Fighting for the creative voices of children and young people is something that's dear to our hearts at TMC and has been since we were established 10 short years ago and we’ve recognised that children and young people adopt many different ways to express their views -laughing, crying, smiling, gaze, grasping, touching, pointing and uses of materials amongst many others.
It’s been central to much child-centered learning pedagogy across the world too but there’s always a risk that claiming to privilege children’s voice asthe central plank of your cultural or social policy making becomes a tokenistic attempt at democratic education, which can, with a hypnotistic Kenny Craig waving away of the hands – Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, the eyes, the eyes, not around the eyes, don't look around my eyes, look into my eyes, you're under -mask several other agendas – pupil compliance, customer satisfaction, and the inexorable marketisation of education – in full flow.
Hypnotists, ventriloquists and impersonators - the old Music Hall Variety shows can tell us a lot about the risks to fighting for the creative voice of children and young people.
Ventriloquation – when a speaker speaks through the voice of another for the purpose of social or interactional positioning (Wertsch, 1991, Bakhtin, 1981) – is not just a spooky music hall act but is brilliantly demonstrated in Toy Story 4, when Woody, on his quest to return the trash toy, Forky, to his owner Bonnie, chances upon a doll called Gabby in an antique store and her slavish ventriloquist's dummies, the Bensons.
The conflict between Woody and Gabby is, at its heart, a fight for the voice of the child. Gabby’s voice box has been broken and her desire to replace it leads to her capturing Woody and offering a deal – give me your voice box and I’ll give you back your lost toy, Bo – and by implication his long lost love.
The Bensons are instrumental in her fight to regain her voice box, and Woody, ever the Tom Hanks hero, obliges. He donates his voice box to her through a surgical procedure; which leads to her eventually gaining the attention of a lost child at the end of the film which ensures both the toy’s and child’s happy ever afterness.
Scratch the surface of Toy Story 4 and there are several other delights in store when it comes to understanding the complexities of children’s voice – or better put, voices.
Heteroglossia (roughly translated as ‘multi-languagedness’) is described by Bakhtin in his work "Discourse in the Novel." And refers to the idea that there are several distinct languages within any single (apparently unified) language or text: and that different languages each have a different voice which compete with one another for dominance.SO, when we refer to ‘children’s voices’ we’re better accepting that children – like all of us – do not speak in one coherent voice but that many competing voices are at work in their utterances. Responding to what we think are authentic children’s voices is not as straightforward as our desire would like it to be.
This is exemplified brilliantly in Toy Story 4: at a crunch point in the search for Woody, Buzz Lightyear, who all through the film has been advised to listen to his inner voice, struggles to listen to the voice he wants to hear from the button-induced phrases from his own voice box:
“Stand back everyone” doesn’t cut it.
“Everyone take cover!” isn’t what’s needed.
“To infinity and beyond!” is missing the point.
But finally, the inner voice phrase “The slingshot manoeuvre!” does the trick and Buzz is off to save the day again, reminding us in the process that the ‘inner voice’ is also, far more complex, more heteroglossic, than it might first appear.
Toy Story 4 also shows how children’s voices are heard through acts of impersonation. In one of the final chase sequences through the carnival at the end of the film, one of the toy gang, Trixie, impersonates the family car’s GPS system and the toys manipulate the controls, so taking control of the car.Other moments in the film have utterances from Woody being heard by the humans in the story – breaking the convention in the films where the toys can only be seen as inanimate objects by the humans, never with agency, and certainly never with voice. Out of sight they may be, but for the first time perhaps, the toy has found their voice and agency in the land of the humans through acts of impersonation.
So, as well as bearing in mind the hypnotists, ventriloquists, impersonators and elusive butterfly of the inner voice, the other aspect of children’s voice we’d be mindful to be aware of its fleeting nature. Always in transition, voice is not a fixed entity. We do not speak consistently for long.We are always learning; and always listening to new voices which we try to ignore, assimilate, pass off as our own or wrestle into a completely different form. Our authentic voice – true children’s voice - can never be completely pinned down or determined because our lives depend on flux and flow, confluence and influence.
