By Joy Faulkner-Mpeho*
I have been a youth worker for 12 years, which is my whole adult life! My degree is in youth work and applied theology and I’ve had the joy of working with young people in both rural and urban contexts, spending the last decade working with young people in London.
As a youth worker, one of the things I want to see young people journey towards realising their power and agency. For me, few things can beat the moment where a young person recognises that they have the ability to have a real impact on what is happening in the world around them. Which is why when I discovered community organising, I was excited about doing this work with young people.
If understanding your power is a journey, then I’ve found that when young people are given trained in community organising, it’s like putting up flashing neon signs next to the road. The lessons on power, negotiation and leadership help young people see who they can be and what they can do.
This summer I’ve had the privilege of leading a Citysafe summer school, spending 6 days with 10 young people teaching and learning about community organising. Half of each day was spent learning the theory of organising, and the other half was putting that learning into practice through creating safe havens in Stratford shopping centre.
Here are some of my reflections on organising with young people.
- We don’t have to oversimplify
“My favourite part was learning about the negotiation and it was good practice for what the real world was like.” A- Summer school student
The temptation when doing training for young people is to think they won’t be interested in learning the same things as adults. Important and interesting ideas get watered down in an effort to make them ‘cool’ or ‘youth-friendly.’
In my experience, if a young person is interested in organising, they’re up for talking about some of the complicated ideas that it brings up. You don’t have to change the content, just make it accessible, paying attention to who you have in the room and how they might best learn something new, just like you would if you were working with a group of adult leaders.
For example, when exploring negotiation, rather than create a scenario that was based on their experience for the group to role-play and reflect on, we used ‘The Athenian Melian dialogue’, which is a dramatization of a negotiation that took place during a war in 416BC! The Athenian Melian dialogue is full of complex political and social ideas and written in complex language.
We tackled it by swapping out words that young people wouldn’t know and spending a bit of extra time talking through the context together. The young people loved exploring a context so far removed from their day to day lives, and the life and death nature of the ancient war scenario helped really focus their minds, whilst being distant enough to be really fun too.
In a group aged 11-18 everyone was able to participate, offer meaningful insights and apply the lessons from the dialogue to situations they faced during the rest of the week.
- Experiential learning is important
“My favourite part was getting shops to sign the charter, I felt proud when they did this. My other favourite part was going behind the scenes in Newham’s (council) offices and learning about how things work.” AM- Summer school student
So much of what young people are taught is supposed to be filed away in their minds for the exam at a later point, but we don’t want the lessons of organising to be filed away with GCSE maths!
Keeping things experiential by working on live issues and having opportunities to put things into practice straight away helps young people understand that the methodology really works while keeping things varied and fun.
As I’ve learnt about community organising, I’ve come to understand that it’s a reflective practice, the only way to grow in it is to do it and then reflect on what you did and why it did or didn’t work.
In order to give the young people something to reflect on, we needed to make sure that they did the stuff we were talking about. During the summer school, we took the group to see a knife bin opening, spent time with the Mayor of Newham and invited shops to sign up to be safe havens. Each day there was a challenge to complete and we ended each day with a sense of achievement.
- You have to teach reflection.
“Before I didn’t have the confidence to go into a shop and ask for the manager, now I feel like I would be more confident in speaking to bigger groups of people.” E- Summer school student
During adolescence, and especially in our consumer culture, finding the next exciting experience as quickly as possible is a primary driver, and so for many young people taking time to reflect isn’t instinctive.
In community leadership, it is often the case that you and the relationships you build are the tools of the work, being able to reflect on self and on your interactions is key to developing your practice.
In order to develop young leaders, it’s important to teach reflection alongside the other theory and creating a regular reflective space is a good way to do that.
During the summer school we made a big deal about evaluation, each day we reminded the group why we evaluated and put emphasis on taking time to think deeply about what they had experienced throughout the day and share that learning with others. Prioritising evaluation meant that the group could see their own growth each day and articulate the links between theory and practice themselves.
Without an evaluation, the summer school students might have gone home that day feeling like they’d had a good day, but the evaluation made sure that they knew why it had been good, and how to make the next day good too!
- You don’t get them for a long time
“Thank you for making my summer holidays more fun and helping me learn.” S- summer school student
Young people’s free time is short. With starting a whole new rhythm each September and some kind of time of academic assessment from May, after-school clubs and revision it can be hard for them to find time to do all the amazing things we’re inviting them to do.
It can be frustrating when young people are flaky and unreliable, but often they don’t have the final say over their diaries or priorities, and when they do it’s for the first time and they’re still learning how to manage themselves. Making sure that you make the most of the time you’re in the room with young people makes a difference in making sure everyone gets the most out of what you’re doing.
The Citysafe summer school was great because it was a clear assignment, which the group could see was relevant to them and their peers. They were able to fully immerse themselves in the project even though some of them were new to the idea. Doing 6 intensive days over 2 weeks in the summer holidays gave us time to go deeper with the learning without worrying about the impact on learning time.
Having a clear organising assignment that is deeply in their self-interest is key to young people wanting to participate. Making sure the bulk of the work takes place between November and May, or in late July or August is key in making sure that they CAN participate
“The best bit for me was everything, the whole time we have been here I have learned about general knowledge about myself.” SN-Summer school student
It is really exciting when you get to work with young people who are into the things that you’re into, like social action and community organising, and it can be easy then to think that success for them looks like getting to where you’ve got to.
However not every young person who attended the summer school will be a community organiser one day, but the skills we’ve introduced them to will help them to see themselves as leaders in whatever contexts they find themselves in. The confidence and self-knowledge organising offers young people are important steps on the road to realising your power and agency and can make a powerful difference in a young person’s life, wherever they end up.
*Joy Faulkner-Mpeho is coordinating chaplain at the London Design and Engineering University Technical College’s multifaith chaplaincy. Before this role, Joy spent 12 as a youth worker supporting young people of all faiths and none. Joy is passionate that young people not only fulfil their potential but learn how to use that potential for the good of the communities that they are a part of. As part of that, she is interested in exploring how community organising might work together with youth work practice to support young people’s faith and leadership development.