SPARK Case Study: Youth Voice

In 2023, SPARK’s Youth Voice initiative, led by Sarah Osborne, addressed the perceived lack of arts and cultural opportunities for Wakefield District’s youth. The Arts Ambassadors, a panel of eight young individuals, collaborated with cultural organisations to improve youth engagement. LitFest 2023, a youth-led literature festival, featured new plays created by and for young people, fostering partnerships with various local organisations. Participants reported increased confidence and praised the festival for its positive impact on youth involvement in the arts. Moving forward, SPARK’s Arts Ambassadors are helping plan a takeover day with Wakefield Museum in February 2024 and aim to host a youth-led arts festival in Autumn 2024, showcasing the influence of youth voice in revitalising arts and culture in Wakefield.

Throughout 2023 this strand of SPARK’s work has been led by Sarah Osborne, the Creative Voice Co-ordinator. It responds to the perceived lack of relevance and accessibility of arts and culture for young people in Wakefield. As a result, it aims to centre youth voice in the continued development, design and delivery of arts and cultural opportunities for young people across Wakefield. Additionally, it seeks to optimise and promote participation in the current  arts and cultural opportunities.

Ultimately, SPARK hopes to empower young people to play a part in shaping the cultural and artistic landscape of their district. The ambition of this strand lies not just in bridging the gap between young people and cultural organisations, but creating an environment through which the voice, ideas, aspirations and skills of young people can directly inform decisions that affect them and their peers.

From the outset SPARK’s Creative Voice has had young people at the centre. However, in order to make things happen a group of invested and committed professionals within the Wakefield District had to invest significant groundwork to open the doors and create the foundations for success.  In 2021 a youth voice working group was created by representatives from SPARK partners.  The aim of the group was to establish the need for youth voice to be central to the arts and cultural landscape of the district and to explore ways of making this happen.  For the first 18 months, until funding was secured, this group was co-ordinated on a voluntary basis and regular meetings were held as funding applications were submitted. It was members of this group – many of whom are active members of the working group at the time of writing – that were responsible for securing  funding and subsequently have underpinned the progress in making the voice of young people heard.

Once funding was in place and the Creative Voice co-ordinator was appointed, the working group built in strength and productivity.  A key role was supporting and signposting the co-ordinator to organisations working with young people.  The Creative Voice Co-ordinator travelled across the district meeting with these organisations, having conversations about the SPARK vision for youth voice.  Important learning about the views of young people and those that support them was gathered in these conversations.  This learning allowed SPARK to reach a diverse range of people and ensure the Youth Arts Ambassador Panel was representative of young people living in the Wakefield District.  It also allowed valuable insight into how young people would need to be supported as part of SPARK.

Arts Ambassadors

At the centre of the Youth Voice strand are SPARK’s Arts Ambassadors, a panel currently comprising of eight young people aged 16-24, from Wakefield. They are based across the local area in Ossett, Horbury, Wrenthorpe, Pontefract, Hemsworth and Upton. This group of local young people aims to centre the voice and experience of young people in conversations about how Wakefield cultural organisations can more effectively tailor their youth provision.

Up to now, the panel have worked with organisations including Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the National Coal Mining Museum and Wakefield Museums, to help review and improve their engagement with young people and identify gaps in provision.

Founded in 2023, the Arts Ambassadors evolved from many meetings with professionals and young people from a wide range of organisations that support young people across the Wakefield District and initial, exploratory workshops with students at Wakefield College, which helped to shape its purposes and role. The current ambassadors formulated a manifesto to guide their work moving forward, with core values including honesty and directness, inclusivity and pride in Wakefield and its culture.

In July and August 2023, the Arts Ambassadors attended a series of tailored skills development workshops which aimed to equip them with the knowledge and confidence to get the most out of their role. Workshops explored the current cultural and artistic landscape of the Wakefield District, including programming for children and young people, the links between culture, creativity and wellbeing, and included a session on CV building.

