. I didn’t like what I was doing to people. I confess I’d had some fine ideas about the Fourth Estate and high principles about its value within society and what I was being asked to do just didn’t chime with that. I guess I wanted to be John Pilger but ended up feeling more like Nina Myskow! The tabloid press had its own internal moral focus and it just didn’t match mine.

So, I headed back to live with Mum and Dad, who took me in whilst I signed on. I was walking down the road one day when I passed the Citizens Advice Bureau and saw a ‘Volunteers Needed’ sign in the window, so I went in and offered my services. It turned out to be a brilliant training ground. I was ‘spotted’ by the manager there and basically fast tracked through a process of learning about everything the bureau could do and I got involved with so many amazing community focused projects. I really think CABs are fantastic. From that volunteering, I then got a job setting up a volunteer centre and from then on, I knew community-focused projects was where I wanted to be. I really enjoyed working with young people, so my career path then took me onto related national roles in the voluntary and public sector.

You have been with Young Scot for 12 years now (four years as CEO). What drew you to the organisation initially and what has kept you there?

LM It was a combination of the organisation’s focus and its Founder and CEO, Marc Liddle OBE, which appealed to me. He was a big part of the draw, a genuine inspiration. A motivator, mentor and an incredible leader, as well as great fun. So I liked him and I liked the culture of the organisation, the concept that ‘Knowledge is Power’ and that by giving young people information and knowledge, we can support their development and improve their opportunities. The heart of it all is ‘how can we best support young people?’ I had already been working with Young Scot, as it was originally a project within the part of the organisation where I was working, so I jumped at the chance to work with the team full-time. Having been founded some 30 years ago, Young Scot became a Charity in its own right 13 years ago and its team was expanding as a result.

I joined originally as Communications Manager, became Communications Director, then the Deputy CEO and then, when Marc retired, I became the second CEO. The reason I’m still here is because I love it and because there is still so much to do.

CL The organisation has achieved so much; what do you think there is still left for it to do.  What would be your MLK dream for it?

LM Young Scot has worked very hard at being incredibly strategic as well as being big on pragmatic delivery. We want every young person aged 11-26 in Scotland to join us and in fact, have just celebrated the enrolment of our 500,000th cardholder (out of a total pool of 900,000), so we’re half way there. In order to achieve that, we need to be offering more and more top quality services and benefits and we can’t do that without partners. We are passionate about partnerships at both strategic and local levels; we are young person-centred and they are always our starting point, but we need partners to help us deliver. So my dream would be twofold:

i) At a basic level, for every young person to be making the most of what Young Scot can offer
ii) From a much broader perspective, I would like Scotland to love all its young people equally.

This latter point is the real dream, as I don’t think we are there yet; there is some fantastic work being done, but we need to do much more to achieve this and to improve equality of opportunity and quality of experience for every young person.

CL The press has been making much of what it calls a ‘lost generation’. What’s your view on this?

LM My first response would be “Lost to whom?” Who feels that and from whom is it being lost? I have a feeling, too, that it has been said by pretty much every previous generation all the way back to Roman times. For me, there are two relevant issues to concern us, though. The first is disconnection; we must recognise that we are potentially squandering the potential and talent of young people in this country. I see SO many young people who just need that chance to show what they can do, but there are so many hurdles and barriers in their way and we need to work to remove them. The second thing is about contribution to society and to communities. We need to find ways to bring and accommodate the thinking of young people into the things that we do and to enable them to contribute their ideas, but we don’t have enough channels to do that. We are in danger of over-protecting small children and then demonising teenagers the minute they turn 13. We are missing what they can bring to society, not just in employment terms but in terms of personal contribution and connection to communities.

CL Are you optimistic about the future of Scotland?

When I talk to young people I am. I believe in them and what they can do if and when they are shown and given the most basic elements of care and respect and shown fundamental positive values. I have witnessed even those in the toughest of circumstances humble me with their spark and their willingness to help others. This willingness to help others is something that I think we particularly underestimate in young people.

CL And on the flipside, are you optimistic about the prospects for young people in Scotland in the coming decade?

LM Yes, but it’s difficult. The more that organisations, communities, companies and government can rally together to provide opportunities the better. There is great potential in this country and there are some great projects out there, but it’s a constant process of hard work and collaboration. I was gratified recently to hear the Chief Medical Officer say that the most important thing in the Health Service was compassion, because we need a lot more of that everywhere. We also need an increased consistency of approach and more ideas around how to turn great concepts into action.

CL At what age do we stop being young?

LM (laughing) Quite! Well, Young Scot operates for 11-26 year olds, but we are part of a wider European network which has youth cards and services and with deals that are reciprocal for cardholders across Europe and many of these networks cover up to 30 year olds. So we have been under some pressure to extend our reach to 30 year olds too. But we have resisted that, we’re comfortable just now with 26 as a limit. Is 26 still young? There is emerging evidence in neuroscience that significant developments occur in the brain from teenage years to the age of 30 but then I’m not sure it stops there. And of course, age really is a state of mind and attitude. We have managed to stay young as an organisation; we stopped celebrating our own birthday at 21 though, as it seemed appropriate!

CL Do you notice any key differences between teenage boys and teenage girls in terms of what worries them most?

LM Probably less difference than you would think. They tell us they worry about broadly the same things: relationships, body image, bullying and all the ‘classics’ around puberty. They sometimes express it in different ways, but the topics are generally very similar. We are beginning to see a notable problem with boys around access to pornography and the way that boys are viewing and forming opinions about women and sex. Significant role models for boys are another issue. The YMCA is doing some great work on this actually. I do think it is something we need to do a lot of work on, going forward.

