Is anybody listening?

18 March 2015

Joy writes…

The other day, a young woman came into club with her personal statement for college and asked for my opinion on it. I went through it with her and suggested a couple of possible improvements. She totally ignored my suggestions, which was somewhat frustrating.

That frustration is a familiar feeling for the Urban Hope team. It's not unusual for young people to ignore our advice. We often find ourselves going over old ground – processing with young people the consequences of doing things that we told them weren't a good idea, or of not doing things we’ve recommended.

But however frustrated we get, we know that we are not here to tell young people what to do. Trying things out, making mistakes and learning from them is an important part of growing up. Empowerment, and voluntary participation are two of the core principles of youth work.

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We’re very proud of the achievements of all the young people who come to Urban Hope and of the dedication of volunteers who help us to run sessions each week, offer mentoring support to young people and lend a hand at events. But it’s especially gratifying when those efforts get wider recognition, which is what happened this week when Gemma Bell and Keeley Tims were given awards at the Mayor’s Civic Awards Ceremony, an event celebrating the unsung heroes of the borough. Here’s why they were singled out:

Gemma Bell – It’s no exaggeration to say that Urban Hope has been very reliant on Gemma’s support over the past 15 years. During that time, she has volunteered at countless evening drop-ins, mentored numerous young people, helped to organise dozens of events and raised £17,000 to support our work.

Keeley Timms – At only 16, Keeley has already shown a real commitment to her local community. She was nominated her for the Ben Kinsella award by her headteacher, who was struck by her consistently positive influence on younger students and her support of the more vulnerable among them. On top of regular volunteering at Urban Hope, Keeley was keen to volunteer at a local primary school – and when they initially turned her down due to lack of experience, she bombarded them with emails until they said yes. We’re looking forward to seeing where that fierce determination takes her in the months and years to come.

A big, fat Urban Hope thank you to both these wonderful women for all that they do.

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Safety Matters

17 February 2015

Alex writes…

Over the past few weeks I’ve been interviewing young people for a little publication that we’re putting together about Urban Hope and what happens here. It’s been a real privilege to hear them talk openly about issues like anger, isolation and broken relationships, and how their relationships with adults here help them deal with those things, and conversely, what makes them feel happy and valued, and how they find that here. But the phrase that came up more than any other is this: 'I feel safe here'.

We describe Urban Hope as a project that offers ‘safe spaces, positive relationships and new experiences’. We tend to talk more often about the relationships and experiences aspect of youthwork, and it’s easy to forget that for young people – no matter how self-assured they seem – feeling safe and protected is still absolutely crucial to their wellbeing, and something they value over everything else.

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George the Poet said of himself in a recent interview: "I'm from a community that doesn't often get to represent themselves".

He provides unfamiliar (and sometimes uncomfortable) perspectives on the realities of urban living. His soulful poetry is an incisive commentary on diversity, inequality and injustice – all themes that are reflected in the shared experiences of many of the young people who come to Urban Hope. Check out his work if you haven't already.

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Joy writes…

This term during our Monday evening sessions, we’ve been asking young people to go beyond the short-termism of New Year's resolutions and explore their dreams.

We started by talking about our aspirations in different areas of our lives, and about how the demands that other people and society make of us might get in the way of us achieving them. We considered what a ‘dream body’ really looked liked, and talked about the role of healthy eating and exercise. And we talked about dream holidays and tried food from around the world.

There is a practical goal underlying all this: a number of our Monday evening hopefuls are working towards GCSEs and we’re keen to motivate them. We hope that by having a dream in mind they'll keep working despite feeling stressed or unsure about what the future holds, that they will see doing the best they can in their exams as the first step towards achieving what they want in life.

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Ben writes…

Jumping off bridges, out of planes or throwing myself down snow-covered mountains just doesn’t do it for me. But I can see the appeal – an element of risk, experiencing the unknown, the adrenalin boost you get from doing something edgy and exciting. And sometimes, I get a similar buzz from our drop-in sessions. There have been evenings where the creativity of young people making music has generated a static energy – they’ve exposed their vulnerabilities by singing, sharing storied lyrics and playing their new beats. You can’t predict or prescribe that kind of energy but when it happens it’s exhilarating.

Some of the best youth work here happens in the unpredictable space of interactions between young people for whom life is tough. There are moments of tension in our sessions: young people threatening each other with violence, bitchy comments, concerns that a young person might have a concealed weapon or be carrying drugs. Often, young people turning up here for the first time approach us with hostility and suspicion; they may not have encountered trustworthy adults before. The skill of the youth worker is to work creatively with the vibe in the room.

While it’s mostly the same young people who come along to our sessions each week, they bring different experiences and moods – maybe they’ve had a tough time at school or with a parent, or are hyped up on cans of energy drink. Our role is to establish what’s going on, and then try and work with the grain of the situation to achieve some kind of reflection, insight or learning within the group.

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We will be taking a break between 22nd December and 4th January.

We hope you have a very happy and peaceful Christmas and New Year, and we look forward to seeing you in 2015.

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Joy writes…

Last Monday was World Aids Day and, given the rise in the transmission of HIV and aids in Islington, a good opportunity to talk to some of the Urban Hopefuls about how to protect themselves. It’s also really important that we demystify and destigmatise HIV and Aids by giving them accurate information about what living with the virus means.

Creating safe spaces for young people to explore these kinds of issues is something we work hard at. Talking about sex and relationships can be difficult for young people and adults alike so we used a game, our conversations and Sentebale’s #feelnoshame campaign to dispel myths, answer questions and promote safe sexual practices.

There was a bit of nervous laughter and a few groans of disgust at the start, but after a while everyone relaxed and there were sensible questions asked and facts shared. No one was made to feel embarrassed about what they did or didn’t know, and the young people were really engaged in learning about the impact of HIV and Aids around the world.

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Ben writes…

When I was 16 I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with myself. But I knew I didn’t want to go to school and that I wanted to earn some money. So, I got a job working in the local cemetery cutting grass and digging graves. It was easy to find work because my Dad knew a bloke who knew a bloke…

A year or so later I got another job working for a glazing firm. Again, my dad called his mate who owned the firm and soon afterwards I got offered a job. It was the same for my brother. This is a small insight into the relative privilege of my upbringing; I had parents who were able to provide me with opportunities through their social network.

Many of us in employment have been given a ‘leg up’ by someone in our network, and we’ve sought to replicate this model of using social capital to access work here at Urban Hope. We have been able to provide opportunities for many young people via our extended network of friends, family, volunteers and their contacts. It’s so rewarding to see young people take advantage of those opportunities to use and develop their skills and gifts in what can seem to be impenetrable professions or workplaces.

But, despite all the benefits, this approach sits uncomfortably with me. It's only necessary because there is a systematic narrowing of opportunity for many of the young people we know here in Islington. Their chances of finding employment are limited precisely because they don’t have a dad who can talk to a couple of people and help them find a job, perhaps because he has struggled to find one himself. So I’m torn between the idealism of seeking structural change and the pragmatic approach that we currently use to fight the corner of the young people we know and help them get jobs.

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Urban Hope always celebrates bonfire night; it’s one of many seasonal markers we use to punctuate our year. We do this because we like fireworks, we like a party, and we like bringing people together to foster a sense of belonging.

But there is a bigger picture too. By working with the rhythms of the calendar, young people are invited to see themselves within a broader social context: their friends, family and immediate community are part of a larger local community that, in turn, contributes to a wider society of dynamic relationships.

Playing a positive role in society is an important part of overall wellbeing, and looking outwards is the first step in that journey.

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