Collaboration, Creativity and Complexities: Developing networks and practices of co-production with children and young people. The Manchester Centre for Youth Studies, Manchester Metropolitan University. June 2019.
Though the potential of employing co-productive techniques with children and young people is increasingly recognised in research and practice, conferences focusing on academic and practice innovation in this specific area are few and far between. This made the ‘CCC’ conference unmissable for those of us seeking to examine the methods and implications of this important extension of participative work. While the overall tone of the conference was overwhelmingly supportive of co-productions democratising potential, it was gratifying to find that a good deal of attention was allotted to exploring the challenges, tensions, and contradictions of the approach, as well as celebrating its successes and positive experiences. A strong arts and creativity theme ran throughout the event, with an ongoing creative co-productive space running in one of the breakout rooms which resulted in a great number of mini-artworks representing what co-production ‘looks and feels like’.
Many young participants in projects being discussed on the day also attended to contribute in various ways, giving the conference a vibrancy often absent from academic events.
The keynotes were delivered by: Liam Hill, the Founder and Chief Executive of the non-profit organisation Voice for Children; Dr Kirsty Liddiard, from the University of Sheffield who co-led the Living Life to the Fullest research project; and Deborah Jump with Hannah Smithson, Manchester Metropolitan University (who heroically stepped in last minute to replace Manchester Local Authority leader Julie McCarthy, unfortunately taken ill). Liam’s address, ‘Walking my Path’ focused on providing a detailed and moving account of his 20 years’ experience of the care system as a child and young adult. While Liam was rather matter-of-fact about the tragic events and traumatic care experiences that he lived through, the emotive message was clear throughout: that it is critical to listen to the voices of vulnerable children and young people and treat them like people, instead of ‘cases’. This message is as relevant to practice as it is to research, and set the tone of the conference as one of respect and concern for the realities and views of children and young people, particularly those marginalised by their circumstances.
Kirsty’s address was also powerful, as while her story of co-producing and co-leading a research project exploring the lives of disabled and life-limited young people was ostensibly less personal, her talk focused almost entirely on the experiences of her young disabled co-researchers, alongside the practicalities of ensuring that access to the project was as equitable and accommodating as possible for her co-researcher’s individual needs and wishes. Sharing the motivation and passion of the whole research team to produce, analyse, and disseminate research by those who share key experiences with their participants, we also had the opportunity to watch the short film produced by and featuring the co-researchers, which is available at the project website (livinglifetothefullest.org). The film makes clear the additional insight made possible by truly co-productive research, and the project shines as an inspiration and resource to all those considering how to best develop co-production in research.
Deborah and Hannah had over the previous night put together an engaging and interesting keynote (fuelled by bottles of Corona, apparently!) reporting on their recent Comic Relief-funded work with girls and young women at risk of being involved in serious youth violence. They were careful to distinguish how this term is more accurate and ethical than the more commonly used phrase ‘gang violence’, and explained how many of the girls they worked with had been exploited, experienced homelessness, or had substance misuse issues.
The project, working with 97 participants across England, Columbia, and South Africa, offered opportunities to be involved in various skill-building activities like boxing, football, film-making and other creative arts. Many of the participants’ issues originated or were exacerbated by their social circles but Deborah and Hannah, having performed a social network analysis of participant relationships, argued that the key to helping them overcome their challenging experiences and destructive behaviours was not to tell them to break off friendships but instead to equip them with new social tools and a sense of independence alongside improved self-esteem and confidence. We were able to watch short films made by project participants that detailed their interests, journeys, and priorities in life, and these were beautifully made, evidencing their deep engagement with the project aims and methods. Perhaps the most important point of the keynote was how essential Deborah and Hannah considered trusting mentor relationships to the progress made by the project participants, arguing that to prevent involvement in crime we need to show investment in caring deeply for our young people, including a return to widespread youth work, and partnership with local communities in ways that centralise the voices and wishes of young people.
Alongside the keynotes there were many fascinating seminars and workshops available and it was wonderful to hear about the wide range of co-productive projects currently flourishing in the UK and beyond. An ongoing thread throughout much of the conference dialogue was the implications and questions relating to claims of ‘giving voice’ or ‘empowering’ children and young people involved in co-production, particularly in relation to vulnerable or traumatised co-producers. This question was interrogated in the sessions I attended by James Duggan, Janet Batsleer and Harriet Rowley, Gabrielle Ivinson, and Sarah Parry, who in various ways all interrogated the question of when co-production happens, who controls its funding, design, and processes, and who is invited to or excluded from engaging in it? As Bell and Pahl (2018) state, “[co-production] is an approach that demands constant attention to shifting relations of power and domination”. If we ignore these critical questions within co-production and make active attempts to disrupt domination and colonial practice, we raise the possibility for co-production to be a ‘rights-washing’ exercise that makes research or practice appear more equitable or democratic to outsiders (and insiders) than it really is.
While the conference sparked many exciting ideas for research and practice, and had a fantastic energy that was clearly felt by most participants, there was a doubt lingering in the minds of myself and colleague, Hayley Reed (DECIPHer), that proper attention had been given to the matter of consent and anonymity. While many talks throughout the conference featured non-anonymised children and young people, often relaying complex and potentially stigmatising details about their lives (including sexuality, criminality, and exploitation, alongside their local area and personal circumstances) the matter of how the risks and potential uses or dissemination of this exposing material had been raised and worked through with the participants were rarely or only briefly discussed. We didn’t doubt that these issues had indeed been carefully considered, however the lack of discussion was problematic, particularly since many of the projects presented were offering some form of incentive for participation, whether in the form of free activities, opportunities, or qualifications. We felt that these issues need to have a higher profile in discussions of co-production moving forward, particularly since rights-based discourse lies at the heart of the approach’s promoted value. This is, however, a small gripe (and one that could usefully be explored in future iterations of the conference) and overall this was a joyous, informative, and aspirational conference that reached towards utopian ideals of equal and democratic research and policy in a world where risks to these values appear ever increasing in frequency and severity.