COVID-19 is testing people to the depths of their capabilities. We are seeing how people across the world respond when pushed to seemingly impossible limits. From frontline health workers, people caring for themselves and loved ones in unprecedented circumstances, and government and businesses making decisions which involve trillions of dollars and will impact the livelihood of billions.
Our present and our future demand new solutions to keep institutions relevant and achieve genuine systems change. Young people, in particular, are often excluded from, or not engaged in decision making with the institutions and systems, like education, health and wellbeing that affect their future the most.
At YLab, we tackle this by placing young people with different lived experiences and technical expertise at the heart of regenerating institutions in every sector and every system.
One of our current projects, The Oasis Homelessness Project, employs nine young people (including myself) who have experienced homelessness to lead the design and delivery of pathways out of youth homelessness in secondary schools.
Several weeks ago when we knew COVID-19 restrictions were unavoidable, I entertained the thought of whether the project could continue as both our employment model and planned deliverables were heavily reliant on human connection as a team and in schools.
However, the past four weeks of social distancing have reminded me of the resilience and innovation of young people who have experienced disadvantage. Their lived experience is now drawn on in times of crisis.
The intention here isn’t to glorify what people have gone through or to suggest there is a silver lining to trauma, but to highlight the unique strengths young people, such as resourcefulness and perseverance and who have experienced crisis have, which I believe make them vital voices in both our understanding of complex challenges and the design of impactful solutions. Here’s what I’m noticing are key elements to navigating times of crisis:
Having an intimate knowledge of how our societal systems (education, employment, government, health etc.) work, who operates within them, their strengths, weaknesses and their connections to one another, are what institutions will need to deeply understand to navigate through this crisis, forecast future trends, and manage risk in the future.
Young people who have experienced homelessness and other forms of disadvantage are well versed in navigating complex systems, and so the fragility of these systems during COVID-19 comes as no surprise to them.
It’s these experiences which enable them to draw on deep knowledge and insights of complex systems when designing alternative ways of operating and delivering impact in rapidly changing contexts and environments.
Perseverance, resilience, grit, passion—however you package it up, boils down to being in it for the long-term in spite of the obstacles which will inevitably arise.
Our current restrictions (closures of non-essential services) could last months, which sounds like a really long time, and it is, but it makes sense because the reality of stopping something catastrophic, rebuilding or redesigning broken systems is that it doesn’t happen overnight and will take much longer than six months to recover.
Homelessness is no different, whether it is at a system level, or getting out of homelessness at a personal level, creating sustainable change it is a long-term play, taking years or decades to change a part of the system. Despite the dominant narrative of people who experience homelessness as a problem to be rescued or solved by others, young people who have experienced homelessness often have a lot of grit and are strong.
This is because we’ve often had to spend part, or a lot of our lives, in survival and problem-solving mode. And when that problem-solving ability is able to express itself in something we’re passionate about and is purposeful (such as designing pathways out of youth homelessness), there is very little that can get in our way.
Everyone is having to get resourceful in ways that were unimaginable a couple of months ago, whether personally— finding toilet paper substitutes, sharing a meal over a video call or playing soccer with a wall—or professionally—using virtual classrooms, attending digital events and simulating water cooler chats.There are endless possibilities and innovation has the potential to be unleashed massively through resourcefulness in times of crisis.
Much of experiencing homelessness is about being resourceful. Figuring out where you’re going to sleep, being savvy with resources, negotiation with family, services, systems. It’s this mindset that I’ve noticed serves our team well when navigating complex times as it helps us to be flexible and adaptive at a fast pace. It helps us reframe from a scarcity mindset (i.e. from feeling that resources are limited), to one of competitiveness, and then finally to a mindset of collaboration.
Team work makes the dream work
We will not get through this without upholding integrity through empathy and collaboration with one another. Finding the balance between moving forward so things don’t come to a standstill and holding space for gentleness and ease.
You can have deep systems knowledge, be persistent and be resourceful, but without teamwork \we won’t get far. It’s easy in times like this to seek to protect ourselves but more than ever, we need to look out for and work together with others (the like and differently minded).
This happens a lot when people experience homelessness, for example, being a carer for a parent or a sibling, helping someone else to navigate the systems you have or just having a friend’s back because you know the pain they’re going through. Without this kind of team dynamic, the complexity of The Oasis Project would be too much. COVID-19 will be too much for many institutions if they don’t find ways to connect and build relationships on a deeper level than extends beyond just being ‘colleagues’.
It’s still early days but I’m hopeful these kinds of capabilities will continue to keep this project thriving for years. Of course, it’s not all rosy. It’s been a tough time for the team and things have been far from smooth sailing. This is a difficult time for everyone, including the most vulnerable in our community who will bear the brunt of a lack of self-isolation options, suffer the strain on already stretched service providers and endure the mental health impact. So this is our work too now—thinking about how we should leverage our platform through The Oasis Project during this crisis to support all those in need.