Reflecting, tallying, planning… Ensuring our integrity in strengthening the seams of community in our youth programme

As we finalize our register for our Christmas Holiday programme (offering 44 sessions for youth), Significant Seams is also tallying up: this year we have so far delivered 159 sessions to 46 young people. In one programme 80% of attendees were either known to CAMHS, had a child protection order, at risk of exclusion, or classed ‘children in need.’ In another, an alarming percentage were known to be actively self-harming. Along the way, with the support of innovation funding, we have cultivated new alliances into being between five small organisations. Each are likely to struggle with the requirements of statutory contract requirements on their own, and yet, have ‘social’ models of delivery that enrich the impacts of programmes greatly. These organisations are great at their core remit, plus they have the trust and relationships with community that lead to exceptional outcomes for the young people they work with. 

With this impact in mind, we have explicitly worked to bring mid-Devon ‘Creative Health’ organisations interested in working with youth people together in a series of events – to together explore common challenges, shared ambitions, and even heady aspirations. These conversations have so far achieved the participation of ten organisations in and around Crediton, with several more now asking to be part of forward conversations. More excitingly, these activities helped foster new projects (that we are not part of) into existence. 

In under six months one of those heady ideas was transformed into a giant dragon-shaped outdoor amphitheatre co-created from tyres, imagination and creative hard graft – ready for theatrical and musical productions (coordinated by Turning Tides and Devon Art Tuition, two groups previously unconnected to one another).  The dragon amphitheatre nestles into an embankment and encircles a natural stage. Turning Tides welcome enquiries about partnering to use it ! Other outcomes include a raised pollinator garden tended by young people with the help and guidance of an older generation of committed environmentalists. A number of other new projects are being developed and joint funding bids are emerging. 

Also emerging is trust and transparency about the challenges and often precariousness of the work in the community. In a community where a substantial majority of organisations draw on volunteer labour, financial challenges are exacerbated by social ones. Perceptions and misunderstandings, feelings and aspirations can in fact win the day in hard decisions – and in fact, logic often belies the existence of some of the most beloved projects. 

More directly affecting our work, Significant Seams has come alongside an organization expressing a keenness but practical caution about engaging with youth (Sustainable Crediton). Partnership working has enabled them to provide a youth aspect to projects without the sole weight and responsibility of safeguarding, pastoral care, and other considerations that responsible youth work brings. The approach is also supporting capacity development, providing our compatriot organisation space to grow their consideration of youth engagement, develop policies and collective agreement on ways forward, and address the inevitable, organisation-specific stumbling blocks. Their process is prompting us to reflect about ours, and find words and case studies that offer insight into our work for audiences beyond the ‘early adopters’- those who naturally ‘get-it’ and queue up to be part. Together, we have directly provided 6 events for young people and established a pathway with the Duke of Ediburgh programme at QE, and a relationship with the regional Scouts. We intend six more events.

For Significant Seams, this way of working has also downplayed ‘vulnerabilty’ and the real risk of stigma following one’s choice to engage with our support. No one wants to feel there is a flashing neon light associated with their activities that says, “I feel vulnerable,” least of all a self-conscious, wanting-to-be-world-wise teenager. Truly innovative support is integrated, and part of how a community interacts and lives. But how do we create this? How do we attract a truly integrated group of participants in activities but ensure personalised support for the more vulnerable? How is this done in a way where the needs of one aren’t perceived to distort the experience of the whole?

As a creative organisation, we are unabashed in imagining a profound culture shift – in community, in schools, in local organisations. We imagine creativity, reflection, and mutual care leading to a more considerate, trauma-informed, connected and supportive community. Our work builds from social foundations and shared interests, not from vulnerability or unfortunate circumstances. In practice though, we, and others in our sector, tend to find ourselves marginalised as those who benefit most from our approach, or perhaps have time, or make time because of need, sort of de facto shape how others see us. The organisations which take this approach can become a bit ‘stuck’ by perception, and others keen to offer creative health activities, become wary of this potential pitfall. 

Further, we’ve observed that leading ‘creative health’ organisations are often a bit maligned for speaking uncomfortable truths, daring to view the world from the perspective of someone who is struggling, rather than those in positions of power. The passion that draws participants to them also has the potential to push others away. 

In July we hosted a ‘walking meeting’ of Creative Health organisations interested in youth mental health, touring Turning Tides Four Mills site and sharing challenges, aspirations and allowing new collaborations to blossom.

That said, this innovation project has enabled us to come alongside health, education, statutory, and youth workers too. Interestingly we have found this MUCH harder. Targets and tick boxes create efficiency, but at a cost of connection and trust. Official feedback loops to our areas of work are inconsistent, if there at all. Nonetheless, our empathy for individuals in so-called positions of power has increased: the weight of responsibility, the scale of human challenges that pass through their frame of reference, the pace at which they are expected to work, the deep desire to make the world a better place that led them to their chosen field are all extraordinary.

However, time to talk as humans, to connect over the ideals, to share human experience feels minimalised and actively discouraged. Increasingly information management policies discourage replying to emails, to acknowledging one another. Time has become too precious. Endorsed and allowed moments of gathering seem to be strictly controlled, and positivity, rather than truthful assessments, seem to be expected- perhaps as a collective coping mechanism to quite challenging conditions.

Here lie the ‘seams of community’ that we are so very interested to strengthen. There are cultures and ecologies of communities within communities with shared concerns but very different methodologies. There are complementary strengths and weaknesses. There is lack of understanding on how each can help the other.

In strengthening our depth of understanding of the myriad of people and systems full of good intentions in this space, we have grasped ‘glimmers’ and faced down some of our own ‘triggers,’ and helped new opportunities that meet the criteria we set for ourselves: to empower, entrust and inspire young people to become active and creative citizens who lead in ensuring their own wellbeing. In this we have also done a range of 1:1 work with young people that has helped them take bold next steps for themselves.

16 year old Molly Brice Nye has overcome a range of personal challenges and with our 1:1 support was the youngest artist in September’s Devon Open Studio event. 

As we prepare to enter another year, we are:
• Collaborating with a project instigated by QE school: A Celebration of Youth, to promote the range of activities and opportunities in and around Mid-Devon
• Hoping to renew HAF funding with several new partners
• Planning a youth exhibition of artwork with Crediton Arts Centre and the Primary Care Network
• Scheduled to deliver a further three months of integrated activities with Sustainable Crediton
• Talking with partners about instigating a) A Crediton Creative Health Forum, b) collaborative communications for youth programming c) a revamped Craftivism programme, and d) new partnership based youth employability-mentoring and volunteering opportunities.

We are  profoundly worried about the health of the youth services sector, just as we are also buoyed by the range of opportunities that are around. The capacity and goodwill abound, but with it, responsible concerns, and caution about taking on more than can be sustained. The cost could be tragic. That said, we have models of capacity development emerging, and pockets of high skills and outstanding practice. Going forward the question remains, how can the creative health and youth orientated community and voluntary sector find an integrated and supportive place that reduces the burden on health and education colleagues, moving us all towards the kinder, trauma-informed community that everyone, not just artists, want to believe in.