Misfits Find Their Voices
Wednesday, 5th October 2016 at 11:50 am
Young people need to be heard, so the MISFIT Project created a stage where they can find their voice, writes Ellie Cooper in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Sarah Ward inadvertently launched the MISFIT Project seven years ago in school, when she wrote, produced and directed a play about being different.
“That’s an issue I’m very passionate about. I discovered through that how powerful having your voice not only heard, but valued is and that was quite life changing for me,” Ward said.
The Yarra Ranges Council, which includes her area of Upper Yarra Valley, around 65 kilometers east of Melbourne, saw the play and supported Ward to set up and run a theatre program for young people.
“The purpose is to engage young people to talk about issues that matter to them and help break down stigma around certain issues and create a support network and get that conversation started,” she said.
“Young people often have very similar experiences but there’s a lot of stigma around starting that conversation, so we enable them to start that conversation which helps lower mental health risk and makes them engage more in the world around them.”
The MISFIT Project runs three theatre programs for different ages – eight to 12 year olds, 12 to 16 year olds and 16 to 26 year olds – at a low cost. Ward also says there are options available for people with financial difficulties.
Through theatre, the social enterprise has worked with young people to explore issues including cyberbullying, disability, identity, self-image, sexuality and relationships.
“An example that matters most to me is the very first play… called Mirror Mirror. It was an adaptation of the fairytale Snow White, to talk about the challenges that come with being different,” Ward said.
“So instead of the dwarves… they were half-human, half-animal creatures which is a metaphor for disability and helped us explore the fact that we need to look past the surface and really get to know someone.
“We also looked a lot of body image issues because in Snow White there’s a lot of stuff around who’s the fairest in the land and that beauty is power and that beauty is only a surface-level thing.
“If you don’t understand what’s underneath, beauty holds no value.”
Last year Ward was part of the Social Traders Crunch program, where she developed new youth engagement programs.
“We originally started as a theatre company and we realised that while we could engage a lot of people, there were big gaps,” she said.
“It… has now developed into into several programs. We still use theatre as a means but we also use creative writing and other creative means to get that conversation started.
“And we run workshops in various different mediums from schools to communities and with organisations to help them start a dialogue around a particular issue.”
The program also helped her create new revenue streams and develop a sustainable model to carry the social enterprise into the future.
“We really want to make theatre accessible to young people, so even if you’re not necessarily into performing we want to keep ticket prices low, but that makes it really hard to bring in a lot of income streams,” she said.
“So that’s where we diversified and started running workshops. We run 24-hour theatre projects for organisations, we run workshops in schools and other organisations for a fee that helps us then develop our theatre program and helps support more young people through that as well.”
Ward says working with young people is “wonderful”.
“I love it. I’m a young person myself and I think that peer-to-peer support is so important and it’s something that’s not pushed enough,” she said.
“I think that there’s a lot of challenges that come working with young people, particularly young people who are going through that transition that comes with puberty.
“To help them open up and actually share what’s going on for them is a really powerful factor to help them maintain being engaged and connected in their communities, which helps stop feelings of isolation, which can lead to depression and suicide and other mental health issues as well.”
With 182 members who take part in programs on a regular basis, and even more who’ve participated in workshops, Ward says the social impact of the MISFIT Project has been huge, especially given the small area it runs in.
“We’ve got some pretty amazing stories. We’ve had young people who were having severe issues with mental health, including anxiety, depression, engaging in a program like this has brought them out of themselves and out of their shells,” she said.
“We have young people with autism who struggle to understand how to engage with other young people, it’s helped give them a social script and a network of friends who support them and understand the challenges and help them in the wider community.
“We have young people who were having issues with substance abuse who have pulled their act together because through education and understanding they’ve developed a picture of all the issues that come along with that.”
Ward says one of the greatest challenges is running a social enterprise in a small and isolated location.
“The hardest thing is, particularly in a semi-regional area – we’re still metropolitan but not really – isolation,” she said.
“I found that really hard being really passionate about creating social change and not having a lot of connections with other young people doing it.
“I have a lot of connections with young people engaging with theatre programs, but not with a lot of other young people who are out there who are forging the way developing social enterprise.”
But Ward recently participated in the Foundation for Young Australians’ Young Social Pioneers program, which she says helped her connect with other young people.
She says young people are her passion, and her next big project will be to create a “safe space” for her area.
“I’d like to set up a space for young people in the Yarra Valley where services can do outreach,” she said.
“Currently as it stands if a young person wants to access support they have to hop onto a bus and travel for 45 minutes and all the organisations close at 5pm.
“If they’re a young person who’s attending school their ability to access any kind of support service is very, very limited because school finishes at 3.30pm, by the time they walk to the bus stop and travel they’ve got 15 minutes to actually access services.
“I want to set up a youth space for young people in the Yarra Valley, which they feel a sense of ownership over.
“I think that that would be really empowering for a lot of the young people in the area.”
She says she will run programs in the space, host a drop-in centre and set up a co-working area for students.
“I’m working towards raising the money to make that possible, we’ve held a couple of fundraising events and we have a Go Fund Me page which we’re working hard to get a bit of traction with, but we’re looking to hopefully have it up and running by early next year,” she said.
“I’m seeing so many issues about the fact that young people are really struggling to access services in the form of mental health support and arts is a really fantastic tool to work through things, but there also need to be other mediums as well.”