A Listening Fund case study: Trelya

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 Trelya.

Trelya

Trelya is a youth work charity supporting young people from highly disadvantaged areas of West Cornwall. Since 2001, Trelya has worked to engage young people who are deemed the most ‘hard to reach’ on the Treneere estate in Penzance, which is in the top 3% most deprived wards in England. Trelya works with young people who experience multiple issues and who often refuse engagement with other services. Trelya’s work varies from light-touch activities, games and trips,
to more intensive interventions, such as supporting young people through legal, financial and educational issues. At the core of all of Trelya’s work, large and small, is the building of trusting relationships and offering support tailored to individual circumstances.

Overview of listening at Trelya

Trelya applied to the Listening Fund to initiate its ‘Pass the Mic’ project, aiming to enable young people to collaborate with local services to challenge and remove barriers that restrict their engagement. The project has undergone significant changes throughout the Listening Fund as Trelya has spent time reflecting on the best ways to capture and share young people’s voices.

1. Telephone Booth

Trelya’s initial application to the Listening Fund focussed on working with young people to explore processes to enable them to collect feedback from their peers, such as interviews or social media. Young people would then use the information they had collected to work with services across Penzance to improve access for young people. However, in the early stages, young people told Trelya that before they were ready to collect peer feedback, they wanted to have their own stories and experiences heard and presented through high quality and accessible platforms.

In response, Trelya redesigned its listening project to be centred around the Pass the Mic Telephone Booth. Trelya has built a vibrant, life-sized phone booth to showcase the stories of young people living in Treneere. Created using computer-aided design and 3D printing, and designed by a group of young people, the phone booth is decorated with quotes about listening from influential writers and figureheads throughout history. By picking up the phone and dialling a number, you can hear a monologue directly from a young person about an experience of engaging with local services. Current monologues include, for instance, experiences of being taken into care, of being long-term unemployed, and of engaging with health services as a teenage parent.

Each young person involved in the project was paired with a professional local writer who supported the development of their monologue, which was then read aloud, audio recorded, and transferred to the phone booth. There is also a space on the outer wall where any young person can write their own story to contribute their voice. While the nature of the project has changed, the aim remains the same: to improve access to services across the locality by sharing the insights
and experiences of young people who are typically excluded, in a sustained and systematic way.

Over the course of the Listening Fund, Trelya had also worked with journalists to share its learning about the multi-faceted challenges faced by young people in disadvantaged communities like Treneere, and how these challenges “can cast a long shadow over their whole lives”. Notably, since 2019, Trelya has had ongoing involvement with the BBC, as part of their initiative to ensure underrepresented voices in the community are heard. Trelya, and the young people and families it engages with, has worked closely with two BBC Cornwall journalists for this project and has been
featured in a number of news and radio segments. Trelya looks out for such opportunities where it can support young people to share their experiences to wide audiences, and to ensure this is done a way that is truthful, captures complexity, and is empowering for all those involved.

2. Culture of listening

Trelya has grown into an organisation where flexibility and responsiveness are defining elements of the organisational culture. Because of the complex, ever-changing needs of young people, Trelya places emphasis on deeply embedded listening. In practice, this means that listening is often unstructured, ad hoc, and reliant on positive relationships and an open, ongoing dialogue. Trelya also puts emphasis on developing links with young people’s families and wider networks –
via “intergenerational listening” – as this helps staff to achieve a holistic understanding of a young person’s history and circumstances, and therefore to provide them with specialised support.

We gather information from young people as they say it, which could be when driving them to a football game, supporting them with homework, or on a trip to the beach. It’s a long process that involves carefully teasing out young people’s views and reflecting that back with them at an appropriate time.” (Director of Programmes and Operations)

Trelya finds that structured mechanisms for listening, such as a survey or a focus group, are largely ineffective within its context. Over time, Trelya has come to realise that when using these mechanisms, very often young people will give feedback that does not genuinely reflect their views (which is uncovered through informal conversations later on), or that young people are reluctant to engage at all. Additionally, many young people face practical challenges in reading,
writing, and holding their attention, which can limit their ability to engage. As a result, running such activities “has a tendency to feel tokenistic and to shine a spotlight on young people’s areas of insecurity”, and therefore is not where the most the effective listening takes place.

“I come here and have normal conversations about things going on in my life. Where social workers bombard me with questions, Trelya treats me like family.” (Young person)

Given this context, for Trelya, listening is a long-term and deeply cultural activity that is enabled when young people believe that staff truly care about them, without any sense of judgement or hierarchy. Indeed, a key reason why young people often lack engagement with other services “is because they feel judged, unsafe and like they are in a rush to get you out the door and onto their next appointment”. Therefore, Trelya places emphasis on giving dedicated attention to each young person, in a developmental process that allows them to dig deep into their true feelings.

What is the key learning and impact of this work?

