Throughout 2023 we’re going to be sharing what we’re learning through a series of blogs, podcasts, and more. The blogs will be written by different people involved in the Fund – me, Edd Fry, the Fund’s lead, as well as young people, partner organisations, and funders, amongst others. Our ambition is to share what we have learned and the challenges we have faced, as well as the impact that investing in listening practices and cultures have had on our work and organisations.
This blog, the first in the series, explores how organisations are sharing power with young people. It is based on an in-depth report from Collective Discovery, a full version of which can be read here.
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Sharing Power – a report from Collective Discovery and The Listening Fund
‘Sharing power is probably a term that has only come in in the last couple of years – before that it was all about voice and participation.’ – Workshop participant.
More than ever before, youth organisations and funders – and even organisations outside of the youth sector – are sharing power with young people. That is; involving young people in their organisational decision-making. But genuine power-sharing with young people isn’t as simple as giving them a decision to make. It requires recognition of their skills and assets, providing the support that’s needed to empower them in their role, and ensuring there’s an organisation ready to listen and change.
The youth organisations and funders that make up the Listening Fund have been sharing power with young people in different ways:
Among the funded organisations, We Don’t Settle created a Youth Steering Committee who meet monthly to make organisational decisions; Gendered Intelligence created a Youth Board to ensure people are heard and understood by the organisation and trustees; and Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) created a Youth Forum where young people come together to shape KRAN’s services and advocacy.
Within the funders involved, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation appointed 12 young people to design and test ways for them to strengthen young people’s role in funding and strategy decisions; Blagrave Trust has reformed its governance to ensure it has a youth-centred Board, and the Listening Fund itself has appointed ten Young Advisors to design a funding round and allocate £650,000 of grants.
The Listening Fund, and its learning partner, Collective Discovery, have been mapping the partners’, funders’, and Young Advisors’ learning on sharing power to date.
So far, what has emerged is that these 3 things are important when sharing power:
- Purpose: Being clear about what power is being shared (and why)
- Process: Creating empowering spaces
- Learning: Creating space to learn from experience and share it with others
What we learned about purpose
We learned that it’s important to be clear about an organisation’s commitment to sharing power, and the purpose of sharing power, so that young people know what has changed from the status quo, and what their involvement might achieve.
It’s also crucial to understand what power dynamics may be at play: that is, who has historically had power, how that will change with young people’s involvement, and how power dynamics play out in the process.
When setting out to share power with young people, it’s important to be clear about roles and responsibilities so that the young people know what they’re expected to do, and what they have the power to change. One youth professional said:
‘‘When organisations are sharing power with young people they have to be clear about the balance between accountability to young people and accountability to their boards or to funders. Let young people know what the power dynamics are.”
It is also valuable to talk through the benefits of power-sharing arrangements with young people to ensure they understand why they are there.
What we learned about process
To share power well, young people need to be centred in the design of the process. This includes making the space inclusive and accessible for all, considering power dynamics and intersectional identities, providing opportunities for young people to lead, having meetings at youth-friendly times and venues, and having feedback mechanisms that allow young people to share any concerns they may have.
Furthermore, a process should not only be accessible to young people; it should also support them. This may include buddying, mentoring and supervision, providing training, or opportunities to engage and disengage depending on how they are feeling and what they are going through in the rest of their lives. And that might not be something that can happen straightforwardly. As one workshop participant put it: ‘It takes time for young people to feel nurtured and supported and to take on responsibility.’
An example of this is in KRAN’s Youth Forum; a space where young people who have engaged with KRAN discuss the issues that are important to them together. It’s a ‘come and go’ space, and works well like this as it can take time for young refugees and asylum seekers to feel confident in the space due to language skills or stress. The peer-to-peer element encourages engagement – making it less intimidating to join in, and can help overcome language barriers.
Finally, being paid well may allow for deeper engagement, and mean a role will be less likely to be de-prioritised. But for a deep-dive on paying young people, see this report.
What we learned about learning!
Organisations can make the most of their discoveries around power sharing when they create space to learn from their experiences; sharing with, and listening to, others. There are many excellent examples of how partners and funders have been documenting their learning. The Involving Young People Collective who work with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation have shared their experience via blogs about the values that should underpin co-production.
In the process, it helps to gather evidence of progress. That might not necessarily mean focussing on quantitative data – it could be noting how the balance of who speaks and listens in meetings changes. If you are clear about the purpose of sharing power, then it will be easier to see if you are making progress.
And paramount to learning from sharing power with young people is making learning central: creating regular opportunities to reflect on the experience, and ensuring those spaces include young people. Then use it to improve decision-making, tell young people the impact they are having, share it with other teams internally, and if possible, other organisations – so that they can benefit from it too.
And finally, stay humble! There is no best way, and it will always be a work in progress!