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Board & Governance

Giving young people strategic decision-making power at your organisation

  • Culture & Heritage
  • Theatre & Performance
  • Music
  • Visual Arts
  • Board

We visit Preston and London to hear how organisations are inviting young people to share in the decision-making power, and input into the direction and strategy of their work.

Hear from Blaze Arts and artsdepot about the work they do, the board and governance roles they give to young people, and tips for ensuring that the reciprocal power-sharing process is both supportive and meaningful.

Helen Thackray: I think the recruitment process for this role was quite standard in the sense that it was an application, cover letter and a CV. But in the interview I was interviewed by three trustees and two of them were younger members of the board, and I know that they were involved in the whole recruitment process. So, in that sense it was very much younger people who got to choose who was the new director of Blaze. 

Tom Inniss: You’re listening to Helen Thackray, Director of Blaze Arts in Preston. The recruitment process is very fresh in her mind because, At the time of recording, Helen had only been in the role for one month. We decided to throw her into the deep end and test her knowledge of the charity that’s at the forefront of youth governance.

Helen: For me, Blaze is about supporting young people to achieve or fulfil their creative potential and to find their voice, and to realise that they can create things, and they can influence change. I think Blaze is about using the arts as a vehicle for that, you know, the arts can be hugely empowering in terms of finding a way to express yourself and realising that you can create something. We're particularly interested in creating those platforms and those contexts that enable young people, so that might be about giving paid work experience to young people, youth training and resources and networks and connections, which is so important for young people to enable them. They need to be surrounded by people who can support them. 

Tom: Given how new Helen was to the role, I was interested to see whether there was anything that stood out to her about the organisation.

Helen: What surprised me about Blaze is the breadth of work that they have done and also how much they were ahead of the game in terms of youth voice and really kind of showing how other organisations could do it. And, you know, I've over the past month been speaking to quite a lot of um, organisations and individuals who have worked with Blaze over the past ten years, and it's really clear that Blaze has influenced a lot of the work in the North West, has challenged a lot of people and organisations, has encouraged people to think differently, and I just think that's an amazing achievement for the organisation, and it's important that people recognise that because it's a youth-led organisation, and it's the young people who have influenced that change. 

Tom: Also surprising is that, despite their huge impact on the work in the North West, Helen is one of only two staff members at Blaze. The other is programme producer Hannah Whitlow. Hannah oversees the creation of project opportunities for young creatives, but she is also an artist in her own right, and sits on the board of Lancashire 2025. 

Hannah Whitlow: I started off as a young producer back in 2021 when I was just 16, 17, and I was involved in actually putting on that first youth-led festival kind of that happened in the North West which was produced and there was 25 other young people, and we all kind of took part in programming, artist liason, behind the scenes, tech, like everything you can image, that whole package. And then I moved away to university and did Fine Art and then after that I kind of came back up North, I kind of embarked on a bit of a kind of portfolio career, and then yeah there was a role that came up to work with the Harris Young Producers, which was about getting more young people through the doors of this Grade I listed beautiful museum and gallery, and then that kind of just snowballed from there really. To be able to come back round, that full circle, it's kind of like that virtuous circle moment, that's kind of what I wanted to do really, is pass on all of those high quality experiences that I'd had as a young person that really fuelled me and my kind of creative journey– to be able to pass them back onto other young people. 

Tom: To get a better understanding of the board, its composition, and how it works, I decided to speak to two of the board members. I started with Charlie Morrison, who sits as one of the more experienced trustees, and who spoke to the importance of having young people embedded in the organisation.

Charlie Morrison: I've been associated with Blaze since it became a project in 2008, but I joined the board as soon as the company was constituted a couple of years ago. Now, Blaze is a charity and continues to do this brilliant work through multiple projects across the North West and the UK. For a start for me, the definition of youth is one that probably needs a bit of closer examination. I'd come from a charity where we'd worked with young people that tended to be classed as anyone under-18, and actually in this situation it was anyone up to 30. Those voices are important because they represent a whole decade of relevance to what needs to happen through the arts and what needs to develop and improve in culture and in the world of production. The younger arts professionals are often excluded from conversations, where actually they're at the core of what's going on, and really that doesn't make any sense. 

