Over the weekend I was in the pub with a group of girlfriends and the conversation drifted to hair products for curly hair. It brought to mind my awkward teenage self, ridiculed by my peers for my unmanageable bushy hair, and all of a sudden I felt unattractive and apprehensive.
For me, that group was what every teenager needs – a safe place, with trusted adults, where I could goof around and I knew I belonged. But what was lacking was any specific input to help me navigate being a girl. I would have loved a space to ask questions about beauty products, periods and relationships, rather than entering adult life assuming that I was the only one who didn’t know the answers. We attended a summer festival every year where I lapped up talks on valuing myself, on romance, on pursuing my dreams. But throughout the rest of the year I was left to figure things out myself.
At XLP we run all sorts of specific support for girls year round. From schools workshops, trips and activities, to our girls only gym session and our summer Girls Week packed full of fun, glamour and inspiration - we want our girls to rise up, heads held high. Just like me at their age, the girls we work with in London are creating formative friendships, working out their futures, and worrying about fashion faux pas. But, unlike me, they are also carrying the burden of an increasingly pressurised education system, the ongoing repercussions of the pandemic, attacks on their self-image from social media, the popularity of misogynistic online influencers…
If you have girls in your youth group, I would encourage you to be intentional about the support you give them. Being aware of girls needs should infuse you youth work, from making sure there are sanitary towels in your toilets to calling out the language your groups use (try using “step up” rather than “man up” etc). But more than that, we need to give girls space to breath. We need to give them a space to challenge the messages they are absorbing and explore alternative ideas. A space for deep conversations, light hearted chats and the safety to ask awkward questions. A space where they are told they are wonderful.
"A space where they are
told they are wonderful."
My challenge for you on International Women’s Day 2023 is this: are you creating safe, honest spaces for the girls coming up behind us? Girls work does not mean you have to put on trendy, inventive workshops if you don’t have the resources. Don’t underestimate the simple power of a listening ear and sharing stories. A summer camp or weekend away might be a great place for your girls to access additional inspiration, but it’s the weekly relationships that will see them thrive. At its heart, that’s what girls work is.
Lydia is the Volunteers and Mentoring Manager at XLP
What's your name and what's your role with XLP?
My name's Suru Douglas, and I'm one of the trustees for XLP.
What's the role of a trustee at XLP?
It's all about supporting the great team that works for XLP and ensuring that the organisation is fulfilling its vision and purpose. As trustees, we have different backgrounds, skills, and experience that combined make for a well-rounded board that is responsible for overseeing the management and administration of the charity. We meet regularly throughout the year to develop strategy, agree certain legal and financial obligations and to pray for XLP's mission to create positive futures for young people growing up in inner-city communities in London.
Last year, over 4,000 young people engaged in XLP programmes and 94% of those who regularly attend XLP projects are involved in more than one. These numbers reflect XLP’s continued commitment to putting young people first. The dedication and enthusiasm is clear whenever you talk to anyone working for XLP as it’s all about the kids! I’m incredibly honoured to be a part of it.
Christmas is a time of hope. What does this time of year mean to you and what are your hopes for XLP and the lives of young people?
We can look back on the past year through a lens of reflection and learning while also looking forward with renewed hope for the future. As a trustee, I’m excited to see what 2023 will bring for XLP. I have no doubt that the next year will give more and more young people the opportunity to truly define who they are and make their own positive way in the world.
What’s your name and what do you do for XLP?
My name is Cerys Cotterill and I’m the Mentoring Manager for Lewisham and Greenwich at XLP.
What does mental health mean to you?
Mental health is really important to me. I spend a lot of time thinking about it and talking about it with people. I’m realising how much it has an impact on our day-to-day life.
I can’t remember ever talking about mental health when I was growing up. It’s being talked about a lot more now, which I think is really positive. I can look back and see times that my mental health wasn’t great, but I didn’t understand what was going on, and I felt really confused. But now mental health is a thing we’re aware of, and I’m so much more aware of when I’m struggling, and how to look after myself.
Why bother looking after your mental health?
I didn’t really talk about my emotions when I was younger, but all that bottling up made me feel isolated and overwhelmed. I’m realising that when I’m able to share how I’m feeling I feel free. Connecting with others brings freedom. Sharing helps you connect with people and helps battle those feelings of isolation. Bottling up emotions is lonely, but sharing emotions, although scary, brings freedom.
I’ve found that self-care really works. Anxiety can get worse when you’re dehydrated and tired, so even just something little like drinking enough water and getting enough sleep can really help. I’ve also found that exercise and a healthy diet really help. It’s going to be different for each person, and you have to find something sustainable that works for you.
Remind yourself daily that you’re important. Sometimes I have a phone background of a positive message that helps me remember. Mental health can have triggers that negatively affect us – this works the opposite and triggers positive feelings instead.
Any final thoughts?
There’s a therapist I follow on TikTok. She’s @drjuliesmith and she’s great! If you’re on TikTok, get that on your feed.
Then Ant started coming to a different XLP project in the middle of the week that happened to be next to his house. He was eager to get involved in everything! I took Ant and Dec out for pizza in the school holidays, and it’s incredible to see how they’re supporting each other in their lives.
Ant won a Jack Petchey award because of how amazing he’s been at supporting his friend. He’s come from a place where he’d lost something and didn’t feel safe, and in XLP he’s found a place of safety.
What would you say to your 15 year old self?
Keep enjoying the fun ride of youth work. Youth work gives you really fun moments where you get to celebrate and be proud of young people as they achieve and overcome big things, and that is so special. Youth workers stand in the gaps with young people in the highs and the lows.
What impact does XLP have?
A phenomenal one! Anyone can run a youth work project – it’s not rocket science, and it’s not original, but it really does work. You can’t go wrong as long as you put the young people first.