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What can COVID-19 teach us about working with young people?

By: Tobi Kyeremateng

· Lateral Theory

Outside, there is a slow breeze wrapping itself around the big tree that sits opposite my bedroom window. Every morning, I wake up and stand in the rectangular-shaped sun on my floor, watching the leaves dance back and forth, my body swaying with them like a pendulum. For a moment, and only a moment, everything feels peaceful. The sun is shining as if yesterday never happened, the roads are bare, and someone in the distance has opened the day by blasting Good Days by Sizzla. And in this moment, I forget where the world is. I forget we are in the eye of chaos. I forget that many people are swimming against the tide, unsure of how much longer we can keep this up. When everything feels as if it is on pause and the days clumsily collapse into each other, the line between productivity and simply coping blurs. On days like this, when it feels like all the work we have done – all the work of togetherness and physical connectivity – suddenly becomes redundant, I start to question what worth our work holds in these moments. For those whose work revolves around creating physical connections in spaces of mutual congregation, the concept of how to replicate those connections through the digital sphere grows loud and urgent, and the question of “what do we do now?” feels more like a philosophical cry than a simple ask.

When it comes to working with young people and vulnerable adults, many companies and organisations rely on physical space to create consistent and high-level standards of engagement. For some of these groups, it may be their sole source of community in an open, neutral setting. During Covid-19, many of the people leading these groups have lent in to ask: how do we create innovative methods of engagement, learning, togetherness and community at a time when young people need it most?

The technological test of community is something the arts sector has been nervously edging towards at a snail’s pace, and so has never been necessarily equipped to successfully befriend the digital world. Online courses, Instagram Live performances and Zoom calls have duplicated themselves tenfold in a snap reaction – maybe as a means of continuing to feel useful, or to remind people that we exist, even when the work ceases to.

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However, the feeling of physical marginalisation isn’t new. Segments of society have been enduring isolation for longer than our wider society cares to acknowledge. David Lloyd, Co-Artistic Director of Luton-based company Next Generation Youth Theatre, acknowledges further barriers isolation can bring up. “I was really overwhelmed by the sudden emphasis on online activity. I couldn't help but think of those without the funds or technical knowledge to jump onto web chats.” While most have shifted to digital formations of projects, David was keen to foster creative ways of physically connecting with those around us in the safest way possible. #MyNeighboursAnArtist was born from this line of thinking – challenging individuals to create artistic connections between themselves and their neighbours. From backyard light shows and art exhibitions to solo violin performances, communities have bonded over their love for creative expression. “In a time of physical disconnect, it is vital we continue to build relationships and potentially form new ones. Our country was divided pre-pandemic, and sometimes it takes the worst situations to bring about opportunities to mend and heal.”

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Looking outwards towards a shared, international experience, some groups are using Covid-19 as an opportunity to think innovatively about how young people document their lived experiences at a time where their worlds have been rocked. “From the very start, we realised that the needs of our young people weren't necessarily going to fundamentally change. They would still need our support; they would still need the opportunity to connect with each other, and they would still want to speak out about things that were important to them." Ned Glasier, Artistic Director of North London organisation Company Three recently launched The Coronavirus Time Capsule, a week-by-week response to the pandemic, through the eyes of teenagers across the world. There are many brilliant things about the work Company Three do under Ned’s holistic and caring leadership, which in turn has gifted society many talented individuals over the last decade. This recent project is an extension of the pure, considered work Company Three already do in their physical gatherings. "All of these things link directly with Company Three's mission, so in some ways, it was easy and obvious what we should do – we feel really grounded in our purpose and how we operate. The final part of that mission is to openly share our practice with anyone else working with teenagers who might benefit from it or be able to adapt it for their own circumstances, so we did that too.”

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On a wider scale, ROCKS(written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson) was due to be released in cinemas in April. ROCKS is a stunning coming-of-age film set in inner-city London following the transformative sisterhood of a group of young women. The main cast for the film was gathered through a series of in-school workshops and research and development sessions, where the cast contributed creatively to the development of the film, as well as forming a genuine sisterhood. The creative team behind the film were keen to keep the relationship with the main cast focused and consistent.

“The idea for ROCKS Girls Film Club came from one of the cast members, Bukky Bakray, who was keen to watch, review and chat about films collectively. We wanted to do something that would allow us all to keep engaging in film and to have critical conversations, so we put together a plan for a weekly club where each session would be focussed on film or the process of filmmaking. During this time, it’s very easy to feel distant and isolated, so we wanted to make sure that the team still felt connected. No matter what else is going on, you always know you have somewhere you can be for two hours a week. Watching and talking about film is a great way to get a moment of respite from the madness of the world right now.”

