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Giving young people the tools to push for change in society

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We visit Kent and Yorkshire to hear how young people are empowered to make meaningful change in both organisations and within their communities.

Hear from Arts31 and IGNITE: Represent about the work they do, the role that organisations can play in empowering young people to enact change, and some examples of the work they have already done to make change happen in their communities.

We would love your feedback via our short form.

Alex: Youth voice is important to me. I think Art31 is a really great forum for youth voices, because youth voices are so marginalised in society. So often young people are kind of talked down to and their needs and demands aren't met or even listened to. So something like Art31 is a great opportunity for young people to be able to speak, to be able to be heard, to be able to be in rooms with people who will listen to them. 

So, one of the great things about Art31, the most material good thing about Art31 is the financial support that young people get. So especially like, you know, underprivileged young people, young people who don't usually have the opportunity to do certain things or getting involved in certain creative projects, meet certain people. Like, I remember before lockdown, we had this international symposium that was hosted in Battersea, and I remember like thinking we wouldn't be able to afford to go to this without the help of Art31. I guess if there are any positives of covid in kind of this background, it would be online stuff becoming more of a thing. Things like Zoom can be used to create effects for outreach, you know, to get to young people who wouldn't otherwise potentially be able to access this kind of thing. Also, there's creative benefits to things like Zoom. I am quite eager to get off of Zoom (laughs) but yeah, that's definitely true. 

I have for sure become more confident as a result of Art31. I would say that Art31 has allowed me to do certain things that I just wouldn't have done otherwise. You know, I've like compèred festivals as part of Art31 and, you know, been in meetings with important people in the Arts Council and stuff. I wouldn't have been able to have had the confidence to do that kind of thing without Art31.

I think the best advice I can give to young people who are looking to develop their leadership skills, their creative skills, is just kind of group together with other people who want the same thing, because ultimately you only make change together, you only make any creative thing together. I think it's really empowering to be able to find other people you can do that with. That's how you improve yourself, is reflecting with other people.

Becky: To me, youth voice is essentially about young people being equal partners in any decision making that affects them. We aim to enable young people to be change-makers in the local community and I guess kind of Kent generally, is the vision for Art31. I suppose we kind of think of that in three sort of main objectives really. So the first one is really just about young people taking part and having this right to access the arts, so we do a lot of work around removing barriers to participation and just getting in people from all backgrounds, from all different circumstances, to engage with the arts and creatively engage, and through that kind of build communities of young people, diverse communities where they feel valued and feel like they can be themselves and I think that kind of grassroots level of just getting young people involved from that stage. 

And then I guess the next stage is this thing around supporting young people to take the lead. So valuing their contributions, championing youth voice, ensuring that they're kind of equal partners in decision-making and again just embedding that confidence that they can make change, that they can be heard and listened to.

And then the next stage of that is helping young people to reach their potential, so kind of supporting progression roots, developing skills, making sure they're kind of aware of next steps of where they can take their creative work, career pathways, or just access to working with professionals, and yeah, sort of taking them on that journey I guess.

Mila: Youth voice is important to me because as a young person I think it's really important to have my views heard and to be listened to and not just be pushed aside simply because of our age. It's important as an individual to feel like what I have to say matters, and to be in a group where that's respected and my voice is being uplifted instead of kind of put down, it just matters a lot to me.

I'm supported by Art31 by being given opportunities in which I can make a difference. I was able to help set up a group in a family event for the environment at the Gulbenkian which was really nice, and it made me feel like, oh, I actually have something that I can offer, and I was able to see the final product and be like oh, I helped do this. And currently I'm also helping to organise an event for young people to showcase their art and other artistic things that they have produced over lockdown. 

Covid has impacted me somewhat positively, in the sense that there are now different things that I wasn't able to do before, such as we did the coronavirus capsule with a bunch of young people, and that was really really fun to do, and it was such a nice opportunity to be able to talk to other people who are stuck at home, and I can sign up to things and do them in the comfort of my own home, which gives me more kind of authority of what I can choose to do.