In general though, I would say that the differences in what worries them are less connected to gender and much more closely related to poverty and social inequality. And broader inequality issues too; disability is a real differentiator, as seen from some work we did recently called Agents of Change, focusing on how disabled young people make the move into adulthood and independent choices.

CL And ditto, for what inspires them?

LM People automatically assume young people will worship celebrities. Admittedly, if you ask them who inspires them, they will probably come up with celebrities first (but then, so would many adults) but when you dig a little deeper, that changes. They tend then to reference people they have seen work hard, have an impact, those who have been tenacious and not been knocked down. Andy Murray is someone who features a lot in that regard. They also frequently mention people in their community, a youth worker, parents, a teacher. And we can’t dismiss how they have responded to the Olympians and Paralympians last year. People like Chris Hoy, Kath Grainger, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farrah all rate highly because of their hard work and inspiring qualities.

CL What is the most surprising thing you have learned in the last 12 months?

LM Can I have two?

CL Absolutely.

LM The first thing is that we did a piece of research with young people about the discounts we offer, so we were looking at purchasing habits and preferences, etc. What this elicited was that whilst they will look online at products, they would actually prefer to buy in a shop. This is because they enjoy the social aspect of shopping with their friends, so whilst they will do their initial research online, they still prefer the social aspect of shopping. That really surprised me.

And the second thing is about peat. I learned about this at my 2020 Climate Leadership Group, from the people who look after the peatland in Scotland and I was stunned at just how important Scottish peat is. We’re basically the Amazon of Europe in terms of locking in carbon; peatlands are one of Scotland’s most important natural assets in terms of the ecosystem services they provide. They have the potential to play a role in climate change mitigation. Scottish peatlands also support biodiversity of internationally recognised significance, are important for climate change adaptation, water quality and flow and are culturally valuable. Scotland has about 60% of the UK’s peatlands, and 4% of Europe’s total peat carbon store. Today around 20% of Scotland’s land area is covered by blanket bogs alone, comprising about 15% of the global total for this habitat. I just found it amazing that I hadn’t known that before!

CL What is the most rewarding thing about your current role?

LM Working with young people. Working with the team here which is full of committed, creative, dedicated people. And the partnerships we have created across Scotland. And the youth workers. It’s so inspiring and rewarding. (Louise cites the 12 apprentices who worked in Young Scot as digital creatives recently and what they added to the team’s effectiveness; she tells me about an initiative to support young people getting their results on exam day, which included putting out a playlist at 1am, of songs that would make them feel better and feel supported; and she talks of organisations who are brave enough to hear honest feedback and to act upon it).

CL And the most challenging?

LM Negative or distorted perceptions about young people. I find that very challenging.

CL What is the character trait you most admire in others?

LM Compassion.

CL And the one you most deplore?

LM Deceit, or lack of honesty.

CL What three things would you put in Room 101?

i) Climate change or more specifically society’s disconnect with nature; those who see themselves at the top of a pyramid rather than as part of an ecology
ii) Misogyny, the impact that this has on young women. The Everyday Sexism project stunned me (we agreed strongly on this and discussed for some time the interesting re-politicisation that seems to be developing around misogyny and feminism)
iii) The 1978 Dutch World Cup Squad. I’m a big football fan and I really thought we were going to do it that year but it all went wrong. We beat the Netherlands and then they ended up in the final and we came home! I still believe we’ll get to the World Cup one day and win glory.

CL Is there anything in your life you regret?

LM Not going travelling when I was young. I worked from the age of 14, every holiday, straight from education into work; I have a very strong work ethic, which I get from my parents. But I wish I’d travelled more and when I hear young people say they’re going off round the world I think “Good on you”, wistfully.

CL Of what are you most proud?

LM Really, what we have achieved here at Young Scot as a team and an extended team, together with all our partners. I think we have a great proposition and a great framework. And also, when I first began working nationally with young people, I got to meet Nelson Mandela at the CHOGM. It was apartheid that politicised me as a teenager and I began campaigning on anti-apartheid issues, so to meet him was just amazing and I’m so proud I got to do that.

CL If it wasn’t this one, what would be your dream job?

LM (without hesitation) A nature photographer. I just love nature photography and post one of my pictures daily on the blipfoto site.   I would love to do that for a living.

CL If you found yourself with three month off and unlimited funds, where would you spend that time?

LM Knoydart. I love it up there. I’d follow a river from its source and photograph the whole thing. Or, if money really was limitless, I’d go and visit all the great forests of the world. Probably by helicopter.

CL What’s your favourite song and why?

LM Wild Mountainside By Eddi Reader. I went on a Natural Change Programme, which was a genuinely life changing experience and many of the people I met on that programme are still great friends to this day. This song makes me think of them and of that experience.

CL What never fails to make you smile?

LM Seeing the people I love. Is that cheesy?

There’s nothing cheesy about Louise Macdonald. I said to her that she appeared to me to be passionate but not too ‘worthy’. I meant it as the highest compliment and hope that’s how she will take it. Committed, authentic and incredibly hard working, she deserves to have a few things to smile about.

Clare Logie is a regular contributor to the3rdimagazine.

1 Comment on Louise Macdonald

  1. Thanks for this interview Clare, it’s a great series! It is always so interesting and compelling to hear from someone like Louise, who is clearly loving what she does and doing it with a passion. It sounds like she is a great ambassador for young people.

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