Loops supported young people to thrive.

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Young people in Britain fare worse than their international peers: academically, behaviorally, economically, and emotionally. Young people don’t fare much better in public opinion polls. Adults deem young people ‘hanging around’ a top threat to community safety. This is despite ten years of major youth policy reform. We have new targets, new strategies, new structures, new services and new standards. Where is the disconnect?

We live in an age where ‘teenagers hanging around’ is named as a top threat to community safety. We cannot pick up a morning newspaper without being confronted by headlines about youth gangs, ASBOs, suicide, violence, binge-drinking, obesity, and educational failure. It is hard to ignore the message that young people are ‘out of control.’ Yet, since 1997, the UK government has invested heavily in programmes and services for young people, spending hundreds of millions of pounds on out-of-school youth provision. So, why does the public’s negative perception of young people persist despite such unparalleled investment? Why does Britain rank last on international measures of child and youth wellbeing? How can we change this ‘us’ versus ‘them’ society?

In the UK today young people experience a myriad of acute problems. Recent decades have seen a plethora of new initiatives and pilots yet, despite these well meaning gestures and policies, outcomes have proved remarkably stubborn. Today our young people are not thriving.

In November 2008 Participle formed a partnership with the Aldridge Foundation, Brighton and Hove Council and Croydon Council. Our mission was to understand why outcomes are so often poor and how to meaningfully engage young people in their communities. The result was a new approach called Loops, a social enterprise that aims to expand young people’s purpose and possibility.

Loops started from a new place. We viewed young people not as a costly group at risk of negative experiences, to be protected, but rather as a potential resource, for each other, the wider community and society. Through our work with young people, their families and communities, and drawing on international best practice and research we have developed a clear perspective on what constitutes the ‘good’ adolescence. The good adolescence is not just about young people—it is about relationships and connections to the world around young people. It is about building a broad set of capabilities rather than a narrow set of attainments and it is about the capacity to put these relationships and capabilities within a bigger frame—to tell a story about yourself and where you are going.

Take Jo and Calvin, two 19-year-old boys we met in the early stages of our project.

Current policy would not deem Jo at-risk: he shows up at college, comes from a dual-parent household, and doesn’t often smoke, drink or truant. But Jo isn’t thriving. He’s flatlining. Three years ago, Jo was at exactly the same place he is now. He struggles to read and write, has no sense of purpose, and relies on his father for employment.

Current policy would say Calvin is no longer in risk: he is studying sociology at university, working part-time in a greeting card factory, running several youth mentoring initiatives, and embedded in a supportive faith community. Calvin is now thriving, but he wasn’t always. Three years ago, he was entrenched in gang life, witnessed his best friend’s murder, and was truanting from school. 

Calvin’s transformation wasn’t just about a reduction in risk, but about the enhancement of protective factors. Protective factors are the internal strengths and external supports that enable resiliency and positive living. They are factors like agency, sense of possibility and purpose, control over decision-making, and connectedness to community. They are what give young people a reason to invest in their future, and the future of their communities. International research confirms the value of protective factors in ensuring young people thrive.

Protective factors come from meaningful experiences; experiences that start with young people, enable them to feel useful and valued, introduce them to new possibilities, build new capabilities, and forge new relationships.

Our work with young people suggests that there is a widespread lack of ‘experiences’ that lead to building these new capabilities. Young people spend most of their time in school or in youth-only services & settings, isolated from their communities and limited in their exposure to different ways of living, doing, and being. They also have little time and space to make sense of what they are seeing, and chart out a different life direction. 

Loops provides young people with new types of experiences and connections, such as taking on a role, running a campaign, creating their own enterprises, engaging with the community in new ways. These new experiences are complemented by reflection to enable active learning and development. Loops was designed bottom up to appeal even to those who are currently most disengaged.

Loops was not a new service in the traditional sense. It was a process of community transformation in which young people had a stake and ownership. Such a process entailed not only drawing diverse organisations and people of all generations into a new social compact and set of activities; it implies deep changes in culture, thought patterns and behaviour. 

Loops was different to the youth service—It had a different purpose: connecting young people to the community, not containing them in a youth centre. It had different success metrics: young people’s sense of self, future and community, not just attendance at a youth club or a reduction in risk behavior. It had a different resource base: people in the community, not buildings or professionals. It used its resources purposefully—everything Loops did connected to a unifying model about how change happens.

Loops was different for young people—In school, young people spend time with peers their same age and perform to benchmarks set by other people. In youth clubs, they show up and take part in whatever is on offer that night. With Loops, they interacted with adults and peers of different ages in new environments. They built on their strengths and interests. They made intentional choices. They formed community contacts. They explored the unfamiliar.

Simply put, Loops gets young people to go through new types of experiences, and then reflect on those experiences. This relies on two primary activities:

In-Community Experiences
These were the heart of Loops. To grow young people’s sense of purpose and possibility, they need to experience their community in new, compelling ways. The young people we’ve met in our work had limited exposure to different perspectives, career pathways and life trajectories. They did not know what ‘could be.’ At the same time, they didn’t believe they have the capabilities or networks to actually live out different lives.

The first activity carried out by Loops was to find experiences. This was done by asking businesses, organisations and individuals within a specific community to open their doors and spend time with young people around. In a six week prototype, Participle put together over 160 experiences in Brighton and Croydon, from being shown how a large hotel works, to helping organise a music festival to meeting a novelist. Ninety percent of these experiences were offered for free. Experiences came from the community—from family-run businesses to large companies to public sector agencies, arts agencies to voluntary groups. Loops worked directly with these organisations and individuals to find easy, mutually beneficial ways to engage.

Processes of Reflection
Experiences, by themselves, do not lead to transformation. How young people prepare for and interact during experiences influences the value they derive from them. Practicing independence, initiative, and insight (the 3i s) directly affects the lessons they extract and the kinds of connections they make.

As a result, Loops supported young people to go on as many experiences as possible, both through one-on-one and group sessions. The adults and older young people who facilitated loop groups were not acting as teachers or parents or experts. They were ‘the same’ as the young people—they’ve just had more experiences in the community and practiced reflection for a longer period. They modeled curiosity, critical thinking, and open exploration. In addition, unless you receive feedback after you’ve adopted these thriving behaviours, it’s unlikely you know why they matter. Feedback is critical for validating what you do, and building a strong self-concept.

Loops developed extensive tools, training and support processes for the above processes.

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