A deep dive into WOWsers: Nurturing art & activism

31 Mar 2023

Blog Post

One of the Lambeth Elevators supporting the WOWsers programmes this year, Antonia Georgieva, sat down with Cat Foley, Young People's Producer at The WOW Foundation, to learn more about her role and the organisation's focus on youth voice, programming and participation.

WOW is known for its unique approach to festivals and global partnerships, and one of the ways WOW involves young people is through the WOWsers programme. Through the WOWsers programme, young people have the opportunity to interact with the festival's content and learn how to turn their passions into art and activism. In this interview, Cat shares her insights on the importance of empowering young people and providing a platform for them to discuss the issues that matter most to them.

To start off, can you share a bit more about what The WOW Foundation does and its journey so far?

In 2023 we celebrate the 13th edition of the WOW Festival in London. It was first set up by Jude Kelly, who believed that the best way to affect change is through the gathering of people and the celebration of people. This is all underpinned by a belief that a gender-equal world is desirable, possible and urgently required. The idea of the festival is to celebrate, uplift, and galvanise people in the cause of gender equality. 13 years on, WOW is now run by The WOW Foundation, an independent charity that has reached over five million people globally. WOW Festivals have been held in over 50 countries, from Bangladesh to New York and Australia.

Can you tell us more about WOWsers and how it fits within WOW’s mission more generally?

WOWsers is an eight-week programme, which includes a group of young people that also have an opportunity to interact with the content of the festival in some way. The goal behind WOWsers is to really support young people to find their voice and find what they care about, while bringing the WOW expertise of turning that into art and activism. The aim is to provide a platform for young people to discuss the issues that really matter to them. This looks completely different for each festival. In 13 years, there have been so many cool projects that we couldn’t have dreamed of without input from the young people. And that's what's really at the heart of these WOWsers projects - to really understand and listen to a group of young people and say, “what is it you care about?”

What is the impact that you have seen with these programmes?

I think there's something about the way that we're trying to create a touchpoint for young people all the way through their life. We have Under 10’s Feminist Corner projects covering the concept of feminism and gender equality with young people aged six to ten, as well as projects both in school and out of school that work with young people through their teenage years into early adulthood. What this allows for is short, sharp bursts of activity, where the topics, the type of activism and the type of intersectionality that is addressed are absolutely designed by the young person.

We know that the real power comes from the moment of gathering, so often the WOWsers project will allow some kind of showcase at a WOW Festival, or if that isn't suitable, then it can be a showcase that happens closer to home, or it can be something that happens online only. Our activism and our art are a tool to start a conversation with your neighbour. And that's a big part of it.

The dream then is that our WOWsers go on to enter our Young Leaders Directory. This is an incredible global list of young activists who have made a real, tangible change in their local communities in some arena that they're really passionate about. The Young Leaders Directory gathers together all of these amazing young people. And then we have an online convening where they can meet and share ideas. Our dream would be that then we program them as speakers for the next WOW Festival.

How does WOW partner with existing organisations to enrich the lives of young people through creativity?

We're trying to offer pathways to listen to youth voices. We do lots of work with schools, but generally WOWsers is a specific extracurricular activity. The reason this is important is that we understand that the school experience is very different for everyone and sometimes it's a benefit to step outside of the educational environment to really be able to delve deeper into your personal identity.

Somebody reflected that even when they were doing a workshop in their youth theatre, they weren't sure if they were safe to have certain types of conversations around gender within the context of that space. When we went in to do the first WOWsers session the group started to talk about gender, and we had a couple of the participants say they’d never had this type of conversation. This has now broken down a barrier, and it allows more freedom of conversation. In so many environments we don't know if we have the safety to express our identity or express our beliefs. It's so refreshing to create that space by saying, let's talk about the uncomfortable truths of intersectional feminism, and what that looks like for you.

What were this year’s WOWsers projects?

This year we've partnered with Lambeth Council on a project that they have called ELEVATE. So these specific WOWsers projects have been embedded in Lambeth. We partnered with Brixton Youth Theatre and Ashdon Jazz Academy, which are two amazing, and very, very different organizations. The provocation for this was career development,creative careers and supporting young people to know what the next step might be into a creative career.

