Everyday Life and Critical Diversities

The world needs more of us! Creative knowledge exchange through arts for youth inclusion and leadership

Written by Hannah Lewis, Muetesim Abdel, Chloe Tuck, Asma Kabadeh

University of Sheffield

Image Credit: Smart Banda, Stand & Be Counted Theatre

If there is one thing that researchers of all types can agree on, it is the principle of ‘do no harm’. But is this, and should this, be enough in our ethical commitments when researching injustices, inequalities, exclusions and expulsions? Can contributing to wellbeing as part of research processes be achieved alongside meeting research goals, and if so, how? 

Young People Together (YPT) is an arts-based initiative and partnership between University of Sheffield researchers and Stand and Be Counted Theatre which seeks to actively intervene in a depleted youth migrant local environment by developing the power of young people from a migrant and refugee background to be agents of change in their lives and communities. YPT aims to bring people in Sheffield together to build understanding of how diverse lives touch and interweave through the exploration of social issues using arts. 

What is Young People Together? 

Young People Together is a Sheffield-based collective of young people seeking sanctuary who are working through creative expression to grow, shape and share their ideas, aspirations and vision for inclusive social change. Between February and July 2023, the group, which is made up of 25 young people living in Sheffield and Barnsley, is embarking on a journey of participatory performance making to develop an interactive workshop for the Sheffield Migration Matters Festival. The event will bring people from across Sheffield into a conversation around hope, belonging and change, with the aim of inspiring action. This partnership, between researchers in Sociological Studies and the School of Health and Related Research and artist-makers in Stand & Be Counted Theatre and film-maker Sean Lovell is experimenting with an innovative, creative and action-based knowledge exchange process which responds to calls from young people within the research project MIMY for more youth-led spaces that support wellbeing, learning, development and social action within South Yorkshire. 

MIMY (Empowerment through liquid Integration of migrant Youth in vulnerable conditions) was a three-year Horizon 2020 research project which took place in 9 countries, ending in January 2023. In the UK, the research conducted in contrasting South Yorkshire case study sites of Sheffield and Barnsley evidenced that migrant youth are facing isolation, exploitation in work, exclusion from education, lived experience of modern slavery, destitution, and racism, xenophobia and classism within public institutions and everyday life. Young people and stakeholders emphasised that the realisation of young migrants’ rights, their developmental pathways, and sense of belonging remain unmet in current service provision, and that their ideas are needed to drive change. Given ongoing austerity and a hostile approach to immigration at the national scale, local authorities and community-based organisations require new approaches to fostering migrant youth community cohesion.  This project sets out a blueprint for migrant and youth-led change which mobilises youth assets, partnerships and ethics of care which centres the wellbeing and capacity of participants.

Welcome as process

Before I met this group, I had a missing piece that was being a sunshine and confidence in everything I do.

YPT member

The YPT group meets weekly to explore and build creative and arts-based expression, facilitated by Stand & Be Counted Theatre. The sessions challenge hierarchies by incorporating everyone in the room as active participants. Creating a space of welcome through a check-in, warm up and games is central to the ethos of inclusion. These participatory arts practices provide a bedrock for the creation of a ‘culturally safe space’ approach which is built on compassion for our diverse starting points and bringing whole lives into the process of making and sharing, without predetermined frames and agendas. This helps to ensure that the group and its performances are culturally representative, and that the English language is not relied upon as the only mode of communication; mother tongue and different forms of creative communication are embedded throughout. Sessions use open questions about listening, what is important, what the world needs, what is my greatest creative talent, engaged through development of writing and composition, scripting, improvisation, physical theatre, screen-writing, poetry, games and more. People are supported to explore ways to engage and share, without experiences being triggering of harmful institutional settings, or difficult memories. The session ends with sharing food – celebrated in YPT member, facilitator and youth poet Diyo M Bopengo’s poem ‘Our Narratives When we Meet and Greet’, published as part of the MIMY project’s Youth Blog. You can read more about the power of the YPT process in this blogpost by Diyo.

Slow impact through partnership

As a member of the YPT group and a peer researcher I have found that the art project is subjective and focused on individual and collective expressions.

Muetesim Abdel

This project differs in what it considers knowledge and how it shares this. It seeks to empower and make space for YPT members to share their own knowledge, as experts in their own lived experiences, through building skills and confidence. In the first phase of the partnership, YPT Sheffield members created a public performance as part of Festival of the Mind in September 2022, ‘We Need Change’; and in Barnsley, produced an interactive online exhibition ‘Becoming Us’. This process was documented in two short documentary films. The project allows multiple stories and experiences to be shared, challenging dominant, and oftentimes, xenophobic narratives on migrants, asylum and refuge. 

The purpose of the collective’s work is to celebrate the lives of young sanctuary seekers and to give recognition to the contributions they make and aspire to make to their own development and community. This focus actively fosters equity and inclusion in the lives of YPT members and those they link with. Many YPT members are engaged in complex caring roles themselves, taking on positions as volunteers in frontline services, running inclusive sports initiatives, actively campaigning against racism and hostile immigration policies, creating informal support networks, and sharing knowledge and information within their networks. 

By partnering with participatory arts experts Stand and Be Counted Theatre, this unique research seeks to move beyond academic critique of policy to actively reframe policy-driven concepts of  ‘migrant integration’ that can so easily reproduce underpinning deficit models of migrant capacity and inclusion, and which rely on ideas of difference rather than commonality. The urgency of acting in the present to build the confidence and capacity of young people from around the world living in Sheffield to share their positive and hopeful vision of the future has intensified during the recent weeks of the project. YPT members face the hostility communicated daily in the media and through the statements of politicians, vilifying those seeking safety as the Illegal Migration Bill makes its way through Parliament.

The work is interdisciplinary, bringing together the arts, youth work, sociological and place-based research approaches, all woven together by a commitment to youth participation and leadership on the issues that affect young lives. The performance approach is experimental in its commitment to bring together different ideas and perspectives to work towards understanding and action, and will aspire towards bold agendas and solutions. In doing so, the work will create new knowledge through the participatory making process with young people, and through new dialogic knowledge created with the audience members at the Migration Matters Festival, and exchanges with arts-youth-migrant service providers and university researchers. This fluidity in approach to knowledge can propagate greater systems change and challenges university-produced research knowledge as the locus of transformation through dissemination out from the university to wider user groups.

The knowledge we have to share from the YPT project is the importance of practically investing in the holistic benefits of multiculturalism, personal and individual experiences, and cultural contexts. Different academic institutions, researchers and other art-based projects concerned in inclusion and knowledge exchange should hear about this.

Muetesim Abdel

YPT collaborators are running a workshop on arts-based participatory knowledge exchange with PRN@TUOS (participatory research network) on 19 May 2023 at the University of Sheffield.

YPT will be performing at the Migration Matters Festival, Thu 22 June 2023

The YPT project was created by Thea Shahrokh (University of Sheffield) and Rosie MacPherson (Stand & Be Counted Theatre) with support from Firas Chihi (Stand & Be Counted Theatre) and MIMY researchers Majella Kilkey, Hannah Lewis and Ryan Powell, and has been funded by MIMY Horizon 2020, Impact Accelerator Account, Urban Studies and Planning Department, and the Higher Education Impact Fund at the University of Sheffield.

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