A Listening Fund case study: Kent Refugee Action Network

The Listening Fund supports youth-focused organisations to develop their practice of listening to
young people and responding to what they hear. The Centre for Youth Impact was commissioned to evaluate the Fund and as part of that evaluation, case study research was conducted with six partners, offering the opportunity for an in-depth investigation of their work. The full case study report, including the methodology and all six partners can be downloaded here. This first case study focuses on Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN).

KRAN

Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) is an independent charity that works to enable young refugee and asylum-seekers aged 16-24 to live fulfilling, independent and successful lives in the community. KRAN is the largest charity provider of services to young refugees and asylum seekers in East Kent, having been established in the region for over 15 years. It offers practical and emotional support to young people who have often led very turbulent lives and, upon arriving in
the UK, may speak no English. KRAN offers a range of services, from advocacy and support, education and language skills, drop-in and casework, mentoring, and community engagement activities.

Overview of listening at KRAN

KRAN staff applied to the Listening Fund because they wanted to prioritise and amplify the voice of young refugees and asylum seekers in delivery and decision-making within KRAN itself, as well as in the other services received by young refugees and asylum seekers locally, and the wider narrative about them in the media. There are four key components that KRAN uses to listen to young people, as explored below.

1. Youth Forum

KRAN’s Youth Forum is a monthly space for young refugees and asylum seekers to come together and discuss any issues important to them. It is an open group, usually attracting around 15-20 attendees each time. The first year of the Listening Fund was focussed on establishing the forum and building young people’s capacity to talk about challenges they were experiencing and to collectively think through solutions. This included topics ranging from mental health issues,
employment, and campaigning.

Subsequently, in the second year of the Listening Fund, KRAN initiated an Action Learning programme. Through this programme, the youth forum met regularly with external stakeholders who had an influence over their lives, in structured group discussions to explore challenges experienced by young refugees and to agree actions to address these challenges. Six Action Learning Sets were held in the second year of the Listening Fund, with attendees including
representatives from local colleges, social workers, the police, and the Department for Work and Pensions. The sessions offered a challenging yet productive space where people from different sectors could bring their views together and work towards practical solutions. In the words of KRAN’s CEO:

“The Action Learning Sets have been an eye-opening experience, where people from different sectors come together to increase understanding of one another’s perspectives and challenge each other’s programmed knowledge and assumptions.”

Outside of the Action Learning Sets, KRAN’s Youth Forum have also met with the MP for Canterbury and a range of other service providers to raise issues and discuss potential solutions.

2. Traineeship Scheme

Young people have been recruited as paid trainees to assist in KRAN’s operations, thereby, in the words of the CEO, “bringing the perspective of youth directly into the day-to-day running of the services”. The trainees are employed for seven hours a week, with varied responsibilities that include: work shadowing, data processing, computer troubleshooting, supporting the delivery of classes, and administering feedback. 24 young people have had the opportunity to be a trainee, as KRAN has recruited 12 young people in each year of the Listening Fund. This role not only supports the young people to develop skills and experience to support their futures and to gain confidence accessing employment, but also offers KRAN an invaluable operational service.

3. Youth Ambassador Programme

KRAN’s Youth Ambassadors support the organisation to listen to a wider range of young people’s voices, by gathering others views and opinions directly, and by informing them what the youth forum is and how they can get involved. As the ambassadors have been through the process of arriving in the UK, and they speak a number of different languages, they are a valuable point of contact for other young people who are accessing KRAN’s services. The youth ambassadors also
follow up on the actions that had been agreed at the Action Learning Sets to help make sure the discussions translated into practical solutions.

4. Staff Recruitment and Young Trustee

Over the course of the Listening Fund, KRAN has developed its recruitment processes to further incorporate a youth perspective. Candidates for every new role at KRAN not only meet with a formal interview panel of staff and trustees, but also go into an informal space to speak with young people. Sometimes young people design recruitment activities: for instance, where recruiting for a teaching role, designing an activity where the candidates come prepared to teach them on a particular topic. The ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ interview panels share notes on the candidates before a decision is made, and KRAN has found that “it is amazing how often the attitudes towards candidates by the two panels match up”. It was initially considered that young people could sit on the formal interview panels, but KRAN has found that this alternative model enables young people to have “a more genuine interaction in a space they are comfortable, rather than reading from a list of prescribed questions”. KRAN has also recruited a young refugee onto its main board of trustees during the Listening Fund, who further brings a youth perspective to strategic decision-making, such as staff recruitment as well as other components.

What is the key learning and impact of this work?

Building young people’s capacity

Prior to the Listening Fund, KRAN had attempted some ad hoc methods of hearing young people’s views on issues, such as asking them to attend and speak at a staff or trustee meeting. KRAN found these interactions sometimes “felt tokenistic and awkward” because young people were not used to or necessarily comfortable in those spaces. Young refugees and asylum seekers in particular can face challenges in their confidence and language skills that exacerbated these issues. It was due to this that KRAN chose not to start the Action Learning Sets programme until mid-way through the fund, as the first year was spent building young people’s experience and confidence in raising their voices. This involved internal and formal training on topics such as public speaking and the basics of action learning. For KRAN, working with young people to develop their skills and confidence is a fundamental component of the listening that should not be underestimated.

