As CYCJ launches ‘Just The Right Space’, its new accessible website that was co-produced with young people, Charlotte Morris reflects on the process of participation, and why keeping an open mind is key…
Before I joined CYCJ, I was invited to attend a team meeting. Two long hours later I emerged, utterly bamboozled by the crazed confetti of acronyms and new terms that had flown around me as I frantically scribbled away, vowing to just Google the lot when I got home.
Eight years on, I can safely say that I know my ‘EEI’ from my ‘ACEs’, jabbering away about YJIB and ChIRPs with the best of them. But it’s taken time, it’s taken learning and it’s taken patience. And these are things that someone entering the justice system for the first time, simply may not have.
Enter ‘Just the Right Space’ – our new website aimed at a wider audience, helping them to better understand, navigate and participate in the justice system – or support someone who is experiencing it.
Over the years, our audience (much like my knowledge of justice jargon) has grown from the youth justice/social work workforce, to encompassing children and young people, families, communities, students and professionals from other sectors. We were hearing that not everyone’s needs were being met with our current website, and that something else was needed for those we weren’t reaching. And to do this, it was important to work with the young people who have experience of the very things we are trying to change.
We’re not into box ticking at CYCJ. If we’re going to do something, we do it properly and not because we *should*. It means going beyond merely showing young people what we have done just before we hit ‘publish’. That’s what we have done in the past – but here’s the thing about participation…it’s a slowly learned lesson. You can’t speed read a chapter in a book, or attend a webinar and think you’ve got it nailed. It involves working with people who may not be from your usual environment, who you may clash with – and making sure everyone is heard, respected and feels safe. If participation was a race, it’s definitely one where the tortoise would soundly beat the hare.
As we went about the process of recruiting young people to join our working group, it slowly dawned on me that I was not going to be in charge here. Being the sole comms person in our team, I’m accustomed to leading on related projects, setting my own timescales, delivery targets and running it past those it needs to be run past = job done. I’ve got used to trusting my own judgement (most of the time) and taking decisions based on my expertise and experiences. And (most of the time) it all works out.
This project was different. By involving the young people, and CYCJ’s participation workers, right from the initial ideas stage, I was not the leading voice. Yet I had ideas, plans and a vision – wouldn’t these be the best starting point for us? Surely I was best placed to take this forward?
It’s an attitude I’m now ashamed of. But I’m also owning it – this was my first proper experience of participation, and I had gone barrelling in with my own assumptions clouding the way. I immediately clashed with some of the group, feeling impatience that we weren’t progressing at the rate we ‘should’ be, and injured pride when my ideas were discussed – and then rejected. As the website expert, I genuinely thought I knew best – and perhaps in terms of website management, SEO etc, I did. Yet the website we were creating is about so much more than that.
It was a difficult time, and I began to dread the sessions. As a young marketing assistant, I’d scoff at colleagues who had been there ‘since forever’ and their attitude of ‘well we tried that in 1980 and it didn’t work so why bother now?’ I now wondered: had I become one of them? The very definition of an old dog refusing to learn new tricks? The extra challenge posed by being limited to online sessions didn’t exactly help matters.
It took some home truths, difficult conversations and a lot of soul searching before I reached a turning point and the realisation that if we wanted this website to succeed, I’d have to accept that it wasn’t just about me, it was about us and them – the people we were designing it for, to help them have a fair and balanced experience of the justice system. I do hope we’ve managed to achieve this.
After this, things began to fall into place. The atmosphere shifted, from one of mutual suspicion to mutual respect. I tried to relax, sat back, listened and made sure to genuinely respect the brilliant people in front of me – who all had a shared enthusiasm for this project. Everyone brought something different to the table, and there were so many ideas that would never have occurred to me. Once I ‘let go’, my participation experience went from being humiliating and frustrating, to enlightening and enjoyable. I’m proud of us all to have got to this point.
Why am I sharing this with you? As participation becomes further and further embedded into the workplace – making it not an option but an essential way of working – I know there will be others like me, who may struggle to understand how it works, and why it sometimes involves leaving the ego and CV at the door. Because if participation is to truly succeed in the long run, it’s going to take honesty, respect, and open minds. You’ll learn from others, and also about yourself – and accept that you may never be done learning, which in itself, is rather wonderful, wouldn’t you agree?
Go to justtherightspace.org. With thanks to the young people who made this happen.
If you’d like to discuss participation in your workplace, please contact email@example.com.
About our blogger
Charlotte Morris is Communications Lead for CYCJ. Find out more.