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Episode 6 reflections on Ambassadors with Slough CEP

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First off: please could you introduce yourself?

Yes sure um my name is Rob Deeks, I'm CEO of XR together as one a youth charity based in Slough.

Can you tell me a bit about your work at Arbour Vale?

Absolutely! So, we're a project that kind of specializes in in youth-led kind of youth work and we've been working in Arbour Vale for a long time - and it was a couple of years ago when our CEP our local cultural education partnership started to focus on the relationship between kind of mental health and well-being and and the arts. We were awarded a small commission to work with Arbour Vale on that very subject, which worked really well because at the time the school was looking at the students well-being and one of the things that came up was that the students didn't have a very kind of positive view of our local area or their future. It was almost like the two were inextricably linked they felt quite down about their area their prospects and so on. So we embarked on a project that lasted, in the end it's been carried on way past what we originally envisaged but it was such a pleasure to work on that it didn't matter really, we worked with the students for around about three months on a weekly basis and towards the end we produced a film um called Slough: Forget What You Think You Know. It was kind of turning on its head a lot of the stereotypes about our town challenging people's views of our local area. It was a real pleasure to be a part of and that's the kind of the the project.

How did you get young people engaged with your work at Arbour Vale and how did you approach the project?

Yeah so the participants were all part of Arbour Vale's 16 plus department so they're all students between the ages of 16 - 19 and we never embarked on the project with the idea of making a film just kind of like came out of it towards the end it was more a case of just you know the the the students feeling like there was not much to do in the town. So we took some time to you know go and see like the latest leisure facilities that were on offer and actually meet the people behind it who, actually you know, kind of make those places operate there's also this view that Slough is somehow kind of you know just concrete jungle. So we we went to some local beauty spots parks and kind of you know turned that on its head as well. The film, the whole concept of it was you know it was really interesting actually because there's a guy that we we knew who worked for the local paper and he specialises in kind of looking really grumpy, so we got him to be our kind of narrator and the whole film is based on him saying, there's nothing to do, there's nowhere to go and all of these comments were kind of juxtaposed against the young people. Showing this other side of our local town so that was the that was the kind of vehicle for their message basically.

In your opinion why is it important for young people to be given opportunities like "Ambassador" roles?

Our whole organisation is predicated on it so was established in 1998 because of tensions within our local area and the people that founded our organisation decided that they would get a cohort of young volunteers together train them up to be young leaders and for them to kind of resolve conflict strength and cohesion in our local area and kind of from that all of these different kind of projects have evolved. It's our firm view that you know when we empower young people to make a difference in their local community then you know then the chances of success are just so much more so much higher because young people tend to be experts on what young people know and want to do. This summer's another example of that in the sense that around about two months ago we gave the young people the opportunity to design a project as part of mental health awareness week and they came they all came up with different ideas and pitched them to each other and then voted, the idea that you know they got the most votes from their peers was the idea called global grub which is young people learning how to cook food from different cultures. That kind of really resonated with you know Marcus Rashford's holiday hunger program so starting tomorrow we've got 16 days of young people learning how to cook food from different cultures and it's amazing. I mean, it starts this week and the next few days and we've had to ask the chef if he can do additional sessions just to fit in the amount of young people that want to take part! I think you know that's kind of testimony to the fact that when you know when you kind of support young people to bring their dreams to fruition.

What’s been the most rewarding thing about working with young people?

I know that we've got colleagues in education where you know they might have a student in their form for you know a year or two but you know the story kind of very much ends like you know within that finite period of time. Whereas one of the things that we're lucky, you know i feel very lucky and privileged, about being in the youth sector is that we have like a much broader window. So you know we get to see young people really develop from you know sometimes when they start coming they're as young as 11 and you know they can keep coming and keep attending until they're 18-19. They might not choose to stay that long or they or you know as is the case sometimes they might end up becoming youth workers and working with us. I mean, we've got around 15 people working at the organisation and most of them used to be young volunteers on the project. So it is a career path but seeing the their lives develop and their potential unfold is a huge privilege and one of the biggest reasons that I would encourage anyone to get involved in this in this work you know you see it right from you know, when the seed is planted to you know come into fruition. Sometimes it can be you know that you know people end up having amazing careers, I've seen you know, young people that volunteered for us doing medicine and law and and other kind of you know really impressive careers. But sometimes it's just seeing them turn into really happy adults you know with their own families and things like that is amazing as well and one of the things that we say excited is no one ever really leaves. So anyone can you know pop through that door right now and we'll be pleased to see him and we'll pop the kettle on we'll have a catch up so...

