Young people’s participation with LGBT Youth Scotland
LGBT Youth Scotland is Scotland’s national charity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) young people. They provide a national youth work programme, are a valued and influential partner in LGBTI equality and human rights and deliver the LGBT Charter programme.
During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, LGBT Youth Scotland had to shift to a digital youth work approach, launching their bespoke Discord server Pride and Pixels. Research published at the end of 2020 reflected on this work – The Impact of LGBT Youth Scotland’s Digital Youth Work on Young People.
LGBT Youth Scotland have also been doing participation work with young people for well over 10 years. This used to be a national youth council, made up of representatives from each youth group around the country, but in 2016 this changed to a more focused youth commission approach. This also saw a shift in their approach towards co-design. Previous youth commissions have looked at mental health for LGBTI young people, housing and homelessness, and experiences of being in care. The current commission is tasked with looking at trans rights.
I sat down with Sarah Anderson, the LGBT Youth Scotland Policy and Participation Officer for a chat about the work they do.
Can you tell us a bit more about the current youth commission you’re working with?
“The current youth commission has 14 young people at the moment, aged 14-25. It was originally set up to look at gender recognition reforms in 2017 but has since been extended to trans rights in general.
Since 2020, the commission have done some fantastic work. They took part in a roundtable to discuss implications for Scotland following the Bell v Tavistock case in England and Wales. They have been working with the Gender Identity and Healthcare Access team at Scottish Government to produce recommendations on engaging people with lived experience, and representatives have sat on the the Scottish Government Non-Binary Working Group.
One of their biggest achievements was meeting with Shona Robison MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government. They discussed gender recognition reform and what it’s like being a trans young person in Scotland
Recently the commission took the initiative to write an open letter to Ms Robison in response to a letter sent to the minister from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on the subject of reforming the Gender Recognition Act.”
What drew you to your current role with LGBT Youth Scotland?
“I’m really passionate about LGBT rights and making sure that people with lived experience have a meaningful role in participation, not just lip service. I really love the challenge of project management in youth participation in particular; it’s really challenging work where you’re always having to reflect on your values what you bring to your work. To effectively champion young people’s rights and challenge when they are excluded, you have to interrogate your own practice to make sure you aren’t replicating those power structures. I also love supporting LGBTI young people!”
What are the challenges and joys of working with the youth commission?
“One of the challenges for this particular project is being aware of the impact that talking and thinking about negative experiences and transphobia can have on the young people. We can’t completely protect them from this as it has become part of their daily lives. You have to find the balance between holding space for and supporting the young people, and giving them the freedom to step out and speak for themselves. You want them to have access to that power, but there is the potential for them to get hurt in the process.
There are also challenges around giving up power to the young people, and making sure that everyone gets a chance to participate. This is related to valuing young people no matter what they bring. It can be easier to give more opportunities or value to the people who have most capacity or can bring the most to the group, and this gap can grow as a project accelerates. I work to ensure we value all the young people, and support them to value themselves as well. Peer learning and support is a crucial part if this.
Another challenge is working with decision makers who perhaps don’t have the same understanding or experience with participation as you do. A lot of the work is really to communicate the value of participation, and provide guidance on what genuine participation is. When joining a project where the wheels are already in motion, it’s harder to ensure the best model of participation is being used.
But the joys of it are seeing the young people get excited and take ownership of their project. It is wonderful to watch them building relationships and friendships together, putting real effort into supporting and looking after each other and the group. The joy they get from being with each other is almost at the edges of what the youth commission is set up for, but I love seeing their queer joy and watching the young people smash it.”
Tell us more about the youth commission model and how LGBT Youth Scotland approach participation?
“The youth commission model is based on the idea of 10-15 young people coming together to work on a specific issue. Usually the commissioners will have lived experience of the issue at hand. Once the group are formed, they do peer research on the topic and combine this with their own expertise from their lived experience. They develop key findings and asks for what they believe needs to change, and map out the stakeholders who could influence these things. They then go out to contact and speak to these stakeholders at events, meetings and so on, to get their findings across and deliver their asks. Sometimes they also produce resources to act as a legacy for their project, like these top tips for the care sector produced by the care experienced youth commission.
In between the meetings to keep this project work going, we would have development days. Pre-COVID these would be every 6 weeks for a whole day, but to deliver these digitally we are doing them more frequently for only 3.5 hours. At the development day we have peer led skills or knowledge sharing, and informal time over lunch for the young people to share updates and ask questions of each other. This is followed by project work like writing a letter or planning a social media takeover.
The young people created their own safer space agreement and working agreement. The working agreement covers how they want the youth commission to run, what their role is in it and what my role is in it. It’s been a process of negotiation to get to this agreement, which reflects the general approach I have to the commission – it’s a partnership; not entirely youth led or youth worker led.
This approach sets us up as equals, which means I have a responsibility to be honest and respond authentically to them, and need to interrogate my power and recognise my own position and what I bring. I use a reflective practice model and journaling to do this interrogation, following a ‘What happened? Why? What will I change?’ format. But also it’s something I try to do with the young people. I work hard to build trust with them to enable us to have frank conversations to really understand how they feel, what works for them and what they want to happen differently. I try to do 6 monthly one-to-one check-ins with the young people as well as “exit interviews” with young people at the end of projects. This informs the structures and guidance we use, but also has helped inform my practice and been a real learning journey.
It’s a constant negotiation with the young people, and the more you talk to them the more you learn about participation.
At a theoretical level, I base my youth participation work on several different models, including the Lundy model of participation.”
How have you supported the youth commission to bond when they formed online?
“The feedback from previous youth commissions was that they wanted more time to socialise and bond as a balance to the sometimes challenging work of the youth commission. so I tried to organise things like games nights, fun team building exercises and silly icebreaker games. The young people did enjoy these, the bonding didn’t necessarily happen. What actually ended up bonding the group organically was stepping out of their comfort zone together challenging and supporting each other through that. The real turning point for this was when I worked with the group to prepare for an important meeting dealing with gender recognition.
During the preparation for the meeting, the group themselves recognised that this work would be emotionally demanding for them all. As a result they took the initiative to create a group chat to support each other, provided space to ask for support, and worked together to ensure everyone was ok. This reflects the balance I talked about earlier, recognising that young people are human beings, sometimes with traumatic experience, and being gentle with this but also creating enough safety so that they are able to have their voices heard.”
Where do you see the future of youth participation in LGBT Youth Scotland, or in Scotland more widely?
“I want young people respected and valued for their time more. I think remuneration is something that needs to enter participation work. I’m not saying that youth participation should stop being a voluntary thing, but when young people find themselves in high level meetings sharing their expertise like the adults there, then they should be paid a wage or at least given a token gift. I’m wanting to explore this in LGBT Youth Scotland.
One thing I have been working on is trying to integrate participation more into the policy work we do. When you’re doing this kind of work, you have to constantly ask yourself the questions – why am I here without a young person? However you need to balance that with not over-burdening them and being attentive to them as an unpaid young person in a group of adults.
Within LGBT Youth Scotland overall I’d really like us to invest in youth participation and have it at the centre of the organisation. Having young people meaningfully steering the organisation, and being genuinely empowered to do so. We are working towards that now, for example, we are in the early stages of setting up a Youth Reference Group. This is a group of young people who are going to be involved in decision making alongside our Board of Trustees. I can’t wait to see what our participation work will look like in the future.”