Teenagers dancing to the latest drill track on a summer evening, a local MC spitting on the mic, youngsters requesting their favourite tunes. So far, this is a perfectly normal scene during the school holidays in south east London, but in 2020 there’s a twist: it’s all taking place on screen. Welcome to an online lockdown party.
Young Greenwich, the borough’s youth service, has – like most of us – had to adapt to the changes this year has brought, and online parties are just one of the ways they’ve been injecting some fun into the lives of south east London’s children.
It usually runs youth clubs from four main hubs – Charlton, at The Valley; Thamesmead; Avery Hill and Woolwich Common – as well as national and international trips, judo classes, boxing, sports competitions, media and music related activities, creative arts, plus drop-in sexual health services, homework help and careers advice. When the pandemic hit, all this was put on hold, and the team had to rethink how they could support their users.
“I knew that people I follow on Instagram – like personal trainers and DJs – had been doing online sessions and live streams, so I thought about how I could apply that to Young Greenwich,” says Shade Thompson, the marketing and outreach officer at Charlton Athletic Community Trust, which runs Young Greenwich. “Normally, in person, we have parties, DJs, music and all that stuff – and some of our youth workers are DJs – so I thought we could replicate that in online form.”
Since April the weekly parties have been a hit, playing music chosen by the young people – a virtual version of asking for your favourite track at the DJ booth – everything from drill to hip-hop, dance to house, R&B to pop and everything in between, complete with an MC to keep the energy up. And there’s been dancing – from both young people and the youth workers.
“The young people are like, ‘Get Shade up on the video!’,” laughs Shade.
“So I’m there in my garden going on split screen with my colleagues, rushing to find a t-shirt with our branding on it to make it feel a bit more ‘together’, but it’s been really good” There are surprise challenges to win prizes, and split screens allow the kids can talk to the youth workers and catch up. That level of interaction has been nice, because the young people got to see us in a way [during lockdown] and enjoy our presence even though the youth clubs were closed.”
There have even been appearances from artists like Afro B, a Charlton-born DJ, singer and songwriter who makes music fusing Afrobeats with dancehall, hip-hop, reggae and R&B. The team arranged an interview with him to inspire the next generation of local young people.
“It was brilliant because he’s from the borough,” says Shade, “so people were asking questions about growing up there and stuff.” She adds that they regularly played the NHS charity song Not Alone by Fleur East as a mark of respect and celebration of all the health workers, “to show love for their hard work and everything they do”.
Young Greenwich soon opened up to parents too, with family lockdown parties for the younger children taking place on Facebook, and ones for older kids on Instagram. “So the music for family parties could be anything from the Sixties to the present day,” explains Shade, “and with Instagram it’s more tailored to what young people are listening to today.”
The competition prizes are tailored too, with JD Sports vouchers for the older kids and family gifts like hampers for the Facebook parties.
As well as some much-needed fun, lockdown parties have also brought about more serious conversations, with discussions about anxiety and difficulty sleeping. “We’re transparent about what’s going on,” says Shade, explaining how the online get-togethers have provided support in place of school or spending face-to-face time with friends.
“We say, ‘Yeah it is hard right now. But these are the ways I’ve dealt with it.’ It’s that casual but also helpful conversation.”
Over the first few weeks the team reached over 12,000 young people via the online services, explains Shade. “Then we had other youth services asking us what we were doing and how we were doing it, so they could do the same in their areas. I did some research and as far as I can work out we were the only ones doing parties, other people were doing live sessions – like baking cakes or something – but not parties online, where it’s ‘Come rave with us, come chill!’”
Young Greenwich also expanded its youth clubs service online, via a secure video chat on Zoom, offering games and challenges, debates and talks, and have run online sessions in things like singing, sports and wellbeing, or careers and skills. “Young people enjoy the youth clubs because its not conventional education, but you still get some sort of education, but its also escapism,” says Shade. “They could have hard backgrounds, or their parents aren’t in a position to help develop or support them in the way they need right now.”
Now that lockdown is easing, Young Greenwich is safely restarting its face-to-face services. Shade says it’s been challenging – it’s had to keep numbers down, which means disappointing some who want to attend, and enforcing social distancing is hard. “But it’s good that people are getting back to some sort of normality,” she adds. The summer camps have been split into physical activities – football skills, team building – and active learning, such as problem-solving skills, and learning in a fun, engaging way, And then there are the youth clubs: arts, crafts and activities in a casual setting.
Shade feels very proud of Young Greenwich and what it’s managed to provide to local young people during lockdown. “It’s so rewarding, and it’s about the young people at the end of the day, so hearing the great feedback from them makes it worth it,” she explains, emphasising how especially vital it’s been for those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged.
“Being a young person and stuck … not seeing their friends for months, you can’t go to school, you’re at home – if you don’t like your home setting then your escape is automatically gone. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a garden. It’s very harsh. I’m actually quite anxious for the next generation in terms of the people who’ll be getting jobs will be the most privileged. So that part is daunting, but that’s also why it makes stuff like this even more rewarding.”
This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Let us know if you have a story to tell.
EMMA FINAMORE is a freelance music and culture writer and features editor at The Lewisham Ledger.
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