Tom: It’s not uncommon for an organisation to have a youth board, so I found it interesting that Blaze opted for a single unified board instead. I asked Charlie to explain the thinking behind that decision.

Charlie: The reason that we decided to integrate the boards and have a single board but with a majority of young people was so that, so that we could avoid what is a classic situation when young people are invited onto a board that's predominantly filled with older members, which is that it's common and it's easy for the older members to drown out the younger members. Not because they're bad or because they don't value the opinions of the younger members of the board, but because experience tends to speak more loudly in a board setting. And so, by having a majority of younger people, that enabled both in a voting situation, and also in a boardroom situation, that was much less likely to happen, and it seemed like a really good approach to helping that.

Tom: That level playing field certainly resonated with Jasleen, one of the under-30 board members. Jasleen has been involved with Blaze for roughly 5 years, and has been on th board for the last 2. She speaks very highly of the egalitarianistic attitude fostered by the trustees, and the freedom the younger board members are afforded to speak up. 

Jasleen: Blaze have valued our opinions and they include everyone that sometimes might not offer an opinion. So that's quite good too that it's all inclusive no matter who they are, what they do, their background, who they are, at the board it's kind of like we're all equals. And I think that really does come from the kind of group norm. It's kind of the tone that's been set through Three's workshops, through understanding how the young people feel on this subject matter.

Tom: I promise we’re not going to dwell on it for long, but over the last year Covid-19 has resulted in projects being radically altered or reimagined. As we all navigate our way through this changing landscape, it presents an opportunity for organisations to hit pause on their work, reevaluate their approach, and present an offering that’s even better than the original. 

This has been the case with artsdepot, who lead Barnet’s Cultural Education Partnership – recently rebranded as Barnet & Culture for Youth. We spoke to Francesca Cross, creative producer for education and talent development, who saw lockdown as an opportunity to restart their youth panel.

Francesca Cross: We started a youth panel for Barnet & Culture for Youth back in October 2019 and it's always been an aim of Barnet & Culture for Youth to have a youth panel working alongside its steering group, so that we can make sure we're not doing what a group of adults think is the best for young people, but we can hear young people's voices and ask them what they want. We worked with a group of young people to think about our logo and our brand and our design. Back then we were Barnet Culture and Education Partnership which doesn't really roll of the tongue, and we had a session in January of 2020 before lockdown, and we really started to get into what those young people thought of Barnet, what opportunities were out there, and it was really lovely because they all had different opinions, they all thought different things, and we gave them a platform to share those. 

Tom: From there, a logo design session was planned in March, the date of which ended up coinciding with the first day of lockdown. The session was eventually delivered online in July, but the uncertainties of lockdown raised questions about how to sustain a digital group who weren’t that familiar with one another.

Francesca: It was quite hard when we, as a partnership, weren't sure of what was happening. It was quite hard to ask a group of young people what they wanted when we didn't know the direction or what was happening at that point because of lockdown. 

Tom: But that wasn’t the only change artsdepot decided to make. Whilst there are young people who are perfectly comfortable in more traditional governance spaces, sometimes it’s necessary to do things differently to keep young people engaged.

Francesca: We also felt that we wanted to offer the young people taking part more. We felt that it was... not boring, but kind of boardroom-esque, rather than kind of giving them opportunities to develop their skills. This project offers them lots of different workshops and lots of different opportunities to work with artists and also to create their own projects as well. We feel like it's the next, the next stage, and we'll ensure that whilst the young people are– we're benefitting as a partnership from hearing those young people's voice's they're also benefitting as well and they're also gaining something.

Tom: Wanting to dig a little bit deeper, I asked Francesca to build upon that idea of a reciprocal relationship with young people

Francesca: It's absolutely a two-way dialogue. It's definitely hearing young people's voices and taking that back and learning from that, but also being able to work with them and to - because otherwise it just feels a bit one-sided, it's constantly - it feels a bit like take, take, take, whereas hopefully this new development of the programme can offer them something in return that's still contributing to them being able to develop an idea or a project.

Tom: I also asked Francesca to reflect on other key learnings from the first run, and to discuss how those are informing the direction of the new advocate group.

