This blog celebrates the ninth annual Kids in Museums Digital Takeover day, this year exploring the role heritage spaces can play in supporting young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Working on the Our Shared Cultural Heritage (OSCH) project both as a collective member and a Cultural Learning and Participation Officer (CLPO) Apprentice, Hawwa Alam shares how she’s experienced first-hand the importance of care and inclusion when working with young people, and supporting them on projects. In this guest post, Hawwa shares how she has also had the opportunity through her role, to be a part of creating and developing the kind of safe and empowering spaces she’s also wanted to participate in, but could never previously find within the creative and heritage sectors.
As a Cultural Learning and Participation Officer (CLPO) no day is the same for me. Besides meetings and emails and general admin, my time is often focused on any key tasks I am currently working on. Whether that’s planning, delivering and evaluating an online workshop or event, designing resource materials for students and teachers, attending / speaking at events to share good practice with other organisations, thinking about new ways to engage young people – especially from diverse ethnic backgrounds – with the work Our Shared Cultural Heritage (OSCH) does, and liaising with external practitioners / artists and partners on projects that are happening: there’s always something different to do.
The common theme that runs through all this is care. Dr Sadia Habib (OSCH Coordinator) is an incredible inspiration to all the young people in the collective, and ensures every element of the work she does and the projects and campaigns she supports the young people to do, is something they want to do: something authentic and organic and powerful and empowering – never tokenistic, performative, or forced.
Overall, the OSCH collective members I meet through my role all have similar experiences and perceptions of traditional museum spaces: exclusive, intimidating, unrepresentative, and sometimes unsafe. Whether that’s due to power hierarchies, lack of diversity and inclusion, or project coordinators who seem only to care about young people’s engagement when it benefits them, the museum’s reputation, or their project outcomes.
At the very core of OSCH is the desire to challenge this and to create a safe and comfortable space for young people to explore their own heritage, identity and belonging with people who will actively listen, support and contribute their own thoughts in a validating way. In order to even have a chance to do so, there needs to be shifts in decision making, in hierarchy, in trust and support.
Ask anyone in the OSCH collective what their favourite thing about Sadia is, and they will say how much she clearly cares. How she only has their best interests at heart. How she will always fight in their corner and support the ideas they have, and how she constantly gives up power for the sake of us. Given a speaking opportunity at a prestigious event, discussing youth engagement or any other relevant topic? Young people should be there too. Have an idea to engage young people via an event or campaign? Let young people lead on it. Want to get young people involved in any capacity, from consultation and design work, to project coordination and social media marketing? Pay them fairly for their time.
Don’t just shout about their work when it suits the goals of the museum, when things are going well, when social media has turned their attention to these young people working so hard and putting so much passion into their project. Be there when there are challenges, question institutional issues and break down structural discrimination and age-based bias alongside them because you want this change too.
This all ties into wellbeing and care. Young people know when they’re being used, when they’re the token young person / person of colour, when a project is marketed as youth-led but then they hold no decision making power, and it impacts their wellbeing, their desire to be involved, and their sense of self-worth. They will question their right to exist in a place if you do not create a space for them instead of simply about them.
OSCH has been one of the most comforting and empowering spaces I’ve had the privilege of being involved in for many years. Why? Because we know that Sadia cares. The other young people care. There’s a free space to explore personal topics, be critical of museum spaces in a productive way, and grow as people, and it has had such a powerful impact on our wellbeing. Especially for young people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, it’s a rare feeling, to be able to exist without feeling as though you have to prove yourself or defend your right to be there. Museums can be spaces for young people. They can play a role in supporting young people’s wellbeing, I’ve seen it happen.