The work we do here at ThinkForward endeavours to empower young people who are at risk of not achieving their full potential. From coaching to providing experience of the world of work, everything we do focuses on giving young people the independence and confidence they need to be successful so that they have control over their own lives and futures.

Now and every month, I’ll be speaking on the issues that affect our young people, sharing experiences, and bringing transparency to the work we do at ThinkForward.

CEO Ashley McCaul

Welcome to my first CEO blog! 

October is Black History Month, and this is our second year celebrating at ThinkForward. For our first year of marking the occasion, I took a lead and we made efforts to encourage lots of staff interaction. With a focus on learning and exploration, we aimed to deepen our understanding of what Black UK history looks like, including the significance of the Windrush generation, tracking the presence of black people back to Tudor times and we also did some myth busting surrounding common stereotypes. 

This year we have taken a slightly different approach and pulled together a group of people in the organisation that have a real interest, passion, and energy for that celebration. We are staying conscious of the cynicism around Black History Month, we too agree that celebrating the contribution of black people to global culture should not be reserved for one month in the year. That said, we have chosen to see it as an opportunity to deepen our learning but also, to celebrate a community which has been such a significant influence on UK culture.

Following last year, we have resurrected a regularly held book club celebrating black authors whilst increasing our knowledge around race, race equality and allyship. This time of year has now become significant for me because I did so much personal learning during the peak of the pandemic, I remember that time was incredibly intense (not forgetting the global Black Lives Matter movement which gathered momentum in response to the death of George Floyd).  

I was keen to do something experiential this year, making effort to go beyond what we have previously consumed. Through celebratory and collaborative efforts, staff have been invited to share their cultural heritage and history where we can get to know them on a different level. Excitingly, we have commenced the release of a series of videos with members of staff expressing ‘What being Black means to me’ and young people and staff sharing black icons/heroes.

This is super important to me because at a time when we are trying to be more culturally sensitive, it presents to me as a leader the rather uncomfortable truth that we don’t see the richness of people’s culture when they come to work. What we see is a version of them, which is only one dimension of them. It struck me that we need to do more, and we need to be more intentional about the way in which we create and highlight a diverse workforce.

I thought to myself how can I go beyond just what we learn in equality and diversity training? How can I produce something which is much deeper and much more intentional and potentially much more lasting in terms of the culture? Our equalities manifesto outlines our dedication to put equity, diversity, and inclusion into the heart of everything we do, we don’t want the focus of our equalities work to be short lived. It’s something that we want to ingrain into the heartbeat of the organisation in a way that had never been done previously.

Our ‘Young & Black’ project is also reflective of this, where through a digital exhibition and curated book, our black young people will have a platform to tell their stories, express their feelings and campaign for change. At the same time, we wanted to create a wider understanding amongst our white young people of allyship and what it means to be anti-racist.

We want young people to see that when they look at our staff, our images, and our communications, they feel represented and be able to identify with who we are as an organisation and what we’re trying to achieve. We are an organisation that is representative of them, and which exists for them. That is our sole purpose, supporting them in a way that is appropriate and allows them to feel connected.

I look forward to speaking more in future blogs about our strategy and the work we’re doing towards delivering on that strategy. Exciting things are coming so watch this space! 

As we enter a new month full of internal changes and transitions, it feels like a great time for reflection. I’m conscious that the pandemic forced us to be inward looking and, in many ways, we moved into “survival” mode.  Once again, we have begun looking into the future and are feeling energised about continuing to operationalise our new strategy (which was created during lockdown). 

We have been reflecting on how we create more leadership capacity in such a small organisation. One of the many impacts of Covid (during lockdown especially) was the extraordinary pressure created at the top of the organisation across a small leadership team.  That, plus feedback from our monthly staff surveys, told us there was a real appetite in the organisation for progression as well as managers being keen to step up and stretch their responsibilities.  This has also created space to think about our equalities strategy whilst recognising and retaining great people.  

This work has brought about the appointment of a team of Senior Progression Coaches who, alongside their coaching responsibilities, will now play a vital role in supporting other coaches to enhance the delivery of our programme.  This also creates capacity in the tier above them for Regional Delivery managers to step up and lead on more significant work streams. 

We are absolutely thrilled with the level of excitement this has created in the charity; these new roles allow coaches to cut their teeth on leadership, experience the management of relationships and allow us to retain existing talent.

Our equalities work continues as we create space to work with our young people through our programmes. We took the decision to prioritise race equality, largely in response to the global Black Lives Matter movement and the events which were happening around our young people through last year.  We wanted to recognise some of the issues they would face as they moved into the world of work and equip them to manage those challenges. We also wanted to explore the concept of allyship in more depth and understand what it looked like in practice.  

