20 September 2022

A unique view on digital: Amira’s story

Amira is a recent UpRising alum and – full disclosure! – will join four other alumni Trustees on the UpRising board in Autumn 2022. As Head of West Midlands with CoachBright (a social mobility charity pairing university students and disadvantaged pupils) in her day job, Amira also consults with the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, helping them to understand why and how they fund the work they do and helping ensure they’re inclusive for young people. Amira’s passion to ensure unheard voices are to the fore and her experiences on our programmes since 2019 – face-to-face, hybrid and digital-only – gives her a unique perspective on the role digital can play in programme provision.  

Amira began her journey with UpRising when she joined the Birmingham Leadership Programme in 2019. Our Leadership Programmes introduce emerging young leaders to those in positions of power – in civil society, in business, in the third sector – and give them the knowledge, skills, confidence and networks needed to make change happen. The programmes culminate with the planning and delivery of a social action campaign. 

“I found it [the Programme] to be really useful,” Amira said. With her team, Amira focused her social campaign – “Unheard” – on addressing political disengagement among young people at a local level. “The deputy leader of Birmingham City Council – Bridget Jones – had a call with us and because it was online, we were able to have three different parties join. It was really interesting seeing the ways they aligned on certain local issues. We see the national narrative always which is important of course, but we wanted to show how you should know who your local council is and what they are up to, because that impacts you too.”

At the end of her Masters year, Amira doubled down on her UpRising experience and applied for Stand Out – our employability and career accelerator. “I was thinking about what I wanted to do after university,” Amira said. “I knew I wanted to work in the third sector, but I also knew I needed guided support with CV’s and interviews and how to present yourself in the world of work. Because it was completely online, I knew I could balance it with my dissertation.”


Digital offers accessibility, flexibility and reach 

Amira can see the positives offered by digital, commenting that “I think there are huge advantages to having it online. You can balance university and work around it a lot easier. It cuts down on so much travel time. I know people who used to travel an hour and a half/two hours for sessions and that was just a drain because they would run off to catch the train and they wouldn’t be able to socialise afterwards. [And] it is more accessible because you’re not thinking about all your travel expenses on the way there, on the way back.” 

Flexibility is a key benefit too: “I think [another] definite advantage of having it online is the flexibility, because you never know what’s going to come up in life and I think it’s a lot easier to join online. So when I couldn’t make something, I could watch it afterwards and I was a lot more engaged because I wasn’t sitting there thinking, ‘I’ve got to do this [other thing] afterwards” so I could put all my energy into really taking in the information I was getting.’” Online also made things less stressful and enabled Amira to tailor her experience of the programme to her own needs. “I found online to be super-useful,” she added, “I could really just pick and choose the modules that I wanted to do and there were some things that weren’t of interest to me, like talks about the corporate world, for example.”


Digital spaces can be safer spaces 

A foundational belief for UpRising is that leadership can be learnt. Part of delivering that is to provide a space where you can hone and experiment with the soft skills at the heart of leadership and potentially take some calculated risks. “The social anxiety of it all!” commented Amira on her face-to-face experience. “When you’re in a new space like UpRising (and I didn’t know anyone there when I started) it was one of those things where I remember having this little talk with myself: ‘it’s OK that you don’t know anyone there, but everyone’s here trying to do the same thing, and that’s awesome.’ It does take time to get to know people. And I remember when I was there, everyone would form their little groups. I was just as guilty of that and you’d have these little pockets of people everywhere, which I think is great, because that’s what UpRising’s about and it’s about finding your tribe, in a sense.”

Contrasting this with online, Amira said “when it’s online it’s less daunting, especially if you find it difficult inserting yourself into new spaces. You can get that distance and you can shut your laptop off at the end of the day and not think about it.” Echoing comments from fellow contributor Michelle Amira added that “you’re very aware of your presence [in face-to-face] whereas online, especially if your camera’s off, you can take things as they come.


