Socially Distanced Social Responsibility: Engaging Young People Today

Over recent years organisations have increasingly tried to engage with the digital world, but who would have thought that a global pandemic would be the thing to turn our practice upside-down?

To the world, and its young people, 2020 was a year of change and instability; rules changed seemingly minute by minute. Life as we knew it was altered, and nobody knew how long for.

In an era of disrupted education, social distancing and lockdowns, it is imperative that young people are supported to have a meaningful voice; but practice needs to be change.

Forays into video conferencing tools and an often-sporadic social media presence are no longer enough. Some were asserting that everything we previously knew about youth engagement was about to be turned on its head. Or was it?

At its core, engaging young people over the internet is not dissimilar to engaging young people in person. You wouldn’t jump straight into doing work with a group having only met them 5 minutes ago, so why do this over a video call?

In a digital world, icebreakers and games may need to be adapted, but this doesn’t make them any less important. I’m sure many adults relate to the feeling of being “Zoomed-out”; young people are not any more immune!

In a similar vein, I’d like to think that we would never hold an event on the top floor of a building with no lift access – so why would we hold a digital event when our attendees may not have a device capable of hosting video-conferencing software or have a reliable internet connection?

Yet the issues that young people have in the forefront of their minds has changed as a result of the pandemic. The Make Your Mark 2020 results are a particularly interesting read.

Make Your Mark allows young people aged 11-18 in the UK to vote on issues that are important to them, and 2020’s results speak loud and clear. A fear of domestic violence was prominent, as was concern about homelessness, and many feel scared about their future employment or educational opportunities. After a year of feeling like their lives were in some ways out of their control, we owe it to young people to champion their voices in everything that we do moving forward.

Young people as a whole are not any less enthusiastic about engagement, but we need to continue to adapt our practice to fit our ever-changing world and the unique challenges it throws at us.

In many ways, the pandemic has given us the digital wake-up call we needed. Now we need to ensure that we do not leave people behind, for to engage with young people in a socially distanced and socially responsible way we need to consider the needs of all.

Milo Dwyer works with Youthfocus NW, and was a contributor to the recent ISR webinar on How to Do Socially Distanced Social Responsibility.

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How to Stay ‘Engaged’ at a Distance: Youth Work and COVID-19

Youth work is all about engaging with young people, engaging them because it is what they want and exploring things that they are interested in. For many, the relationship with their youth worker is the only one where they’re recognised in their own right. Recent research has shown that two million young people need such direct support. So how have youth workers continued to give that support during this time of social distancing?

The overwhelming response has been to pivot online. A monumental effort has been put into holding meetings, debates, competitions and one-to-one sessions over PCs, laptops, tablets and smart phones. The degree to which this has been successful is still unclear. There is anecdotal evidence that levels of engagement are dropping with some young people not joining in online at all. On the other hand, the digital offer seems to suit those for whom physical engagement was always tricky, for example young people in rural areas with transport challenges, and those with disabilities. What we have learnt is what we always knew; that relationships are fundamental to youth work, and where there is a pre-existing relationship online contact has largely been maintained. There have been many hurdles to overcome, not least safeguarding and risk adverse local authorities.

Youth work hasn’t completely disappeared from our streets. Some buildings, in one or two areas, are very slowly being opened up for one-to-one sessions for those young people deemed to be the most vulnerable. Detached work, going out and meeting young people where they are, is still happening. It is now, though, more from a safeguarding perspective, finding out why young people are out, whether they are aware of and adhering to the lockdown guidelines, whether they need support…physical, economic or mental.

For some in the sector the move online is long overdue and they point out we are way behind our European colleagues. Others worry it will take away from the face-to-face contact that has been the key feature of youth work for so long. Such questions about what youth work should look like in a post Covid19 world are starting to pre-occupy youth workers. Many of them work in local authorities, charities or the voluntary sector, all of which face a hugely uncertain future.

Elizabeth Harding is the former CEO of Youth Focus NW, she is a Visiting Fellow of the Institute for Social Responsibility, and now a freelance consultant with a focus and interest in youth work.


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What Makes for Good Youth Engagement?


This public seminar, the latest in the ISR ‘Good Society’ series, took place on 25th September 2019. It brought together a diverse range of people – from youth workers to foster carers to representatives from energy companies – to think about how we might engage and listen to young people more in our working, and indeed personal, lives. Stuart Dunne, Chief Executive Officer of Youth Focus NW, and young activist Jess Leigh, shared their extensive experiences with us and posed some challenging questions.

Stuart, who has been working with children and young people for over twenty years, began by telling us about some of the work that Youth Focus NW is involved in, its emphasis on youth voice and the provision of spaces for young people to get together and discuss issues that are important to them. Stuart challenged the long-running societal assumption that young people are ‘lazy’ and ‘apathetic.’ There are more young people than ever who want to be involved in making decisions about the world that will impact on their lives for many years to come. Given that we have the theoretical knowledge about the importance of involvement, and the policies and procedures in place which should enable this, Stuart asked why it isn’t happening more. Why are we not involving young people as much as we could when there are so many benefits to be had from doing so?

Jess Leigh gave a stirring speech about the impact her involvement in youth voice has had on her life. It has seen her through some dark times and taken her to some places she had never imagined going, including the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Speaker’s House. Jess reminded us about how the global climate strikes of the previous week, in which millions of young people from around the world had participated, had been started by one girl with a vision: ‘We are a generation of changemakers and dreamers,’ Jess claimed. Jess made suggestions about how we as adults might help young people in realising their dreams. We need to engage, inform and support them, reminding them that they need to take care of themselves as they strive to achieve their goals, and encouraging them to learn from their mistakes rather than being stymied by them.

The audience members were encouraged to think about our own childhoods and about times when decisions were made about our lives that we had no say in. So many of us could relate to those feelings of powerlessness that arose from this, and far fewer of us could recall times when we had been involved in decision-making as children. This proved a powerful way of understanding the importance of listening to children and young people, and it sparked some fruitful discussion. We thought about ways of capturing the voices of those young people who were particularly marginalised and disengaged, and also about ways of ensuring that as many people as possible get to hear the voices of young people. At the end of the session, lots of contact details were swapped and people left with ideas about how they might apply some of the learning from the evening.

Dr Victoria Foster
ISR Associate Director (External Networking)
Senior Lecturer in Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Edge Hill University


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