Empowering young people to talk about history in their own voice

Núria Ruiz is the Digital Development Officer at YouthLink Scotland, where she leads on digital media for a number of national youth work projects. Núria writes for SHSMG in our second blog.

What has youth work got to do with social media for museums? Quite a bit, as it goes.

For the last six months, I’ve been working with Scotswummin and YouthLink Scotland to document Scotland’s forgotten women. Sixty young people and 10 youth workers from socially-excluded disadvantaged communities have turned detective to unearth and celebrate influential and unnoticed women in their towns, both now and in the past. Our mission is to tell those stories – in an exhibition with Glasgow Women’s Library, in a research report for the Heritage Lottery Fund, and on the safe feminist space that is social media.

If that last remark sounds glib, it shouldn’t. Many of the challenges, opportunities and discussions I’ve faced over the last six months have been the very same ones I’ve faced since I started working with young people in the cultural sector. Social media doesn’t always prove welcoming for them. How then do we help young people to participate in #musesocial creatively, knowledgeably and fearlessly?

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Don’t fall for the digital native myth

It was right at the start of Scotswummin. I’d just spent an afternoon workshopping with our early career youth workers. Enthusiasm was through the roof. Hashtags were trending (albeit in the hyperlocal vicinity of the YouthLink Scotland meeting room). The feminist editorial calendar to end all feminist editorial calendars was percolating in my mind.

And then it happened. One of our youth workers took me to one side and kindly, calmly, almost sheepishly told me their group wouldn’t be able to contribute any digital content.

“None of us know how to on our own.”

Not just them, the youth worker. Us, the youth worker and all twenty young people in their group. I’d walked right in to the digital native trap.

The youth work sector has long tried to dispel the myth that all young people are inherently capable when it comes to social and digital media. In fact, lots of evidence points to the fact that many young people over-report their digital skills. It’s one of the reasons I was frustrated with some of last month’s #LGRYA17 chat on Twitter; tweet after tweet that young people know what they’re doing when it comes to digital. Some of them do, as do some of our heritage detectives. But not all of them.

If you want to work with young people to create museum content for social media, don’t make that same mistake. You have a duty of care to share your knowledge and expertise, and to actively include those who find it hard to engage. Be prepared to build your content from where young people are, both in terms of skills and interests (more on that later). Spend as much time on training and upskilling as you would with a museum colleague taking to social media for the first time. And make it meaningful – don’t patronise, don’t dictate, don’t palm them off with a project you haven’t managed to get round to.

For Scotswummin, this means adopting a training model based on The Prince’s Trust and Young Scot’s Digital Ignition outcomes. The young people involved in Digital Ignition identified a number of important areas where they wanted guidance, including digital skills for careers and creative digital skills. So we’ve partnered with organisations like National Records of Scotland and Fixers to deliver training on everything from searching an online catalogue to editing interview footage. We’ve run in-depth sessions on productivity tools, Snapping and live-tweeting, as well as beginners’ workshops on setting up channels, blogging and using social media safely. Our aim is that nothing digital will prove a barrier to participating in Scotswummin.

youth workers Becca and Fozzia working at the National Library of Scotland
Youth workers Becca and Fozzia working at the National Library of Scotland

The end result? We’ve helped our heritage detectives tell 277 social stories across 13 channels since February, with so much more to come. And that youth group that didn’t think they’d be able to contribute? They have serious ambitions for the digital labels at our Glasgow Women’s Library exhibition in August.

Try a youth work approach

falkirk group
Falkirk youth work group taking a break from filming with Tom from Fixers

Hand-in-hand with our digital upskilling is making sure that all Scotswummin research and content uses a youth work approach. It’s how we ensure that every young person involved feels empowered to talk about history in their own voice.

I’ve worked on countless digital projects before where there’s been some hesitation about hosting content or venturing into ‘young’ online spaces. Who will guard our carefully cultivated tone? What about our brand guidelines? What will the stakeholders say? I came to Scotswummin with these exact same hesitations. Using a youth work approach empowered me to trust my partners. Because in the end, that’s what the young people helping you to create digital content are – equal partners.

But what does that actually mean? Three key principles underpin all youth work activities, and they work just as well for museums working with young people. First, young people choose to participate. No one takes part in Scotswummin because they have to. The same goes for your Snapchat story. Next, youth work must build from where young people are. Focus on what they can do, what they do like. At Scotswummin, as far as possible we don’t dictate platforms, medium or themes. Be open to suggestions and willing to compromise, based on young people’s skills and interests. Our most prolific social storytellers, Cheviot Youth in the Borders, don’t really blog. Longform content just isn’t their thing. (This despite my longing, un-youth work pleas.) Photos with a cheeky short caption though? That’s another story. They’ve loved experimenting with smartphone photography on Instagram. And they’ve used the platform to create more frequently and fearlessly than I’d bargained for with my original content plan. It turns out we digital content managers might just be the biggest barrier to getting young people involved.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, youth work recognises the young person and the youth worker as partners in a learning process. Any and all Scotswummin featuring in our exhibition and social media content have been picked by our young people based on their own interests. We’re there to help support them, but never to influence them and their research choices. Be ready to rethink what ‘success’ looks like too. There’s as much to celebrate in your partner learning a brand new skill and enjoying the creative process as there is in them boosting your engagement rate.

In the end, it’s meant rethinking that world-changing feminist editorial calendar. And do you know what, that’s OK. We’re in the business of changing lives instead.


 Núria Ruiz alongside Amy Goulding, Project Development Officer, Youth Link Scotland will be discussing Scotswummin: investigating Scotland’s forgotten women with community youth groups at the Scottish Museums Federation Conference on 26th April at National Museums Scotland. Tickets are available from here..

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