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Young Creatives

Supporting young people to take their first steps into the creative sector

  • Culture & Heritage
  • Theatre & Performance
  • Film & Media
  • Young Creatives

We visit Manchester and the Isle of Wight to hear how organisations support and empower young people to start exploring the creative industry, and how youth voice impacts project delivery and the direction of an organisation.

Hear from Contact Theatre and the Isle of Wight CEP about the work they do, the give-and-take relationship they have with young people, and their top tips for successfully integrating youth voice into an organisation.

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Suzie Henderson: A young creative to me is any young person who wants to engage with creativity in whichever way they choose. But it is also a young person who maybe hasn’t yet understood how creativity may play a role in their life. 

Tom Inniss: The voice you hear is Suzie Henderson, the head of creative development at Contact Theatre. She has been at the organisation for over 14 years, and plays a key role in embedding the strong youth voice that is foundational to the theatre’s mission and identity.

Suzie: Contact is a theatre and cultural venue in Manchester with a focus on young people from 13 - 30. The mission is to change the face of UK culture and support young people to use their creativity to change their lives and their communities.

Tom: While that might sound like lofty ambitions, Contact isn’t just talk. They really have put young people at the core of the organisation. 

Suzie: Everybody that works at Contact, no matter their job, understands that their job is to work with young people. It’s part of their appraisal every year, they have to talk about how they’ve involved young people in decision making in their role.

The board of trustees – 50% of that board is made up of young people, including our newly appointed chair. All staff and board members at Contact are appointed by a panel of young people. They are paid to do those recruitment panels, and they have 50% of the decision-making power. They have separate interviews, they ask their own questions, and at the end of the day they come back together with the panel to discuss appointments and whether or not there is someone they feel will fit well at Contant.

Tom: One of the ways Contact empowers young creatives is through The Agency, a nationwide programme they run with Battersea arts centre. Developed by Marcus Faustini in Rio de Janeiro, the programme gives seed money to young people to allow them to start social enterprises or socially engaged projects that impact their community. 

Suzie: When we recruit for that project, we don’t talk about art or creativity at all, that is not our recruitment tool. We talk about ‘is there something in your community that you would like to change, or something you would like to do about, or that you have an idea for – that’s the driver. And most of the young people on that project don’t see themselves as creative at all – when they start the project. Then they begin to work with artists, and the process on that project is really creative, it’s what I’d call a devised theatre making process but instead of devising a show we’re devising an idea for the community.

The first three months of the project they spend exploring their idea, and at the end of the three months they pitch their ideas to an independent panel and then three of the projects that are felt to be most ready to be piloted are given £2,000 and then a producer to work with them. So, in the second–four months of the project, the young people are in charge, they’ve got their money, and they’ve also got a producer working for them to help pilot that idea. So, the whole of the second part of that process is to test that idea, get it on its feet, see what works, learn from what doesn’t, and think about how that might move forward as an idea. 

Tom: But your organisation doesn’t have to have 20 years of experience to empower young creatives, and the project doesn’t have to be a roaring success for it to have an impact. The Isle of Wight Cultural Education Partnership tried to embed creative apprenticeships into their work, but hit a few speed bumps along the way. I spoke to Sarah Girling, freelance cultural education consultant and Transition Manager for the CEP about what youth voice means to her, and how it’s used on the island. 

Sarah Girling: It’s about ensuring that they have a say in how we work as the Isle of Wight CEP. It influences what we might need training and what we might want to help both the cultural organisations with, and what teachers might need as well.  

Tom: Youth Voice was a key consideration when planning lift the lid, a two year programme that aimed to reignite a sense of pride and passion in cultural heritage on the Isle of Wight 

Sarah: Lift the lid was a project between 2018 and 2020. The project itself had a community engagement and school engagement plan through Arts Award, and Artsmark as well for schools. It was always envisaged that we would involve creative apprentices through the project. The creative apprentices were based in two organisations on the Isle of Wight; they were based at Quay Arts and at Ventnor exchange. Their role would be to give us the youth voice for the project. As soon as they were brought into the project they were involved with meetings and dialogue, and involved with planning the events – the apprenticeship itself was part of an events officer type role.

Tom: But despite the planning that had gone into the apprenticeship scheme, when the first two apprentices started, it became apparent there had been some oversights. 

Sarah: Initially I think we possibly got the brief not quite right. So, one of our apprentices left fairly soon after she joined us because it didn’t really fit in with what she anticipated. The second apprentice stayed with us until he secured a place at Brighton Institute to study a music degree. So that was fantastic for him because that was furthering his career development – and we were really excited about that for him – but obviously upset for our own purposes because it meant that his apprenticeship ended for us. 

So then, very much towards the end of the project in November 2019 we brought in a third creative apprentice, and I would say we probably only started to touch the tip of the iceberg with her and could see the potential for more work with her in the future. And thankfully at the moment that can continue, because even though we’ve had this Covid-19 pandemic, she is still working for both of those organisations, even though the project has ended. 

Tom: And that’s not the only positive to come from the project. It’s said that every mistake presents an opportunity to learn and develop, and Sarah definitely adopts that mindset when looking back.