London is geographically so huge that often people do stay in their local area and community because that's sort of safe and familiar. So it's even just raising awareness of what is in your borough, what else is there to see, what is the bigger picture. It's about providing those opportunities locally to make a spark and support that young person to keep on that journey.

How were the sessions structured and what did the young people learn and make in the sessions?

With Brixton Youth Theatre we worked on a programme under the theme of spoken word. They mostly work with devised theatre, but there was an interest in spoken word. We had a really lovely cohort of young people between the ages of 12 and 20, including some of BYT’s past members. We worked with Shareefa Energy and Jayda David, who as facilitators offered inspiration and led the group through the process of creating spoken word.

We've worked a lot on understanding intersectionality, understanding all the reasons why somebody may have a barrier – reasons why people may feel excluded from their friendship group, from their community, reasons why they may feel included by a different community. The young people were invited to create spoken word pieces based on that intersectionality, and they're very impactful pieces of work.

We also consulted with the cohort on how they would like to present their work. As performers, they were very keen to perform it live, so we programmed them for a WOW Pop Up performance during this year’s WOW Festival. But they were also quite keen on immortalising and filming their performance, so the young people chose a filmmaker to work with. We put together a brief and approached two different filmmakers, who gave us a quote and a little bit of information about themselves, and then the young people had a very lively discussion on which filmmaker would be most suitable. They ended up selecting the Rainbow Collective, who specialise in youth voice in film and youth-led filmmaking. So the pieces now exist in a film.

Watch below - Interview continues after video!

And what about your work with Ashdon Jazz Academy?

We worked with Ashdon Jazz Academy initially on a visual art program. We looked at badgemaking and how we create slogans with bite-sized pieces of activism. We also did some comic book art with Wallace Eates about how we can kind of tell our own stories through creating characters and narratives that are also universal. Then we delved into a masterclass programme on making terrariums, understanding horticulture and how we can bring nature into our lives, which again as an idea was completely led by the young people.

We did a spoon carving day at Creative Nature HQ. We thought it was really impactful to put tools in the hands of young people. This is especially challenging when everything you hear about knives and blades is all very negative. We had a robotics workshop. Many of the young people were interested in STEM, so we had an organisation called Engineering Minds make robots with us. We'll also have a coaching program with Level Up London which will support the young people at the end of that project to figure out what might be next for them. And in the meantime, we have also created a podcast exploring what really matters to the participants with sound engineer and facilitator Joy Stacey.

Listen below - Interview continues after podcast!

It's actually only through the consultation process that we were able to listen to what the young people wanted. What often happens with projects is that there isn't enough time or money, but thankfully, because WOW have given me that time, I was able to completely turn the project around because this is what the young people actually want and need.

What are some of your highlights from this year’s programmes?

Some of our young people had the opportunity to go to Rich Mix in Bethnal Green for a poetry night called Pan Talks, and they read their spoken word poetry out in front of 100 people. That was a highlight. They were incredible! It was really good to take that work out and to give it a different audience, a completely different environment, a very adult environment, and to see what that sparked. It kind of feels like the work starts to take on a life of its own. And that's the best thing about the programme. We want to create that pathway so that the young people will actually understand what they could do with their own work without needing us to be there every step of the way.

What skills and experience would you hope young people have gained from this experience?

I think some of them were quite surprised to realise the types of jobs that people had – the realisation that you can kind of craft any career that you want. As long as you're able to support yourself in whatever way that needs to happen, you can do anything you want. We talked to one young person about the finances of an arts project and how you can pay yourself for the time you work on a project and how that is justified to the funder. What we really tried to do was not only do a fun thing and make a fun product, but all the way through talk about the production process: what it is to design a budget, what it is to choose between two different freelancers, what it is to programme a festival. And I really hope the young people now see their careers in a slightly different way and understand that they can make the work that they want to be paid for.

What are you working on next?

At this year’s WOW Festival, we had lots of different youth groups represented. This kind of forum is a unique chance to get young people together to talk because it doesn't necessarily happen as often as I think it probably should. We're hoping that the outcomes of that will inform our next steps. I think that really underpins everything that we do.

We're also in the process of developing a series of resource packs around the International Day of the Girl, which will be going to schools. There are big things coming that will allow us to expand our reach nationally. So hopefully, if you're reading this somewhere that it's not London, we'll get to meet you soon!