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Exploring the ways that a young people can serve as a representative for and within an organisation

  • Culture & Heritage
  • Music
  • Theatre & Performance
  • Visual Arts
  • Technology
  • Film & Media

We visit Derby, Sunderland and Colchester to hear how young people can promote an organisation to external stakeholders, but also serve as youth voice representatives internally.

We hear from Sunderland Culture, Firstsite, and Lucy James – a former participant at Derby Theatre's Plus One programme – to hear about how they empower youth voice by supporting young people to act as ambassadors for and within their communities

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Rachel Hamer: For me, Ambassador is a way that young people represent our organisation and they are our ambassadors out in the world running events, talking to people. We work with them when we're doing panels, so they've talked to the Art Council at different events, asking questions that they feel young people would like to hear and sometimes are quite challenging, but I think those ambassadors are where they can help us to reach other young people and be ambassadors in their community for us as an organisation. 

Tom Inniss: We’re currently hearing from Rachel Hamer, young people and communities producer at Sunderland Culture. She is explaining the ways young ambassadors can operate both within and outside your organisation.

Rachel: We do a lot of work with them about projects that we are thinking about, about the way that we talk to young people, so really that they are the voice of young people within our organisation to challenge us on things, and I think organisations need that to have young people there to help challenge and think differently, and that's how I see it really. The two things – one is about being an ambassador for young people within our organisation but also being our ambassadors out back in the community with their friends and family. 

Tom: As part of her job, Rachel oversees the Celebrate Different Collective, a team of young people aged 13 - 25 who work alongside Sunderland Culture to organise events  and collaborate on different projects and programmes.

Rachel: The group named themselves, they were originally Sunderland Culture Young Ambassadors, which was a very long title, but they did an event all about how we should celebrate our differences, so they wanted to be called Celebrate Different Collective. And it's really about them taking the lead and us really working alongside them as co-producing, and we really see it as a way of us working with young people in a meaningful way. Over a long period of time we're committed to working with them over years. Young people themselves, or a mixture of young people who would say they are arty and engaged in the arts, you're either doing a creative subject at university level, but also there's young people who want to do engineering and different careers and use this as a way for their leadership and to build confidence, and really confidence and health and wellbeing is a big part of Celebrate Different Collective. 

Tom: To get a first-hand perspective of what it’s like co-producing with Sunderland Culture, I spoke to 16-year-old CDC member, Emily Findlay.

Emily Findlay: I decided to become part of Celebrate Different because it seemed like something interesting to do. I'd never really explored curation and organising events before and now I'm involved as part of the team and curating an exhibition called ‘Bright Lights’ in Washington Arts Centre digitally. But it's an exhibition of young people's artwork in response to a theme we send out. We select the artworks and we've curated it over Zoom and we get to make nearly all of the decisions in Celebrate Different. We have so many opportunities to do creative things and it's just so cool. Through the experience I've gained quite a lot of confidence within myself and with my creative ability and having my own say and it being valid within the group. 

Tom: While conducting these interviews, I discovered that Sunderland Culture had collaborated with First Site, an arts organisation based in Colchester. It was one of those happy coincidences you tend to get in the arts sector, as they were also scheduled to talk to me about how their young people serve as ambassadors.

As such, one of my first questions to Beth Hull, programme organiser for young people at First Site, was to tell me more about how a collaboration formed with an organisation roughly 300 miles away.

Beth Hull: So, looking at how we respond to what's been happening over the last year or so, we've got the opportunity to work with the Arts Council Collection through their national partners programme, and we have the opportunity to curate an exhibition using the Collection, and so we've been working with YAK to look at what is it they want to say, why do they want to explore this and how do we do that as a cohesive group. But also in collaboration with two other organisations that we're working with, so Sunderland Culture and Newlyn Art Gallery in the Exchange in Cornwall, so we've been exploring different ways that we can connect online, different ways that we can collaborate on art projects and then also feed into each other's exhibitions that will be presented in the gallery spaces. So it's really just kind of opening up those ideas and ways of working to respond and adapt to online, so we've been working with artists that perhaps we wouldn't necessarily have worked with if we were inviting them into the gallery space to work with young people because it's kind of opened up the opportunity to work with anyone that's based anywhere because you can do that digitally. 

Tom: As Beth mentioned, First Site runs YAK – the Young Arts Kommunity. This is a peer led group of 13-25 year olds, whose informal structure allows for dynamic programme response based on the needs and interests of the group at the time. 