Sarah: The learning from the first time round really had a positive impact and I wouldn’t change that actually. If I could start the project Lift the Lid again, specifically with youth voice as a focus, I think one of the key things would be to have looked very carefully at the brief – what we really wanted from the young person. I think we needed to establish clearly that the project – while it had its roots with a bit of an environmental focus, the actual whole project itself was a creative and cultural project. I think there was a bit of a misunderstanding at the start over the brief. 

I feel quite strongly that any young person brought in in this young creative role, I think that that person needs a strong mentor – really strong support.  That, I feel, is where we could have done better actually. To have a really good– a really thoughtful allocation of a person that that young person can work with and alongside. 

Ultimately, I think with Lift the Lid, they had that in each organisation but I still think they needed perhaps one mentor – one person overall.   

Tom: Like so many creative projects, the CEP had key stakeholders and funders to report back to. Given how dramatically the programme had changed over its lifespan, I was intrigued to know how the funders responded. 

Sarah: The funders were incredibly supportive. There were some major changes in terms of two of them leaving early, and bringing in a third one later, but there were also some challenges in terms of the first organisation who was evaluating the actual apprenticeship itself. So I think there was a lot of understanding that this was a process rather than a perfect example that was a finished and polished thing – which I’m really pleased about actually because it shows that hopefully we’ve grown as a CEP in terms of our understanding of bringing on young people, and hopefully we can demonstrate that in the future as well. 

Tom: So there was plenty of learning to extract from the project, but what was it like for the young person? To get more of an understanding of how the programme worked, I spoke to the creative apprentice who came in last minute.

Megan Stisted: My name is Megan Stisted. I work as a creative apprentice between two organisations on the Isle of Wight. For me it’s been really beneficial to have that – they’re both arts organisations but they do quite different things, so I get a nice mixture of experiences. 

I would say the key highlights, overall, would just be having this amazing opportunity to work within these two incredible arts organisations and seeing all the work that they do. In August last year with Ventnor Exchange we set up a new youth project called Brave Island. This is an online platform and we host– every week we upload new opportunities for 14-25-year-olds interested in creative industries living on the Isle of Wight. I've taken a lead on that project and that’s been really exciting and I’m really proud of that – to potentially have the opportunity to make a big impact in some people’s lives, especially young people on the island and providing opportunities in an area where there often aren’t that many. 

Tom: Megan then went on to explain some of the benefits she believes that young people can bring to an organisation.

Megan: Young people the future of what they’re doing. I think it’s important that they’re in– what every organisation does there’s an element of youth voice, they have young people either on the board or working in the organisation. This would just really help change the work that they’re doing, alter the aims and goals that they have, and the outcomes of the projects that they’re working on.

Tom: And it’s true that change can be triggered by identifying needs of young people. Seven years ago, Contact completely restructured how their team worked to better support young creatives end-to-end.

Suzie: That was very much thinking about ensuring that we are joining the dots on those journeys that young people come on with us. So you might start off on a drop-in project, trying something out for the first time, or a project in your local community, but you might go on a journey with us that leads you to becoming an artist that we are commissioning, or producing. So by having one team who do all of those things it's definitely enabled us to see where those gaps are, where those cracks are, and to join up opportunities to make sure that things aren't happening in silo.

Tom: There are some relatively simple considerations you can make when planning a participation project.  Both Suzie and Sarah highlighted an easy thing you could do to increase the engagement of young people at your sessions.

Suzie: A lot of our projects run in the evening, we noticed a long time ago that often a young person hadn't necessarily had something substantial to eat that meant that their engagement in that workshop would be impaired so making sure that we bring food in as much as possible – it was always great. 

Sarah: It's a really good way of just making people feel relaxed, and helping people to just want to talk with you. 

Tom: More broadly though, it probably comes as no surprise to hear that money can also be a huge barrier for engagement, and is something that should be considered early on when planning any youth work.

Suzie: I think there's some fundamentals that exist across everything we do. All our projects and opportunities are free, some of them are paid, and we try and pay young people for their time and their expertise as much as possible and recognising the value that they bring to us as an organisation. People always say, "yeah, but what if they only come for the money?" and I'm like, "Well, that's fine, why do you go to work? You go to work to get paid, right? Like, that for me is not an issue. Once they're in the space, it always moves beyond the money but if that's why they're there, then that's fine with me, they need that money, it's there for a reason."

Tom: Megan was also cognizant of the financial barriers that can prevent a young creative from engaging with the arts . But, she also raises concerns around early career development in the creative sector, and the expectations placed on young people.

Megan: There's lots of financial barriers into working in the arts. It just seems to be a known thing that everyone works for free when they start out. That puts a big barrier on the types of people that can then enter a career in the arts. And, as well, when you're working in the arts I think you can kind of be taken for granted a bit, y'know, doing the roles that nobody else wants to do – getting palmed off to them just because they're young. 

Tom: So perhaps you’ve heard this episode and feel inspired to start embedding youth voice into the work that you do. I asked all three of my interviewees to give some of their top tips for ensuring that effort is a success.