My confidence skills have really improved, as I've been able to have direct action and been able to be in an environment in which my ideas are uplifted and not just put down, and I'm no longer afraid to kind of be wrong, and that's always been a massive fear of mine, so being able to be in a space where I'm not shut down if I'm wrong, and not being afraid to say what I think is, has been really nice and massively boosted my confidence.

I would advise other young people to join groups, so join groups at school or join groups in your local area, because it's so much easier to say what you want to say when you're not the only one and you don't feel as alone. And even if there aren't any groups then maybe start one - because it's - although it feels really daunting at first, loads of people would be really eager to sign up to a group.

My biggest ambition for making change happen would probably be having more groups that are interconnected where young people can support and uplift each other, so we can feel like we're less alone in these times. I feel supported by having a group of people who are all passionate about the arts around me, and I'm able to kind of take charge of what I want to do, so in youth theatre at the beginning of the term we were able to choose what topic we want to do for the next term, for the next few months - and that was - that really made me feel like oh okay, what I have to say matters, and it was nice to be able to talk to other people about what they wanted to do and discuss, and choose within ourselves instead of just going to a club where the teacher would be like 'we're doing this now, and get on with it!'.

Vanessa: The Represent Project was a collaboration between Ignite Yorkshire, the Leeds Industrial Museum, the Geraldine Connor Foundation and Heritage Corner Leeds, and it's invited fifteen participants, aged between 16 to 25, to join us here and interpret items found in the Leeds Industrial Museum. 

I think young people are an untapped talent, and too often we as adults get sucked up into providing and telling and leading, all with good intention and we forget that young people have an enormous wealth of ideas and lived experiences that are valuable, and they have a voice and they have an opinion, and rather than squashing that we ought to be encouraging them to speak up and see things, they in turn will become adults and do things differently, so it's kind of important to capture the essence of youth and their unique perspective of things at the time they're seeing them. 

It's really important that we provide paid opportunities for young people, because otherwise we're assuming their time is less valuable than ours just because we're adults. On the Represent Project it was a paid opportunity because we wanted so much from them, and the quality of the work, the emotional investment, the thought processes, even the act of coming 4 days a week, trudging on the bus, all of those things that's like work, and we gained a really high quality result from those young people because we showed value by saying we were prepared to pay for their time and their opinions.

The advice I would give to any organisation thinking about integrating youth voice into their work is to really invest in it and see it as a long term opportunity and to listen and to ask questions. I think very often we make assumptions, often we're in a hurry, sadly we get funded opportunities where we can do this and they put the pressure on you know a timeframe, but if we really want to hear youth voice, we need to invite them, break down as many barriers, ask people like us 'how did you do it and what were the successes' and then we can pass on what we would do better next time and then listen and truly value that youth voice, it can't be a tick box, it can't be tokenistic, and I think be prepared to hear things you might not want to hear. You can't say we're gonna value your voice and then dismiss the bits that you don't like.

Theo: I wanted to get involved with the Represent Project because I suppose like many young people I'd always felt that museums were not particularly a space for me, that perhaps they were geared towards an older audience and the histories being told here wouldn't represent some of the experiences of the people around me and my age group. So, I thought it would be good to come here and be part of a project that was about uncovering hidden narratives within an industrial museum setting and see what we could uncover. As a young person, I'd like to be considered as an equal partner rather than as someone to be taught or lectured like a schoolchild. I suppose that I'd like to be treated in the way you would treat an adult in a consultation, in a way that someone is going to come and ask your opinions on something, with the expectation that they might then act on that. Every young person has something to say and has their own lived experiences that they might want to talk about and that might affect change within a certain setting but whether there are ways in which you can facilitate a conversation with that and whether you're prepared to actually act on what you hear is a different matter.

One key element is about allowing young people to frame the conversation themselves, and not coming in with too much ideas about what it is that young people might think or what you might like them to think, and allowing young people to frame the discussion in their own way, and think about what it is that they might want to say. I suppose be free to speak openly and encourage young people to get involved in these areas, I think really that there's a big perception of places, especially museums like this, as being places that are for older people or groups that are not like us, and so creating a space that allows young people to come into these places and have discussions openly, acknowledging the fact that not everyone feels comfortable in a space like this, is important. 