Beth: Pretty informal group, you can come along, turn up and a lot of it works by word of mouth, so quite often we'll have a group that meet and then word will spread and we'll get kind of friends and other people coming along and that'll kind of influence how the group then wants to work, perhaps what their interests are, or - kind of you know - dictate the kind of way that the group goes and it might bring in different interests and different art forms that we want to explore and see how we can bring into the gallery space. And so, for example we've have different kind of groups that are interested in breakdance and have gone on to run their own breakdancing sessions at Firstsite for their peer group but also then for younger children, and that's become part of our wider learning programme, which is fantastic you know an idea that's kind of been presented to us by young people coming and getting involved, they've then gone onto to learn the skills to actually deliver that themselves. 

Tom: One young person who has dived headfirst into all that YAK has to offer is 18-year-old Freya Gascoyne. She has been a member of YAK for 2 years, 

Freya Gascoyne: First Site has opened up my eyes to all these different possibilities and things that I can actually do, but also they've provided me with resources and contacts that I can use. So I think First Site has provided me with a platform to be more of an ambassador creatively and also involve other young people in YAK as well, like inviting others to join in as well.

Tom: Freya recently curated an exhibition titled Lockdown Unlocked, a celebration of newly discovered creativity during the pandemic. She invited young people aged 14-24 to submit artwork that they had created during lockdown, but ironically, repeatedly ran into issues when trying to launch.

Freya: So many people who would never have said - Oh, I you know they'd be like - 'Oh I can't draw no that's not really my thing', actually started giving stuff a go, and I wanted to showcase the positive I think that came out of lockdown and this whole period which was like people's involvement in the arts and getting in touch with their like creative side. It was meant to happen in the studio spaces in, like, November last year and then it got cancelled again because of lockdown, and then we thought of maybe February and no, it couldn't happen because there was like a third lockdown, but it gave us a bit more time to really think about the themes that came out of the artwork submitted for the show. 

After it was cancelled the third time I made the executive decision to basically transfer it online and I wanted these artworks which I had all sitting in my computer, I wanted the world to see them because they looked so awesome. If it couldn't happen in real life, if people couldn't experience the actual gallery feel, I didn't want to just try and replicate a completely like clinical white-walled gallery setting online because it's just not the same, so we might as well use as much of like the extra things that digital platforms offer. So I contacted the artists and asked them to send voice memos one minute long talking about the artwork and I gave them three questions to answer. That really gave a very personal insight into the experiences of the artists and then what the artwork meant to them. We've had a really really good response and so many people who aren't even involved in the arts were sharing it as well.

Being exposed and in an environment with people within the art world, and having these opportunities as part of YAK in Firstsite has really made me feel more confident in my own place in the art world and feeling like, yes, this is my space and I can belong here and I do fit into that, which I think it's an industry that can feel quite intimidating a lot of the time, even just visiting a gallery you can feel like oh I'm maybe not supposed to be here this doesn't quite feel like my space. So that's been really fantastic.

Tom: We opened this episode with the idea of a youth ambassador role having two components. Internally, young people might speak on behalf of other young people in their community, representing their interests and telling you what you’re doing right – or wrong – when it comes to engagement. Externally, they can act as representatives for your organisation, demonstrating the importance of youth engagement to other professionals, or helping to recruit and engage other young people you might be struggling to reach. 

Lucy James, a freelance musician, composer and ambassador for youth voice, perfectly embodies that duality. Starting out as a project participant at 16, the opportunities afforded to her – along with her own tenacity – have allowed her to flourish as a multi-disciplinary professional, and use her voice to bring representation to marginalised groups. 

Lucy James: I first joined Plus One at the age of sixteen, I then stayed for a couple of years in their projects and working on whether that be music or theatre or film and from there that's really what helped me develop the confidence and the knowhow to apply for a university that I was really excited about, which I never honestly thought that I would get into, but luckily I did! So I went to the Academy of Contemporary Music in Gilford for two years and they honestly kept supporting me and checking in on me and seeing how I was doing and sharing my work even throughout that two years that I wasn't there, and that still felt really special to me that they were still supportive even though I'd kind of flown the nest for a little bit to still have a home base of creatives that were supportive and invested in me. So I completed that, and I came back home to good old Derbyshire, became self-employed, and from there the theatre obviously had my connections and asked me to be involved in lots of projects.

Tom: One such project was some youth voice research Lucy conducted with the Mighty Creatives.

LCEPs (or CEPs) are Local Cultural Education Partnerships. They are a collective of partners from a range of settings such as culture, education, local authorities, voluntary and community organisations and business. These partners come together to improve the alignment of cultural education for children and young people in an area. 

Lucy’s research focused on how CEPs in the East Midlands are providing youth voice opportunities to young people, what methodology is already in place, what needed to be improved, and how these ideas could be rolled out nationally.

Lucy: So some of the outcomes of this were, honestly, the discovery of the need for more research and the fact that CEPs work so differently across the country and having one lateral goal for every single CEP is not something that is honestly doable in most cases. 

