The following blog post originally appeared on the Social Reporters site. It’s reproduced here with the kind permission of David Wilcox.
One of the people we really wanted to come to our DTYE event – on how digital technologies can support young people to engage socially and economically with their communities – was Eugenie Teasley, who set up Spark+Mettle. It is a highly innovative aspirations agency focussed on “preparing young people who do not have the connections or the resources themselves to map and launch a career that they will love”. The young people aren’t participants – they are co-creators of the programme.
Unfortunately for us Eugenie was in South Carolina at the time, so on her return we invited her to review the top ten messages from the event in the light of her experience.
Here’s a video in which Eugenie explains how the Spark+Mettle Star Track programme blends Benjamin Franklin’s self-improvement programme with an understanding of flourishing as determined by Cambridge University’s Institute of Wellbeing … and then her reflections.
I’m really energised by the messages that have emerged from the Young People and Digital Technology exploration project so far. Too often online interaction for young people is either narrowly social or unengagingly pragmatic; I’m thinking Facebook and Blackboard. The digital space is a thriving one—in fact one of the only bustling, growing ecosystems during these economic doldrums. So to encourage fresh approaches to connect young people and technology is something I value and champion.
It was in the Young Foundation’s report Plugged in, untapped (2010) that I first came across the phrase ‘digital homophily’—something I’d seen time and time again but not named. There’s this tension about the internet: although it has the capability of being a democratising tool, it is currently not bridging many socio-cultural chasms. In fact—for the most part unwittingly—it has a tendency to widen them. Those who’ve learned how to develop broad networks, to research thoroughly and to engage meaningfully online are in a happy place. But for young people who don’t have extensive networks, the internet is a place to reinforce their offline peer community, and to engage with the brands that influence them.
I launched Spark+Mettle a year ago to explore ways to turn this tendency on its head. My aim was to work with young people from tough backgrounds to help them flourish and fulfil their potential. Star Track is a year-long incubator programme that shapes, supports and accelerates the emerging talent in young people. Unlike many similar programmes, the method for the pilot has been to harness digital technology and, working collaboratively with young people, to understand how it can enable them to fulfil their potential.
I confess this method came out of practical, personal considerations: I had just had a baby and was ensconced in Brighton, not much able to trundle around the country. But I desperately didn’t wanted the programme to be confined to where I was—the need in Brighton for this sort of programme is considerable, but still considerably less than elsewhere. Going a digital route then seemed to be a wholly practical one—a risk, but one that’s paid off. It’s been great for co-creators: one pair “hangout” each week (as above) when one’s in Essex and the other Edinburgh; we’ve teamed young people in York and Bristol with London counterparts. That’s pretty liberating. The fact that it is not location-based has been a huge plus for our team and volunteers too—people are able to commit to us and to the other logistics of their lives. We’ve had team members dial into their sessions from Singapore and New Zealand.
Out of the ten messages that have emerged from the DTYE conversations, there are three that resonate particularly strongly with what we’ve been doing over the last few months.
The first is around the concept of blending online and offline. All our co-creators and team members met, in person, during an assessment day in October. That formed a strong basis for the developing online relationships. We have quarterly lunch parlays during which we all meet, and bring in a number of volunteers to connect with our young people on a variety of projects. The most recent one we held was a huge success. The online/offline blend is mutually reinforcing. And in fact, although I appreciate the benefits of game-based approaches, for the group of young people we target (those who have spark and some degree of mettle but lack the connections and resources to get to where they deserve to go) it is the human-to-human interaction (online or offline) that is key.
I’m also borderline fanatical about co-design – whether it’s with the users or other providers, a multi-brain mash-up is surely an intuitive approach for generating successful online content and design. We were looking for a title for the young people on our Star Track programme: ‘participants’ was too passive for us. The title ‘co-creators‘ came from them. “As we learn from it, we are also shaping it,” said Suraj Rai. I can’t say it any better. For each session I provide a learning aim, a flourishing theme and a suggested list of questions, discussion points and (online) sources of information. I share these with the agents and co-creators and they are left to adapt the discussion to their particular needs, interests, experiences or aspirations. Beyond the session, there are suggested research and reflective activities, but again these are highly adaptive. They blog their responses which we aggregate on our Tumblr. At every stage the co-creators are feeding back to us about the programme design—what’s working and what isn’t. We adapt accordingly. If it doesn’t work for them, then it doesn’t work. We’re excited to be in a state of flux, and to keep that flexibility integral to our structure, however we grow.
The final message that I connect with is around network literacy. It comes back to my earlier point on digital homophily. We shared the Young Foundation’s finding with our co-creators. They agreed with it. Now they’re conscious of it. And our programme deliberately strives not only to reinforce the strong, beneficial peer-to-peer connections but also to help our young people develop the means of connecting with a much wider group, including people from different generations, backgrounds and places. It’s one of the elements of the programme that they enjoy the most and get the most from. What’s key, for me and for the organisation, is that the benefit goes two ways. The UK is shamefully silo-ed. I don’t aim to improve social mobility—not because I like class schisms, quite the opposite. Improved social mobility, to me, means allowing a small number of people to climb the ladder. I’d like to get rid of the ladder.
The digital space seems to be the perfect environment to foster a new, non-hierarchical, complex and interwoven society. But it’s not there yet. Getting young people involved in harnessing technology to fulfil their potential is vital to breaking down the hidden social, cultural and economic barriers that prevent them from doing so offline. Spark+Mettle is a small potato, but we’re excited about what we’ve achieved so far, and we’re keen to engage with anyone who has similar aspirations. Together maybe we can really do something.