14 May 2015
I know all the words to the song ‘Ignition-Remix’ by R Kelly. So do the 31- and 25-year-old volunteers in the kitchen singing. The 14-year-old boy dancing with a pool cue when he thinks no one can see him knows them too, as do the two 16-year-old girls who are ‘cutting shapes’ in the full knowledge that everyone is watching.
I’m not suggesting ‘Ignition’ is an especially life-affirming song; the lyrics don’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny. But there’s something about that track that gets everyone moving and singing. Every Thursday for the last six weeks we’ve had it on our playlist (along with Rihanna’s ‘Pon de Replay’, ‘Flowers - Sunship Mix’ by Sweet Female Attitude, and ‘All I want’ by Mis-Teeq).
The soundtrack to each session matters: loud, upbeat music makes the halls feel full and busy even if there aren’t that many people around; chilled out house music creates space for chatting; aggressive rap puts people on edge (so we avoid too much of that). Our current Thursday night playlist unifies people. It gets them singing and dancing, and laughing together.
Part of our job is to cultivate an atmosphere in which we can do youth work. We make deliberate choices about most things, and music is one of them.
13 May 2015
Working with young people can be quite an emotional rollercoaster: excitement, frustration, annoyance, pride… they all play a part. When a young person comes to see us for the first time, we have no idea of their backstory. Our approach is always to be friendly and welcoming and show a genuine interest in them.
Young people often aren’t that friendly back. There can be a lot of hostility at the start: awkward conversations that feel like they drag on for hours, times when a young person calls you ‘moist’ or just walks off leaving you sitting on your own. But those situations offer windows of opportunity: each one gives you tools to be better prepared for the next conversation. It can take weeks or months, sometimes even years to make a breakthrough.
That breakthrough might just be smile or being asked how your weekend was, or it might be a when a girl feels comfortable enough to eat something at club after months of helping with food preparation, or a boy finally gives you his real name and starts to talk about what he wants from life. Big or small, those breakthroughs are hugely satisfying and full of hope.
Last night was Ben and Gemma's Urban Hope send-off, and the halls were full of people who’d turned up to celebrate all that he and Gemma have done over the years to make Urban Hope the community it is today. Adults (some now in their 30s) talked about how their lives had been changed by the support that Ben had offered; there were tears as one young man told us how Urban Hope had given him a place to belong to, a family… and there was a lot of laughter and eating.
Here's an extract from Ben's speech. It sums up rather nicely what Urban Hope is all about:
“We started small, and as we grew we called it Urban Hope. We sometimes call ourselves a project or a charity but Urban Hope is not this great fancy organisation, really we’re little more than a movement, a community of relationships. And the special thing is that these relationships help bring kids up in this area. They help people find jobs, find hope, go on trips to the countryside and roll around in mud, learn to sing and play football, enjoy each other’s company, and get help with homework.
Urban Hope is about the 1,400 young people who’ve been part of it over the years, who’ve put their names on a piece of paper and said ‘include me’. It is about the 18 members of staff that we’ve had so far, and the hundreds of volunteers and the community of support we have around us. My heart is full of gratitude to all of you for sharing the journey over the past 20 years as we’ve tried to figure out how to do life together.”
24 April 2015
I've been sorting through my files and have found all sorts of long-forgotten nuggets, one of which was a note from a few years ago based on a conversation I’d had with three 15-year-old girls about mentoring.
Their school had set them up with mentors, but they didn’t rate them at all. As mentoring is central to the work we do with young people, I was keen to find out what they thought made a good mentor. Here’s what they said, based on their own experiences:
1. Help us with our problems at school (advocacy)
18 March 2015
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.
12 March 2015
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.
17 February 2015
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.
4 February 2015
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.
26 January 2015
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.
19 January 2015
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.