Breaking down barriers and engaging new audiences

About the project

‘Passions of Youth’ was a community engagement project which took place in Manchester and Salford between 2014 and 2015 with ‘hard-to-reach’ working-class young men in their teens, many of whom had left the education system but were keenly involved in particular leisure activities such as boxing. The project used the young men’s leisure passions as a medium through which to open up new learning opportunities. It broke down educational and cultural barriers, enabling them to discover the history and heritage of their leisure pursuit through archival research, story-telling, drama and film-making, and to share their findings with local communities through celebratory public events.

Challenges and opportunities

There were challenges working with young men who had not traditionally engaged in cultural activity (or education) and whose lives were possibly complicated or chaotic. They were often self-conscious or lacking confidence, so it was important to build trust by taking time to establish good relationships through taster sessions, which allowed them to work together and choose their preferred art methods. Getting used to unfamiliar experiences and approaches gradually moved them out of their comfort zones and they often surprised themselves with unfamiliar capabilities and challenged our own assumptions about what would interest them. Some disengaged from sessions that we thought they would enjoy, but were enthusiastic for more challenging or unlikely activities and subject-matter. This was especially striking in the case of the archive and heritage visits, tailored to their own interests and availability, which absorbed them to a much greater degree than any of the staff or participants could have predicted.

The interests and motivations of these groups of young men differed and it quickly became clear that a one-size project model did not fit them all. Different groups needed different things and travelled at different paces. The groups that worked best were those where youth workers were already in place before the project began and had strong relationships with their members. Involving youth workers who were enthusiastic about the project’s potential and could motivate and successfully challenge the young people played an important part in contributing to good outcomes.


The young men learned technical and story-making skills and gained confidence by research visits to the People’s History Museum, Greater Manchester Country Archives in Archives+ at Manchester’s Central Library, the North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University, and the Working-Class Movement Library in Salford. Their interviews with older ‘heroes’, who had pioneered or contributed significantly to their pastime, helped make heritage feel real and immediate. Archival, creative and research activities gave them greater self-assurance outside their own localities and encouraged awareness of how they might use their skills in other contexts. They gained pride in themselves and their communities through stories of heritage and local identity, shared in celebratory events in north Manchester, at the Miners’ Community Arts and Community Centre and FC United community football club. The project extended the institutional and cultural networks of participating organisations and led to on-going interest in cultural heritage-youth partnerships and activities.

Comments from the participants

It’s the first time I’ve been anywhere like that [the archive]. It was good. And we wouldn’t have done stuff like going to see that play. We went to the library and it’s got stuff about the gym a hundred years ago. We saw that film about Brian [club manager] and found he’d made his own short film, 30 or 40 years ago, filmed here at this gym. I’ve learned about the history of this gym and stuff about people who used to come here. It’s good, interesting, the old clips.

‘Coming here every Wednesday morning was good. When I first did it I thought I wasn’t going to like it, but it was good, I wanted to do it.’

‘We got more sensible. When we first started we used to act silly, mess about, and then we started taking it a bit more seriously. When you learn how to do it, it’s pretty good’.

‘We’ve learned how to be interviewed without looking stupid, more confidence in front of the camera. Sometimes we used to mumble or keep moving around whereas now we know what to do’.

‘I can speak to new people now’.

‘I thought I’d be dead cringey and feel stupid but it feels good’.

‘I’m proud of really wanting to complete the films’.

‘At first I was hoping it [the film] wasn’t going to get on anything like Twitter or Facebook but I wouldn’t be bothered now if it did’.

Comments from parents

Excellent night. Films were fantastic. Lads should be very proud of what they’ve achieved. Especially proud of my son.

Lessons learnt

Not all young people wanted to participate. Different kinds of participant needed different approaches, which worked best when geared to the cultural norms of their leisure activity and/or their wider community. Building celebration events around the existing culture of participants was particularly effective, as happened with the boxers, whose showcase film night was combined with their annual certificate presentation.

The project demonstrated the value of employing experienced creative practitioners who were also trained in youth work. Their mix of skills was particularly effective because they understood how to respond to and support the young men when unexpected challenges occurred, and were able to introduce them sensitively to new creative and archive skills.

Not making assumptions about the literacy levels of participants and ensuring a lack of reliance on handwriting removed many of the barriers for the effective inclusion of the young men. Film-making worked well not only because they chose the activity themselves but because it was a familiar medium based on movement and the visual, which offered opportunities to edit the ‘final’ work if they were unhappy about what they’d created.

We came to understand the importance of noticing and recognising the small and unplanned achievements that took place along the way. These mattered much more to those taking part than our ‘professional’ targets and played a significant part in building confidence towards bigger public sharing events.

We learned the importance of making sure that responsible legacy or exit strategies were in place from the outset. Having awakened a particular interest or appetite for activity in the young people, we had to ensure that there were ways for them to continue any interests or needs the project had led to them developing, whether through the partners involved, or signposting to opportunities elsewhere.

Advice for others

Prepare for the unexpected and allow groups time to develop at their own pace.  Learn to respond flexibly to unanticipated events. Rather than over-stretching expectations and resources, accept that you may have to drop some original aims and cut back on ambitions and your project model if things don’t seem to be working. If your project involves several different groups, make sure that all get off to a strong start by ensuring that delivery staff spend time together to share expectations and understand what each can or cannot bring to the project.  Having one person in place as a project manager, with responsibility for keeping an overview of how things are going, will help ensure a quick response when things don’t go according to plan. An effective project manager can help partners to stay in regular contact with each other, maintaining trust and consolidating relationships so that, if tensions occur, honest, reflective conversations can take place. Involving an evaluator in the early planning stages may also be useful in troubleshooting potential problems, as they can can help clarify aims and objectives, establish a baseline for evaluation, arrange to talk to partners at the start, middle and end of project and, most importantly, ensure that the voices of the young people/participants are embedded in project appraisal.

Future development

New work has already developed out of ‘Passions’. The young men’s films have been used in teaching and youth work in the UK and Norway and the project’s models of participatory history and heritage practice have been adopted by further funded projects and partnerships. These include a University Knowledge Transfer Partnership in youth justice and on a Comic Relief project, ‘Girls Getting out for Good: Preventing Gangs through Participation’. Here boxers from ‘Passions’ helped facilitate workshops to encourage reflection on the value of boxing in building self-discipline and a sense of purpose. The intergenerational themes of ‘Passions’ inspired the film ‘Forever Young’, screened to audiences across north-west England and in Canada. Its participatory, collaborative approach to archival research has also informed a new community history project with older people from Manchester and Salford, inspired by an archive film from the North West Film Archive called ‘Returning Home’ (1948).

More information

Project lead: Melanie Tebbutt, Professor of History, Manchester Metropolitan University

Films and commentaries by the young men who took part in ‘Passions’ can be found at