A series of interviews are being conducted with Circuit staff to unpick conditions that make change happen – on an individual, organisational and sector level. To represent the context of each interview and that of the programme at each site, interviews are being shared in full. The honesty that defines this series is in itself a condition for change.
MC: You said something that sparked my interest when I asked about what is really working – what is positive and successful – and it sounded like you were talking about someone in particular, a young person – and seeing a change in even after a short period of time.
TJ: Yes, when I answered that I did have one young person in mind, who kind of came about through recruiting through the core group and a little bit by fluke. We are doing a partnership with his school, but there are several of the core group who have really developed quite quickly, especially their social skills; they are just growing in self-esteem and confidence. But with this young person in particular, the change has absolutely blown the socks off his parents. And it’s quite a classic thing in youth work, when young people are often limited by the expectations other people have on them. I think that’s the case with this young person, who is severely autistic, has attention deficit and the like, but you would not think it to meet him. He has gone from being the quietest member within a month, to being the most vocal, the most questioning in sessions. He has said to me that he is socially paranoid, that he doesn’t know what to do and he is constantly apologising for things; but you get him doing something and he will forget and is the most active member.
He has gone from being the quietest member within a month, to being the most vocal, the most questioning in sessions.
MC: What kind of things do you get him to do?
TJ: We have been working on coming up with our own little name for the group, which has several benefits. He is very interested in art and art activities, but doesn’t think he has anything to contribute to any conversation around art or outside of that, in fact especially outside of that. When we were coming up with a name, looking at four possibilities and coming up with advantages and disadvantages, he came to me separately and said he was a bit worried about the session. So, one of the things I do is make him aware of exactly of what we are going to be doing with each time so he is prepared for it.
MC: How do you do that?
TJ: We sit down and say what the purpose of the session is – what we are hoping to get out of it – and the sorts of things we will be doing.
MC: And you do that individually?
TJ: Yes before each session. But as soon as we start the session, then we give them a task and you can almost forget that he needs any additional support. He doesn’t really; we do check on him to see if he is ok but he has accelerated at a rate of knots. Like way beyond what we thought we could achieve with that young person in the time that we’ve had with him. So it’s literally been two months that he’s been working with us and the change is unbelievable.
MC: And what are the things that you think have made a difference? Apart from being really clear about the purpose of what you are doing and actually doing something – it sounds like being absorbed within a physical activity is really important…
Giving him the forum to take part in something with his peers, something that he is genuinely interested in and something that distracts him from all the problems and inadequacies that he thinks he has…
TJ: Absolutely, but I think more than that, giving him the forum to take part in something with his peers, something that he is genuinely interested in and something that distracts him from all the problems and inadequacies that he thinks he has. As soon as he starts talking, or getting involved with people of his own age, he forgets that he is socially paranoid, because he isn’t. I said to him, ‘whether you think you can or you can’t, you are right’ and he was like ‘oh wow’ and scribbled that down. Yes, we talk quite a lot. So, I think just giving him the opportunity to work in the gallery with people of a similar age, in an environment that he is not used to. The family are very new to the area, they had to move from somewhere else, and hearing what his mother had to say about the role the project has had in him feeling like this is home already… is humbling.
MC: It sounds amazing. And it sounds like your relationship with him is crucial to that success – be that talking things through, or even understanding that things need to be talked through – and investing quite a bit of time to support him. What do you get from that experience?
TJ: I get what has drawn me to youth work in the first place, really. And the fact that I can still get that, twelve years down the line, it is still there.
MC: Which is?
TJ: Immense satisfaction that the little, relatively little time that we spend with a young person, can have such a massive impact to their personal development and empower them to take control of change in their lives, hopefully.
MC: So what you get from that is seeing the impact of your involvement?
Part of the success in the relationship we have, is to do with the level of communication we have with his parents […] he goes to a special educational needs school, […] it is a very different environment to the one in which he operates within the gallery.