But my main discovery was that young people will need a space to just be, as in not to have an ulterior sort of motive of an opportunity that involves their professionalism or involves arts as such, but they need an opportunity to be sat in a room with the people who have the authority to make change and to take their feedback and to take it further and in that hopefully my recommendation was to have each CEP have a Youth Voice Board and have each Youth Voice Board meet, you know, within the East Midlands and hopefully at some point nationally. To be able to have a feedback loop and a constant ongoing project to be able to not only pull future research from, but to show the progression of how young people's voices are being taken seriously, and how they're being used to further the work of CEPs and ultimately the arts opportunities in each local community.

Tom: As a care experienced young person, Lucy raised the point around reasonable expectations and support an organisation should have for any young person they engage with.

Lucy: Sometimes I felt like people only were really interested in what I had to say if I told them the whole story of my care experience and why it was as bad as it was, and I thought my value was in my sob story rather than the things that I learned from that. A lot of the pressure that I kind of feel or people like me feel in these positions is largely due to the fact that there's normally only one position for people like us. For me, when I talk as a care experience person, I always try and think about how those in kinship care might feel, how those who are fostered don't have stable family situations – how they might feel, and it is a big challenge to balance all of those different priorities all at once. But this is where having wider representation comes in. 

I do often find there is a lot of difficulty in the balance of being an ambassador speaking on your own experiences, your own motives, and own desires versus that of everybody else who you're also speaking on behalf of in that room, and when I say that I don't mean that it's the responsibility to speak on behalf of those people as if they can't do it themselves, it's just if there's one ambassador role then that becomes that responsibility to speak on behalf of a community rather than the individual.

Tom: So maybe you’ve listened to this episode and are still on the fence about whether or not to empower young people to act as ambassadors. There’s no denying that it can take time and resources to get the project off the ground, but it can offer numerous benefits to your organisation

Rachel: Young people bring so many benefits to the organisation. I think they bring challenge, they bring new perspective, they bring vibrancy and excitement which I think you can't ever fully underestimate about how much that is needed when we're working all of the time. I think sometimes young people just bring that new twist to things. And I think they bring honesty. Young people will be really honest about what they like and what they don't like and what they think we should do and we shouldn't do and I think sometimes we're scared of that but I think they can really bring that way of us looking at things differently and hold us to account. If I've said I'm going to talk to someone about this, they ask me ‘how did it go?’, or ‘what's kind of the update on that?’.

Lucy: Assumptions don't often lead to success and knowing how young people's priorities change, the benefits are communication and knowing what the future stakeholders of our communities and of our country need to be able to be those people, and to be able to make that progress because, realistically, the future is in our hands – not to be cheesy about it.

Rachel: We don't know about young people's worlds right now and I think they really bring an insight into what is actually happening. Especially during the last year, we do a lot of work with schools but we're not hearing from schools, we're hearing from young people about what their life is like right now, what the pressures are like and that really informs work across the organisation. And I think as an organisation it makes you braver, it makes you bolder and it makes you more exciting, and I think some of those events where young people have been involved have been ten times more exciting than we would ever have made them. 

Tom: Hopefully having now convinced you about the benefits of youth ambassadors, I asked our interviewees to tell us their top tips to give you the best chance of success. 

Freya: I think firstly they need to speak about this opportunity they're providing on social media and really push it because that's what everyone uses. People probably won't even go into the place to find out what's going on, they'd just go on the website or go on social media.

Lucy: It's unfair to expect a certain narrative when a young person walks into the room. Again, using care experience as an example because that's something I've lived and I know, don't expect a care experienced person to walk into the room and tell you their entire life story and the most gruelling and difficult things that they've been through because that's not what makes them them. It is in a way, but it's not their entire personality and it's not their entire being. So, organisations don't expect young people to spill their all to you, they don't owe you that. They don't owe anybody that, and that's your privilege to hear and your honour to listen to if they choose to share that with you. 

Freya: What's really great about YAK is it's tailored to us but they've got a programme of stuff which they've planned and all these opportunities that give us autonomy. We're organising our own exhibition, after this we're gonna be able to say 'we organised an exhibition that took place in Firstsite which is like a major gallery. So, through providing very significant opportunities I think it could really attract a lot of people.

Emily: Get young people involved to the point where they can make the decisions that matter. Give them creative freedom and being able to do what they want and they'll probably do really well with the freedom not being constrained by what a gallery thinks is acceptable.

Beth: You've got to be aware of the intentions behind it and also be aware of who you are speaking to, you know where are you reaching, are you getting to those young people that we want to be working with, and I think that's about being aware and linking up with all of the kind of youth services in your area.

Lucy: Don't expect young people to be able to drop whatever they're doing to be able to really you know focus on the youth voice side of things, because as as important as it is, it's also essential for that young person to know what it's all amounting to and to know where they want to end up.

