As the organisation launches its latest project The Queer Agenda, we meet with Comics Youth ‘Youth Empowerment Director’, Emily McChrystal, and member and activist, Lucy Butler, to discuss different forms of activism, the importance of listening to marginalised youth and how we can all contribute to creating safe spaces at work and in community settings.
First of all, can you tell us a bit about Comics Youth, what is the organisation about and what are its aims
Emily: “We definitely aim to give a platform to marginalised youth. That involves creating safe spaces, making sure that there’s events that are free, accessible. We also help young people to reclaim the media that’s around them, through all creative outlets. We support them with zines, comics, newspapers, blog writing, videos – however it is that young people want to respond to the media, they can. Because we are a creative organisation, all of the staff have some form of either traditional education or lived experience of being a creative. So, a lot of the skills we apply to our sessions is to make sure that we can work with the media but also co-produce media in a way that we can reclaim the narrative around our experiences.
“On the flip side of that, with organisations and people who are outside of our groups, we aim to make sure they know how to work with us, rather than kind of tokenizing our existence. Take consultations, for example – we want to make sure there’s active listening when they happen. So, we will devise workshop plans or session plans. We work a lot with funders to make sure they know how to listen to us and how to engage with us. We also advocate for a lot of relational funding, which means that the funders who fund us, they build a relationship with us and the young people that we work with.”
And what are your roles within Comics Youth?
Emily: “So, I am the youth empowerment director, in a trainee director role. I’m one of the youngest directors on the board and my role is essentially empowering young people and making sure that I can devise programs, methods, outcomes that are tailored specifically towards young people. I first got involved in 2019, when I was 19 and there’s been constant progression, which is nice and now I’ve got a little bit more control and guidance over the type of programs that we can devise, which is where Lucy comes in!”
Lucy: “Yeah, I take part in the campaigns and the programs. I got involved with Comics Youth after seeing a call out post for one of the groups on social media so I just applied. I’ve done the Listen Up campaign and I’m also working on the Safe Spaces campaign now.
“We’re putting on events for marginalised people in Liverpool, one of which is an open mic night for queer creatives, which is really cool and I’m dead excited about that. But yeah, the Listen Up campaign has been really good as we’ve been getting involved with other youth organisations across the UK.
“At the moment we have an activist mural about young voices being heard and shaping the Covid-19 recovery plan up in Liverpool One, facing Sports Direct, for people to check out.”
Lucy, what has it meant for you personally to have access to a service like Comics Youth?
Lucy: “It has been so helpful. Because for me, I really enjoy being creative. I write a lot. But I’m also very passionate about making change. So Comics Youth is the perfect mix of those two things. And yeah, it’s really good knowing that it’s run by people who do have experience and who know what they’re doing and what they’re talking about.
What are the organisation’s key focuses?
Emily: “So, we segment our work into three key elements. The main one is making sure that we have a focus on wellbeing. Wellbeing can just be having a community and feeling that connectedness, which is so important to marginalised youth. Another element is making sure that we build resilience and a ‘We Can Do This’ ethos to empower young people. I actually hate the word resilience, because I wish people didn’t have to be resilient. I think we should just create systems that mean we can be tender and soft… but resilience is a necessary skill in our world today. We also are focused on creating clear, productive outcomes. So in every session that we do, in every workshop or space that we’re in, we want to make sure that people leave the space having learned something. That could be something personal. Someone could just leave the space feeling like, “hey, i’m not so alone in what I’m experiencing”, or they could leave the space with having a specific training experience or understanding a little bit more about the world around them. Something that we find, specifically with LGBTQIA+ youth, is that the workplace is often very triggering and harmful for them, especially when you’re working with people who don’t understand your lived experience and what you bring to the workplace. So we focus a lot on work skills, making sure that people go into the workplace knowing what they bring to the table and how they can tap into that a little bit better. And that’s something that we work on specifically in the Safe Spaces cohort that Lucy is a part of. So within those workshops, they’ll attend specific training or they’ll be aware of training opportunities they can access through us for free, which the groups have found really useful.”
But do you consider yourselves to be activists?
Emily: I’ll let Lucy take that first.
Lucy: “I don’t know if it’s just like imposter syndrome, but I wouldn’t consider myself an activist because – in my head – the picture of an activist is someone who’s like, storming parliament. Which, obviously, I would do given the chance! I’d like to say that I’m aiming to be an activist. But at the moment, I’m just learning and kind of getting my feet on the ground with it all.”
Emily: “I think it’s important to mention that learning is an act of activism. Learning and being on that journey of understanding and growth, that is activism. And I think it’s important for us to reimagine what an activist is. You can be an activist by just being at home by yourself and making a specific story or post.
“Being a queer person is such emotional labour and having to constantly fight for your rights and explain your views and have to explain to people point blank, “I deserve space and I deserve rights” is very draining. By doing that, every day you are being an activist, just by being you and being true to who you are I think. There is that image of making placards and screaming and shouting. But there are so many layers of activism and being an activist. So I think I would say that I’m an activist just purely because I am myself every day and every day, I come into spaces, I make space for myself whether it’s made for me or not. And I think that’s a form of activism.”
Was your decision to learn to be an activist a conscious decision or something that just happened?
Lucy: “I think I’ve definitely been pushed into that by the things I’ve seen and experienced. It’s hard to not want to change things when you’ve had certain experiences.”
Emily: “When you are a marginalised person – and from my experience as a queer person – my whole identity is politicised. It is political. And whether it’s a conscious decision or not, that is a political experience. You have people voting for or against your rights, you have people bringing your experiences up in debates. And I think, I agree with the sentiment of what Lucy said, feeling like it’s pushed on to you and something that kind of feels like a responsibility.”
