A field trip across the pond.

It’s been a little while since I was involved in taking a large group of young people away, and not something I’ve done before on the same sort of scale as we just did at the Winch. As reported by the Camden New Journal and Ham & High, we took a group of about 18 young people, youthworkers and a couple of hangers-on to New York, to learn from some inspirational projects working with children, young people and the wider community. It was a profoundly affecting experience.

Taking young people away is always terrific fun. And exhausting. And memorable. But there was something about our Harlem Learning Journey which made it a different type of ‘residential’.

The past six months at the Winch have been incredibly busy, even more than before. We secured funding last November to commission two big pieces of work. One was a social enterprise feasibility study, the other a full set of architectural plans for the refurbishment of 21 Winchester Road, for which we appointed Architecture 00, an exciting firm with an unusual interest and engagement in the political and social debates framing our plans.

Harlem Learning Journey was about the central process of change, reflection and reimagination the Winch has been undergoing for a while, but which has been given sharper focus and intensity by the arrival of these new partners and the work they’re doing with us. At the heart lies a very simple set of questions. What is our raison d’etre at the Winch? How good are we at achieving this? And how are we currently – and could we be better – achieving this?

This is a conversation which every organisation should of course be having all the time, over and over. For us at the Winch, it is something which we had regularly touched upon, but the suggestion that an organisation needs to spend substantial time and resource on such a process is one which can be daunting, and is often only precipitated by a culmination of other quite wide-ranging factors: the ongoing desire to not simply ‘do good work’ but understand its effectiveness and impact, the occurrence of events or incidents which call into question orthodox ways of doing things, broader shifts in economic and political debates which mean we must reevaluate our approach, and the opportunities for change brought about by all of the above.

In New York, we visited six amazing projects:

52nd Street Project: Founded in 1981, working with children to write their own plays, performed by professional actors and set in Hell’s Kitchen, at the time one of New York City’s toughest neighbourhoods. A sister project, Scene & Heard, runs in Somers Town and was recently given the Queen’s Award (the MBE for voluntary organisations).

Brooklyn Superhero Supply Store: The shopfront for 826NYC, part of Dave Eggers’ fantastically successful 826 Valencia, works with students from 8 years old up to support their creative writing skills through encouraging their imagination and partnering them with writing professionals for one-to-one support, publishing a number of books in the process. The first London ‘826’, Hoxton Street Monster Supplies, opened last year.
Harlem Children’s Zone: Described by President Barack Obama as ‘An all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck, anti-poverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children’, HCZ is led by Geoffrey Canada, named by Time magazine this year as one of its ‘100 Most Influential People’. It is an extraordinary organisation making the difference it aims to make, changing the odds for children growing up in one of America’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

Lower Eastside Girls Club: Established in 1996 to address the historic lack of provision for young women and now engaged in its own multimillion-dollar capital refurbishment project, the Girls Club works with girls and young women to enable them to ‘grow, learn, have fun, and develop confidence in themselves and their ability to make a difference in the world’, employing a broad range of activities including social enterprise.

Red Hook Community Justice Center: Set up after a local primary school headmaster was shot when he went looking for a missing child, the Justice Center is at the heart of a transformative process which has turned Red Hook from a deprived, dangerous neighbourhood to an increasingly prosperous and thriving community. Combining restorative justice theory with educational and support functions, and fully plugged into the wider legal system, it includes a pioneering youth court where young people resolve cases in partnership with their peers.

The Children’s Storefront: Running for 45 years, the Children’s Storefront is an independent (read private), tuition-free school which operates a lottery system to select Harlem children for a high-quality education. It engages in fundraising rather than fees to pay for its services, and delivers educational outcomes over double the Harlem averages.

I mentioned above that Harlem Learning Journey felt like a different kind of ‘residential’. The key reason was our agenda: we were still doing the things we want to do around the development and support of young people, but we were undertaking a very similar process in relation to ourselves, as individuals and as an organisation. We were asking questions about why we do what we do, whether it’s as good as it could be, how it needs to change. We were asking about what works elsewhere, why that is, and whether it can be brought back and incorporated in our own approaches and work. And as professionals, these questions were challenging us in the philosophy and theory of work out of which we act and work on a daily basis. The partnership of young people, youthworkers and other professionals in this discourse of discovery and its application to the Winch has had a huge impact as we think increasingly critically about our future and what that means for our shape, our services, our building and our relationships with children and young people, and the local community, council, partners and funders.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing up some of my learning from New York, focusing on each of these six projects. Admittedly, there is plenty to inspire but not necessarily to import. But I do think that the catch-22 we need to overcome as leaders and activists of the voluntary sector is accepting that whilst we do some fantastic work, we have plenty of room for improvement. Indeed, our failures or shortcomings are often the best springboard for such processes of reflection and change, and we need to come to see them as such. I hope that, as so beautifully paraphrased by one of our newly arrived young social entrepreneurs at the Winch, ‘failure makes progress’. It certainly will if we let it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s