We recognise the position The Proud Trust has as England’s largest LGBT+ youth charity. Funding is always an issue for us, as it is for all in our sector. However, we do have capacity and resource to support others and we are mindful of how we can use our position to work collaboratively with other LGBT+ youth organisations. We feel we have a responsibility to offer guidance and support to our collaborative networks including the LGBT+ Youth Workers’ Network.
In February 2020, we began to be more alert to the COVID-19 outbreak in China. From that point forward, we began to plan for business continuity should the virus spread globally. We are an LGBT+ youth organisation operating across Greater Manchester and Cheshire – indeed, some of our work is national as we deliver training and manage various national networks. The key issue for us was how we might maintain our vital lifesaving and life-enhancing youth work and continue our support for LGBT+ children and young people. By early March, our youth groups were testing use of an online platform in the event they were unable to meet ‘in real life’, showing young people how to get onto the platform and ensuring our staff were familiar with the technology.
On 14 March 2020, we made the decision to switch all our youth work and one-to-one work to a digital space. Supported by a courageous, industrious and creative team here at The Proud Trust we codified our decision-making: the merits and disadvantages of different digital platforms, safeguarding and assessing risk, how to run groups in an online space etc. Two days later, we were fully online and all face-to-face work stopped. In writing down our decisions and thinking, we were also creating an LGBT+ Digital Youth Work Suite document that we constantly updated and used as our base for the virtual youth work world we had entered.
In the last two weeks of March, we contributed to twelve digital youth work events to support the youth work sector. We had already been planning to deliver a three-day set of conference events in late March 2020 with a variety of LGBT+ youth work partners across Ireland and the UK. It was a fabulous programme of events that will at some point come to fruition. Understandably, by 28 March, folk were more focused on how to do digital youth work and mutual support. Our planned conference became a virtual meet with almost 100 people signing up from across the UK and Ireland.
The LGBT+ Digital Youth Work Suite includes information on digital platforms, a comprehensive risk assessment (safeguarding), a selection of activities to run with young people, guidance on one-to-one work as we are more mindful of the need for adapting our style of youth work to meet the needs of our young people, including mental health needs. We continue to take on board feedback, adapt the document and share it. So far over 500 youth work organisations have accessed this guidance. We plan further versions that will credit collaborative partners, for example The Kite Trust’s input that helped to improve the risk assessment.
So, what next? Our work is constantly evolving as we adapt to this new situation. Some young people aren’t online which means we have explored other ways of supporting them. We are planning our next suite of guidance with an emphasis on youth workers’ wellbeing during this period to ensure they are in the best position they can be to support LGBT+ young people. We are building an online space for members of our network to share ideas, support and guidance. And, we will be offering a virtual meet every two weeks until 30 June for members of the IUKI LGBT+ Youth Workers’ Network. At some point, we take stock and assess what next. We are already thinking about the likely increased need for one-to-one support from our young people as the weeks of physical isolation roll on. We also have in mind how we will eventually migrate back to a face-to-face programme.
What is really clear right now is that there are clear advantages of our virtual offering, such as reaching young people in rural locations, young people with access needs for whom accessing a physical youth group is challenging and for some of our autistic young people. How we structure our offering will never be the same – there is no return to ‘normal’ but we can draw on this to learn for the future.