Francesca: I think it takes time to work - even, even before the panel was kind of set up, it takes time to work with a group of young people to ask what they might want to gain from being a part of the youth panel, what does that mean to them? And be able to listen to their… their opinions, even before it's actually set out, before you start, because then you can consult with them and ask what they might want, and then lead into the youth panel that way. I also think that we learnt that young people would benefit more from more engagement. We were leaving it quite a long time, whereas the young people that we spoke to in the first stage said that they would benefit from having more, more connection and being able to meet up with the other young people more. And, our other learnings would be again, to just keep coming back to the young people and not making assumptions of what they want and what is best for them but asking them and offering them something creative in return.

Tom: These ideas are all things that can help inform your own planning and decision making around integrating youth voice into the governance of your organisation. For instance, Francesca is already starting to think about how to bring young people onto the board of trustees at artsdepot

Francesca: As Barnet & Culture for Youth, we have a number of different members, and our steering group as well, and we want to use this as an opportunity to encourage other organisations to explore youth voice and youth voice governance, particularly young trustees. So we will use this as kind of a stepping stone for that. It's also something as, as arts depo that we're currently exploring at the moment. We will be looking for board members in the future and so I'm working really closely with our CEO to see whether this, this project might - a couple of the young people from taking part in this project might, it might go that way or perhaps we have an observer. I'm really keen that it's in a really supportive way, and that a young person is supported as a young trustee. From my experience, I think it can seem quite daunting and you might not know that much about it, but actually, from my experience of having it in a really supportive facilitated way, it makes it a lot easier.

Tom: Supporting young people to take on a board or governance role is something that Blaze has given a lot of thought to as well. 

Hannah: I think anyone really would need more support, kind of just to feel board-ready. But I think particularly young people do need a little bit more support so that they feel comfortable, they feel kind of able to share their opinions confidently, they feel that they're being listened to, and that they're being, yeah, kind of, like, taken seriously.

Tom: One of the ways Blaze is helping elevate the voices of young people in meetings is through a co-chair model where a younger member works alongside the chair to arrange the agenda and manage the meeting.

Charlie: Really, it's just a case of the chair being mindful of what, what people wanna say and kind of feeling the room a little bit. There's also something at Blaze where the deputy-chair is also a younger member. So there's a chair and a deputy-chair and actually the deputy-chair has quite a lot of responsibility in terms of delivering those board meetings. They do often take the place of the chair. They are given the platform to be quite vocal and lead the sessions, which also helps the dynamic in the group.

Tom: Blaze also introduced a buddy system for younger board members, but that has had a few teething problems that are yet to be ironed out.

Jasleen: It's a great idea, but it's not worked as well as we would've hoped. So it's a younger under-30 paired with an over-30, and the idea is that you buddy with someone and you get to learn from them, you get to have one-to-ones and stuff like that. But it's not really been implemented well, and I'm not really sure why that is. It might be due to other people's commitments, due to like the criteria of what a buddy is, I don't think that's properly defined and the expectations maybe isn't defined as much. That's something that we do need to work on, and that kind of hasn't been executed well. But it's definitely a learning for Blaze.

Tom: So, as is true of nearly anything in life, there is still room for improvement. But the work required to get youth representation into your organisation will certainly be worth it. 

Helen: I think young people have so much to offer in terms of their curiosity and their ability to bring different perspectives. And I think, you know, challenging old ways of doing this, is so important in terms of responding to the world and changing and improving things. And also just on a personal level in terms of diversifying particularly our cultural organisations, and the only way to do that is to engage with a diverse range of young people because they are, you know, the future, adults and professionals. I just think it's so important to authentically listen to them.

Tom: So perhaps you’ve heard this episode and feel inspired to start embedding youth voice into the decision-making process at your organisation.  I asked each of our guests what advice they would give to help make that effort successful.

Jasleen: From a young person's perspective, if I know young people are on the board, young people are in the decisions that are impacting the organisation then I'm going to be more inclined to want to get involved because I'm being represented. Even if it's not necessarily my opinion, I know that they kind of care more.

Charlie: One of the pitfalls of working with younger board members - or rather the perception of working with younger board members is making the assumption that they're going to need lots of additional support, and they're kind of there to learn. I think they are there to learn but I think we're all there to learn and I think it's really important for the older members to recognise that what the younger board members say, they can learn from and vice versa.