“It was important we spent the first year helping young people to practice feeling comfortable raising their voices before going to more high-pressure situations. We support the young people to know how to take advantage of the space, to get their points across in an empowered way.” (Project Lead)

The impact of a staff member dedicated to listening

KRAN’s grant from the Listening Fund was used, in part, to fund a new position within the staff team of a Youth Support and Outreach Worker, who takes the lead on all the organisation’s listening activity. For a long while before the fund, KRAN had “wanted to systematically improve listening, but we needed somebody whose job it was to make that happen”. In other words, recruiting a dedicated staff member had transformative impacts in getting the structures in place for listening and for making sure these were embedded across all of KRAN’s projects.

Acknowledging that change takes time

Many of the issues addressed in KRAN’s youth forum are sufficiently complex and significant that they are “bigger than what can be solved in one meeting”, particularly at the policy level where change can require campaigning over many years. Nevertheless, even when changes are slow to emerge, there are significant benefits to listening. Firstly, young people feel validated when they are able to air their concerns to people who have a genuine influence over their lives. This is important because refugees and asylum seekers often feel misunderstood, but they can address this by speaking openly about how they experience the world. Secondly, the Action Learning Sets enable the young people to build long-term relationships with people in positions of power, such as the ongoing interactions they have had with the police and with the MP for Canterbury.

“Change is not guaranteed because of the scope of the issues we are dealing with, but we can’t give up. It’s about keeping on returning to the issues and trying to tackle them from different directions, in the hope of making things better for [young refugees] in the long run. KRAN gives us the tools to do that.” (Youth Forum member)

What changes have been made as a result of listening?

The youth forum is consulted on all the activities and services that KRAN runs, to ensure they are reflective of young people’s interests and needs. The forum is often directly involved in decisions about the best use of funding when a new grant has been received. What often starts off as a ‘wish list’ where young people tell KRAN all the activities they want to do, this evolves into a learning process where young people help to make decisions about what is practically and logistically feasible. Once decisions are made, young people are involved throughout the planning stages, to decide when and how activities will run, right through to evaluation stages, to consider what has been successful, what has not, and why. This has included activities such as organising a trampolining trip in Maidstone, co-producing KRAN’s Saturday Club, and arranging football matches both within KRAN and with teams in the local area.

“Young people are always part of the conversation now. Their presence has noticeably shifted so that whatever KRAN does young people are at the centre.” (CEO)

The youth forum has also enabled KRAN to recognise areas where young people would benefit from additional support.
For instance, young people told KRAN that upon first arriving in the UK it can be difficult to understand the process for seeking asylum, given the technical jargon, the many different service providers they are expected to interact with, and conflicting information about their rights and entitlements. Through hearing this, KRAN recognised it would be helpful for young people to have a colour-coded visual guide, with clear and explicit information that takes them through the process and all the different stakeholders involved. A leaflet was developed, in partnership with the Refugee Council, to respond to this need from young people.

As highlighted above, when advocating for external changes, many of the issues addressed by young people at KRAN are sufficiently complex that they require system-level changes that typically happen very slowly, over years or even decades. Nevertheless, KRAN has already “seen progress in some areas on a scale that is much quicker than you might usually see”. For example, young people participated in an Action Learning Set with representatives of local Kent colleges to
explain some of the additional challenges they face in conducting independent study compared with their peers: for instance, lacking access to a laptop and living in shared housing arrangements that are chaotic and noisy. As a direct result of the discussions, the college has decided to hold additional training days with its tutors that will be led by staff and young people at KRAN, to help them understand and accommodate for these challenges. This includes, for instance, making a glossary of terms to support young refugees’ language development. This highlights an area of progress for creating an educational environment where young refugees can thrive, and therefore to go on to obtain meaningful employment.

“I don’t have the authority to know I’m going to change it, but I’m going to listen, I’m going to take the issue to the right person and do what I can.” (KRAN Youth Ambassador)

Ongoing challenges and next steps

Engagement and representation

KRAN staff are aware of the challenges of fair engagement and representation. KRAN finds that its youth forum is primarily attended by young refugees and asylum seekers “who have been here for a while, who are in a better place and more established”. As KRAN moves forward, staff hope to expand involvement to reach more young people “who are actually facing the key problems in the here and now”. The nature of their situation means that these young people often have less time, confidence, or the English language skills to engage. KRAN hopes to tackle this through increasing
the role of the youth ambassadors in gathering information from, and representing the voices of, a broader range of young people, to create more diversity of views in the room.

Closing the feedback loop

Finally, KRAN find that young people are proactive in recognising changes that have happened as a result of listening and chasing staff if they feel like change is not happening quick enough. This is part of the positive and open culture that exists between staff and young people. However, going forwards, KRAN hopes to implement more systematic processes for closing the feedback loop, as it is currently very informal. KRAN is still exploring what the best mechanisms are for achieving this and integrating it into the new strategic plan, which is currently being developed.