31 Jan 2019  |  Cat Vizor

I am lucky enough to have started a Masters degree in Power Participation and Social Change, at the Institute of Development Studies, to develop my knowledge and gain new insights on how I can be a better leader for ESTEEM. Because of this course, I am more aware of the direction in which I would like to lead ESTEEM. I can’t emphasise enough how important and exciting it is, both for myself and for ESTEEM, to be developing skills, knowledge and experience in an amazing place and with such wonderful lectures and students.  

Because of this Masters degree, I feel ESTEEM is better placed to open discussions and consultations with young adults, to address the issues they are facing head on. I will use my learning to facilitate opportunities for young adults to engage effectively within their community. Article 12 in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child, states that “children have the right to participate in decision making processes relevant to their lives and to influence decisions taken in their regard”; it is with this approach to youth participation that ESTEEM can lead the way for young people to “participate as citizens and actors of social change”. I will also address the question, ‘do they want to?’.

The local authority district of Adur & Worthing has one of the highest rates of youth self-harming in the UK (“Self harm briefing,” 2017), where 1 in 3 young adults experience suicidal thoughts (“West Sussex Suicide Audit (2017),” 2017). ESTEEM supports an average of one new young adult every week who is in need of crisis support; statistically those accessing this support have been due to mental health (76%), homelessness (20%), and other reasons such as isolation and financial crisis (50%). In an online survey of over 350 young adults that ESTEEM ran in 2015 (“Esteem,” 2018), 48% of young adults reported feeling they lacked meaningful opportunities, and 65% of young adults reported ‘feeling lonely and isolated’. The young adults who come to ESTEEM are marginalised by the current system, relating to a growing poverty gap, zero hours contracts and employment instability. “More than a fifth of the population live on incomes below the poverty line after housing costs are taken into account, even though most of these households are in work. Nearly one in three children live in poverty and the use of food banks is rising.” (Partington, 2018).

In 2017, ‘youthquake’ was chosen as the word of the year; it rose to prominence as a “descriptor of the impact of the [UK’s] young people on its general election” and is defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people” (“Oxford Dictionaries website,” 2017).

Young people have the skills and abilities to engender social change, but are prevented from doing so by a number of barriers, often relating to their age, socio-economic situation and mental health issues. In order for positive social change to occur, young people need to be included in decision making processes.

In order to facilitate change within young people, as CO, I need to be aware of what my own assumptions are – such as what I think is best, what is working and what is not. I am beginning to realise some of my blind spots, learning that trying to do things for people and pushing them towards what I think is the right outcome, is not helpful. This is possibly because I lack insights into the reality that many young people are facing; I am not experiencing mental health issues on a daily basis, my friends are not feeling suicidal or dying by suicide and my family are not unemployed or non-existent.

It feels important to reflect on my position and influence within the organisation to get a deeper understanding of how positive change can happen, within individuals and in the community. We all have a story that has led us to our current situation – significant events we can identify and reflect upon. It is by reflecting on what motivated me to pursue a career in running ESTEEM that hope to identify blind spots and improve how I work.

I have come from a loving and supportive family, I am able-bodied and healthy and I have rarely felt discriminated against. I have had many opportunities and experiences throughout my life, which have led to my empathy and understanding of others, and how I interpret the world around me. I recognise I have a good level of confidence and strong sense of belief in what is right. In terms of my position of influence within ESTEEM, I can’t get away from the fact that as Chief Officer, an imbalance of power is created in my relationships with people I work with and support.

My belief is that ESTEEM has potential to facilitate change in local society by engendering individual and community wellbeing. ESTEEM helps to provide the networks that connect young people to opportunities, support and experiences. The idea is to enable young people to feel empowered and work toward progressive change for themselves. And Healthy young people can help generate healthy communities! My role as Chief Officer is to develop this. We are a small charity but we do big things – we understand that young people are the next generation and the key to social change. The level of young people’s wellbeing can impact whether they are able to contribute to progressive social change.

When I reflect over the last 9 years of running ESTEEM, I would say that a lot of that time has been crisis prevention; whether it’s reacting to prevent a person from continuing or entering into crisis, such as homelessness or daily battles with mental health; or the challenges of maintaining a small charity. It seemed like I felt the need to jump in and rescue the person or the situation and I behaved with a reactionary mind-set. It was as if I almost expected chaos.

I have asked myself in the past why I had a tendency towards chaos and where this might have come from? I realised that I had grown up needing to be independent, with a fair amount of change and a few difficulties. This is how I learned to think on my feet and take action and so I gravitated towards situations where I could solve problems – I liked life in the fast lane – ESTEEM grew from this. But sometimes things would go wrong and I would make mistakes.

This past period of my journey with ESTEEM, encompassed a lot of action and reaction. Young people would join ESTEEM to volunteer, but actually they needed a lot of support. I was focused on supporting individuals and putting all my energy into to helping them, but losing the sight of the long-term goals of ESTEEM. I definitely didn’t have time to stop and reflect on what was and wasn’t working.

Now ESTEEM is flying. We have a theory of change in which we gathered input from young people and we have a great team of youth volunteers and staff. Learning from my studies I have consciously shifted from a position of control to one of empowerment; learning to lead by withdrawing myself, finding better ways to listen and include young people on every level. I am applying to Toptal for a scholarship which will enable me to continue with my Masters and feed everything that I am learning back in to ESTEEM. It’s an exciting next phase of our charity, it feels like we have the community behind us and having financial support gives validity to do what I love doing.