In conversation with Urban Circle: Community development, youth work, and restorative visioning

Loren HenryLoren Henry graduated from BA (Hons) Youth and Community Work and MA Working with Children and Young People at USW. She co-founded youth arts organisations, Urban Circle and G-Expressions – both of which work in partnership with USW to drive change and improvement for young people. Here, Loren talks to Professor Roiyah Saltus about USW’s race equality agenda, Urban Circle and their latest project HumaniTree, a multicultural film project, that aims to bring together a positive, shared global story that reconnects the story of the Human Family. 

1.     What is the inspiration behind Urban Circle?

Urban Circle Newport is a forward-thinking youth development charity helping to build, promote, and sustain constructive community relationships and individual involvement using a variety of creative platforms. We provide opportunities for young people to actively and purposefully pursue their interests, improve their wellbeing, and realise their potential across the creative arts, education, youth work, and community development.

Our vision is of a world where young people in Newport have access to safe spaces, supportive adults to whom they can relate, and relevant opportunities and tools to harness their skills, drive and ambition. In this world, postcode, race, and physical make-up are no longer a barrier. As a result, young people are no longer seen as a product of their environment and the circumstances into which they are born, but rather are valued for their unique human potential and empowered to follow their chosen path in life. Within this new context, the importance and impact of youth work in building strong and healthy communities are valued and understood.

Youth work values and practices have inspired all senior staff who are experienced youth workers, they implement and embrace the core values of youth work, and with the core of our team being Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, we have a valuable lived experience which enables us to empathise with the marginalised communities we work in. Our lived experience also inspires us to improve the aspirations of young people from Black, Asian and Minority communities. 

 

2.     Your company is dynamic! Can you tell us about the HumaniTree – the story behind it and the key messages you hope to convey?

The story has arrived out of necessity from our previous film, Wales Untold, which gave young people the know-how and motivation of what it takes to produce a film about black intergeneration into British society and highlighted the contributions of black and ethnic people in the development of Wales. This new story focuses further on the history of the hominoid and its global family tree.

Told through the fascinating scientific disciplines of genealogy, ancient history, human development, sociology and geography. The story explains that whilst race is a myth, racism is very real, and how we come to terms with this will help with the aim to create an anti-racist Wales by 2030. The educational curriculum does not cater for this, and few positive aspects about Africa are being taught in schools. This project was set up to encourage young people of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority backgrounds to initiate a journey of self-discovery and positive awareness. The main objective of the film is to act as an educational tool to address the gaps, myths, and misunderstandings of black heritage. Sharing this information about the world's earliest emerging civilisations is an important part of their heritage. Our vision is that this acquired knowledge will build positive self-awareness and break down the negative perception of black history, which should be known as world history.   

HumaniTree Synopsis:

In a world where discrimination, racism, social injustice and pseudosciences still prevail, this film aims to bring together a positive, shared global story that reconnects the story of the Human Family. Our filmmakers have embarked on a journey of research and investigation to discover science and history, dispel ignorance, and bring forward a current and fresh story about being human. This is a multicultural film project that shares personal family stories and uses revealing interviews with experts from multiple disciplines. The film will cover human genetic origins in Africa, early civilisations, global migrations out of Africa, environmental changes, genetic variations and how the human family can work more together in the 21st century.

You can find out more about HumaniTree on our website and social media channels:

  1.       thehumanitree.com/
  2.       instagram.com/humanitreefilm
  3.       facebook.com/humanitreefilm

 

3.     What has it meant to you and the team to do this re-telling work? 

Since the onset of Covid-19, Urban Circle Newport has experienced an ever-increasing demand for our services as young people present themselves to us with a wide range of complex support needs. Meanwhile, events like the institutional racism exposed by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) in the Hotton Report (2022), combined with national developments in Wales surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement have brought questions of race and social justice to the forefront. As one of the few organisations representing young Black and Asian people in Newport, Urban Circle embraces a key responsibility to facilitate the process of speaking out and challenging injustice in whatever shape or form it appears. Our work in this field has enabled us to form solid relationships within disadvantaged local communities where we employ participative consultation tools and needs-based assessment research to get to the heart of any discriminatory practices or actions.

The retelling helps us to re-focus on why we do what we do, it takes us back through history and highlights the challenges that our ancestors have faced. It also inspires us to continue the work that we do and highlights the need for education to be at the forefront of tackling Racism. Bringing to light heritage previously hidden, not well known, or not easily accessible such as identifying places or collections relevant to our ancestors. We hope to increase the confidence, raise aspirations, and empower young Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority people to make positive choices and have a positive outlook on their background and culture.