Developing young people’s capacity to raise their voice

Many of the young people Trelya works with have not developed the “emotional language” to express how they are feeling, often because “it is very rare for them to have ever felt truly listened to in their lives”. Trelya plays an important role in helping young people to learn the skills to express themselves, and this is a key first step to enabling them to share their voices through more structured mechanisms, such as the Telephone Booth. Trelya achieves this through acting as a calm and consistent point of contact over many years, giving young people the extended time and attention needed to build the capacity to articulate their views and feelings.

“For some young people, it is difficult to get them to say anything at all. The activities we run are a vehicle to get them to open up and come out of their shell. Eventually, they are excited to come here because know they’ll get a quality interaction.” (CEO)

Coordinating the staff team

Trelya puts emphasis on developing effective communication channels within the staff team. This is important because the nature of its listening is highly conversational: each staff member needs to share their interactions, so that what they are hearing from young people can be addressed in a coordinated manner across the team. This is achieved through open door conversations and regular supervision, as well as through Trelya’s central Child Protection Online Monitoring and
Safeguarding database (CPOMS), where all interactions are recorded centrally. These processes also support staff to debrief when dealing with sensitive and emotive issues.

Acting as a gatekeeper

Trelya has a responsibility to act as a ‘gatekeeper’ to ensure that journalists are only given access to young people when they have positive intentions to accurately and respectfully represent their voices. This is important because some young people at Trelya have previously had negative and disempowering experiences working with journalists. Staff have a number of conversations with any external organisations or individuals before connecting them with their community, to
“ensure they are the right people to do the work, and to help them obtain a more in-depth understanding of the vulnerabilities faced by our young people”. Because of this process, working with the BBC has been a positive experience for all those involved, with staff, young people and the journalists feeling that they benefitted from ongoing interactions over many months. This enabled a holistic understanding and the establishing of long-term relationships, and because of
this, Trelya and their young people will continue to work closely with the journalists in the future.

“Working with Trelya has allowed us to hear and share the experiences of a community that doesn’t get heard. Without the established connection and relationship Treyla has, I don’t think the individuals would have spoken to us, or if they had it would have been a more shallow interaction.” (Journalist for BBC Cornwall)

What changes have been made as a result of listening?

Trelya relies on the voices of young people to shape all the activities and services it offers. As well as giving young people opportunities to come up with “weird and wonderful” ideas for activities, which have ranged from axe throwing to sailing, Trelya finds it is equally important “to hear the things that are not being said”. That is, to recognise young people’s deeper and more complex areas of need. A group of young people, for instance, is unlikely to directly ask for a session on
online safety, but through listening to them talk about the level of time they spend online, the apps they use, and the temptations to speak to strangers, Treyla has identified this as an area where support would be beneficial. For young people with complex needs, these areas of support are often subtle and can be identified only through careful, long-term one-to-one interactions.

Trelya not only identifies activities through listening, but they also collectively with young people
agree principles on how they are going to behave during sessions. These principles are continually reviewed and adapted with young people’s input.

Treyla also acts as an intermediary to support young people to engage with other services. For example, Trelya recently supported a young person who is a teenage parent and who had received a viability assessment from the local social services department. The young person was upset because she felt she had not been listened to in the process: the follow up assessment report was unrepresentative of her experience, and she feared it would serve as a “black mark” against her
name. From hearing this, Trelya organised a meeting with the social worker, supporting the young person to articulate what she was unhappy with in the assessment in her own words.

“There are so many services where I walk in and I’m already pinned as a ‘problem child’ or a ‘lost cause’, they don’t get to know me for who I am.” (Young person)

The viability assessment was revised as a result, and the young person was more accurately represented and listened to in her battle for guardianship. This highlights how Trelya supports young people to be heard by other services, and therefore to help them establish positive change in their lives more broadly through listening.

Ongoing challenges and next steps

Expanding the Pass the Mic Telephone Booth

A key challenge for Trelya has been finding ways to enable a meaningful and consistent dialogue between local services and young people. The monologues in the Telephone Booth will keep being added to, and Trelya intends to increase them from six to 20 in the months following the Listening Fund. Additionally, a key next step for Trelya is to design a second, portable version of the Telephone Booth that will be transported to different locations where it can be readily accessed by the professionals it seeks to influence. This may include school staff rooms, the local MP’s office, social care training events, and doctor’s surgery waiting rooms. Trelya is in the initial stages of working with partner agencies to secure locations across the region.

Engaging young people in listening

It is sometimes challenging to get young people initially involved in the Telephone Booth project, as they are unsure what it involves and they “don’t have the confidence to believe they have a story to tell”. Trelya hopes that, as more young people engage with it and hear the monologues, others will be more inclined and excited to be involved as part of a positive cycle of engagement.

Exploring alternative ways to represent young people’s voices

Trelya has been exploring alternative ways to represent young people’s voices to complement the Telephone Booth monologues. For instance, young people have worked with local artists to create images that challenge the stereotypes used to stigmatise them in society. There is also the potential that young people could work with professional actors to create live performances or music tracks and videos. Finally, Trelya is also exploring the idea of combining the monologues and other creative works into an interactive youth-led training programme for local services.

The Listening Fund LogoBlack and white image of young man sitting in bus station in an urban area looking backwards and wearing earphones