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Why you should keep investing in participation teams

23 June 2020

Young Women’s Trust is a feminist organisation working to achieve economic justice for young women, aged 18-30 years in England and Wales – work that is needed now more than ever.

Innovating to continue the important participation work YWT does in a new online setting during lockdown has been a big part of this and has been vital to the hard work we’ve been doing to ensure that young women’s voices are heard throughout this difficult time.

Here’s what we’ve learned and how we’ll keep applying these valuable lessons.

Be open to thinking differently

As participation manager my team and I work hard alongside the wider staff team to ensure that the lived experiences and opinions of young women, aged 18-30 years, living on low or no pay are at the heart of our work. Everything we do – from the services we provide to the campaigns we run – is informed by young women, leading, designing and influencing. Traditionally, much of this work has been done face to face through focus groups, workshops, meetings and events – and to great success – but this pandemic has pushed us to think differently.

As soon as lockdown started, traditional participatory methods went out of the window. We knew isolation was going to be a big issue for young women during lockdown, so we quickly introduced two weekly webinars to enable young women to stay in touch with each other, get advice from experts and continue to shape our work. We’ve also been hosting video calls with MPs, allowing young women to speak directly to change-makers about the issues they are facing and provided them with sessions with housing, employment and maternity experts to ensure they know their rights during this difficult time.

We also moved a residential weekend that we normally run for young women on our Advisory panel online due to the crisis. Finding a way to bring together this core group of 30 young women who guide our work was of vital importance for us so we made sure they could access the training and development opportunities virtually instead. Over three days in May, 20 panel members, from across England and Wales, took part in a series of online workshops, including online campaigning and public speaking training – all of which were adapted contextually to prepare them for using these skills in the here and now.

Embrace technology

Keeping our participatory work going wouldn’t have been possible without some pretty handy tech to assist us.

Zoom video conferencing has been particularly instrumental in providing the space for young women to come together online or by telephone with features like break out rooms, emoji reactions, the option to switch off video and the chat function enabling young women to contribute to discussions in different ways.

Adopting a flexible approach to how young women participate in online sessions has also been important as it creates a safe and supportive space for participants. A lot of young women have caring responsibilities, especially at the moment, so allowing their child or the person they care for to be present during the webinar has worked well too. Where discussions are particularly sensitive or confidential, we’ve asked those young women to use headphones or move to a space where they can be alone for the duration of that activity. We also let the young women know what will be discussed in advance so she can make an informed decision about whether to have the child or person she is caring for present.

Additionally, we’ve worked to make our webinars interactive by using tools like Google slides. At the beginning of our sessions, we share a link to slides which include a series of interactive activities for the young women to engage with and update in real-time so you can see what everyone is contributing. For example, when making introductions, we ask participants to pull up a “virtual” chair, type their name on it and organise themselves into a circle on the slide. Once done we run an introductions exercise with them, which also helps them know what order to speak in, as this is sometimes hard to judge online. If we want to get lots of ideas or opinions on a certain issue – for example, experiences of financial hardship during the crisis – we might present a slide full of different coloured post-it notes and invite young women to type their experiences on a post-it. Then once everyone has contributed, we use these to encourage a full group discussion for deeper understanding. One issue this has highlighted though is that in order to use Google slides, everyone needs access to a laptop which can be tricky in the age of smartphones. So for young women who don’t have laptops but who can still view the slides on their smartphones, a staff member will complete the activity for them by inviting them to share what they’d like us to write on their behalf in the Zoom chat function. This has worked really well, and they still feel able to take part fully.

Keep adapting to people’s needs

Over the last three months, we’ve learnt a lot about online engagement with young women – especially those who are disadvantaged and vulnerable. After running the webinars for a month, we polled young women through our closed Facebook Group – the YWT Lounge – to find out what prevents them from engaging with us online. The majority of young women said the time of day didn’t work – so we’ve tried to mix it up a little – hosting webinars at lunch, in the afternoon and evenings too. Some young women also mentioned that accessing Zoom uses a lot of their data and suggested recording the webinars and posting them online after. Most of our webinars are now live-streamed to the YWT Lounge (another great function in Zoom) which means more young women can access the webinar whenever they like.

Don’t underestimate investing in participation

Young women have reacted really positively to the changes we’ve made to our work and appreciate the effort we’ve made to ensure their voices remain central to everything we do.

Esi-June said that our online sessions are a ‘great space to connect with other young women and not feel so alone or powerless against the current crisis’. And Chanel told us that she ‘appreciates the time, energy and skills you have invested in creating this space and for consistently asking for our input, ideas, opinions – I feel recognised and valued’.

Even as restrictions lift, we know that digital participation is here to stay as schools remain closed and travel is restricted. Whilst lockdown has presented many challenges to overcome for organisations involving people with lived experience in decision-making, our work has shown us that investing in participation is more important than ever before. It’s provided us with new and exciting opportunities that, in many ways, has made our work more engaging and inclusive too.

Photo: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Lydia Morgan

participation manager, Young Women's Trust

Lydia has been participation manager at Young Women’s Trust since 2014, adding to the wealth of experience she has accumulated in the voluntary sector over the past 12 years. Lydia’s greatest passion is to encourage young women to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives and at Young Women’s Trust she’s able to live this passion daily in a job she loves. In her current role, she ensures that young women’s views and experiences directly inform the charity’s work.