Sarah: On of the tips I think I would give is to actually establish a panel of young people, so not just put the onus on one young person to come up with all the answers, but a small panel of young people who are trusted and who you know have the time and passion, and the energy, to input into your organisation. 

I think one other tip I would give is to make space – physical space – for a young person. Make them feel part of the organisation. Give them the technology that they need and the actual physical desk space that they need to be part of the organisation if they're in that role as a creative apprentice. If it's more part of a an advisory group, then give them space in terms of time. Give them an allocated time to meet together with you and have that really deep conversation. 

Megan: I would just ensure if you're going to bring on a young creative in as a creative apprentice, I'd say it's really essential to have a good training provider. So, for my whole apprenticeship I've worked with Artswork – they've been amazing, I can't praise them enough with the support they've given me and my organisations to have me on board. So I'd definitely say if you're going to bring a young person in the form of a creative apprentice then definitely you'll need a great training provider who has worked with young people before. 

Suzie: Why do you want to do it? Why are you doing it? What's the purpose, what's the motivator? I have come across some organisations where it has been motivated by funding requirements, or because everyone's doing it, so really, really, spend a long time asking yourself that question first. Then, think about whether the whole organisation is on that journey with you. If not, what's the work you need to do first because it also doesn't work if it's one passionate leader at the top advocating for it and everyone else isn't brought in. 

Now I'm not saying everyone is going to buy in overnight. It's a journey, and I think that some people do need to see things in action to really understand the impact of them, or how brilliant it is, but if you're bringing young people in to do that with you, they need to be supported, and they need to know that you want them to succeed, and you believe that they can succeed. 

There is an element of risk, or it will feel like there is an element of risk at least. Start small, I would say, don't try and do everything overnight, and be realistic about what they can really impact on as well. Are they making decisions, or are they being consulted about decisions, are they informing to an extent? I think really think about how much decision-making power they really have. 

I don't think you will ever regret working with young people around decision-making, and I think the diversity of opinion and perspective that they can bring, and the challenge that they bring– and it's the challenge for me that is the best part of this, even though it always makes my job more difficult. 


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 Contact Theatre, the Isle of Wight CEP and Megan Stisted 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.

Contact Theatre

Contact is one of the leading national theatre and arts venues to place young people at the decision-making heart of everything. 

Young people’s leadership and decision making has been central to Contact’s work for the last twenty years. It takes a range of forms, and is embedded across the organisation. Their Board of Trustees has included young people aged 18-25 for over 10 years, and they recently transitioned to having 50% of the Board of Trustees be young people under 30 – including the new Chair of the Board. 

All staff and trustees are interviewed by a separate panel of young people, who write their own question, and hold 50% of the decision making power in all appointments. All staff as part of their annual appraisals are required to talk about how they have involved young people in decision making within their role in the last year.

In addition to this, Contact also runs several youth leadership programmes that support young people to develop and run their own socially engaged projects, businesses and social enterprises. These include The Agency – a project they run nationally with co-partners Battersea Arts Centre – and Future Fires a programme they have been running since 2008.  More info on The Agency and Future Fires.

Most recently young people have been part of the decision making processes for Contact’s £6.8 million capital redevelopment of the building. The young people selected the architects, project management company and contractors.  A young team (named Con:Struct) then worked throughout the process to select design features, colours, flooring, and materials used throughout the build.

Contact is exceptionally proud of the work their young people do. Particular highlights include seeing their young people speak in the Houses of Parliament, and at national and International conferences, about their leadership roles at Contact. They are also buoyed by the number of former participants that become staff members.

Isle of Wight Cultural Education Partnership (CEP)

The Isle of Wight Cultural Education Partnership (CEP) comprises cultural organisations including heritage, arts, libraries and museums, artists and school teachers from across the Island. They also have members from youth organisations, local councils and other interested parties too.

Serving as a catalyst for the Isle of Wight CEP, from 2018-2020 a project named ‘Lift the Lid: On Island Culture’ was delivered, with some ongoing elements. One of the focuses of the project was to ensure youth voice was represented, and to provide career development opportunities for young people through the programme.

This was done through creative apprenticeships. Three creative apprentices were recruited for Lift the Lid, embedded in both Ventnor Exchange and Quay Arts to give a diverse, contrasting, and well-rounded experience of working in the creative sector. More broadly, it allowed young people to develop their creative industry careers, experiencing a variety of roles and responsibilities behind shows, exhibitions and events, whilst also earning. 

The project did run into some challenges, but they were not in vain though, and a lot of learnings are being reflected in a new delivery organisation for wider cultural activity across the Island called The Island Collection CIC. Based on evaluations from Lift the Lid, the Isle of Wight CEP is – governance wise – now fully integrated within the Island Collection as the CYP and Learning ‘wing’, ensuring that the views and ambitions of young people are fully represented within the new cultural developments, which are seeking to secure significant and long term investment for arts, heritage and culture. 

The aim is not only to reduce the ‘youth migration’ away from the island but also to increase inward ‘youth migration’ for employment opportunities within established and new creative industries.

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