Beth: A lot of work gets aimed at the same kind of groups and then other people are forgotten about. It's about being accessible to as many young people as you can and so it's trying to work out how you can encourage those conversations to happen and how you can get to young people that you might not be reaching already and that's the kind of eternal problem I think.

Rachel: It is imperative if you're wanting to work with young people to involve young people. I think there's lots of organisations where they're like 'no young people came to this event' and you go 'did you ask young people whether they were interested in this?' and they go 'no' and you go 'well - you know, we're not - I'm 29 now I'm not young anymore' and I think that's something that's really important and I think if you're organising and wanting to engage that audience in any sort of way, involving young people can really help to unlock that – and we're still learning. It's still a learning journey, you know engaging with young people can be tough but I think it's so rewarding and I think as long as you are committed to doing it and want to support those young people I think you should go and do it and kind of find the young people in your area who you can help support and they can help support you and grow the organisation.

Tom: This podcast was released as part of Amplify, a series profiling children & young people's voice in creative & cultural learning. Amplify is made for professionals working in the cultural, education & youth sectors. 

Thanks to Rachel Hamer, Emily Findlay, Beth Hull, Freya Gascoyne and Lucy James for taking the time to talk to us. This podcast was supported using public funding by Arts Council England, and was produced by Tom Inniss from Voice Magazine.

Sunderland Culture 

Sunderland Culture is an ambitious partnership between key cultural organisations in the area. They operate National Glass Centre and Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, Sunderland Stages, Sunderland Cultural Partnership, Arts Centre Washington and The Fire Station.

The Celebrate Different Collective (CDC) is a group of young people aged 13-25 from across Sunderland who meet weekly. With support from Sunderland Culture, they co-produce and run their own cultural events, work with artists and learn new practical skills. Over the past 12 months, the collective worked together on exciting creative projects at Arts Centre Washington and worked together over Zoom to create an outdoor exhibition. They also feed into Sunderland Culture Strategy and programme.

The CDC was named from the Celebrate Different event, in which the young people designed, ran, risk assessed, budgeted and evaluated the project. The event was a brilliant showcase of work attended by over 100 people. It was a really proud moment and a wonderful event. As a result of the pandemic, the CDC had found it a challenge to adapt to online Zoom delivery – especially when working with new members. However, the group has thrived and are now planning an outdoor exhibition.


Firstsite is a visual arts organisation based in Colchester. The contemporary visual arts organisation where you can experience the most exciting developments in contemporary art, and explore the rich artistic legacy cultivated by the East of England’s unique landscape and character.

As part of their work, Firstsite runs Young Art Kommunity (YAK), a peer-led group for 15-25 year olds (although they will consider including those outside of this in certain situations).

YAK was established in 2013, during the early years of Firstsite being housed in its current building. They worked with young people socialising in and around the spaces in Firstsite and through a partnership with Essex youth service and Firstsite Associate Artists to co-design a programme which responded to the needs of the young people in the area.  This grew into a core group of young people interested in exploring film, gaming, break dance, circus skills, food, music and how these various cultures can all feed into, and respond to the art gallery community.

The group developed over the years with different young people getting involved at different stages and taking the group in different directions depending on their interests. Throughout, Firstsite has offered different levels of engagement including work experience, Arts Award, paid gallery roles and workshop facilitators, young person on the board of trustees, and a Venice fellowship.

Derby Theatre (Derby CEP)

Derby Theatre is the lead partner for Derby's Cultural Education Partnership, also known as DCEP. A Local Cultural Education Partnership or LCEP (CEP) is a collective of partners from a range of settings such as culture, education, local authorities, voluntary and community organisations and business, who come together to improve the alignment of cultural education for children and young people in an area.

They work closely together with their cultural partners, including QUAD, Déda, Derby & Derbyshire Music Partnership, Derby Museums, Sinfonia ViVA, Baby People, Artcore, Hubbub, EMBAA and EMCCAN to provide high-quality cultural experiences across the curriculum and beyond. The Cultural Campus is the collective name for Derby’s major cultural organisations who work together, along with schools and other important sectors, to provide an exciting cultural education offer for young people.

They aim to provide every child and young person with opportunities to thrive in our city and experience a variety of culture that helps to develop their skills, life chances and fulfil their highest ambitions. 

Plus One

Plus one is just one way in which that cultural enrichment takes place. Major arts organisations and care services across Derbyshire have joined forces to provide looked after children, care leavers, and their families the chance to experience live performances, films, and take part in a host of exciting opportunities.

Through Plus One, families and young people can receive free tickets to see shows and films at Derby Theatre, Déda and QUAD, and take part in workshops in dance, digital media, music and theatre.

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