How an IT fault led to an art exhibition, and a growing social venture

Ruth Coustick-Deal

Communications Manager

5th March 2020



Recent research on the health and wellbeing of young people in Barking & Dagenham revealed that only 37% of young people in the area feel they have someone to talk to, and 9% said there was not a single adult in their life that they trusted.

Write Back is a social venture story-telling programme that starts with the belief that every young person has a story to tell. Through the workshops they build self-esteem, confidence, and provide opportunities for them to listen and learn from each other.

Sam Norwood, a history teacher and the founder of Write Back, says about his work, “As a teacher I noticed it’s very difficult for young people to talk about issues that concern them. Young people can use story-telling to talk about issues that are often quite hard to talk about in a classroom,” where “peer-to-peer learning is rarely given a chance to shine.”

Some of these experiences include “racial profiling, going through a court case, family history, growing up in the care system”, and Sam understands what is needed to create a trusting environment to discuss them.

Two female students in green blazers leaning back and laughing

The origin story
Crucially, the sessions with Write Back are not just about autobiographical writing, but the chance for young people to learn and fully listen to other people’s experiences.  In fact, Write Back has a beautiful origin story that is all about that peer-learning power in action. It began when the IT system was down for a planned history lesson many years ago. Forced to abandon the set task, Sam looked at what was coming up next for his class of Year 9 students - they were about to start studying post-1945 migration.

He decided to open the topic up to the room to share their family history stories instead and was blown away by the richness of the stories that came out. They were “truly global” moving tales; remarkable coincidences were revealed, and bitter challenges people still live with now were discussed.

In that moment he realised the next term’s lessons were irrelevant, “compared to what we could draw out from the young people themselves”.

That group of students went on to write a book on their family experiences of migration. Then a book on stereotyping. Then put on an exhibition in a museum. Then they worked on designing workshops with young people, so that other young people would be able to gain these skills and experiences too.

Write Back is a collaborative effort that highlights the potential for young people to achieve amazing things when given the opportunities to come together. The original students are now at university or in employment, and according to Sam, “they are still telling stories,” and volunteer to run sessions when they can. Through the workshops, more young people have a chance to take ownership of something from start to delivery, gaining project management skills and confidence in their work too.

As with many social ventures, it’s not down to one person, but the many people who come together to make something work with a shared vision.

A female students in a denim jacket looks at Sam Norwood, the teacher, and is smiling and showing her work.

The impact of mentors  
For Sam, story-telling work is what he knows and loves, but the process of setting up a business, such as deciding the legal structure and funding models, have been more of a challenge.

He describes it as a journey of discovering “all the things I didn’t know I needed to know”. It’s here where he’s grateful for the access to teachers of his own that UnLtd have given him access to on the East End Connect programme, in partnership with UBS. As part of his Do It award, the business mentor he received has been “a real game-changer” helping with business models and pitching to get other people on board.

He goes as far as saying, “I wouldn’t have been able to make it work without mentoring advice from UnLtd – that’s the single biggest thing, to have people I can go to for advice, and people who have gone through similar things to talk to.” He’s also become part of a small group of UnLtd “newbies” who are meeting up independently to share advice, a new community he feels part of.

A classroom scene, two female students are sitting together working. A male student is sitting on a desk behind them and talking to the teacher, who is gesturing above his head.

The future of Write Back
Write Back is currently run through a youth centre in Dagenham called Future Youth Zone, who Sam credits as having been amazing partners (and where our photoshoot took place). Through the youth centre, young people have referred themselves onto the programme. His own school, Robert Clack, have also been incredibly supportive in getting Write Back off the ground. The dream is for all secondary schools in Barking and Dagenham to be signed up to Write Back, referring young people onto the programme.

His ambitions don’t end there – the goal is to give lots more young people access to the opportunity. Sam is training up new teachers so they can run projects like this on their own.

Beyond all of that he really hopes to see “a celebration of young people’s autobiographical writing” in the future. He’s seen how much they appreciate reading and engaging with the work of other young writers. If these programmes can reach beyond Barking & Dagenham, he’d love to see a platform for creating connections between other young people and hosting their stories. Other communities and groups can then learn from the different experiences of young people who don’t live near them: “our programme is at its best, when both learning and listening are happening”

There’s a lot ahead for this growing social venture – all from an IT fault, and a school class taking the moment and running with it.

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