On Monday 1st April, the Listening Fund’s partners and funders gathered together to try and answer one question: how we can better listen to young people so that they are empowered to improve the circumstances, organisations and services which affect their lives? By 5pm, we were facing a second, more challenging question, and it came directly from the young people in attendance: how are you trying to change the system as opposed to just working with us?
Plenty has been written about the imperatives for listening to young people: the different motivations driving organisations; the need to close the social distance between those making decisions and those affected by them; as well as the wealth of information which shows the difficulties facing those under 25 in 21st Century Britain.
Moreover, our partners in The Listening Fund are some of the most inspiring, progressive organisations in the sector. They are passionate about the young people with whom they work, they invest incredible amounts of time, energy and resource into supporting them, and they believe in their ability and potential. The Fund’s funders recognise that they need to change and are enthusiastic participants in an externally-led review of their listening culture and practice, further details of which will be announced later this year.
Despite the clear need for this work, and despite the efforts to date, the overwhelming impression from the second Listening Fund convening was that we still have a long way to go.
In part this is because of the challenges involved in and created by listening. For example, partners discussed how to engage with and get input from a wider range of young people, rather than relying on the immediate enthusiasts. They talked about the challenge of organisational cultures – changing environments which can be sceptical of young people’s input and opinions to places where young people’s experience and expertise is valued and nurtured at every level. They also debated how to get other organisations to engage with young people, and in particular how to get statutory service providers to value young people’s insight on the services they want and need.
Whilst meaningful listening certainly requires time, energy and resource, what The Listening Fund is surfacing is that the sector’s mindset is the biggest barrier to change. Within a year of committing themselves to improving their listening, the changes amongst partners are marked. For some, they are consultation converts, creating and undertaking surveys of their young people which have directly led to the establishment of new services. For others, the first year of partnership has helped them bottom out exactly what their listening challenges are, and they are now devising plans to navigate them. For yet others, it has been a year of realisation: that they aren’t where they thought they were, that their processes aren’t what they hoped they might be, that the young people with whom they work don’t see the organisation as being good at listening.
So whilst all those involved with The Listening Fund, both partners and funders, would be the first to recognise that they still have much to do, they also are evidence of the importance of action. Of taking risks, of challenging ourselves, of accepting failure as part of the process of change. Of beginning. If we truly want the sector to succeed, to not just ameliorate the worst excesses of our society, but to fundamentally address the myriad different issues to which we devote our time and efforts, and to prevent them recurring for generation after generation, we have to surface the difficult questions and we have to stop stalling on change.
The Centre for Youth Impact are evaluating the impact of the Listening Fund over two years. At this midway point, this is a sober call to action – a recognition that listening systematically and meaningfully to those whose voices are least heard will involve deep change, truth telling not sugar coating, and therefore at times, progress may be slow and the journey may be long. But it is time to get started.