We are Hot Chocolate Trust (HC) – a grassroots youth work organisation smack bang in the centre of Dundee. For nearly twenty years, we’ve been growing a community with alternative culture young people (emos, goths, misfits – their words) who hang out in the city centre.
Since our first interactions with the young people back in 2001, listening has been at the heart of what we do…
Who are you? What are your stories?
What are your hopes? fears? needs? ambitions?
What do you want to do? What can we build together?
These questions continue to be the bedrock of the work we do.
We firmly believe that the young people are the experts of their own experiences, and that their voices must be at the very heart of both our everyday, and strategic, practice.
For that reason, the youth workers at Hot Chocolate have a commitment, wherever possible, to step aside in order to amplify the voices of the young people themselves. What follows below are a number of different young people’s voices:
Listening to individuals.
What does it mean for HC to listen to you?
“I never really felt listened to before. But here I get acknowledged with everything I say. It feels like I’m accepted and not judged. That I can say anything I want and no one will think any less of me. Now my voice is heard and respected.”
“I’ve come to trust you through different experiences over the years, and I know I can be open with you. We’ve had plenty of deep chats before, and I just feel that freedom of speech with you. There’s no judgement. If you were a randomer, would I hell have said half the things I shared with you. ”
“I was really confused about my sexuality. But I found this was a really safe place to be myself. The love I experienced from the community here helped me feel more comfortable and gave me confidence to tell my family. And my family now love me even more.”
“I was so worried. It was my first offence for breaking and entering, and I knew I didn’t really belong in jail. You guys helped me a lot. You wrote character references, shining more light on my positive attributes. And you came to court with me which was really comforting. I’m not misunderstood here. I feel safe to speak here. I’m much calmer now, and I know I’m capable of achieving things in life.”
“After we spoke, I felt lighter. When you speak to people about the hard stuff, it means it’s not just all on you. Someone else is helping you carry that now.”
Listening to the unspoken.
It’s not just about what’s verbalised though. Listening happens with all the senses:
“I’d walk in and you’d just know that something was up. So you’d say: what’s up? You just knew.”
And by proactively seeking out the voices that are sometimes harder to hear. Like through our ‘census’ – a highly sensitive anonymised survey, asking the young people about the often hard realities of their lives:
“I’m so glad you asked me those questions. A lot of bad stuff has happened in my life, and no-one’s ever asked me about it. But I want to talk about it!”
“I’d like you to go more in depth with my issues. I don’t find it easy to start conversations about them, so they just build up and get worse.”
Listening for wider impact.
We are deeply committed not just to listen in a way that benefits individual young people, but where their voices are amplified in a way which can bring wider systemic and structural change – to our community, and beyond:
“HC’s not like other places. We decorate. We decide what happens. We fix stuff. We recruit staff. It makes it out own.”
“For once, young people spoke and have been heard. Normally we’re asked questions, but it feels like no-one’s really listening. But what I’ve said has actually gone somewhere and will actually make a difference this time. I feel pleased that we’ve been taken seriously, and that HC as an organisation has been bigged up in parliament.”
Young person, reflecting on a public health action research project, which helped change legislation
“It felt like she [a visiting MSP] really listened to us. The way she sat forward in her seat, the questions she asked us, the attention she paid. I’ve never met a politician before, but it felt like she understood what we were saying. That feels good, to be heard by someone that has the power to fight for us.”
“It was incredibly useful to meet the three girls who agreed to talk to us. We were so impressed by how they explained the issues they had encountered in such a calm and confident way. It helped us gain important insights into some of the issues that should shape our thinking around community support. That one meeting was more useful than a hundred in St Andrews House.”
Civil Servants from the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Division, Scottish Government
Whilst Hot Chocolate has always taken our listening practice very seriously, The Listening Fund (Scotland) has helped us reflect in a deeper way and has pushed us to develop a more radical approach. To listen well requires conditions where young people feel safe to speak. These conditions do not happen by accident, but through thoughtful and deliberate consideration to issues of power, silence, consistency, authenticity and collaboration within relationships.
We also believe that to listen well is an act of justice. The young people involved with Hot Chocolate have much to be (justifiably) angry about, given the hardships and experiences they too often face. Their stories need to be heard by people in power – key influencers, decisions makers, policy makers. It’s only by listening well at this level will more substantial societal change happen, to improve the outcomes for young people in Dundee and beyond.