January 2022

January is traditionally a time for new beginnings, so I’ve been thinking about what lies ahead this year (given the recent disruption). It’s so hard to predict what might come next, however in times of uncertainty the pragmatist in me always reverts to a place where I remind myself of the important things.  That gives me strength and focus which is always welcome. 

I’ve always been passionate about working with young people, it comes from a place of wanting to represent what I needed (but didn’t have access to) when I was young.   

Years ago, I was training to be a part-time youth worker and one of the requirements was to have a qualification. I completely underestimated the journey of growth and learning that I would embark upon.  That training course was the single most important development point of my career.  

One of the modules covered ‘Power and Oppression’. During one session we had to participate in an exercise which was essentially “rigged”. It consisted of three tables – top middle and bottom – I was on the middle table. It was determined in advance who would move from the bottom table to the middle table, to the top table or from the bottom table straight to the top. The idea was that if you advanced to the top table, you could change all the rules and keep changing them at your will.

As expected, what quickly ensued was absolute chaos because those who were at the top table just became more and more aggressive. They were drunk with power. I remember their facial expressions started to change, as did their behaviour, in an ugly way. People from the bottom table would progress to the top and say: “I’ll remember you when I get to the top,” and as soon as they got to the top, they completely forgot everybody else and would assimilate with the group who were changing all the rules.

My friend and I, who were on both on the middle table, looked at each other and very quickly established we did not want any part of this ludicrous activity so we sat through the whole thing. It was carnage, and some people were in tears. At the end of the session the tutor (who later became a dear friend), met with everyone on a one-to-one basis to review the task.   

Feeling very smug and superior, I said: “The whole thing was horrific. I think people need to really take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror as the way they behaved was abysmal.” She then asked me how I thought I behaved and as I had not participated. I said I thought I acted with grace and maturity.

She turned to me and said “That might be a problem, Ashley. You didn’t participate in anything; you didn’t try and tackle whatever perceived craziness was happening at the top. Nor did you try and help anyone at the bottom, you did nothing.”

I was absolutely mortified, and she said the immortal words: “If you’re not a part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”  Those words rang in my ears for years.

Recently I was on holiday with that tutor and we discussed the power of that activity, and how it became the root of my personal and career values and why I am so passionate about fairness and equality.  From that session all those years ago, I learned at a young age that it’s not OK abuse your power but it’s also not OK to just sit back and it’s not OK or acceptable for an organisation that works with young people to not engage with what’s happening in the world around us.

If we can’t equip young people to survive and thrive then we’re failing them. Of course, I am immensely proud of the programmes we deliver but they can’t be delivered in a vacuum without considering the changing context within which we delivery them. We must be prepared to take risks and bring that external context and relevance to our work. So, 2022 will be another year where I strive to be “part of the solution” for the young people who need us.

December 2021

We’ve come to the end of another year and as is always the case, it’s a great time to reflect on some of the key highlights from 2021.

This year we published our new strategy, taking the opportunity to articulate our plans for the next five years. It was quite a milestone to publish our plan as we undertook all the work for the strategy during the height of lockdown last year.  As an organisation there was a huge amount of pride seeing it finally released into the world.

Another key achievement for us was engaging with the #Young&Black campaign which emerged from our equalities commitments and the national programme launched by UK Youth. We are particularly proud of the final outputs of that project – a book and virtual exhibition of commitments and artwork created by our young people which you can view here.

A particular word of thanks for the support and guidance by Doctor Joanna Abeyie and Louis Howell, both supporting us strategically and in terms of programme delivery. We have been on an equalities journey since May last year and the Young & Black campaign allowed us to test out how we can integrate themes to our programmes.  

Experimenting with flexing our programmes has provided us with important learning on how receptive and flexible our young people can be when it comes to exploring challenging issues which are emerging in the world around them.

Our plan is to consolidate the lessons learned from the Young & Black campaign and explore how equalities becomes embedded in our programme design in the longer term.

As part of the Young and Black project we have also made a public pledge to our young people that we will look for opportunities to influence our partners and funders on their equalities work. We want to be more intentional in integrating equalities into our external conversations and understand where there are synergies and opportunities to support our network in this important work.

We began 2021 in another lockdown, and we continued to flex our approach to supporting our young people and their families.  We remained agile in running the business, we continually assessed the needs of our staff, we supported our partner schools and engaged our funders in releasing emergency funds to ensure all our young people had access to the technology they needed for learning and our programme activities. 

