Global Youth Club
Global Youth* is a youth club run jointly by a refugee support organisation and the local authority for secondary-aged young people from refugee, asylum seeker and migrant backgrounds. Most (but not all) the young people speak excellent English, and have little memory of their countries of origin. As well as weekly club nights involving sports, crafts, games and ‘hanging out’ time, the club organises trips and projects in partnership with local organisations.
In winter 2013-4, Global Youth’s leaders wished to initiate a partnership with the theatre, which might give them access to theatre trips, drama projects and other arts opportunities. I agreed to co-run a series of storytelling and drama workshops together with a drama practitioner from the theatre, during the regular club nights. Based on their experience of previous arts projects, in which young people had resented their socialising space being wholly occupied by structured activities, the club leaders proposed that we take up only part of the session, and only in alternate weeks. We realised that we would need to proceed tentatively, and on the young people’s own terms.
In our initial workshop, though the young people were clearly unused to drama games, and lacked the confidence to risk participating enthusiastically, they listened avidly to the selkie legend ‘The Seal Hunter’. We asked them for permission to come again, which was granted. When I asked if any of them had their own stories to bring to the following workshop, there were slow nods of interest.
In fact the young people did not bring any of their own stories to the next session, but cautiously warmed up to storymaking games; their stories were, interestingly, consistently subversive and ‘cheeky’. I was asked, “When are you going to read (sic) us another story?” and someone turned the lights out, so I told a local ghost story, which was appreciated.
The subsequent sessions were characterised by a constant interplay of enthusiastic participation and tactical resistance. Young people would refuse to sign research consent forms, deliberately ‘act up’ during games and subvert stories (often very skilfully), but were strongly drawn to listen to my or my colleague’s tellings, or tell us their own stories in quiet corners.
The atmosphere was so fraught in the fourth session that I consciously chose to ‘seize’ their attention by launching into the legend of ‘Tir na nOg’ with maximum intensity and flourish. They listened, as ever, with clear absorption, but the moment I was finished they turned their backs, almost as one, and drifted off to sports or chat. We had been given a clear message and, we feared, had burned our bridges.
Endings and Conclusions
The following chaotic session proved to be our final one, as we accepted the young people had rejected the idea of working with us over the longer term. As the club leaders pointed out, many of these young people treasured the weekly opportunity to escape troubled home lives and socialise freely with friends and cousins – and did not want to be coerced within this space, no matter how entertaining or apparently informal the activity.
The experience of working in at Global Youth prefigured other difficulties I would encounter in seeking to establish a storytelling practice in informal adolescent spaces (such as the Liars’ Lunch Club at City School, and to some extent at Maple House). That is, the different energies of listening to a story and telling or building stories had much to offer young people, but their conflicting needs to rule their own environment meant that progress was always halting, and only the most responsive, even sometimes almost invisible, practice could establish its own long-term 'vernacular' place - and then only if the circumstances were ideal.