Empowering Young Voices. The Storyhouse experience.

Suzie Henderson (Creative Director- Storyhouse) and Jack Howard ( Young Trustee, Chair of Young Catalysts, Storyhouse).

The world is shifting at ever faster rates it seems. Over the last few years, political turmoil has become far more visible; issues like climate change have become ever more present, and the COVID-19 pandemic forced a near-total shift in society with effects that will certainly define the next few years.

As centres of information and learning, it is important that libraries the world over are up to date with not only the big shifts in the world, but also how they respond to the wants and needs of the local community. As times shift new factors must be considered that weren’t in scope a mere decade ago. Disability accessibility has grown from ramps to accommodations for people with sensory issues, such as quiet hours; and inclusivity has grown from token inclusions of non-Caucasian authors, to sections devoted to the written expression of more diverse experiences. If these are not kept up with, it will likely have repercussions, from decreased footfall as people feel unwelcome, to reputational damage Storyhouse has worked to solve this problem by bringing together young people to discuss and advise on these and other hot topics. Storyhouse has a large range of activities for children and young people from Young Company, who perform in the theatre to Young Leaders who do unique work in the community. Representatives from these groups aged 5-25 are brought together into what is known as Young Catalysts. This group meets up monthly with Senior staff from across Storyhouse to look at key areas of work and review policies and plans. Once they have an overview of these topics they go back to their original groups and get feedback from their peers, this feedback is then brought together, and a report is made for the board.

As the Young Trustee, I am lucky enough to be the one responsible for listening to the Young Catalysts and bringing all their ideas and feedback together and presenting it to the Board. As a young person myself, the ability for me to speak freely with those in charge of Storyhouse has been a privilege, but it is even more of a privilege to bring together such a diverse group of young people and hear so many wonderful ideas.

If I were to distill it down to one thing, one action to take. It would be this, Listen. Listen to people's concerns. Listen to their ideas. Listen to their feedback and never stop. Improvement is never one and done. Even if it feels like a never-ending barrage of complaints, embrace them because they care enough to try and help. Not every idea will work out and not every solution offered is feasible, but the lessons learned from them can be just as valuable.

This can be done in a variety of ways from surveys, to open meetings, to feedback boxes, to having specially brought together groups as we do. Never rely on just one source or group. Do whatever you can to get feedback. Done properly this will not only help you grow but will give people a sense of pride in their local library, one they will no doubt share with other people.

Jack Howard – Young Trustee, Chair of Young Catalysts

Co-curation and youth leadership have always been at the centre of my practice, one of the things that attracted me to join Storyhouse as their Creative Director in January of this year was how well established both of these practices are here.

The Young Catalysts have made very clear to the Board and Senior Management at Storyhouse their expectations for our ongoing commitments to both the climate emergency and access and inclusion. They are hugely passionate about both issues and have played active roles in the development of our Diversity, Access and Inclusion Action Plan for the next 4 years as well as prompting us to talk more publicly and visibly in the building about our green credentials.

The Young Catalysts have made it clear that they expect Storyhouse to go well beyond compliance in these areas and instead be leaders in best practice. They have also made clear their desire to see our work expand to meet the needs of the newly arrived communities of Chester, especially our most recent arrivals from Ukraine and Syria.

We have responded to this by building a partnership with our local race equality centre and securing funding to work collaboratively with our newly arrived communities to co-curate the purchasing of books for those communities, to look at storytelling for children in those languages joining our existing rostra of storytelling in Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, and Mandarin.

The Young Catalysts played a key role in the consultation that we commissioned at the start of this year to help us better understand the needs of our communities post-pandemic. Young people were quick to tell us how isolated they had become during the pandemic, how they felt they were lacking some basic social skills that supported them to make friendships, and made specific asks about non-digital activities that would support them to make new friendships and build their social skills.

To echo Jack’s perfect summary of what others can do – it really is as simple as listening. Moving away from assumptions, recognising our biases, and allowing young people to tell us what they want and need. Often people are surprised that what young people want most is the inclusion of other people.

As well as listening, we also need to remember to feedback – communication cannot only be one way. Not everything that is suggested will be possible, some might be possible but will take some time to achieve, and some things will be able to be actioned immediately. We need to ensure that we keep that dialogue open, we need to feedback to young people or any group we engage in this way, what we can do, in what timescale, and why certain things might not be possible. Nothing ruins this kind of engagement quicker than for people’s suggestions and feedback to disappear into a black hole with no idea of when, or if things will ever change.

Those of us who are privileged enough to lead cultural institutions need to remember we are only ever custodians of these spaces until the next generation is ready to pick up the reins.

Since 2018 sixty-six children and young people have been Young Catalysts at Storyhouse.

Author Bio

Suzie Henderson

Suzie Henderson is Creative Director at Storyhouse in Chester, working extensively nationally and internationally in youth governance and leadership, co-curation with young people and communities and arts for social change. Suzie has a particular interest in the civic role of arts organisations.

Jack Howard

Jack Howard is the youth trustee at Storyhouse, focusing on working with local young people to make Storyhouse the best it can be. Jack also works with access and inclusion board committee towards the same end


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