Reflections on a co-research project into civic activism – nothing about us without us!

Reflections on a co-research project into civic activism – nothing about us without us!

Reflections on a co-research project into civic activism – or put more simply – nothing about us without us!

This blog is a collaboration between young people and adults from the Resilience Revolution’s pilot in Blackpool.

Time for some news about how things are going with the exciting new ‘Nothing about us without us’ project that a group of us including Boingboing, Brighton Uni and the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice (CRSJ), Queen’s University Belfast and youth co-researchers from Blackpool, Cornwall and Newham, were lucky enough to win funding for in September 2020.

The ‘nothing about us without us’ project has been set up to test a hunch that being involved in campaigning and activism can improve young people’s mental health. Why do we have this hunch? Honestly, it’s not just because our boffin chums at the CRSJ keep dumping books on our (currently virtual) desks screaming (the books, not the boffins) about important links. Those links they say (the books and the boffins) are between getting involved with things that matter in your community and good mental health. We are convinced of this too and have learnt a few things from the books during Covid 19’s most dull moments. But mostly we’re convinced  because we’ve experienced it ourselves through activism alongside other young people, parents, and carers as part of the Resilience Revolution (RR). The RR is a whole town approach to addressing the mental health needs of young people, and we’re really proud to be co-leaders of the first pilot in Blackpool.

Feeling incredibly lucky to have the research council’s dosh, what we needed was a project plan. Our first job was to put together a group of co-researchers.  In the RR everything we do is co-produced which means that young people (and parents/carers) work alongside academics and practitioners as co-leaders – or in our case co-researchers, as this is a research project. So, when we were writing the bid, we sent a shout out to our HeadStart pals in Newham and Cornwall to see if young people in their projects were interested in joining in on exploring our hunch. We also were keen for them to share opportunities to take part with young people across the land…Well in Newham and Cornwall, let’s not get too carried away…

Something that’s really important to us is making sure that those of us who are young people facing multiple systemic disadvantage are right in the centre of what we do. ‘Facing multiple systemic disadvantage’ means young people who face greater challenges than most because the system is working against them rather than for them. Routinely thinking about young people at the unfair end of the unequal society we live in is something we call using our inequalities imagination. This is a term we’ve picked up from Professor Angie Hart and her mates in the Boingboing and CRSJ community. It’s just one part of the social justice approach to resilience building they call Resilient Therapy which puts action to address inequalities right at its core.

Our awesome funders for the nothing about us without us project
Photo of a workspace for the zines blog

To set the foundations stones for our project, we knew it was really important to spend time building relationships and getting to know each other. The only fly in the ointment was the minor issue of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Lockdown measures thwarted all our well laid plans to travel the length and breadth of the country in our intrepid co-research minibus. We know we had said in our bid that we’d experiment with digital technology, but this was not what we had in mind! So, armed with lots of how-to videos for Microsoft Teams, we started to hatch cunning plans to make the digital sessions as engaging as possible. Little did we know at this point what a challenge this would be.

The first hurdle to overcome was how to cope without the all-important brew and a biscuit. Those chats over a break can be the real glue that builds relationships and feelings of comradery and belonging. This called for a creative solution. To make sure our co-researchers had all the necessities for the project we decided to send a co-research survival pack to each member containing a badge, a book and the essential biscuits – Hobnobs, of course!

Table of printed materials for zines blog

Our first session was a getting to know you space, as we had a wonderful eclectic mix of co-researchers but most of us had never met before and digital spaces can be quite intimidating at first.  We introduced ourselves to the group and showed off the Rosettes we had made prior to the session, visually representing our interests and what we felt passionate about. 

Unusually for an adult and an academic Amanda is total digital whizz, and she showed us some ace online tools like digital mapping. The mapping tool let us see which online platforms and apps we use and how (and how much) we use them, like do we use them for personal use, for work, or for study? And do we just visit them, or completely live in them? This is what Amanda’s map looks like, no snapchat or tiktok surprisingly – well, we did say she’s an adult! 

What issues are that important to young people today, that they would feel strongly enough to try and do something about this? responses in nothing about us without us project
How do you think young people would tackle this issue? responses in nothing about us without us project

Our HeadStart Cornwall gang brought up some really interesting ideas about how these online spaces can be linked to activism, like using digital platforms to get our messages out to the world,  through emails or videos posted on YouTube, tiktok or snapchat. We also explored other brilliant online tools like menti metres and google jamboards, and, making the most of our growing digital skills, used them to explore which issues we felt most passionate about as youth co-researchers.

Some of the best learning was about activism and the techniques that have been used over the years that can inspire us to develop our own activist activities. One of us Youth Co-Researchers shared our A-Level piece on the Stonewall Riots and someone else introduced some very inspiring young activists who are currently trying to make a difference, such as Shiden Tekle, an 18 year old from London tackling diversity in the media.

What 3 words best describe your experinece of the sessions so far? Wordle of responses in nothing about us without us project

The sessions were really eye opening, giving us first-hand experience of some of the challenges of digital co-production and helping us realise that we can’t just move what we’re used to doing offline into the online space. We’re having to learn a whole new set of skills to make this project engaging and fun while also getting the work done.

For example, there are lots of differences between talking offline and online. When do you talk out loud, and when should you post comments in the chat? And it takes time to get used to the awkward silences that seem so much worse online because we can’t read body language like we normally do. As well as this, we’ve learned that we have to leave plenty of time to help co-researchers to find the correct online space and get access to all the MS Teams functions, like the chat, screen sharing and whiteboard. And dare we even mention the dreaded breakout rooms? We never thought 6 months ago we would have so much trouble getting from one room to another! Sometimes even ending up in rooms on our own, seemingly in a parallel universe, contemplating the meaning of life and other important things like what we were having for tea. Clearly young people haven’t been involved in the design of MS teams, we’d have made it so much easier to use. Maybe we need to teach Microsoft all about co-production.

One of the highlights so far has been successfully creating a space where young people and adults from across the country can share their thoughts on activism and important issues young people are facing in the UK and beyond. Like the fact that not every young person is privileged enough to have the internet at home and how because of Covid-19 and lockdown they’ve fallen behind with their education, to the point that it will probably take more than 20 years to close the education gap between the rich and the poor. But despite the physical distance between us, we did find sense of belonging while thinking about civic activism together, and it’s that shared meaning and positive action on the issues we care about that really make us believe this project can improve our mental health. As Craig (16) a co-researcher from Blackpool says:

"Working with other parts of HeadStart has allowed me to understand the ideas and opinions of young people in different areas of England. I believe that being united with young people we can really show people that young people can be an inspiration to multiple generations. During this project I have also recognised that wtih a common goal young people can work together to achieve that goal." Craig (16) Young co-researcher on nothing about us without us project

Co-producing activism, campaigning and research can be difficult at the best of times but add in a global pandemic that forces us to stay at home, and it’s gets much more difficult. However, despite all the challenges we faced we were still able to bring people from different parts of the UK together in an online space to explore activism and campaigning. And now we’re feeling inspired and hopeful. We have seen already how young people, youth workers, senior leaders and academics all working alongside each other as co-researchers, feeling valued, having a sense of belonging and fighting for change, can have a positive impact on young people’s mental health.

Our next step now is to present our learning from the project to the wider research group. This means young people co-designing and co-presenting our work so far.  We can use the learning from this part of the project to influence and shape the development of the next stages moving forward. And then there are lots more exciting developments in store in the New Year as we kick off awesome activist activities in Blackpool, Newham, and Cornwall. Watch this space…

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