4.     Urban Circle works closely with USW on several fronts. How did this come about and how would you describe this collaboration?

In 2010, a law change meant either myself or one of my colleagues had to be educated to a degree level – we drew straws to see who would go to university! I drew the ‘short’ straw, I went on to complete a BA (Hons) Youth and Community Work degree at USW in 2011 and then went one better by doing a Masters degree in Working with Children and Young People. Whilst I’d been working in the voluntary sector for years when I started my studies, the theory I learnt whilst on the course helped shape the organisation to the high quality of delivery that it is today. I’m truly grateful to the tutors, particularly Youth and Community Work lecturers Mick Conroy (now a Trustee of Urban Circle Newport), Kate Haywood, and Emma Chivers, for the support and inspiration they’ve provided. Following the degree, the Masters course helped further develop the practical elements of the organisation. Understanding the policies, processes, and systems that need to be in place, as well as evidencing project outcomes and successes, has not only helped us secure more funding but ultimately improved our work as an organisation.

I feel like my time at USW has enabled me to be the best I can be – something I’m extremely grateful for. My studies have undoubtedly contributed to the success and growth of the company, which over the years has gone from strength to strength.

The relationship proved to be a fruitful one for me, the University, and the rest of the Urban Circle family, with 95% of the Urban Circle staff team graduating through the University of South Wales. An agreement was reached for Urban Circle and G-Expressions to be based at USW’s Newport Campus from the end of 2017. It is this joint work that highlighted the benefits the partnership provides for us, the young people we work with and youth work students at USW. I believe this is an excellent example of partnership working in the community and of the principle of educating and growing community leaders who lead by example and, in turn, educate the community around them. This way, creative practitioners continue to drive change and improvement for young people.

5.     USW is on its own journey of re-working how it relates and intervenes on societal inequality in its everyday practices and processes. Key to this is acknowledging and addressing race inequities within policies, practices, and culture. What can institutions like USW learn from the re-imagining and re-telling of ‘ways of doing, being and seeing’ you are undertaking with HumaniTree?

Such explorations and research must be supported, enabled, and funded moving forward. The method chosen has empowered a group of young people to be sympathetic towards higher education and is in keeping with the current trend of how young generations have a very wide global outlook as well as a need to understand and enable their actions and hopes and dreams. This is how we will inspire future generations. Helping them understand the global village helps them visualise their contributions to the world and that Wales is invested in that development. 

Trust and care are cornerstones of community development. This understanding of stakeholders takes time and labour that cannot be ignored or misrepresented; otherwise, it will be undervalued in its importance and the potential for shared growth lost for a generation. Young people are not just an audience, they are our future, they are our hope for a better world that requires them to ‘fulticipate’ in progress. This is a Jamaican phrase we have learnt to use.  

6.     Your organisation helps build, promote, and sustain constructive community relationships. What lessons can USW learn in terms of fostering sustainable, mutually beneficial partnerships?

The partnership with Urban Circle and G-Expressions demonstrates the professional values and principles embedded in the youth and community work courses here at USW.  This kind of collaboration develops young people’s talents, engenders a love of learning, and gives them skills and qualifications for employment. It also widens young people’s horizons by giving them access to higher education (HE) facilities and institutions they would never normally experience. It also enables students on youth and community work degrees and MA courses to use the project as a work placement setting, with the advantage of staff and qualified ex-students working as supervisors to the trainees. It became apparent that we could aid USW in navigating the changing racial landscape, delivering a social justice agenda locally and nationally, and encouraging students and educators to think and act in an anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive way. I guess what I am trying to say is we have a lived experience aligned with academic knowledge that we are willing to share with USW, to aid in understanding how beneficial a partnership can be for both parties. 

7.     How would you like to see your work with USW unfolding in the coming years?

The future is bright! Wales is leading the way to become the first part of the UK to make it mandatory to teach Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic histories, contributions and experiences, as part of the story of Wales, in the curriculum. 

Myself, and the rest of the team at Urban Circle, have been in conversations with our Minister of Education and Welsh Language to offer our services, as we feel strongly about the importance that our new curriculum reflects the true diversity of our population and that learners understand how this diversity has shaped modern Wales. 

Our Reggae & Riddim festival was just one example of giving our communities direct access to cultural education. We plan to build on this through our continued partnership with USW and we are very excited to see opportunities, such as an international exchange programme (Jamaica) and collaborative teaching, come to fruition. 

Producing more feature-length educational tools, such as Wales Untold, HumaniTree and our up-and-coming theatre production USA (Urban School of Arts), designed with young people at the very core, is important. These high-quality tools can be shared across the country. We hope to work on this with USW, collaborating in a planned and sustainable way, across the education portfolio.