One of the greatest learnings throughout the pandemic was having faith in our ability to adapt the organisation. We responded to a complex environment and demonstrated that we are capable of amazing things.

One of my big hopes for 2022 is that we can elevate our conversations with our funding partners to establish what long-term support looks like. We have huge ambitions for the next four years and having the confidence of our partners will give us the resources we need to thrive. 

In the new year, we will start to look at more opportunities in each of our regions, embedding ourselves more deeply in Kent and Nottingham, and making strong connections with local authorities and key strategic partners so we can deliver our programmes to more young people.   

A second hope is moving into the job creation space.  Exploring what it looks like if we have conversations with our partners about jobs for our young people.  How can we bridge the gap for our young people to make them viable candidates for available roles?  

Finally, a huge thank you to all of our supporters and funders, our partner schools and of course to our young people for the trust they place in us to work alongside them as they progress through their educational journey and beyond.

From myself & the ThinkForward team – have a wonderful Christmas break.

November 2021

As we enter a new month full of internal changes and transitions, it feels like a great time for reflection. I’m conscious that the pandemic forced us to be inward looking and, in many ways, we moved into “survival” mode.  Once again, we have begun looking into the future and are feeling energised about continuing to operationalise our new strategy (which was created during lockdown). 

We have been reflecting on how we create more leadership capacity in such a small organisation. One of the many impacts of Covid (during lockdown especially) was the extraordinary pressure created at the top of the organisation across a small leadership team.  That, plus feedback from our monthly staff surveys, told us there was a real appetite in the organisation for progression as well as managers being keen to step up and stretch their responsibilities.  This has also created space to think about our equalities strategy whilst recognising and retaining great people.  

This work has brought about the appointment of a team of Senior Progression Coaches who, alongside their coaching responsibilities, will now play a vital role in supporting other coaches to enhance the delivery of our programme.  This also creates capacity in the tier above them for Regional Delivery managers to step up and lead on more significant work streams. 

We are absolutely thrilled with the level of excitement this has created in the charity; these new roles allow coaches to cut their teeth on leadership, experience the management of relationships and allow us to retain existing talent.

Our equalities work continues as we create space to work with our young people through our programmes. We took the decision to prioritise race equality, largely in response to the global Black Lives Matter movement and the events which were happening around our young people through last year.  We wanted to recognise some of the issues they would face as they moved into the world of work and equip them to manage those challenges. We also wanted to explore the concept of allyship in more depth and understand what it looked like in practice.  

This led to our participation in the ‘Young & Black’ campaign, which was inspired by UK Youth, we have arrived at a point where the outcomes from the project have come to fruition. The creative outcome is an incredible book containing artwork and pledges from young people.  We’re also hosting a celebration event for our young people to recognise all their hard work and efforts.

As mentioned previously, we also celebrated Black History Month and tried a different approach than in previous years.  We hosted an extremely inspiring ‘Lunch and Learn’ with fabulous guest speaker the Mayor of Camden, Sabrina Francis. Sabrina spoke about her distinguished career journey through politics and communications, memorable moments and offered words of wisdom about the importance of not only mentorship, but sponsorship, and how we can relate that back to our work at ThinkForward. 

Sabrina also reflected on the importance of diversity and equality within organisations without being tokenistic, and her own journey as a Black woman in the political industry and workplace. I was particularly struck by her comments on hypervisibility and invisibility as a Black woman in the workforce, and how to navigate the world with such pressures. 

Another exciting development this month is we are nearing the launch of our new digital Ready for Work passport.  In partnership  with The Nottingham, the app will allow young people aged 16 and over to demonstrate their readiness for work by tracking their progress in creating a CV, having mock interviews, undertaking work experience, opening a bank account and email and telephone skills. Through the app, young people will also have access to helpful careers resources from The Nottingham’s Career Academy. 

FutureMe and MoveForward young people took part in a focus group to test the platform and provide feedback, and it was positively received. After the session, some of our young people also joined The Nottingham at the National Ice Centre, the home of the Nottingham Panthers ice hockey team, for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch the player’s train. They also took part in a careers-based Q&A session with the ‘team behind the team’, Panthers’ Director of Hockey Gui Doucet and members of the club’s support staff. A wonderful example of how diverse and engaging our partnerships are. 

As the leaves on the trees are slowly disappearing and the weather turns crisper, it won’t be long before this year comes to a close.  Each new month brings a world of change and opportunity for growth for our organisation and the young people we support, I’m excited to see what comes next for us!