I was delighted to be made Impact Arts Listening Expert in August 2019, not only because they were an organisation I had longed to work for but because the role combines my artistic facilitation and project management skills as well as my passion: working with children and young people.
Impact Arts is based in Glasgow and is an established but agile arts organisation which uses the arts and creativity to enable and empower social change. It considers the arts as a positive tool for change and works collaboratively with children, young people, older people and communities to achieve this. It facilitates a broad range of artistic and employability programmes, exhibitions, performances and events across Glasgow, Edinburgh and Ayrshire which has given me the exciting opportunity to travel around and meet staff and young people in all of these areas.
The goal of the Impact Arts listening project is to embed a structured process of ‘listening’ across the organisation, allowing better understanding of the views of its community, and providing a platform for them to share their voices, and influence the services which are offered to them. Additionally, to raise the profile of listening within the organisation, the importance of it and to create a cultural shift in its understanding of listening.
I lead The Sketchy Youths, Impact Arts’ group of past and present participants which form the youth ambassadors. The group has grown in number from 2 at the end of October 2019, to 9 currently, with representation from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Ayrshire. Since taking over as lead, I have provided the group with the structure to enable them to work through foundational steps; writing individual biographies, creating a page on the Impact Arts website and agreeing on a group manifesto.
Sofia Akram, founding member of the Sketchy Youths, summarises her vision for the group:
“I believe the Sketchy Youths can be a place where young people can learn about the workplace, learn essential skills and build confidence. It doesn’t only have to be a group of people with ideas. I simply believe Impact Arts has the capacity and foundation to make that happen in the future if they want it. I believe that young people would greatly value this group and the opportunities it can give.”
As a result of the lockdown the group has been forced to switch to remote working, now meeting monthly as a whole and keeping in touch in between times. The advantage of this situation is group members who may not have physically met up are now able connect with each other from their own homes. However not all of the group have taken to this way of working, so some flexibility has been adopted to maintain contact via various platforms including phone, Facebook, What’s App and email.
The Sketchy Youths have been consulted so far on project names, programme planning, and evaluation methods and most recently on a potential future funding application. We involved one member of the group, Kyle Cleary to give feedback specifically on a project idea which needed to address issues or challenges arising from the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis. Kyle met with the development team for this discussion which proved to be a fruitful one. Garry Donegan, Impact Arts’ development manager shares his thoughts about involving one of the Sketchy Youths in this consultation session:
“[The session gave a] really good steer on the mix of virtual and face-to-face contact; types of activity; great insight in to how some of Kyle’s peers might be dealing with the current situation and future concerns; and how education is perceived (particularly, anything focussed on “qualifications” too greatly).”
The process of involving young people in consultation appears to be win-win; it empowers the young people by offering them a space to get their voices heard, as well as providing critical feedback to the organisation, in this case in pre-project planning. This is an area of development for us, we are working towards consulting young people on a regular basis and are designing a process to enable this.
The lockdown initially provided a good opportunity to work on documentation so I used this time to draft our Listening Policy, with a view to finalising the content during the second year of the project. The policy sets out Impact Art’s approach to listening, with sections outlining active listening practice, monitoring and evaluation processes used within the organisation and the importance of giving the Impact Arts community a voice. It is intended that new employees will be introduced to the policy, along with relevant training so that their approach to listening is aligned with Impact Arts’ from the off.
Our team of Cashback to the Future tutors recently joined us to deliver our summer programme and I created a set of training materials referencing the listening policy, for a dedicated training session around listening. There was an opportunity for discussion and during this we agreed on an approach to capture qualitative feedback throughout so that we can not only give our participants a voice, but can ensure that we can continue to make our projects the best they can be.
I have also created a Listening Infosheet, co-designed by the Sketchy Youths which sets out a simple active listening exercise which can be used for discussions with participants, between colleagues and managers alike and intended to be printed out and kept at the delivery locations (in the future).
The Sketchy Youths have had visits from board chair Jim Sweeney and Impact Arts’ director Fiona Doring in recent monthly meetings. These were great opportunities to meet senior figures in the organisation, to understand their roles and for asking questions. Rosa Hackett, Impact Arts’ youth trustee helps to support the Sketchy Youths meetups and has already created a strong link between the group and the board.
Reflecting over the first year of the project, there have certainly been some challenges, which I know other partners with the fund share. Prior to my role being created, programme delivery was definitely prioritised over listening – understandably since this is the core business of the organisation. Having a person dedicated to listening is a must in order to move forward with embedding listening into the organisation and working towards young people leading consultation and attending board meetings.
One of the biggest challenges we face as an organisation now is to remain aligned in our approach to listening. Working remotely means that we need to go the extra mile to both stay in touch and share updates. However, what I see at Impact Arts is a united team of staff and tutors, led by a creative and empathetic management team who have pulled out all the stops to switch to remote delivery of most of its programmes. We are learning together with our participants how to adapt to this new way of working and it is an ongoing process but one which is benefiting so many vulnerable people.
In conclusion, we Impact Arts want to ensure that all our participants feel heard and listened to; and that they are supported to articulate their views and opinions – not only what is going on in the outside world. We want to extend this offer of listening to all the people with which we engage, however we make this possible. We are at the beginning of a longer process to developing our listening practice but I believe we have made the foundational steps to be successful.