Profiles in Regeneration: Karen, 30, UK

By giving young people the ability to shape and activate the urban design in their communities, they will be further engaged and work for long-term solutions to social and economic issues in their local communities.

In many large cities, there is an excess of vacant or underused spaces. Karen Jelenje wants young people to use those spaces as a form of community development through her organization Activate the City!

“Young people are rarely given the power to decide what their future city should look like. Activate The City!’s long term vision for youth-led community development, is creating the next generation of community change agents that are working on a grassroots level to help localize the Sustainable Development Goals.”

She believes that by giving young people the ability to shape and activate the urban design in their communities, they will be further engaged and work for long-term solutions to social and economic issues in their local communities.

Regenerative Futures: How are you feeling right now?

Karen Jelenje: Right now I’m feeling pretty optimistic and inspired by the art that is being created in this very strange time. Despite the insane amount of challenges that the world is facing, particularly on racial injustice, there are so many people — especially young people — advocating and pushing the boundaries on what a better future can look like, and putting it into action using so many different creative mediums. It has spurred me on to keep going with my aspirations.

RF: What’s a secret your search history can tell us about you?

KJ: Well, it’s no secret, but I am really passionate about social entrepreneurship, community building, and working with young people. Recently I’ve been opened up to a world of grassroots companies, organizations, individuals, and ordinary people doing things differently and driving change through their mission and aspirations for a better world. It is the grassroots organizations that are doing most of the work right now in terms of addressing the challenges we are facing as a connected world. These people and organizations are making change happen in a big way with little or no resources. I think now is the time for big companies and corporations to step aside and start listening and learning from them but at the same time, take accountability and recognize how they have hindered this process.

RF: What are you reading/learning about at the moment?

KJ: It feels weird to say this but at the moment, I am learning more about my local area from its physical characteristics — sounds and smells and other little details that make up my local community. The pandemic has restricted lots of people to their localities and it has definitely forced me to slow down, which is hard to do living in a city like London. But I now have an appreciation of the beauty of what a community can be and how each has its own unique characteristics.

A book that stuck out to me recently has been The Half God of Rainfall by Inua Ellams. It intertwines Greek mythology with Yoruba deities to create poetry with a strong message about women. Every time I re-read it I discover new narratives hidden in between the poems. That is what storytelling should be — a continuous journey of discovery.

RF: Who is your favorite human and why?

KJ: I don’t really have a favorite human because there are so many amazing humans I am inspired by and grateful to be surrounded and supported by. But if self-care was a human, it would be my favorite human, as it has been key to surviving this really turbulent period of time.

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RF: Which key moment inspired you to start your project?

KJ: Honestly there are lots of little moments that have inspired and led me to start my enterprise. I have been guided conversations with strangers, friends, family, and peers individuals and also through a collection of moments where I seemed to question how certain things can be done better.

I guess a key moment I realized that I wanted to start my own social enterprise was sitting in a corporate setting and realizing that the work I was doing as an urban designer did not serve or benefit communities like mine. So in setting up Activate The City! I thought about ways in which I can create an agency for delivering community-focused initiatives that can create long term social impact in the communities often left behind — rather than the short term model which most private developers adopt. The focus on facilitating youth-led community development came about from working with young people and witnessing their untapped creative potential and ability to generate great ideas about spaces but not having the resources they needed to bring their projects or ideas to life.

Activate the City!

RF: In two years' time, what would your project’s success look like?

KJ: It’s really hard to define success in two years as we’re just getting started! But I truly believe in the value that collaboration brings in being able to make a tangible impact and to fight the systemic inequalities we are currently seeing in our world. I would hope that in two years’ time, Activate The City! can collaborate with organizations already on the ground doing great work in communities but also have the opportunity to challenge larger corporations that are blind to these problems. In doing this we hope to start a new youth-led narrative and start contributing to larger system changes such as advocating for communities to have more ownership of spaces and making local decisions.

Activate The City! is about the next generation and providing the opportunities, resources, and tools for young people to solve problems and make an impact in their communities through initiating their own projects. We know this won’t happen overnight but we hope to slowly start a ripple effect in communities that are economically disadvantaged or ones that have been left behind and to enable this baton to be passed on over time.

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RF: If you could focus a large percentage of government funding on one industry or project for the next five to ten years, which would you choose and why?

KJ: A specific project that I would like governments to focus on is the accountability of the people and organizations in positions of power. Right now we are going through a number of global crises, such as climate change and public health which are further widening the inequality gaps. Yet these problems seem to have been exacerbated because individuals and organizations have not been held accountable for their actions resulting in a cycle of problems that remerge and continue to have a detrimental impact on marginalized communities.

There need to be new systems, tougher laws, and penalties in place that ensure mistakes that cost lives can not be repeated. One example that comes to mind is the Grenfell Tower fire, something that could have been avoided but is seemingly being brushed under carpet as there is no full audit trail of the mistakes that led to the fateful events. The current system is set up to fail those who are the most disadvantaged and this needs to change.

RF: What are the best and the worst things about the education system in your country?

KJ: The worst thing about the educational system in the UK is the disregard for Black British History and acknowledging how the UK has benefitted from colonialism. It’s important for young Black people to know their real history of the UK. The erasure of Black histories means that there is a disregard for the colonized countries and people that have shaped what the UK is today.

It’s really promising to see organizations like The Black Curriculum emerging who are starting to raise awareness in addressing this problem and working to create long term change to enable us to rewrite our own histories. Therefore, I would say the best thing about the education system in the UK is that there are so many dedicated and passionate individuals that are trying to address the failures of the current curriculums and working really hard to inspire and motivate young people by presenting new and alternative narratives.

RF: Do you have a message for anyone your age living in the year 2060?

KJ: Sorry for this mess.

RF: What inspires or frightens you most about the future?

KJ: What inspires me the most about the future is the persistence of young people to want to create change and the future leaders that are emerging from this time who have huge potential to shape and create a better world — which is also a huge burden in itself as the future presents lots of challenges for young people themselves. Young people have been pivotal to the protests that we have seen around the world — we need to protect and amplify these young voices at all costs and we also need the older generation to stand with them.

To learn more about Regenerative List finalist, Activate the City, click here.

Regenerative Futures

A Gen Z-designed model for a world built upon the principles of Regeneration from Irregular Labs.

Regenerative Futures

Regenerative Futures is a Gen Z-designed model for a world built upon the principles of regeneration: equity, inclusivity, fluidity, and the pursuit of circularity and abundance. An Irregular Labs Initiative.

Regenerative Futures

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Regenerative Futures is a Gen Z-designed model for a world built upon the principles of equity, fluidity, and sustainability. An Irregular Labs initiative.

Regenerative Futures

Regenerative Futures is a Gen Z-designed model for a world built upon the principles of regeneration: equity, inclusivity, fluidity, and the pursuit of circularity and abundance. An Irregular Labs Initiative.