Jasleen: People want younger people on the board just to say that they've got it. You need to believe it from the core of your organisation that these young people can actually make a difference and that comes through the actions and behaviours and the culture of that trustee group.

Hannah: Start small, and kind of do it well, but don't let kind of the idea of perfectionism hinder your progress. I think people get so worked up in thinking it absolutely needs to be perfect and I'm not gonna do it until it is. But I think if you just start and follow the lead of the young people that you're working with - just create an open space, create a space for dialogue that's kind of meaningful, that you know, you're not taking all of these tasks of we need this this this and this, can you fix this for us, because that's the wrong way around to be doing the work, it's not about fixing a problem, it's thinking what potential and what answers we don't know that young people can kind of provide for us. So I think like that would be the biggest piece of advice really is don't see it as a kind of way to fix what you're doing, but seeing it as a way to kind of improve services, or kind of learn, you know that exchange of learning.

Francesca: Make sure that it's not tokenistic, that you have a really open dialogue with the young people. There are loads of organisations out there that do a lot of work. Sound Connections do some really fantastic training and young trustees have a lot of great information. So it's definitely worth speaking to them and also speaking to organisations who do a really good job at embedding youth voice, so just have a chat with them. People are usually really up for just having a cup of coffee and talking about youth voice.

Hannah: Also I think you know, challenging yourself into the ways that a board meeting is run. Does it have to be around a quiet intimidating table? Can it be somewhere a little bit more casual a bit more informal? Thinking about the times that you're going to meet, just basically making it as - removing those barriers for young people to kind of engage. But I definitely think, you know, confidence building and any kind of training around that will really just, yeah, helps them feel comfortable in sharing their voice. 

Helen: I think sometimes some of the best conversations that I've had have been in the most informal settings. That often is the case, you know, sometimes you have the best conversations in unexpected places. But how would you feel as well about going into young people's spaces, so I don't know where, where is it that young people feel comfortable? Is it at the local park or in the local shopping centre or at the takeaway round the corner? And would you feel comfortable going into their space and having a conversation with them? And if the answer is no then I think something needs to be done about that. If you're wanting to instigate a relationship and a connection I think there is an element of you have to go to them and then find the space where they feel confident and they feel safe.

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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 Blaze Arts and artsdepot 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.

Blaze

Blaze began as a project in Lancashire in 2010 and received funding through the London Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad in 2012 which enabled a group of thirty young people to train as cultural producers and produce their own 3 day festival. Blaze has gone from strength to strength since then, largely due to the determination and creativity of the young producers who worked on that first festival.

Blaze supports young people to develop their creativity, leadership skills and involve themselves in the decision-making process at the highest and at all levels of the arts and cultural sector. Youth leadership isn’t an add on or a project for Blaze – it’s an ethos that runs through the organisation like a stick of rock, and is our entire reason for existing.
The aim of Blaze is to empower young people and increase the creative career opportunities for young people from diverse backgrounds. Being youth led means that the organisation is genuinely shaped by their aims and they can model the ways of working that they want other organisations to adopt.

In 2019 when Blaze became a charity, it was the first charity in the UK to write into its constitution that 51% of trustees would be aged 30 or under at their time of appointment.

artsdepot

artsdepot lead on Barnet’s Cultural Education Partnership, rebranded as Barnet & Culture for Youth. They work with a number of different organisations, including closely working with their steering group made up of Young Barnet Foundation, Middlesex University, 4 local schools, Unitas and RAF Museum.

They originally set up a youth panel in October 2019 which officially ran October 2019-July 2020. After a reflection with the group of young people, they realised that it wasn’t working as well as they would have liked it to. They hit pause so they could explore how to create a program that benefitted the young people they were working with as well as an opportunity to have their opinions listened and acted on.

As well as delivering Barnet & Culture for Youth, artsdepot do a lot of work with young people, and aim to create programmes and projects that actually engage and interest them.

artsdepot holds the opinion that youth voice should never be tokenistic, and is embedded into an organisation and this particular programme is a stepping stone for Barnet & Culture for Youth but also artsdepot. artsdepot hopes that the programme will support the organisations we work with to embed youth voice within their organisation and make room for young people on their boards too.

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