Disaffected youth is an oft-used phrase in the media. Young people rebelling against aspects of modern life has become a cliché, and tying to reach this demographic seems like a losing battle as technology, in all its forms, encourages people to become even more insular and lost in solitary pursuits.

After the trials of 2020, finding an artistic outlet to help navigate these extraordinary times is more important than ever. Releasing frustration and sharing experiences through art and creativity is invaluable. And that’s an endeavour that 23-year-old Josh Wilkinson definitely supports.

As a youth arts facilitator for organisations including Manchester’s Contact Theatre, Wilkinson has witnessed first-hand how bringing projects to communities across Greater Manchester can make a positive difference to well-being, engagement and artistry.

“It’s interesting to look at how it fits in with life in general,” says Wilkinson. “Luckily, I had a supportive family who encouraged me to pursue a creative career but other parents worry for their kids. They push them to make money in something more steady and see an arts career as a waste of time or a merely a hobby.”

He continues: “We made a documentary with Contact which looked at the benefits of creativity. A lot of young people spoke about how their music or drama helps them get through. Contact is brilliant because as well as putting shows together where young people express themselves, they also teach how to share skills and make money from it.”

Rather than go to university, Wilkinson and his colleague David Hall founded a film production company which specialised in projects devoted to giving young people a voice. This led to organisations approaching the duo to become involved in youth engagement projects. But if there’s one term that feels a bit vague and overused, it’s ‘youth engagement’.

Joshua Wilkinson “It can be,” agrees Wilkinson. “And it also means different things to different people. In the past, some arts organisations have stated that their outreach work looks for people from ‘hard to reach’ areas. That term jars with me because it infers that they’ve just found an area that appears to look a bit impoverished and pitched a tent there. It can come across as patronising and brands people from an area before they’ve even started worked with them. Young people often don’t get involved because it’s the organisation that’s ‘hard to reach’, not the other way round.”

One factor that qualifies Wilkinson to present outreach work is that he has experienced it from the other side.

“I wanted to work in theatre and film-making. I picked up a leaflet at the local community centre for a project called The Agency. They taught me about business plans and accounts using the same process you would to rehearse for a show. I’d never seen my creative way of thinking merge with something so business-minded before. This got me involved in several projects with Contact and I’m now on their Board. I also teach the new intake of young people at The Agency.”

Another of Wilkinson’s projects is RemodelMCR which features a wealth of young artists, facilitators and youth workers serving young people who aren’t currently engaging with culture and the arts. Recent work includes interviewing people in Hulme about what they’ve been doing during lockdown.

It seems unavoidable that COVID-19 will feature heavily in projects for some time to come. Art should reflect life, but shouldn’t it also provide escapism?

“After a while it does get a little boring hearing the same lockdown stories over again,” Wilkinson admits. “But the inescapable fact is that the situation has affected so many people in so many ways. Work-wise things have been especially erratic. Initially, there was a lot going on and people were offering money quickly for COVID-19 related projects, but that’s all stopped since people realised the situation is not going to end any time soon.

Joshua Wilkinson “I went through a stage where I had 12 jobs cancelled in one day although I’ve still been luckier than some of my peers who have now had to go down other routes for employment. In terms of the cancelled theatre shows and films I had planned to see, the situation also made me realise how important the arts are to me as a consumer.”

While young people in the North West are well-served in terms of arts opportunities, Wilkinson believes that there’s always room for improvement.

“There’s a lot going on but there’s also a lot of young people and many are falling through the net. During lockdown, we’ve continued running projects on Zoom but it’s not really the same and some people don’t have the equipment to do it so they miss out.”

As for tips for anyone keen to get into the arts, Wilkinson offers the following advice. “A lot of young people think they need to be closer to the city to get involved in creative projects but that’s not necessarily true. Places like HOME [in Manchester city centre] are great but limited in the number of participants they can involve.

“Connect with your local arts venue and community centre because they know what’s going on. Just be present there, clock what’s going on, sign up for a session or two and you may just fall into something.”

By Drew Tosh

Main image: Joshua Wilkinson by David Hall