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13 November 2014

Thursday 13 November

Last week at the Creative Collisions conference Uniting for Youth, London Youth and Foyer Federation delivered a session on 'engaging the hard to reach'. In this session we took people through a journey of designing an employability programme for a group of unemployed young people aged 16-24.

We gave attendees, including practitioners across the sector, the opportunity to design their own employability programme. First giving a broader remit of designing a programme for young people who are ‘hard to reach’, then giving them more information in two separate stages about the young person they would be working with.

They were asked to amend that programme to suit the young person at each stage. We hoped there would be more discussion around whether or not the services offered to young people are themselves ‘hard to reach,’ rather than simply focusing on ‘hard to reach’ young people such as care leavers, young parents and young people with disabilities.

From an insightful session I would like to highlight two key points that we wanted each attendee to consider:

  • The impact phrases like ‘hard to reach’ have on young people and the importance of focusing on young people's talents and unlocking these
  • Too ‘hard to reach’ can be more applicable to the organisation and provision, rather than the young person

During discussions on these two key points there were a couple of comments made that I would have liked to discuss further, but unfortunately there was not much time. But I feel it is worthwhile to consider them and what this really means.

'Aren't we preaching to the choir here? It would have been useful to find out how others engage young people.'

As a sector we are continually guilty of typecasting young people using phrases that are unhelpful and categorising in a way that we would generally not use in our practice. However the majority of people put their hands up when we asked who used the phrase ‘hard to reach’.

Foyer talks about the self-fulfilling prophecy and the cycle of the words we use and how it affects our beliefs, our actions and in turn how it affects the behaviour of our young people. Very simply if you treat someone as if they are hard to reach, they will act hard to reach. As a sector we do not spend enough time reflecting, on our own difficulties, our own behaviours and our own emotional responses. We need to invest more time in thinking about how we feel and act and how this affects the way we work with young people.

'There are some young people that are disengaged and really hard to work with, and we want to know how to work with them’.

Of course there are young people that are more difficult to engage with, as there are people that are more difficult to engage with. However a change in someone's mind-set has to come from them. By this I mean, you cannot change the young person’s mind-set but you can facilitate them to think of it in different ways. From this session we wanted practitioners to leave thinking about this more.

What you can do is change your own thinking. The way you behave towards any person will have an affect on their beliefs and their behaviour. I think this even includes treating young people in an overly supportive way that makes it difficult for them to realise their sense of agency.

What was interesting is that in both cases a key idea was dismissed. They both missed the idea of actually asking the young people 'What is it you want? What would keep you engaged?’ As much as sharing good practice is useful, there is nothing more useful than asking a young person what is making them feel disengaged. If we take this question away, we are taking away the opportunity for them to be agents of their own change.

What we have most control over is the approach of our own actions and the approach of our own organisations. We might not use certain phrases in front of young people but how much do we champion their talents and push back on those that put young people in boxes? How much do we ask the young person what their solution would be or what is not working? How much do we ensure that if something is not working we offer different options that may not include working with us?

My final take home message is to ask yourself: Are you in a 'hard to reach organisation' trying to reach young people with a huge amount of potential?

Storm Lawrence is the Youth Leadership Officer on Talent Match London and is one of our Inclusion Champions