Working with SPARK has had a very positive impact on the Arts Ambassadors. One ambassador highlighted how rewarding their work was, especially when “seeing changes, seeing you’ve made a difference”. They also remarked on the confidence they had built through their work with the panel, expressing opinions and feeling that these were valued and acted upon by cultural organisations. For some  Arts Ambassadors, there were also benefits to their own mental health, having “something to get out and be involved” with.

“Being an ambassador for me is something that’s motivating me to keep going to be honest; it’s the only time I’m out of the house besides going to the hospital and it helps me forget about my own issues and put the youth arts community first.” (Arts Ambassador)

LitFest 2023 

LitFest, an annual, youth-led literature festival established in 2020, aims “to provide a creative outlet for young people that puts them in control”. LitFest returned in 2023 with a festival of new plays, created by and for young people aged 14-25, with support from industry professionals. The event featured 40 young people across all areas of production, including in writing, directing, acting and technical roles. In addition, a Programme Board of six young people, all with an interest in creativity and literature, took the lead on producing and co-ordinating the project, supported by Sarah as the Creative Voice Co-ordinator. Over 100 audience members attended the festival.

“It’s clear this is an event that considers youth at every step of the way… It was a huge step in the right direction for pushing youth involvement in arts in Wakefield whilst providing a lovely time for all” (Arts Ambassador)

The process began in April 2023, with application selection followed by planning meetings and workshops with dramaturgs to guide the development of the plays. Playwrights and directors were matched following an informal gathering during which writers shared more about what they had created with directors, including the inspiration and intention behind their plays. During this meeting, there were opportunities for both 1-1 and larger group discussion as directors gained ideas and insights into how they might bring different pieces to life.

Plays explored a variety of topics and themes, including class, pressures on young people growing up, historical drama set against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall, friendship, grief and struggles with generational trauma. They entered rehearsal in August ahead of the festival, which ran at The Mechanics Theatre, Wakefield College, from 10am-6pm on 16 September 2023. An anthology was subsequently published, showcasing the eight plays, and a film was created documenting highlights of the festival.

LitFest saw partnerships forged with organisations including Wakefield Theatre Royal, Wakefield College, Wakefield Libraries, The Hepworth, Yew Tree Youth Theatre, Hatch, Long Division, Wakefield Museums and Wakefield District Housing (WDH), each of whom provided the writers with a creative prompt inspiring their play.

Feedback from LitFest participants praised the positive, fun experience they had during the project.  Many young people expressed how much their confidence had grown and how much they valued that the festival provided the opportunity to “meet new people” and interact with like-minded people. Additionally, young people appreciated seeing themselves portrayed on stage and considered the plays to be relevant.

“From my experiences with the older generation writing younger characters, the personalities and relationships can seem stiff or unrealistic. It was refreshing to see young people write about their own personal problems and challenges, or of those of people around them.” (Arts Ambassador)

One young person, who had a wide-ranging involvement as Programme Board member, writer, director and actor, felt that LitFest fills an important gap in arts and cultural provision for young adults aged 20-25 in the local area. They noted that once one left school or university, networks of connections and opportunities often disappears, leaving young adults feeling unrooted.

“It’s hard sometimes not to feel that the expectation of a young adult is ‘Your education is over, and so are your opportunities’. Opportunities such as this are manna from heaven, and at the very least, make the future seem a little brighter” (Young Director, LitFest 2023)

Participants also widely felt that the “trust”, “creative freedom” and autonomy they had during LitFest gave them greater belief in themselves and their skills, ideas and career potential. Some have been inspired to seek similar opportunities elsewhere, or pursue creative pathways such as directing and writing professionally. One young writer found it “enormously gratifying to see my own work performed”.

“It was great to be involved in a project that gave this opportunity to young creatives in the North as many, many more like these are needed” (Young Writer, LitFest 2023)


Moving forward, SPARK’s Arts Ambassadors have more exciting projects in the pipeline. For February 2024, they are helping to plan a takeover day together with Wakefield Museum. They also nurture ambitions to host a youth-led arts festival in Autumn 2024, championing the work of SPARK’s partner organisations and celebrating the power of youth voice to revitalise arts and culture in Wakefield.