Digital youth work in the Åland archipelago
I’m working in a place where digital tools really have the potential of making youth work easier, but there is a long way until we can fully utilise it. The Åland archipelago consists of six municipalities, and they each consist of one main island with some smaller ones.
The communities are tiny with only between 100-600 inhabitants and with 6 to 15 youths each in the age 13-16 years old. Overall, approximately 40 youths are living in the archipelago right now. This means that there are few peers in the same age group who young people can interact with on a daily basis and nearly no older teenagers since everyone has to move when they are 16 years old to go to high school. This situation combined with bad connections between the municipalities gives the youth few opportunities to meet other youth as well as a small or non-existent offering of spare time activities. The few activities arranged are mostly about sports or nature and are usually organised by non-educated leaders.
I work as a project manager in an NGO called SKUNK – Young voices in the archipelago. We have between 0-3 employees depending on how many projects are running. My work consists of travelling around the archipelago to organise meaningful and engaging leisure activities, create new opportunities and help the youth to realise that they can make things happen by themselves where they are. An important part is also to arrange camps and other group activities where young people on the different islands can meet each other. My task in the organisation is to keep a focus on entrepreneurship and digital media.
The communication is a vital part of making the activities happen, and it is necessary to do it on different levels. Digital media is a significant and helpful part of this. Facebook and Instagram are effective platforms for advertisement of activities. Even though the youth are not that active on Facebook, they still visit it and thus we can give information through it. It’s also an important part of reaching the parents who need to be involved as well to get the youth attend the activities. Messenger, WhatsApp and Snapchat are tools we use to keep in touch with the youths; we use these before and after the activities. By making a group chat before a trip or a camp, the youths will get to know each other before they meet. Even if some of them already know each other, this is a start for getting the group come together. It’s also a way of preparing for what is coming up, which expectations they have and what is planned for the camp.
This also makes it possible for us to give some responsibility to the youth, like preparing for a movie night, games or food. Without these digital opportunities, this would be impossible since they all live in different places and lots of resources would be needed to get them come together for a meeting just to plan and prepare an activity. After the activities, the groups are still active, sometimes used for evaluations, sharing material made during the activity or to just continue talking. The youth also make their own groups, especially after they have been on international camps they make groups to stay in touch with each other. The chat groups can also be used to advertise new activities or to plan the same activity again.
To use social media itself is an easy task most of the time, but to use it with the youth is not always as easy. Even though they use it a lot, it doesn’t mean that they are interested in using it to keep in touch with us. To meet in person is therefore very important; my experience is that they need to have a face for the adult they will be in touch with. To build a relationship on social media they need to have a relationship face to face as well, and the groundwork to establsish trust is essential for good communication.
Communication is maybe the most important and developed digital tool for us right now, but we are working on getting other digital tools to be a natural part of our work and activities. Right now I’m working in a Central Baltic project called RIBS – Rolling Images in Business Startups. It’s a project about entrepreneurship and media, and creativity is an important part of this. Thus, we have introduced making movies, making digital music, making games and podcasts. Those activities have been quite appreciated as a good complement or alternative option to the regular spare time activities. We have always had more girls than boys in our work, but with this project, we now have about 50/50 girls and boys. We work a lot with creativity since this sometimes seems to be a thing that needs to be developed, to get the youth the courage to try and that it’s better to fail than to not try at all. Something I have realised is how important it is for the youth to see the result of their work; when I ask afterwards what they think has been the best from the process, its always to see the finished product.
We have a lot of possibilities when it comes to incorporating digital media into our activities. Right now, we are using them in kind of “traditional” ways like filming and sound recording. I know we have young people who are skilled at building computers but I would also like to get everyone to try out more hands-on digital media inspired by the maker movement. Since the youth are quite isolated on their islands, working with digital media would give possibilities to both develop their leisure time and to have reasons to keep in touch with other youth by helping and sharing knowledge. Digital media could also help other people to see what they have created. I have already seen examples of this when we had a group chat where one of the youth had computer problems; together they tried to find a solution during two days while being on four different islands.
I also see the maker movement as a way of developing creativity. While it doesn’t mean that everyone will work or even be interested in the area, it is a good way to explore, analyse and find solutions to different problems. These are competencies which all humans need, regardless of what they will do in their life. We have already started with 3D printers and MakeyMakey, but right now we are struggling to motivate the youth and to work in ways that would motivate them to start exploring by themselves. I think the reasons are diverse when it comes to why it’s not working out that well. Firstly, it’s usually quite hard to adopt something new when you don’t know what to expect, and you might feel insecure. It also takes a while before you know if you are interested or not; if you are unfamiliar with the topic or technology you can’t usually know whether you are interested if you are not a naturally curious person. Secondly, we lack the expertise and experience ourselves, and we struggle to find competent people who can inspire and motivate the youth and practitioners inside our organisation.
I would also like to further develop the online youth work in the area. Right now it’s mostly happens spontaneously without any overall structure. Since it takes a lot of time to travel around the islands, it would strengthen the youth work a lot to find a way to have continuity and communication with the youth between the physical meetings and activities.
We as an organisation will continue to educate ourselves and find inspiration from other people and organisations since this is such an essential part of our work with all geographical obstacles. We are now looking for new projects, and hopefully they will be a part of continuing to develop our digital youth work and get us to fully use it as a natural part of our daily work.