I think what I've gained from Represent is a better understanding firstly of local organisations and charities that work in these areas, and how you can engage with them, maybe even how you can access funding for these sorts of projects, and how they work behind the scenes. And also going forward I'd definitely like to be involved with these groups more, and it's definitely opened my eyes to a lot of new narratives and stories that I hadn't heard before. 

Hannah: I joined the IGNITE: Represent project that they were doing because I wanted to know more about the untold stories that are shown in museums that are not taught in our core curriculum because of what people think is supposedly white privilege, but like our past and our history is taught more as like an elective and people choose if they want to do it. I wanted to choose and know that okay, this is what I'm about to learn about, and I will learn that and see what museums and how they represent me and how they represent other minority cultures and how they show around like our impact and the way we benefitted and the way the world benefitted from the slave trade and other things.

I think that organisations like museums should engage with young kids by having more opportunities out there, getting in contact with them, and not only by posting this up like this event online but like going into schools, universities, colleges, and talking to the pupils and telling them this is what's going on, this is the opportunity, you can get involved and you get not only knowledge but you will feel like you have more power because knowledge is power, so it will empower us to know more about the future, and to be able to actually change the future. So youth voice for me means to be listened to, seen as a person as an equal, and not be discriminated because of my age, because I'm young. Get these young people and get them involved. Teach us from a young age and educate us on what is going on in the world, what happened in the world, and give us the privilege to this knowledge, enrich us from a young age so we can pass on this knowledge to other people, when we grow up and share it. The curators are not the only people with the privilege of knowing but young people have the same privilege and they will be able to transfer it and supply the privilege to other people. 

Giving me the opportunity not to only like be able - be part of the legacy that they are creating, but also to make my own legacy like have my own talks in my school and lead and also be part of presentations, like I did a presentation for white privilege, we did a presentation for Represent in our school to tell the students in our school about what we learnt outside and bring the knowledge back inside and share it and give it to other people so they will know oh, maybe we're not able to go and be part of what was going on but we have been enlightened by other people that were able to go.

Chris: At the start of the Represent Project, I was expecting the Geraldine Connor Foundation, Heritage Corner and IGNITE Yorkshire to bring in some young people for a week's engagement with the museum. What actually happened was that young people came in, they asked some really really good questions about the museum and about how the cultural sector works, and really started to make me and my colleagues here think about how we can better represent some of the stories and voices that were coming out of the project as it took place. I see young people as the future for the cultural sector, they're going to be the ones that decide the direction that museums take in the future. We need to be listening to them now, because their voices as young people are just as important as their voices when they will be older. When we're talking about listening to young people and their lived experiences, it's something traditionally we haven't done very well as a museum. 

By partnering with the Geraldine Connor Foundation, Heritage Corner and IGNITE Yorkshire, we didn't actually have any challenges in recruiting those young people because those partner organisations had such strong connections already. So by partnering with them we overcame the challenges and as a museum service we have a lot to learn from third sector organisations in how they engage young people.

Advice I'd give to organisations looking to integrate youth voices into their work would be to listen to those voices first and foremost, don't assume that young people are coming into your organisation or into your establishment or your museum to be educated by you. They're coming because they want to come. Truly listening to the youth voices means that we actually have to learn from them as well and as a museum we could be educated by the young people working with us as much as those young people could be educated by museum collections. 

I've always hoped to be outward looking as a museum practitioner, but looking at how other organisations are able to engage and empower young people, I think it's had quite a big effect on how I intend to run projects in the future.

Gina: So, I got involved in the Represent project because I thought it would be a really great opportunity to meet new people and also do what I love, which is going into museums and being in touch with history and connecting myself with it. I also thought it would be important to kind of do some work in the eyes of a curator and kind of see how their ideas are pushed forward and how they represent people like me in these spaces.