TJ: Yes, and very often in youth work as you well know, you don’t see the fruits of your labors because they’ve moved on and gone; it might not happen until they hit 25 that suddenly the seed blossoms and they are like ‘oh my God that was pivotal’. But we never know. So when you do get those little nuggets of gold, then I think it is really important to hang onto them. And I think we have been really lucky in this young person’s case, that part of the success and the relationship we have, is to do with the level of communication we have with his parents; in reassuring them that I am aware of the issues that can present themselves and making them at ease in handing over their son to this programme. Because, you know, he goes to a special educational needs school, a very very good one, but it is still a very different environment to the one in which he operates within the gallery.
MC: And what are some of the techniques, or principles, from youth work that you are bringing into your role within Circuit?
After that, it is empowering them to make decisions and be able to steer their own development. To increase their awareness of what is happening to them; because that can be the catalyst to an astronomical change in themselves as people. And to increase their abilities, or their awareness of their abilities.
TJ: The most important is developing a relationship with people: a positive relationship. If you don’t have that, I would argue, then you may not achieve anything, no matter how long you work with them. So, despite being the coordinator and trying to step away from delivery, it is something I know I am still good at and it’s why I got into it originally. I love working with people and I love developing those relationships – seeing happy faces. To still do that is great for me, but it has also reminded me that it is worthwhile for the young people that I get to spend time with. And it doesn’t always work like that with everybody. It just doesn’t. And that’s why we have lots of workers, because it increases our ability to create that spark, to get that positive non-dependent relationship with that young person. So that, for me, is the foundation of everything we do. After that, it is empowering them to make decisions and be able to steer their own development. To increase their awareness of what is happening to them; because that can be the catalyst to an astronomical change in themselves as people. And to increase their abilities, or their awareness of their abilities. Because again, whether you think you can or you can’t you are right. So in that young person, that has been a huge shift: he used to think ‘I can’t’ and now he is beginning to think he can.
MC: And if there was someone who was new to, or struggling to develop a relationship with a young person, in this kind of context, what would you suggest to them? What would your tips be?
To almost have no agenda, other than just finding some common ground and having some fun to begin with.
TJ: To almost have no agenda, other than just finding some common ground and having some fun to begin with. Ask questions about that person. Quite often, especially in school environments, school doesn’t really care who you are, you just have to sit and listen. Knowledge is given to you and you have to be ready to absorb it. But it’s a two way street isn’t it? It’s like a sharing process, a bit of an exchange really. You have to be prepared to open up a little bit of yourself in order to expect somebody else do the same to you, obviously respecting professional boundaries. So you have got to be able to open up yourself to expect anyone else to open up to you.
MC: Once you have gone through that stage, once the relationship has been established by having some fun, no agenda and an exchange of learning about each other, what might you do next?
[Self assessments] can make a young person aware of the distance they are travelling. [They] are a really good measuring marker for that young person and also for us as an organisation.
TJ: Something I have done a lot in my previous roles has been to fill out self-assessments with young people. And they are really broad across all lives. We get them to score themselves on how good they are at doing chores, or how they manage their money, how they feel about themselves or how confident they are meeting new young people – quite a comprehensive list – and we try and do that with all young people to begin with. Usually after a period of time, which I don’t think is the same for each young person, we ask them to then review that again. But not to look at the first one until a second duplicate form has been filled out. That process can make a young person aware of the distance they are travelling. So self-assessments are a really good measuring marker for that young person and also for us as an organisation. It’s a good point to start off with and it gives you an opportunity to look at short, medium and long-term goals; then help that young person set those and determine where they want to be in x amount of time. Which is quite difficult for young people, because school expects them to make decisions which dictate the next several years of their lives.
MC: Who is ever ready to make those decisions?
TJ: Exactly, I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
MC: No, nor do I! And if you were to give one wish, to wave a wand and grant a wish to all the other coordinators in Circuit galleries, what would it be?
Remain open to these experiences and be prepared to open up yourself to the people we are working with…
TJ: That’s an interesting question. From a completely personal point of view, my answer would be to remain open to these experiences and be prepared to open up yourself to the people we are working with. Because ultimately, that is the beginning of the relationship we need to achieve some of things I set out to do with young people. Maybe not everybody has the same agenda, but to share. Because once you do share a little bit, what is shared back is – you cant put a price on that.