The process of casting ROCKS is one that not only inspires me but looks at a future that combines thoughtful youth engagement with high-quality, large-scale artistic outputs. Prioritising the experiences of young people has been at the heart of the making of the film, and this process lives on, even in the making of a collective digital space.

Cast member Kosar Ali beautifully notes her experience: "For me, it feels exactly the same as always. Nothing's changed – we all have this energy and love together, even if it’s through screens, and that’s amazing. We've all been involved as much as we can and always come with great energy and excitement.” Although it sounds simple, the level of engagement still comes as a surprise to some. Bukky Bakray, who initiated the idea of the film club, adds, “If I’m very honest, I’m shocked at how helpful, exciting and powerful the film clubs have been. I’ve never really been in a space with people where we discuss film to that degree. It’s really exciting hearing other people’s perspectives and how it really does differ to your own. You also pick up cool things you never really thought of. The film club was built by a group of wonderful individuals, so there are a range of film ideas and subject matters brought to the table for discussion.”

Part of Company Three’s vision for the Time Capsule, and Ned Glasier’s vision for the organisation, asks how our future selves can prepare for a changed society. “There's a danger that teenagers get forgotten in this whole thing. Maybe they're not on the frontline, they're not most at risk, they're not key workers, but they are hugely affected by the lockdown – by the disruption to their education, by the loss of the rites of passage that we all know are so important in young lives, by being locked down in spaces where they don't have that much agency. And then, of course, for those whose personal situations and backgrounds mean that the impact of coronavirus is amplified for them – those whose parents have lost jobs, or whose family members have died, or who live in overcrowded homes, or don't have outside space – all these things make the whole situation so much harder, and there's a danger we don't hear their voices. If we can somehow help them be heard, then society might look more carefully at what we're doing to support teenage mental health, to find better ways to offer education to young people stuck at home, to pre-empt the inbuilt bias that might dramatically impact teacher assessment in place of anonymous exams.”

This sentiment isn’t lost on many that work with young people and vulnerable adults. There needs to be a level of engagement that meets young people where they are at and maintains trust at the core of the learning. Reflecting on the ROCKS Girls Film Club, the team adds, “Informal learning spaces are important. We still have objectives and outcomes, tasks you need to do in your own time ahead of the sessions, like the girls would have at school. It really highlights how important learning opportunities that exist outside of the school structures are and reinforces the need for participatory arts youth engagement projects to still continue while we are in isolation.”

There is a lot that could be learnt from this pandemic, not only in how we respond as individuals but also from how others have mobilised to create meaningful experiences. David Lloyd tells me what he hopes people will learn from #MyNeighboursAnArtist: “Real time, in-person art can continue to break down barriers and connect people. It hasn't got to stop right now. It can be accessible – no ticket fee needed, no awkward steps to overcome. I want people to realise that this is an opportunity to reach the very audiences that may never venture out to concerts, theatre pieces or galleries. And yeah, some people might still not like it, but anything is worth a go.

Holding onto the theme of documentation, Ned Glasier urges us to get to know ourselves better. “Documenting your life, piece by piece, through tiny pieces of art, little moments of expression, might just be the best thing we can do to properly understand ourselves and help others understand us. We could have made a video diary, but we're really clear that people around the world should try and make their own too, because within that process there is thoughtfulness, introspection and choice – and all of those things help us to understand who we are.”

There aren’t many words that genuinely capture the wild and rapid decline of 2020 over the last few months. The times feel more than ‘unprecedented’ and ‘uncertain’. They are holding specific communities up by the throat and simultaneously asking us to breathe. They rely on the communities that have been racially and socio-economically marginalised to save the world. The times are full of grief, but amid the havoc, I will continue to turn to Kosar Ali’s words:

"Even in dark times, there’s hope. There’s light. Keep your head up and carry on doing what you love. Have hope these times will soon be over.”


Tobi Kyeremateng is a multi award-winning Cultural Producer. She has worked with AFROPUNK, Bush Theatre, gal-dem, Nike, Ovalhouse, Roundhouse, Samsung, Tate Modern and more, and has produced short films that have premiered on NOWNESS and screened at 180 The Strand: Prada Mode. She is the founder of Black Ticket Project.