Ria Patel, Croydon’s youngest councillor at the age of 20, never imagined she would be in politics when she was growing up as a “shy and obedient” child who was afraid of public speaking.
But an email she received at the start of the 2020 lockdown when she became 18 was a turning point.
The email from the Green Party was about the issue Patel was genuinely interested in – a campaign on domestic violence and homelessness for young LGBTQ people.
“This is something I was really passionate that’s affected me and my close friends. Personally, the domestic violence aspect was something I wanted to take action on,” Patel told me during our afternoon interview at a quiet café on a busy street in Croydon.
Two years later in May 2022, she became one of the first-ever Green Party councillors of Croydon.
Before receiving that email, Patel says it was her life experiences that pushed her toward pursuing meaningful actions including campaigning before stepping into politics.
She first got into campaigning by being involved with various societies at King’s College, where she is currently studying psychology.
“I was getting really frustrated with the world around me during the lockdown. I was getting more and more involved in different campaigning groups,” Patel talks about how she started getting involved outside of school.
“I first got involved with Fossil Free Pride, and then People and Planet and Migrant Justice through people I met. And then I got involved with the Green Party.”
Around that time, she attended both Green Party and Labour Party meet-ups online but she would eventually get drawn closer to the former.
“I went along to a Labour Party meeting, and I wasn’t sure if this was the right space for me, to be perfectly honest. Because I didn’t see anyone else that looked like me in the meeting, they were all older people.
“I had this level of decision of what parties were doing, and then no other one resonated with me as much as the Green Party policy.”
Through further meetings, she officially became a member of the Green Party and became part of its sub-groups such as Young Greens, LGBTQIA+ Greens and Greens of Colour.
Becoming a councillor
Fast forward to how she became a councillor, it all happened quickly and unexpectedly for Patel.
“I had a conversation with a local activist member in the Green Party and so we had this kind of honest conversation about me standing to be a councillor, he was trying to encourage me to be one. So I was like, yeah, I’ll take some time to think about this. A few conversations later, he had convinced me.
“A lot of marginalised groups or people often need that encouragement, and support, I think, to be able to take that step into politics.”
This kind of encouragement and convincing are also needed to get younger people into politics, in Patel’s opinion.
She recalls a lot of her peers showing interest in her work and in the political field, as well as joining meet-ups to learn more about how the Green Party operates.
However, Patel says this alone can’t be enough to get more young people into politics.
“I still have to reach out to people who aren’t going to come along to these events because you’re only reaching a certain audience.”
She also says that it can be challenging for young people to actually participate in politics, even if they have an interest.
“I’m still learning and trying to get to grips with the challenges. My friends will be out having fun, but I’ll be like, oh, I got to read these papers now.
“I have to be perfectly honest, I had to defer a few assignments because I just haven’t had the capacity or time to deal with it. You definitely have to prioritise things sometimes.”
Space for non-binary and trans people
However, Patel also faced greater challenges as a young person in politics.
“There have definitely been some meetings where I’ve said something, and no one’s listening to me. Someone sitting next to me or like, a few faces down, they say the same thing. And everyone’s listening to them.
“Young people have so much to offer, so much knowledge, so much lived experience of different things. Because time is different now than it was when older people were growing up. And I mean, personally speaking, I’ve had loads of different experiences throughout my life that a lot of people probably won’t have gone through.
“So the environments that we’ve grown up in have shaped our experiences and our outlooks. People bring so many fresh ideas and creativity that maybe older people won’t have thought about.”
Patel adds that the political field still has a big way to go in terms of achieving desired diversity.
“Currently, there’s no organization that’s encouraging non-binary and trans people specifically to stand as politicians. As a non-binary person, there’s not really a space for people like me to go through peer programs like that.”
As many challenges still stand for members of Gen Z and the LGBTQIA+ community in the political field, Patel is determined to continue her role as a councillor and dedicate more time to her role at the Green Party.
“I’m currently the Equality and Diversity Spokesperson for the party, and I enjoy having that role. I’d like to personally be able to dedicate some more time to that. So I think once I graduate this year that would be my focus.
“Similarly, I love being a councillor, I would love to get more time to spend on that role.”