When I was 13, I gave up sniffing aerosol cans to join Oldham Theatre Workshop. As it turns out, theatre gave me the escapism I craved. It was the foundation stone for the rest of my life. One way or another, kids have to find an outlet for their feelings, to hold up a mirror to themselves and to others. Two initiatives empowering children and young people in the North are Media Cubs and Odd Arts.
With a pop-up studio and equipment, Media Cubs gives the young an opportunity to experience broadcast journalism first-hand. Meanwhile, Odd Arts is a charity with the ethos to transform youthful lives through engaging with issue-based arts and theatre.
Journalist and Media Cubs creator Kirsty Day was initially spurred to create something because of the lack of outlets available to her son. “The whole idea of Media Cubs stemmed from my youngest,” says Day. “Jack’s one of those kids who’s always creative. There’s always something going on in his head that you want to see come out and to come into fruition.”
Day found that as standardised national testing such as SATs changed for Jack, the creativity was being rinsed from reading and writing in favour of the logistics. “Who bloody cares about how they can write on a line?” she says. “Is what they wrote really good? Then that’ll all come.” But, as Day points out, schools have no choice. “It’s what [teachers] were being forced to do, so that was the first seed that was planted for me.”
Odd Arts’ chief executive, Rebecca Friel, is absolutely led by the children and young people they engage with. Their work takes place predominantly in schools, secure units and community centres, where they create issue-based plays and workshops. They have also established therapeutic programmes which are targeted at the most vulnerable and take place in secure settings.
For Friel, one of Odd Arts’ main achievements is seeing young people flourish. “Our greatest testimonial is when we’ve worked with a young person, we’ve met them in a secure unit, and we see them later in the community,” she says with huge pride. “That happens quite a lot.”
Not only do Odd Arts get to see a change, they make a commitment to sustain a relationship for as long as it is wanted. “When young people leave prison, they’re just kind of chucked out. We love it when young people believe us when we say ‘we’re out here and happy to see you’.” As proof of that commitment, young people can run workshops for their peers. This year, one of the paid actors in a touring performance is a past participant whom they have nurtured over time.
A new path
When Day piloted Media Cubs, she found that schools had chosen groups of children specifically because they showed a passion for writing or had no interest in English studies in the classroom. They were inspired by the change in one particular participant.
“This lad came in. He said he wasn’t really interested in writing, so I said ‘what are your interests?’ And he said football, so we really just honed in on that and he ended up writing sports reports for the team that he played for at the school. The teacher said how much more engaged he was in the classroom.”
She adds: “I always say to them ‘whether it’s Pokeman or politics, it doesn’t matter. We can have a debate about either of those things. It’s about being able to give you a voice.'”
When lockdown hit, Odd Arts responded immediately by sending out 200 creative packs, mainly to people in care with additional needs, refugees and asylum seekers. More recently, they have changed their approach and are visiting young people’s houses.
“We offer drama sessions on their doorstep,” says Friel. “The main aim is for them to connect with real people and build confidence. We’ll go wherever, parks, houses, streets.”
Media Cubs’ response to COVID-19 was to run a national campaign called Raise Your Hand, where young people held press conferences and interviewed Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield. This allowed young people to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed during lockdown.
Both Odd Arts and Media Cubs come from a good place. In my book, the place where you want all kids to be.
Day reflects on being working class and starting out as a journalist trying to navigate a newsroom. “A certain news editor said to me, ‘I’m going to send you to this story, but be really careful as it’s a bit rough around there’ and I said, ‘don’t worry, they live three doors down from me’. If you keep getting those little knocks and kicks, you need to build up resilience.
“The biggest thing I’m hoping for is that these current Cubs will show future Cubs that you don’t have to be white or privately educated to be in newsrooms. You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Friel has a passion for empowerment that is a real driving force. “If people are feeling angry or aggrieved or unheard, that’s definitely where we want to be,” she says. “If you can channel that into some social action through us, into theatre or whatever it is, that’s brilliant. That’s what we want.”
Main image: Media Cubs’ press conference with Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and three mini reporters – L-R – Aisya, Jack and Sam.
Media Cubs #RaiseYourHand Campaign – video of questions for the Prime Minister