From both your personal experiences, what can people do to bring “activism” into their everyday lives?
Lucy: “I think one of the things that’s talked about most is calling things out and standing up for people who aren’t in the room. So I’d hope if someone considered themselves an activist for queer people that they wouldn’t let comments slide or would want to educate people. Obviously sometimes it’s not safe to do that. But I think taking on that responsibility to step in, in person and also on social media nowadays. It’s so easy to create your own posts or share them. Those are everyday things you can do.”
Emily: “I agree with Lucy, definitely. And I think another thing is making sure that you’re bringing safety into every space that you’re in. Because I think sometimes people overlook the power of asking people “what are your needs?” or “what are your pronouns?” or saying “if you need to take a break, take it”. I think, especially when in a work setting as well as a community-driven setting, you’re consciously creating space for people to feel safe. With safety comes those conversations of activism and change-making and like Lucy said, making sure that you are calling out things when you can.”
What do you think could make it easier for people to call things out in the workplace or social settings?
Emily: I think it’s easier to call things out when you have initial ground rules before a meeting or in a space that you’re in. Something that we’re starting to implement into our sessions is a framework called “Oops” and “Ouch”, which I think is just very applicable to everyday meetings and conversations. So, if someone says something that hurts you or is something that doesn’t land very well, you can just be like “ouch, maybe we should rephrase that” or “I didn’t like that”. Or if you catch yourself saying something that might be hurtful to others. You’re like, “Oops, I could have said that so much better”. Implementing those everyday frameworks and ways to kind of navigate safety everywhere would make it easier to call things out and be an activist in everyday spaces I think.
Any other tips you might share with someone who wants to learn more about activism?
Lucy: “I’d say be confident in your beliefs because there’s always going to be really loud, annoying people who disagree. But I think sometimes it can be like, oh God, there’s going to be people saying all sorts to me. But at the end of the day, you know that what you’re fighting for is right. So just ignore the idiots.”
Emily: “That is gorgeous advice.”
It certainly is! So, what has the gang at Comics Youth been up to?
“We’ve just had the “Open Open Mic Night” at Liverpool Arts Bar, where we basically just wanted to create a space where people could come and share without having to pay or without having to worry about it being an unsafe venue or environment. We talked quite a lot with the venue about their safety and discrimination policies. We looked into how to make the space a safe space, booked some amazing queer acts and also invited people to just come and take the open mic slots and literally get up on stage and do whatever you like. If you just want to scream, go for it!”
Sounds amazing – what else is coming up that people can get involved with?
Emily: We’ve also got a new project called The Queer Agenda, which I am leading on. It is a program for LGBTQIA+ young people aged between 18 and 25. We specifically picked that age range because there isn’t much out there for that age range that isn’t focused around alcohol and other things. What we’re using that program for is to build community and connectedness for that age group. The programme has come about due to the rise in hate crimes in Liverpool. It is that age demographic who are mainly the victims of these hate crimes. So, we wanted to build a community and build a safety net within the city centre.
“We’re hosting the sessions, potentially weekly, in our city centre base, and we’re also going to be building an online community as well for people who don’t want to come to a face-to-face session. People can join and talk about whatever it is they want to talk about. It will be a year-long program and we’ll be creating zines and the like, again to reclaim that media narrative around our experiences.
“At the very end of the program, all of the sessions that we do, all of the conversations that we have, all of the policies that we create, the zines we produce, all of that will be collected into a handbook. That handbook will then be distributed nationally and internationally, so that we can show organisations, people, and communities how to respond to us and work with us a little bit better.”
This sounds like a fantastic project – how can people get involved?
Emily: “On the 8th of December, we’re going to be hosting a community consultation on Zoom. So that’s getting together all people from all different parts of the community, whether that’s from organisations or individuals to discuss the project. And all of the program will be co-produced and co-led by the community with me. We’ve already put out a survey that got over 100 responses around how we want the program to look and some of the outcomes that we want to have. The community consultation on the 8th December will be more of a casual conversation about the needs of the community and how we can make sure that the community is leading that
“Often the programmes that are created for us aren’t by us. It tends to be people outside of the community, or from a specific element of the community saying “this is what we need”. The consultation is about making sure that it’s developed in such a way that all of the needs of the community are met. So that is a really exciting development. You can sign up to get involved here now.”
LCR Pride Foundation’s theme this year is “From Now On” – what do you pledge to change “from now on?”
Emily: “I think from an organisational standpoint, it’s important that from now on, young people are implemented in every single stage of policymaking. I think as an organisation, we’ve led the way with that, but we still haven’t got it perfect. There are still some things that we “put up with” externally that don’t quite align with what we are about as an organisation.
“I think the line in the sand for us is we’re not putting up with it anymore. We will just say no to projects that don’t align with our ethos, or we will turn down funding from funders that don’t work the way that we want them to work with us.
“I want to add that it is a privilege to be able to say this. We are privileged as an organisation to be able to say no to projects and to say no to certain things. We know that isn’t something that every organisation can do. But now we are at a point where we are able to say no, we will say no.”
Lucy: “On a personal level, from now on, I just want queer people to feel safe, especially in relation to media and representation. It’s quite a broad thing but I think there’s a lot of bullshit going on in the media. I’d just like them to feel safe in reality and also safely represented.”
For more information about The Listen Up Campaign visit comicsyouth.co.uk/listen-up-campaign
To find out more about Comics Youth, visit: comicsyouth.co.uk/