Safety and accessibility are complex at the best of times, but COVID-19 gave them whole new dimensions. None of us have ever done a pandemic before, so it’s been difficult to know how to manage safety and accessibility in this context, let alone when our work moved almost completely online. 

The Y’s Latrobe Youth Space in Morwell, on Gunai Kurnai Country, was one of several regional youth services that hauled all their programs online overnight when lockdown started. Members of their Youth Governance Committee (YGC) Catherine and Danni, along with youth worker Kylie, talked us through their tips to young leaders and youth workers for running safe youth spaces online. 

1. Flexibility and accessibility go hand in hand 

Accessibility can be impacted by a variety of factors in regional areas, and The Y were concerned about losing touch when everything went online. But they learned that for several young people in the Latrobe Valley phones would be the last to go – it’s just a matter of making the right changes. 

When adjusting times, running activities outside of commitments like online learning may seem obvious enough. But Kylie notes that adjusting times is also about making the activity appropriate for what young people are feeling at that time. For example, asking, what do you actually feel like doing after a day of studying online? ‘You want that engagement … and you want that learning and development for young people, but at the end of the day it’s what they want,’ Kylie says. ‘A lot of them just wanted to come somewhere that they felt safe and included, and [could] have a bit of fun.’ 

In Danni’s words, a lot of those online activities could be summed up as, ‘What are you doing today? … Film it!’ Livestreams from a familiar face can feel like going to a friend’s house. You don’t have to be recording something big and impressive; more relaxed activities may be easier to participate in, especially for those feeling ‘zoomed out’. Remember, you should meet young people at how they want to participate. ‘Some people try to get young people to talk constantly about how they feel or express themselves.’ Danni explains. ‘Don’t push them, because that pushes them away.’ She advises that leaders in youth spaces be open to new options for young people to express themselves. 

2. Online groups can still be place-based 

‘Not every young person wants to move off to Melbourne…I can understand, people’s networks are here too. So having [and continuing] those opportunities for young people regionally that they can have in the city was really important,’ Kylie emphasises. It comes back to the saying ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. Catherine adds that some of The Y’s most successful groups were those where people could connect with people with the same lived experiences. Their Rainbow Group had an elder from the trans community as a mentor, for example.  

For youth workers, keeping online programs focused on your local community also makes it easier to transition your in-person approach to the online format. Firstly, if you can’t offer a certain connection they’re looking for, it makes it easier to link them elsewhere. For example, Kylie was conscious of providing strengths-based referrals such as local employers, or getting assistance from local telecommunications providers to keep young people online. 

Secondly, a large part of the Youth Space’s success with smoothly transitioning online was that they had already-familiar faces running the activities. As Danni notes, local faces also make the concept of someone being present for you more tangible; young people understand ‘we might not be here but we might be there’. 

If you’re moderating a group, Danni recommends familiarising yourself with the functions of the platform you’re using. Knowing what options are available will empower you to not only minimise risk but manage any breaches safely. Even online, your moderation style can be the same as in-person. Your existing skills for sensitively managing situations in an in-person setting, for example, will still transfer online. 

3. Seek young people’s feedback every step of the way 

Group leaders should firstly pay attention to if the structure of an online group shows young people of marginalised backgrounds that they’re safe there. As Catherine notes, ‘particularly in regional spaces, young people often only hear the negative. There’s not as much active ally behaviour… just being visible was pretty radical in a regional area.’ 

The young crew recommend doing things like: 

  • Having thoughtful Acknowledgements of Country 

  • Involving staff with relatable lived experiences to the group’s young people 

  • Talking about pronouns and why they’re important 

  • Using diverse flags in your digital content 

  • Constantly asking for feedback in polls 

  • Taking submissions for content 

Regional young people already face unique barriers, Catherine continues, and it’s misguided to think that they’ll simply reach out and say, ‘I have a problem, I need a referral.’ Particularly online, young people may feel more comfortable approaching their peers with problems rather than youth workers, so it’s also important that young leaders are kept safe and understand online boundaries. This needs to be actively supported by adult supervisors and youth workers. Youth spaces should be just as clear with its young committee members that their mental health is important, they know the support available to them, and that they aren’t set with unrealistic expectations for their involvement. 

The bottom line for any supervisors, as Kylie points out, is that ‘when we respect them, they also respect each other.’ 

For young leaders running youth spaces, Catherine and Danni recommend focusing on common goals like wellbeing, mental health or social support. Being clear on what these were in the YGC kept it a positive space. When people asked questions or wanted to explore alternatives, they weren’t met with malice, Catherine elaborates. ‘You all have something really important to contribute. You all have these amazing experiences and you’re all really invaluable.’ 

Young leaders are also well placed to help each other develop skills. Danni says you can help each other with tasks online and fill in the gaps of each other’s skills. The YGC members took a collaborative approach with sharing their skills in video shooting and editing, for example, so everyone could contribute to creating content. 

Running youth spaces online can feel overwhelming at times. But breaking things down into flexibility and accessibility, keeping it local, and staying open to what young people want can make it more manageable. 

If you want to hear more from The Y’s Latrobe Youth Space or other regional youth spaces near you, check out our upcoming IGTV series, Green Flags.

This story is part of our Learning from COVID-19 series, featuring the creativity and adaptions of young people and youth workers. Check out our other stories or share your own.