Nick Owen, CEO
The term ‘Youth Voice’ is quickly and loudly echoing across the education, arts and cultural sectors not to mention the rest of the world. Children and young people are feeling more and more empowered to share their views and to have them valued. It is our duty to listen to them, respond to them and embed their views within our organisation’s practice where appropriate. We cannot authentically provide for children and young people if we do not do so. With this there is an undeniable responsibility, not only to provide children and young people with rich arts and culture opportunities, but to also organically embed youth representation and voice within our infrastructure.
Conversations during our Creating the Future: Challenging Perspectives and Broadening Horizons for Children and Young People on Friday 28th June (an event designed, developed and delivered by 5 young people between 18-25) stressed the issue, that simply placing a young person on your organisation’s board without an understanding of its purpose, without prior knowledge or training on expected behaviours and outcomes, and with a lack of value from other board members is not youth voice, it is youth tokenism, a danger when seeking youth voice representation. Providing youth voice for youth voice sake, and not looking at the wider picture.
There was an abundance of these fruitful conversations around best practice when it comes to youth voice at Creating the Future, from youth employment strategies, youth consultation, youth governance and youth training through to having young people as part of interview processes as modelled by PEER’s PEER Ambassadors scheme, a paid gallery assistant experience for young people in Hackney. We had asked British poet, writer and creative producer Charley Genever, to capture the day’s conversations and happenings, of which she crafted into ‘Notes for Change’, a poem impressive not only in the following excerpts, but in its entirety. One of the poem’s most poignant images is the following: “Art is the business of people, the right for everyone to belong, for new minds to find their tribes, to create thriving humans. /If you do not wear this sentiment across your chest, you’re not a youth engagement officer, you are a security guard”.
It is one thing having these conversations, but for young people to feel this sense of belonging that Charley talks about, as Laura Lundy’s Voice Model Checklist for Participation states, we need to ensure these views are listened to by the right people and are taken seriously and acted upon. So, what are we doing at The Mighty Creatives to authentically develop youth voice within our organisation and its provision for children and young people?
I, along with TMC's Development Manager Sophie Baczynski attended Upstart Project’s Youth Voice training back in May, where we were introduced to Phil Treseder’s Degrees of Participation, a reimagining of Hart’s ladder that moves away from the ladder metaphor and linear or hierarchical sequencing. It emphasises that there should be no limit to youth participation, with each degree of participation being equally valuable, dependent on the proposed project and the objectives of the participants. These degrees are: Assigned by informed; Consulted and Informed; Adult-initiated, shared decisions with children; Child-initiated, shared decisions with adults and Child-initiated and directed. This model supports a way to map our organisation’s provision and to adapt our frameworks and models of practice, whilst also critiquing and redeveloping past youth programmes as well as ensuring that we continue to connect with current and past voices in the future. However, it’s one thing consulting a model, but how do we ensure we are engaging with young people authentically and ethically? This is where Lundy’s model comes into play.
The Lundy model of Child Participation provides four elements of provision for participation through conceptualising Article 12 of the UNCRC. These four elements have a natural and rational order of Space, Voice, Audience and Influence. A safe space and open space must be available for young people to share their views, children and young people must be facilitated well enough to express them correctly, these views, ideas and opinions must be actively listened to and acted on if and where appropriate. This acts as, quite simply, a check-list moving forward of how we can ensure that every child and young person we engage with, through any degree of participation, has their voice heard and acted on, with their views at the heart of what we provide at The Mighty Creatives.
Through development meetings and discussions with our Youth Working Group, we are dedicated to ensuring that Youth Voice is intertwined throughout our organisation and our steps moving forward. Naturally, each area of our provision, whether that be education or youth engagement, has its own degree of youth participation, its about how we nurture, protect and employ those voices to have an impact, not only on us and our organisation but most importantly on the young people we work with.
Emily York, Youth Programme Coordinator