Purpose, motivation and care leavers: finding your element through creative arts

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Alex Sayers writes about the first year of social enterprise, Element, that runs creative arts projects with young people leaving the care system.

Last year, I set up a social enterprise called Element. Element runs creative arts projects exploring purpose, motivation and creativity with care leavers in London.

My co-founder, Elo, and I have combined experience working in local authority leaving care teams, pupil referral units and performing arts organisations. We found that support for care leavers often does not prioritise emotional stability, despite it being the cornerstone for progressing onto stable employment, accommodation, and a healthy, happy life. We also noticed that a lot of care leavers we had worked with didn’t consider themselves creative, despite being incredibly opinionated, talented and resourceful.

So we decided to design a project that aligned with our core belief: that to be successful, young people need to find their own unique purpose, and that creativity is the best way to get there. In our first year, we worked with six local authorities and 57 incredible care leavers and young people in care. We exhibited artwork at Tate Britain and Battersea Arts Centre, and spoke at the Cabinet Office and City Hall. All the participants said they would recommend our projects to a friend, and we were delighted and proud to celebrate participants moving on to training, work experience opportunities, as well as a university degree.

This summer, we decided to take three months out for research and development. We wanted to assess the work we had been doing and to test if we were supporting in the right areas in the best ways. A large component of this work was to do user research: interviewing former Element participants, young people with no connection to Element, and care leavers in supported accommodations across the capital. We felt privileged to hear the thoughts and opinions of so many interesting and insightful young people.

One thing that kept coming up was the wish structure. One young person told us that ‘I’m looking forward to getting back to college because it gives me structure in my week’, another that ‘the biggest reason I like having a part-time job isn’t the money, it’s the structure’. Despite the value placed on structure, the idea of a self-imposed structure or an individually planned routine was described as ‘nerve-wracking’. It brought home to us that planning and creating a routine is actually a learned action, rather than innate or natural.

In addition, as a frontline worker, I have noticed that lots of care leavers seem to have low expectations for themselves. This goes much deeper than a lack of confidence, perhaps fuelled by, if not fully stemming from, the system that they find themselves in. A system where workers may be surprised when their young people turn up to their meetings and projects engaging care leavers can be met with raised eyebrows and a ‘good luck with that’ attitude. This can create a self-fulfilling cycle of low expectations.

At Element, we started to think bold: what if we created an environment of extremely high expectations? An environment where participants had to attend every session of our 12-session project and where the work they produced was exhibited at a world-famous art gallery. What if participants were treated as creatives and encouraged to try new things, self-express and enter into a cultural conversation? What if our sessions were specifically formulated to encourage participants to set their own short-term, achievable goals that became a framework for their own personal routine and structure post-project? What if participants completed the project with the confidence to take ownership over their own future?

We channelled all these thoughts into a newly designed project for Kensington and Chelsea care leavers. A quarter of the way through, our brilliant group have identified their key strengths, found out how their brains process goal-setting, and developed tools to practically apply these learnings in their everyday lives. They have produced brightly decorated vinyl CDs, zanily-patterned fabrics and intricately composed collages. We can’t wait to see how the rest of the project goes!

You can follow the progress of this fantastic project on twitter, @elementproject_