Building digital community is much slower – but once built you can move faster 

Our research suggests Amira’s personal experience reflects digital programmes more widely. Historically, UpRising has built a strong sense of community among each cohort and we worked hard to mirror that during the pandemic. With some programmes – the Future Generations Leadership Programme and Environmental Leadership Programme – we had success. With others, less so. Amira observed “the first half of the Leadership Programme was in person, then we moved online. Without having that in-person engagement at the beginning of the programme and getting to know the people in my cohort and in my group, I think it would have been very difficult to start online from the beginning. That’s the same for a lot of programmes I’ve been on during the pandemic.” Amira added “for me the perfect online situation is where the first few sessions are in-person and you’re in each other’s space for a few days. I think that’s really useful because when you [then] move online then it’s a lot easier. We found [co-operation] a lot easier [online] … I think the campaign that we chose in the end wouldn’t have been possible if it was in person.”

However, Amira didn’t see that sense of community as being essential on every programme. Speaking of her experiences on Stand Out, Amira said “I went there with a very specific view that what I wanted to get out of it was support entering the world of work and applying to jobs. I didn’t use it as a socialisation space, so I don’t really know anyone on that programme, which in hindsight I think if I came in with a different mindset I would have used it as a space to build a support network and get to know people on a programme, whereas with [the leadership programme] it was the opposite. I remember going in thinking, ‘I want get to know people in this social action space. I want to know what people are passionate about, what gives them passion and what gives them rage, and I want to see what that looks like’ because that’s the kind of place I wanted to insert myself with.”


Even with digital delivery, the physical matters too 

We asked Amira where other contrasting experiences felt important to note, too. “When absolutely everything’s 100% online it’s not the best for me,” Amira said, adding “when it comes to reflections, for example, I remember doing those in person and I think I gave it a lot more thought than I did the online ones. Online ones are a tick-box exercise – ‘did I write a sentence here and there?’ and I was not going in-depth about my answers with evaluations.” That’s an important insight for anyone running a digital programme and supported by the research. 

Since 2020, programme participants have helped us gather huge amounts of insight with their willingness to complete online surveys, feedback forms, reflections and learning logs. Amira’s experience and the research suggest we need to re-think some aspects of this and ensure that we reinstate some of the physical aspects of the programme in future. 


Changing the face of power: digitally? 

Amira praised the role digital played in supporting young people to connect to power, commenting that “the range of speakers with whom you could interact [on the online programme] was much greater. It would have been incredibly difficult in person for public figures to join us on Zoom and do Q&A’s and workshops - it would have been a nightmare to get the space, try and find a venue. It would have been a lot more difficult.” We need to give more thought to the design of some specific sessions and the role some of our community channels such as Slack and WhatsApp play, however, as Amira noted that “after an in-person session I always talked to the people that I did the programme with. We hashed out all these ideas and it was a space to really think about stuff. But when it was happening over Zoom, all you really had at the end was, like, a WhatsApp group chat and that wasn’t the best space to kind of flesh out ideas.”

Can digital programmes play a role in the future, and help drive UpRising’s mission to change the face of power? Amira was clear: “when everything’s in person you can only put your resources in certain areas and they are often urban areas. That’s where UpRising has worked for the most part over the last few years. When it's digital you can access people and spaces you otherwise couldn’t. It’s easier to get people who might not necessarily show up. When there are barriers, it’s a lot harder to insert yourself into spaces: you need to travel; you need to think about how it can fit into your schedule. When it’s online you can engage with as many young people from across the country as possible, and I think that’s the aim if you want to change the face of power.”

We’ll leave the last words with Amira: “it's about putting people in the same space online a couple of times a week, a couple of times a month, even, and I think once you give a young person that community, no matter where they’re based in the UK, it’s a lot easier for them to believe that they are part of a social movement, to change the face of power, to think about where in their life they can see examples of good leadership and where they want to fit in, in the future.”


Based on what we’ve learned by working with the hundreds of young people who participated on our programmes over the period 2020 - 2022, we undertook a deep dive into some of the literature to better understand what “engagement” really means for young people who take part in online programmes. Our report covers the results of our research, further insights from our programmes team, and recommendations about how to enhance engagement in online programmes. You can read the full report here.