What has been the most challenging thing?

Yeah as an independent charity an organisation you know the perennial challenge really is funding. We have a period of a few years where, you know there's no concerns whatsoever and every so often you know it becomes a little bit more you know frightening in terms of our longevity. I think probably that you know the the finance side of things is something that you know probably keeps us awake at night I mean obviously there's also you know concerns over individual young people and i think anyone who works here would be lying if they didn't sometimes take home you know some of those concerns and some of those worries, but I think that's um you know that's a natural byproduct of doing the work that we do really. So yeah, I mean it really is a privilege to do this so I can't complain too much but sometimes the you know the whole funding side can be a bit of a challenge.

What have you learned from the young people?

I mean I've learned so much over this period of working here, a good example would be you know linguistically. This is the most diverse town area in the UK outside of London so we've got so many different cultures and I really enjoy learning you know the different languages from our community sometimes it's just a you know a few words here a few words there and then others it's more extensive. So you know doing courses in Punjabi and Polish and things like that. I really enjoyed learning about you know the cultures of the young people. The other thing is like it's the kind of the background learning that you do as part of the project so one of the things that we've found to be a really effective way of bringing the community together is doing oral history projects. These are projects where we just bring together older people with an experience and younger people and they do interviews. Then off the back of that we've made exhibitions so we've done them on partition so the division of British India into India into India and Pakistan. We've done projects like 17 000 reasons to remember which is all about the contribution of polish fighters to the UK during the second world war, we've done a project called Chalvey stories which is getting a local Roma young people to interview the wider community about their memories of how Chalvey developed over time. And we've done a project called migration which was getting young people to interview different people about their kind of their memories of moving to their place of origin, be that um east Africa or east London, you know they're equally as valid getting them to talk to them about those experiences and creating an exhibition off the back of that and you know just being a part of those interviews. I mean, when i'm there my only job really is to make sure that everything's going smoothly and that everyone's comfortable it's the young people doing the interviews, but just being in there you know is amazing because we hear about uh all kinds of different people's experiences.

How have you adapted your work with young people over the past year to cope with COVID-19?

Obviously it's been such a horrific time for so many people but I think when when the community is really challenged like that it opens up spaces where young people can you know grow and develop. And fulfil things for the community that perhaps they otherwise wouldn't otherwise. So during the last year, we've got around 60 or 70 young people that volunteer with us, have ran the vaccination centre in the centre of Slough. So they've been volunteering there which has been phenomenal. Even prior to that during the first lockdown a lot of it was trying to find where the young people's kind of interests and what they enjoy doing intersects with what's needed. Our volunteers they love baking and we wanted to do something to show the NHS that we were you know kind of right behind them. So we ended up doing this thing where we would drop off ingredients at everyone's homes and then we would all meet on zoom and then bake. Then we would pick up all the cooked products, then drop them off at the hospital and that was lovely because even though we couldn't even leave our houses really at the time. They were still finding a way of boosting the NHS and making them feel better so that was great. That period really intersected with black lives matter so we took the opportunity to to really you know learn a lot about the movement, examine our own practices around racism and that that was that was really powerful as well. As the kind of as the lockdown lifting um and people were starting to go about their business again we knew that we couldn't meet indoors yet, so we started doing a lot of murals outside. The young people we work with absolutely love doing street art graffiti murals things like that so I mean we've done one in the past year that was like a a tribute to key workers in the local area. We did another one kind of challenging people about knife crime called knife freestyle and then there was another one which was we just simply said keep going. Which was all about you know please keep observing the social distance and keep going with the mask wearing and just trying to give everyone that boost and that motivation.

What’s the next major project for promoting youth voice in Slough?

We've got a lot we've got a packed summer to get through, we've got our summer young carers program we've been asked to do more work at the vaccination centres because they've got more of the people who might conventionally volunteer on holiday. We've got our global grill project and then another thing that's that's come up that's is the young people that we work with have been talking increasingly about being worried about the environment. I suppose inspired by uh Sir David Attenborough they're worried about the state of the oceans so Slough is not on sea we are not coastal, but the young people have expressed a wish to do something around the a beach clean up so hopefully we're gonna squeeze that in before the end of the summer, where we will descend on mass on a beach and try and sort it out. The other thing as well that we're doing a lot more work with after the summer is on mental health. So we're going to be trying to get more young people trained up as advocates around that. Probably doing the royal society for public health young health champions qualification and also thinking about diversity and how our different identities impact on our understandings of mental health so got quite a lot on, yeah.

If you want to find more of Slough CEP's projects and more of Rob's work click here.