This led to our participation in the ‘Young & Black’ campaign, which was inspired by UK Youth, we have arrived at a point where the outcomes from the project have come to fruition. The creative outcome is an incredible book containing artwork and pledges from young people.  We’re also hosting a celebration event for our young people to recognise all their hard work and efforts.

As mentioned previously, we also celebrated Black History Month and tried a different approach than in previous years.  We hosted an extremely inspiring ‘Lunch and Learn’ with fabulous guest speaker the Mayor of Camden, Sabrina Francis. Sabrina spoke about her distinguished career journey through politics and communications, memorable moments and offered words of wisdom about the importance of not only mentorship, but sponsorship, and how we can relate that back to our work at ThinkForward. 

Sabrina also reflected on the importance of diversity and equality within organisations without being tokenistic, and her own journey as a Black woman in the political industry and workplace. I was particularly struck by her comments on hypervisibility and invisibility as a Black woman in the workforce, and how to navigate the world with such pressures. 

Another exciting development this month is we are nearing the launch of our new digital Ready for Work passport.  In partnership  with The Nottingham, the app will allow young people aged 16 and over to demonstrate their readiness for work by tracking their progress in creating a CV, having mock interviews, undertaking work experience, opening a bank account and email and telephone skills. Through the app, young people will also have access to helpful careers resources from The Nottingham’s Career Academy. 

FutureMe and MoveForward young people took part in a focus group to test the platform and provide feedback, and it was positively received. After the session, some of our young people also joined The Nottingham at the National Ice Centre, the home of the Nottingham Panthers ice hockey team, for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch the player’s train. They also took part in a careers-based Q&A session with the ‘team behind the team’, Panthers’ Director of Hockey Gui Doucet and members of the club’s support staff. A wonderful example of how diverse and engaging our partnerships are. 

As the leaves on the trees are slowly disappearing and the weather turns crisper, it won’t be long before this year comes to a close.  Each new month brings a world of change and opportunity for growth for our organisation and the young people we support, I’m excited to see what comes next for us! 

We’ve come to the end of another year and as is always the case, it’s a great time to reflect on some of the key highlights from 2021.

This year we published our new strategy, taking the opportunity to articulate our plans for the next five years. It was quite a milestone to publish our plan as we undertook all the work for the strategy during the height of lockdown last year.  As an organisation there was a huge amount of pride seeing it finally released into the world.

Another key achievement for us was engaging with the #Young&Black campaign which emerged from our equalities commitments and the national programme launched by UK Youth. We are particularly proud of the final outputs of that project – a book and virtual exhibition of commitments and artwork created by our young people which you can view here.

A particular word of thanks for the support and guidance by Doctor Joanna Abeyie and Louis Howell, both supporting us strategically and in terms of programme delivery. We have been on an equalities journey since May last year and the Young & Black campaign allowed us to test out how we can integrate themes to our programmes.  

Experimenting with flexing our programmes has provided us with important learning on how receptive and flexible our young people can be when it comes to exploring challenging issues which are emerging in the world around them.

Our plan is to consolidate the lessons learned from the Young & Black campaign and explore how equalities becomes embedded in our programme design in the longer term.

As part of the Young and Black project we have also made a public pledge to our young people that we will look for opportunities to influence our partners and funders on their equalities work. We want to be more intentional in integrating equalities into our external conversations and understand where there are synergies and opportunities to support our network in this important work.

We began 2021 in another lockdown, and we continued to flex our approach to supporting our young people and their families.  We remained agile in running the business, we continually assessed the needs of our staff, we supported our partner schools and engaged our funders in releasing emergency funds to ensure all our young people had access to the technology they needed for learning and our programme activities. 

One of the greatest learnings throughout the pandemic was having faith in our ability to adapt the organisation. We responded to a complex environment and demonstrated that we are capable of amazing things.

One of my big hopes for 2022 is that we can elevate our conversations with our funding partners to establish what long-term support looks like. We have huge ambitions for the next four years and having the confidence of our partners will give us the resources we need to thrive. 

In the new year, we will start to look at more opportunities in each of our regions, embedding ourselves more deeply in Kent and Nottingham, and making strong connections with local authorities and key strategic partners so we can deliver our programmes to more young people.   

A second hope is moving into the job creation space.  Exploring what it looks like if we have conversations with our partners about jobs for our young people.  How can we bridge the gap for our young people to make them viable candidates for available roles?  

Finally, a huge thank you to all of our supporters and funders, our partner schools and of course to our young people for the trust they place in us to work alongside them as they progress through their educational journey and beyond.

From myself & the ThinkForward team – have a wonderful Christmas break.