I feel that I want to see more changes in the way that organisations engage with me through more advertisement. So I would like them to push this idea that this is happening, come along, invite more young people, and also have young people be part of the conversations and part of the ideas you know, I think it's important for us to be in these meetings and be in these spaces and just have a voice and feel free to come to these events.

Youth voice means to me that I can go into a space and be myself, I can go into a space and speak my truth and I'll be listened to, you know, so I think it's important as a young person that people hear us, we're not just here for show, we're not just here to be the young person, we actually have something to say, we actually want to make changes, and I think it's important that we're included. I think one of the most important things as well is offering funding as well so that people can make it to these sessions and these workshops and if it's not free then there's a plan, and if it is free then fantastic and you know, offering us a comfortable space where we can just flourish and be great.

So in the community that I'm within and especially being part of the Geraldine Connor Foundation I feel like that in itself is very very supportive, because you know they advertise things like this with the museum where we can be a part of it, being part of the Represent project means that okay, we're supporting you to go to this place and develop your ideas, and showcase those ideas which I think is important. And I also think that the support in itself from this greater community causes us to be able to reach out to other communities and other people and come together as one.

I just think that in general the Represent project was a good opportunity. It's kind of a new thing for me, it was one of the first times I was able to come into a museum and kind of work from a different perspective. I've always been someone who just browses and I look and I read a lot of things and I'm like hmm this is interesting, but being able to be part of an organisation and a movement, because I think this is a movement, the fact that us as young people we all came together, we shared ideas, we were able to tell the curators okay there's a lack of representation here, how can we as young people help you represent us in the best way, because it's important. Going into these museums I don't see a lot of myself you know, and it would be really really great for us to kind of - well, which is happening anyway - us developing these ideas, and maybe in five years or ten years time, you know there's a story about someone who looks like me.


ART31 is a vision created with, by, and for young people aged 13-25 in Kent, championing the belief that all children and young people have an entitlement to access high quality arts and culture, to empower them to achieve their creative potential, and to genuinely engage young people as equal partners in any decision making that affects them. It is managed by The University of Kent ICCI and the Gulbenkian Creative Engagement team.

ART31 takes its name from Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, which states that ‘Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities’.

Their ambition is for young people across Kent to feel part of the ART31 movement. They do this by working with delivery partners across Kent to promote their cultural offers under the ART31 banner, and hosting an annual ART31 Kent Youth Takeover Festival – showcasing young people from across Kent’s talent and creative contributions, and hosting conversations and discussions that are relevant to young people’s lives.

They also facilitate the ART31 Youth Board which is made up of young people from across Kent who steer its governance, and influence policy and practice across the county and beyond, challenging the creative sector to examine existing ways of working and integrating young people into the core of their practice. This group also contributes to national Youth Voice initiatives and has the opportunity to attend festivals to inform programming.

IGNITE: Represent

Yorkshire is a four year project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Ignite Fund. Ignite Yorkshire works with 14-25 year olds with a mission to ignite a revolution in how Yorkshire’s industrial heritage is viewed, understood, enjoyed and looked after by young people. They take inspiration from the industrial past to develop skills for the future.

Over half term in October 2020 fifteen young people were commissioned to spend four days developing interpretations of the industrial heritage of Leeds. They were asked to produce innovative ideas for uncovering the city’s industrial past and links to colonialism, and ways to engage future audiences with this heritage. Participants undertook a training program that included sessions on unconscious bias, curating and archive research. Final ideas were presented to industry professionals for consideration for future development.

‘Represent’ is the first collaborative project between Ignite Yorkshire, Geraldine Connor Foundation, and Heritage Corner, hosted by Leeds Industrial Museum.

Youth voice is a strong focus of Ignite Yorkshire and Represent because they believe that young people have a wealth of experiences and perspectives that should be reflected in how we talk about heritage. Young people are creative, innovative and passionate about important topics such as representation, sustainability and equality. Despite all of this, the voice of young people is often missing from established heritage narratives, and they are underrepresented in traditional heritage audiences.

By including the voice of young people in developing interpretation, Ignite aims to make heritage organisations more representative and inclusive places, with a greater relevance to future generations.

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