Coram Voice's annual creative writing competition for children and young people in and leaving care, Voices, has just celebrated its fifth edition and, as ever, I was blown away by the quality of the writing.
The idea for “Voices” had been bouncing around in my head for some time. I wanted so much to showcase the talent of the young people I worked with. I wanted to challenge the stereotype of care-leavers, and for them to have a platform on which they could share their depth of character, humour, integrity and strength - all of which they have (at least in part) because of, not in spite of, their care experience. Furthermore, during a time of devastating cuts to the sector and depressingly shifting values, I wanted to do something positive.
Set against this context, there was a spark. I was a regular visiting advocate for a care home and on one of my visits I noticed a framed poem on the wall in the lounge. It had been written by a 15-year-old girl. It was a Eureka moment for me – it was so beautiful, and raw, and real.
I have seen first-hand the impact a creative outlet can make to a person’s life. The benefits of holistic arts are well documented but sadly underfunded because it is difficult to measure hard outcomes. It is no exaggeration to say that channelling pain and torment into something beautiful, which inspires joy and hope, can save lives. On days where it feels like everything is going wrong, creating something you are proud of can help you make it through.
This is all the more important to remember right now during the current pandemic, when so many young people, who may already be feeling isolated, scared and alone – are further cut off from vital social support.
It wasn’t easy getting the competition off the ground. I had to persuade my managers that it would not only be worthwhile, but also create a lasting impact. Then I had to manage the project. It was a lot of work - finalising the rules, fundraising, organising volunteers, planning the event, getting judges booked, sorting out the prizes. I did this on top of my day job and my evening law course! I couldn’t have done it without the help I received from Coram Voice of course, especially from my two right hand women, Samira Islam and Melanie Ramsey.
I remember so vividly the overwhelming pride I felt when I read the first few entries. I had never, not once, doubted how good they would be. But they were even better than I had imagined. I knew the hard work had been worth it. I knew this competition was going to be big.
I always believed in the creative talent of the children and young people I worked with; I had seen it with my own eyes. It is an absolute pleasure to read the shortlisted entries every year. The best moment for me as the competition grows, is getting the chance to read about or listen to the impact it has had on young people who’ve been shortlisted and hearing them encouraging other young people to do the same. That was something I had never really anticipated when I started this. It is truly humbling. Lifting one another up like that is a lesson we could really take on as adults, especially today. Many Voices finalists have also gone on to write for the national press, further honing their talent and shining a spotlight on the issues that affect them.
My hopes for the competition in the future are to see it be increasingly (and one day completely) led by those with care experience. My biggest regret is that I didn’t have the time or money to arrange this in 2016. I would also love to see a compilation book be published in the mainstream market – something you could pick up in your local bookshop and something that everyone is talking about.
I loved working as an advocate – I miss the jokes that I had with the children and young people I worked with and the lessons I learned from them every day. Being a part of someone finding their voice and standing up for themselves is such a privilege and I do miss that. I now work for a dedicated team of social care lawyers at Osbornes Law. Whilst at Coram Voice my caseload of homeless children and young people had been steadily increasing and it was often necessary to instruct a lawyer – and difficult to find one. So, I decided to become one.
Sometimes it can be difficult for children in care, who have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect, to speak directly to social workers about their concerns. They will have had experience of adults who do not understand them or take their feelings seriously. By investing in creative arts projects, local authorities can help children express themselves on their own terms. Creative writing is a safe way for some children and young people to communicate their feelings in written form, instead of talking, and begin to heal.
The girl who wrote that poem had, sadly, been moved to a secure unit a few days before I visited. I left her my contact details, but never did hear from her and I never got the chance to tell her – but she is the reason I started the competition. All of this is because one girl was brave enough to open her heart and put it out there. So, to any young person reading this article, please write. Write, write, write and dare to share. You cannot imagine the impact it might make one day.
Muna Adam is a paralegal at Osbornes Law and former Coram Voice advocate. The Voices 2020 awards ceremony can be viewed on YouTube. Read the finalists and winning entries for the specialist Experience of Covid-19 category and the main categories on the theme of Dreams.