30th October 2019

Exploring youth engagement in the arts!

Engage Works was a conference designed to bring young people from the East of England together with local arts organisations to explore youth engagement in the arts in our region – hosted by the National Centre for Writing and the Young Norfolk Arts Trust. The day opened with an introduction by Lewis Buxton – poet, producer, and freelance creative writing tutor – who set out the framework for the day. We had come together to create questions rather than answers and to make connections. Roxanne Matthews, a freelance workshop leader, then asked us all to begin with a visualisation exercise, in which we recalled a really brilliant example of youth engagement in the arts. This could be a real experience that we had been part of, either as a participant or as an organiser, or it could be a fictional activity that we wished we could have experienced.

With the memories of fantastic youth engagement in the arts fresh in our mind, we were split into three groups – indiscriminate of age or occupation – and began a carousel of workshops, each of which intended to get our creative brains switched on.

The first workshop of the morning was ‘How Not to Write a Poem’. This workshop began with an individual freewriting task before bringing us together in small groups to create poems from the sentences with written. It could have been intimidating to share creative work so quickly with a group of relative strangers, but the communal aspect of poetry creation meant that any insecurities quickly melted away – along with any boundaries we might have started the day with.

The second workshop asked us to consider rural access to the arts. Norfolk is an incredibly rural county, with over 50% of the county’s population based in rural areas (compared to only 17% nationally). We are asked to identify some of the barriers that people living in these areas might face when it came to accessing the arts. Isolation, finance, and motivation were three factors which came up in different forms throughout our early discussions. We worked in small groups to suggest solutions to these problems and collectively concluded that the best way to enable rural access to the arts is by being flexible, showcasing brilliant young role models in rural areas, and going to the rural areas, rather than putting the onus of transport onto those in rural locations.

The final workshop of the morning was another creative activity. Framed around the idea of arts and wellbeing, we were given the time and resources to create a piece of art inspired by nature. Whilst we worked we talked in our groups about the power of nature, art, and the ways in which getting out into the natural world to create art could be beneficial for our wellbeing. Having a creative activity to occupy our hands and focus meant our discussions were loose and meandering, and we ended the session with open minds.

National Centre for Writing hosted the first of two afternoon sessions. Titled “Designing the ‘perfect’ youth programme” the session asked all participants to put themselves into the mind of three fictitious young creatives in order to design a youth programme which would enable them to enact positive change in their lives. When the ideas were collated, we found that regardless of art form, the important factors in a youth centred programme remained the same: ensuring that the barriers to access were low, that the young person had creative agency in the programme, and that the programme had exciting end goals without feeling like an additional chore.

The final session of the day was a look to the future and part of the consultancy currently being undertaken around the city’s creative and cultural offer for the next 20 years: “By 2040, what do we need to make Norwich the best city in which to grow up as a creative person”? We worked together in small groups to build our fantasy city offer – thinking as broadly as big governmental change and as granularly as individual support in schools.

Overall, what stood out from the day was the coming together or arts organisations and young people. We were never separated by our age – instead, we worked communally to ask questions of each other, and even get started on a few answers to those questions.

TEXT BY: Victoria Maitland