Our Making a Living project is trying to find out how young people cope with making a living across Europe. As part of this, we’re encouraging you to interview other young people but also organisations who are helping others make a living.
One of the areas we’re focusing is how young people cope practically with making a living, the day to day workarounds that help them get by and develop skills. That’s we’ve been really impressed by The U.
We interviewed Louise Foreman, who as well her love for halloumi and Beyonce, is the U’s community coordinator. She shares her insights on how the U came about and how it helps people tackle everyday issues.
What were the steps in developing The U from coming up from the idea to opening up the first U?
The U is a Young Foundation venture which started in October 2010 with support from NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). During the first four months we conducted research into similar models of learning in order to build an understanding of what was currently available, and to establish what the most successful format for our sessions could be.
For the following 2 months we then worked with a service designer to begin the design and prototyping phase for a template of what a U session should be like. In this phase it was important for us to be able to understand user experience; questioning our assumptions about what works and allowing room for feedback was essential.
Intro to The U: a citizens University from The U on Vimeo.
In Spring 2011 we started working in two pilot sites (Northumberland and Sutton), building relationships with local community organisations and promoting the delivery of our free learning sessions.
What is the ethos around providing bite-sized learning sessions mainly focused on helping people tackle everyday issues?
Whilst prototyping our original U sessions we explored what the ideal length of time for a learning session would be. We discovered that 90 minutes was the appropriate balance between keeping the experience accessible and engaging, and covering enough detail for the information that was shared to be useful. We want our sessions to be accessible to a very wide range of people, no matter what stage of life they are at, what level of experience they have or what kind of background they come from.
Because of this, we aim to offer skills that are broadly relevant in day-to-day life and which respond to everyday challenges that we can all relate to – witnessing a medical emergency, having a dispute with a neighbour or friend, not knowing where to go to for new information about employment or social opportunities.
By maintaining a focus on day-to-day issues we are able to promote the idea that lifelong learning is not something which should be restricted to formal education institutions, but rather that opportunities to learn new things and share your own skills are a valuable aspect of everyday life.
How important are tackling these everyday issues and learning skills to help people cope with everyday life?
Having the confidence to face day-to-day challenges is a significant factor in an individuals’ capacity to feel independent and in control of their own life. Therefore the importance of our session design is twofold; the skills must be shared in a way that is engaging and memorable so that participants feel confident to apply what they have learnt in everyday life, and additionally the experience itself must be friendly and positive so that participants come away feeling confident and more willing to engage with further training and volunteering opportunities.
We use the term “making a living” both in terms of making ends meet and creating the living you want, blending your work & social life. In what ways does The U help develop people’s skills to make a living?
We measure our impact both in terms of increasing people’s confidence in their own skills, and also in terms of the social connections that are formed during sessions.
Building local social networks is a key part of the work that we do in communities and there is a significant body of research to demonstrate the importance of these networks both in terms of promoting positive personal wellbeing and also in shaping attitudes about the area that you live in.
We believe that enhanced confidence and communication skills, alongside the formation of new local networks and connections, is a valuable combination for enabling individuals to seek out new opportunities (be these employment opportunities or social ones) and to ‘make a living’ in the terms you defined.
What has surprised you the most about the impact the U has had?
The U delivers sessions within a fixed timescale (normally around 4 months) in each community. During this time our local delivery team work hard to ensure that we deliver over 20 high quality sessions and also connect participants with other local community projects and on-going training and volunteering opportunities.
As time has passed after The U has finished delivering sessions in a particular location, it has been fantastic to continue to receive feedback about the long-term impact of the project. In some instances this feedback demonstrates how individuals were able to apply or share their skills with new people further down the line, and in other cases we heard about on-going community projects which had benefitted from additional volunteer support as a result of introductions that were made through The U. In all of these cases it was wonderful to see the effect of The U as a catalyst for long-term community connections.