Fiona Doring from AWA Partner Impact Arts introduces the Sketchy Youths and other initiatives supporting them to be a listening organisation.

With the realisation that I am now firmly in the middle aged bracket; that similarly, my Board do not share an age range with the majority of people we engage through our work; that 80-90% of the 6000 participants passing through our doors each year and engaged in Impact Arts creative learning projects are under 24 years old; I came to the conclusion that we needed to change how we listened to the voices of the children and young people we work with every day.

Impact Arts’ mission is to tackle the inequalities that exist in Scotland. The people and communities we support are often the most marginalised in society – e.g. affected significantly by adverse childhood experiences, poor mental health, poor educational attainment, living in poverty, disability, lack of services, social and geographic isolation – and often feel as though they are not listened to and have few platforms for ensuring their voices are heard. This only further reflects feelings of low self-worth and disenfranchisement.

So how does an organisation learn to listen effectively to the needs of children and young people and thereby ensure projects and services authentically meet their needs?

Still firmly in the learning stage, but with a strong commitment to make change, Impact Arts’ first step was to appoint a Young Creative Trustee. It felt crucial not to just play lip service, but to ensure that there was a young voice that could influence the organisation’s strategic direction. We needed a young person to join the organisation at the highest level. Artist Rosa Hackett joined the Impact Arts Board and has immediately brought a new dimension to strategic discussions.

Through funding from the Corra Foundation, we were able to employ a dedicated Listening Expert, Beth Farmer. Tasked with creating an organisational listening strategy and a toolkit that will support Impact Arts’ 140 employees, Beth’s role is very much to help us sustain a culture of listening and to create an effective feedback loop between young people and strategic decision makers; Leadership Team and Board.

The Sketchy Youths, our group of Youth Ambassadors, was established nearly a year ago and is now supported by both our Listening Expert, Beth and our Young Trustee, Rosa. It was a challenge to gain momentum at the outset. Many young people coming through Impact Arts’ programmes quickly progress on to college or employment. Trying to pin them down to regular meetings was tricky to say the least. However, now we are a few months in, we have a committed core group with sub branches of the Sketchy Youths in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Ayrshire. Beth has been working to provide them with structure and seeks to empower them in order that they are able to build their own identity and become the voice of our young participants.

Impact Arts has frequently used a co-design approach facilitated by artists and creatives to design new projects and to lead on consultations. The idea that our strategic direction should be informed, even led by our young people has felt challenging at times.

Now at the halfway stage of the two-year Listening project we have some key learnings and reflections:

  1. This is not a one size fits all approach. Everyone has a different way in which they feel empowered to share their ideas and to tell their story.
  2. It’s important to have a safe space for listening to ensure that voices are heard.
  3. Consistency in listening strategies will be key and ensuring our 100 freelance artists come on board with our listening journey.

Our plan for the next year is to create further opportunities for the Sketchy Youths to develop their role in the organisation. They are currently working hard to create platforms for other young people to share their fresh perspectives and ideas. This is a journey though, of which we are at the start, however we are hopeful that the foundations of an embedded culture of listening are now in place for us to build on.