18th January 2019

New Horizons Conference – Engage!

HANNAH GARRARD. Throughout my career as a youth worker and then a programme manager for projects with young people—including Engage! Young Arts Professionals—it has always been the young people who have made those projects a success: their energy, commitment and ideas, so I was delighted to be asked to chair a panel discussion at the new Horizons conference on the topic of inclusion of young people in the arts entitled: How can we give young people more agency in our programmes and organisations, placing them at the centre for their creative journey?  

I’ve often heard young people I’ve worked with refer to themselves as “the problem”. I’d always try and flip the thinking, and suggest that they actually offer solutions to problems – making services and projects function better for those who need them, making changes to a society that isn’t working for young people. This is what agency means to me in this context.

Hannah Garrard chairing the panel discussion at the Garage.

I was curious to know if young people would be included in the panel discussion, and was pleased to hear they were. I was joined by Ruby, 18, a member of the Norwich Youth Advisory Board and James, 21, from The Garage’s Youth Forum. They are both extremely knowledgeable, understanding the challenges and highlights of inclusion. It was these guys who gave the conversation real substance and meaning. Alongside them was Paul Webb, youth work services manager for the young person’s charity, MAP, based in Norwich, and Kavina Upadhay, Learning and Youth Support manager at The Roundhouse in London—a dynamic arts venue that has its own youth advisory board.

Both professionals are experienced and committed youth workers who understand the true value young people bring to the services they are engaged in. All of us have worked with and alongside young people who face challenges in their lives, have felt excluded from society and are trying to figure out their place in it. During our conversation myself, James, Ruby, Kavina and Paul agreed that including young people’s thoughts, opinions and voices makes services better—that inclusion isn’t a burden, but an asset. Meaningful participation of young people gives the stamp of quality and authenticity to the work.

We took questions and comments from the audience; a range of professionals all working with young people in different settings. Together we made a ‘manifesto for change’—a kind of checklist of what we should be doing in order to give young people more agency: being flexible in our service and building in time for discussion –particularly for those with physical and learning needs; not assuming that one young person speaks for all by seeking a diverse range of voices; keeping in touch and regularly updating young people. 

Our panel followed the young person’s panel in the morning, and it was great to hear two Young Arts Professionals, Maud and Mathilda, talk about inclusion from an Engage! perspective. Consequently, finishing this article with a quote from Mathilda feels like the appropriate ending: “We’re valued not just because we’re young people, but because of what we bring.”