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Our Thoughts - Zunaira Mahmood


I am now at my first anniversary with YMCA George Williams College, and it has been a wonderful learning opportunity, having had the chance to work on many ‘firsts’. Specifically, our evaluation into the impact of youth voice within the #iwill fund, where we have been working directly with young people to interrogate the impact youth voice has had at various levels, including organisations, funding, communities, and amongst young people themselves. Adopting a participatory approach has meant embedding youth voice at every stage of the evaluation, from the social inquiry through to the design of our first Outcomes Summit. My own approach to the evaluation has been informed by my experience as a widening participation ambassador at university, which equipped me in working with a wide-range of young people, and within our many work areas across the College, including the  Outcomes Framework 2.1 and organisational learning frameworks and tools, keeping sight of PQA domains such as ‘creating safe spaces’ and ‘supportive environments’, which allowed me to really practice what we at the College champion.  

The data findings from the evaluation (coming soon) have prompted many points of discussion amongst our team and Young Evaluators, considering the wider structural changes and systems that need to be in place in order to create spaces for youth voice to be impactful and sustainable. At our last residential, I saw the connection and camaraderie the Young Evaluators have developed amongst themselves, and the ease in which they assume their technical role and challenge our ‘adult’ ways of thinking and doing. The passion with which they discuss issues important to them is truly inspiring.  

Now at the midway point of this evaluation, I’m thinking about how our project has ensured there are systems in place to support our Young Evaluators to be involved, and how these processes can be embedded into our future work. Approaching participatory action research from a place of equity and power-sharing means that we can all centre young people as key stakeholders and owners of research that ultimately affects them. This does not mean that sole control and decision-making shifts to young people, but rather ensures that young people are able to speak for themselves than be spoken for. Successfully involving young people in the decision-making process is a collaborative exercise that necessitates various touch points for co-design and review. It is equally important to guide and empower young people to be confident in their decisions, skills, and knowledge by creating a supportive environment that enables them to meaningfully hold space for their thoughts and ideas. A robust wrap-around support mechanism is vital when considering undertaking any meaningful youth voice activity, which involves significant points of consideration, such as critically reflecting on your own motivations and methods. Why do you want to embrace young people’s views? How can you make your opportunity inclusive and accessible? And most significantly, how can you become as transparent as possible in the scope and level of young people’s involvement in your work? 

As we count down the days to our Outcomes Summit on 14 January 2023, a culmination of the Young Evaluators’ and our team’s work, I’ll continue to mull over the many working parts that make high-quality youth voice practice ‘click’, what that looks like in practice for funders, organisations, and delivery organisations, and importantly – how we ensure these processes are deeply embedded across all levels, moving beyond organisational ‘firsts’ and into the norm.