Walsall Awards Dialogue Session: Inspiring Youth
Guest blog by The Faith and Belief Forum, based on an online event on 17th September 2020.
The award winners for the “Inspiring Youth” category of the Walsall Community Recognition Awards shared stories of resilience, resourcefulness and spirit when they gathered for their online session. These awards are part of Walsall For All’s Community Dialogue Project and they aim to celebrate the important work of local communities in making Walsall a welcoming place for people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures, by highlighting some of the hardworking people who make it all happen.
On 17th September 2020, six of the Inspiring Youth award winners gathered to share experiences of the last year and learn from each other’s good practice.
In attendance was Caroline Crolley of the Green Rivers Centre, a veteran of youth work in Walsall and a trade union activist, who has worked tirelessly for over 45 years to put the community first in local decision making and renewal efforts. A positive outcome Caroline found was that young people from outside Blakenall came to the area to volunteer and wanted to continue doing so when the centre opens again - despite having had some reservations about the area beforehand.
Also gathered was Ibrahim Sohail, a young person from Youth of Walsall (YOW), a youth cabinet for 11-18-year-olds contributing to local campaigns and amplifying youth voices at local services and regional bodies.
Benjamin Williams, the founder of Kicsters, a digital youth club that empowers young people with new skills in audio-visual production, gaming and web design, explained how online-based work can also support with social action projects and with widening horizons of young people. Benjamin said he was moved by “the amount of support from partner organisations and funders to help us adapt focus and reach out”. Kicsters created a virtual youth club, upskilling young people to create graphics and content for websites, as well as learn some DJ'ing, video editing and coding – all skills taught online during the lockdown. Evidence from Kicsters showed that young people were supporting adults to use IT and online learning helped young people and parents to bond and get involved with their children’s learning.
Riz Ahmed also joined from Youth Connect, an outreach and centre-based youth work organisation that provides a space for young people to communicate, explore issues and engage in activities in Walsall. Youth Connect managed to deliver activity packs to homes during the lockdown.
Stella Pettifer represented St Aidans, which has been pushing the boundaries of learning beyond the classroom and has been offering support, mentoring and new experiences for youth in Walsall. They managed to offer financial and other practical support to families affected by the lockdown. Stella recounted how St. Aidans even offered phone credit top-ups for young people who did not have access to computers so that they could stay online and access support during the lockdown.
Sarah Tiffany also joined from the National Youth Agency (NYA), a national body promoting and regulating youth work and a leading charity in the sector. For the NYA going online and extending the reach of their works was a silver lining of the pandemic.
In terms of other success, CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) was deemed excellent during the lockdown, especially as there were people to support throughout.
Challenges and what is needed
There have been many challenges over 2020, most agreed that as so much of youth work is in person, moving it online has created a new set of challenges. It generally takes longer to build relationships in youth work to ensure trust, and in-person contact is ideal.
Ibrahim from Youth of Walsall felt that online learning environments are less supportive and that education has been the hardest hit by the lockdown. The biggest challenge for many families has been transferring education to the home and creating a new routine.
Riz from Youth Connect noted that several areas had limited access to the internet - examples were areas like Pleck/Palfrey/Caldmore- and there needs to be better infrastructure to provide access because if young people don’t have internet, they’ll be more likely to go and connect in person with their friends. This then has an impact on healthcare provisions, infection rates, etc. Riz felt strongly that we take internet and devices for granted which is worrying as so many households don’t have it – there is massive tech inequality between households. Also, the representative from Youth Connect continued that there'll be an increase in unemployment, bereavement, domestic violence and substance abuse as the lockdown progresses, and this will impact on young people who will need agencies to support them.
Sarah from NYA was concerned about the lack of understanding of what ‘youth voice’ is. She also noted that not all young people are tech-savvy - different young people use different platforms. She also felt that building relationships online is that much harder than in person. As a result, they now have contingency plans in place for not being in person, as well as the need to factor in more time to build relationships to adapt to the ever-changing situation.
As Caroline Crolley aptly said at the end: “We’d like to become one Walsall, it’s only with young people continuing this work and taking it forward, we can become one Walsall”.