Let’s Talk – The Life Changes Trust

Paul Nelis went along to the ‘Festival of Voices’ in Perth Concert Hall to learn about a new approach to Participatory Budgeting (PB), an approach which allows young people to generate and discuss ideas that then go to the vote by the wider conference. Including dialogue and generating ideas in a PB process on the same day would be a challenge for any experienced PB practitioners. However this was the first time for the Life Changes Trust. And wow, they hit the nail squarely on the head.

FoV - Auditorium stage 2.JPG

‘She’s Manky! She’s mmmmmingin!’ (one girl describing the girl who stole her boyfriend), the start of a mini play at the Festival of Voices, where three extremely talented young actors from Citizens Theatre’s Modern Apprentice scheme bravely demonstrated that they were apprentices no more, they were fully fledged actors in my eyes, on a par with anything I’ve seen on the telly. They were engaging and skilled, they transformed themselves physically and through language, they captivated the audience with three fantastic mini plays. At the end of their confident performance one young man summed up his motivation and really the purpose of the event. He told us from the stage that he wants to use his talent for performing to share his experience of care and to give an outlet to the unheard and unique voice of young people with experience of the care system in Scotland. By the same token The Life Changes Trust wanted the day to be about elevating and celebrating the voices of young people with care experience.

FoV - PA - tattoo pink.JPG

As I’m sure you can gather from the above, the ‘Festival of Voices’ conference had a particular buzz. There was an energy in the room that only comes from people who are there to engage and share their personal knowledge, skills, talent and stories. I had a feeling that I was going to learn more about young people and the care system and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Life Changes Trust was established to improve the lives of young people with care experience, people living with dementia and unpaid carers of people with dementia. The Young People with Care Experience programme is committed to investing in young people, valuing their perspectives and acting on their views. The Festival of Voices was a celebration of this investment and the work of the Trust’s funded projects.

The event was held in Perth Concert hall, which is appropriate for the occasion as the young people attending were not shy in demonstrating their considerable talent for singing, acting, poetry and most importantly their ability to tell their story of the care system in Scotland. Like many people in the audience, I was humbled by their willingness to share their experiences.

The live presentations were complemented by videos featuring some of the projects who were there on the day, which were a learning moment for me and the rest of the participants. At one point I was about to leave the main auditorium to join a workshop, but I was stopped in my tracks by the videos playing on the main screen. At first I stood for a while as I watched and listened to young people telling their stories about being in care, then I looked for a nearby seat as each 10 minute video became more intriguing.

Compelled by the creativity and frankness of the video presentations I made my way back to my own seat in the auditorium so that I could take in each of the videos. Each video gave young people the opportunity to tell their story in a way that suited them. The videos were creative, funny and personal, and I hope that the Trust will be able to share them with more people.

I learned that in many instances young people with care experience feel that their lives are out of control, and that they are sometimes excluded from key decisions about their own lives. They endure, on occasion, broken promises from workers and institutions which can be damaging for them and create trust issues which can be difficult to repair. One young person likened these broken promises to a crumpled piece of paper, she said

‘….you can flatten out the paper again but the creases are always there, trust is lost and may never be regained by the system or care workers.’

PB and Deliberation

The Life Change Trust was trialling Participatory Budgeting and ambitiously had set out to have a deliberative process for groups to generate funding ideas (40 mins), with time to formulate their presentation (15 mins) that would then lead to the conference participants voting on the ideas and the level of funding. The difficulty of dialogue and deliberation cannot be underestimated. Dr Oliver Escobar from Edinburgh University described the importance of deliberative democracy..

‘…it’s more than ‘counting heads’ and instead about supporting discussion on an equal and inclusive basis - deepening participants’ knowledge of issues in play.

Proper dialogue and deliberation is vital for people taking part in PB to come to the best decisions for their communities. But how much deliberation is really happening as part of participatory budgeting (PB) in Scotland?’

FoV - Auditorium table.JPG

When it came time for the deliberation at the ‘Festival of Voices’ there were some scenes of chaos to begin with, facilitators were trying to make themselves heard within groups around the main hall, they were explaining the process to participants which led to a host of questions like ‘we are all from different organisations!’, ‘who will hold the money?…what are we doing again?!  At one point one young women from the Life Change Trust was valiantly facilitating a large group of 30 young people and adults – she stood at the bridge of the table like a captain of a ship explaining and listening intently to the group. Another facilitator took a different approach and allowed the large group to slip into to sub groups to generate ideas. Near the stage, one smaller group displayed no outward drama, they just kept their huddle and worked through possible ideas. 

Every facilitation tool in the book was on display. Around 6 large groups of 20 to 30 people went from disorder to focus and dialogue as ideas were generated, discussed, discarded, adopted, finessed and finally committed to the final 2 to 3 ideas on a flip chart. Some young people went from disinterest to laser sharp focus as ideas were being finalised and the two to three ideas on the flip chart became one solid idea which would be presented to the wider conference and put up for vote.

FoV - Ideas Fund.JPG

I got the impression that many of the young people had enormous capacity for this way of working. They didn’t give up and seemed to thrive on the chaos knowing that order could be achieved. They knew how to respond to the challenge of dialogue and deliberation, listening to others and working together through compromise and understanding to generate ideas.

After the entertaining and confident presentations, the conference was asked to vote on the best ideas using the digital handsets to speed up the voting process. People could vote for 3 projects… And the groups receiving the top amount were:

  • Highlands and Moray £2,000 – hosting a ‘Merry Champ-ness’ Christmas Day dinner for young people with care experience in the North. This project will ensure that no young person will spend Christmas alone but will instead come together with others on Christmas day.

  • West Lothian, Falkirk and North Lanarkshire £2,000 – creating a sensory garden for young people with care experience and young people with disabilities to learn how to grow their own vegetables. This will be a community garden and will take learning/skills from Cam Garden in Falkirk which already supports young people.

  • Dumfries & Galloway, North and South Ayrshire, Inverclyde & South Lanarkshire £2,000 – ‘HUGS: Helping U Get Sorted’ will see a transition kit be developed for young people moving on from care, changing placements etc.

FoV - Ideas Fund results 2.JPG

Other ideas received between £1K and £500 for their project ideas. 

The delight of the young people was clear:

  • Highland C.H.A.M.P.S. - @HighlandCHAMPS

Our Champs just made a heartfelt pitch to a conference hall full of people on behalf of care experienced young people in the North to win £2k to hold a Christmas Day Dinner....AND THEY WON!!!! Thank you

  • Dundee Champions Board - @DdeeChampsBoard

Ahhh no way!! In our regional group at #FestivalOfVoices we collectively came up with an idea "Fairytales and Fun" and we pitched our idea and won £500 to put towards making the idea a reality in the next 12 months! Watch this space! #DundeeChampionsBoard #MakingChange #Fun #YPPG

The Life Changes Trust and the hugely talented young people at the festival have shown us one way to integrate dialogue and deliberation to our PB events. In the end it seems so simple – allow for the wave of voices, manage the discussions in different ways, support idea generation, whittle down to 3 strong ideas and then more dialogue until there is one clear idea that everyone can get behind.

In reality this is not a simple process and drew on the huge organisational skills and careful planning of the Life Changes Trust and their very capable staff. I hope to see us draw on this example further in the PB Network and for more deliberation at our PB events across the country. I also hope that this approach will be adopted by those involved in mainstream PB within our local authorities.  PB is less about ‘counting heads and more about discussion on an equal and inclusive basis.

To find out more about The Life Changes Trust go to: www.lifechangestrust.org.uk/