Article: #unitydoc: Participatory Filmmaking as Counter-Storytelling

First Published: 19th October 2020 | Author: Will Mason and Unit Gym Project | Tags: , , , , ,

Will Mason and the Unity Gym Project reflect on the creation of the #unitydoc documentary produced by young people in collaboration with a filmmaker. He explores the merits of filmmaking as an evaluative tool, especially as a way of using counter-storying to address narratives of stigma and the racialisation of young people.

This article details the process and outcomes of a participatory filmmaking project, #unitydoc: the Unity Gym Project Documentary. Unity Gym Project (UGP) is a Sheffield based youth charity, committed to the promotion of health and wellbeing. Located in an income-deprived part of central Sheffield, UGP was established in 2010 as a direct response to diminishing resources for young people and families. Since 2010, Local Authority spending on youth services has continued to decrease with spending reductions of approximately 70% documented across England and Wales (YMCA, 2020).UGP is volunteer run, and throughout the last decade – with often very limited financial resource – the project has grown with the community. Its core activities include the provision of a gymnasium, a weekly open access youth club, football and basketball sessions, work placement opportunities, one-to-one mentoring, conflict resolution and additional summer holiday youth provisions. Though many of these activities have been temporarily suspended by the 2020 Coronavirus lockdown, the charity has since adapted its offer, with the delivery of food parcels to local families and detached youth work activities. UGP activities are principally accessed by members of the local Somali community, though they also attract a very diverse and citywide cohort of young people and adults, of all ages.

UGP is also the site of long-term and ongoing university-community partnership. Since 2010 Mason has undertaken what Blazek and Askins (2020) refer to as a ‘volunteer practitioner role’, integrating dual roles as a university lecturer and youth work volunteer (Bell, 2019).The details and contentions of university-community partnerships are beyond the scope of this article (for more information see Facer and Enright, 2016). However, synergies between social research and youth work practices are now well-recognised, as are the benefits of youth work practice that is research informed (Gormally and Coburn, 2014; Walsh and Harland, 2019). Joint university-community activities to date have included the development of funding bids, youth work projects, the co-delivery of teaching and professional training activities, community-based research projects and co-authored public reports (Mason et al., 2019). The participatory filmmaking project documented here is a further example of this practice.

Background: territorial stigma and racialisation

In Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality Imogen Tyler (2020:27) defines stigma as “a form of classificatory violence ‘from above’ which devalues people, places and communities”. Racialisation, understood as the attribution of racial prejudices to social subjects, is an expression of stigma power (Murji and Solomos, 2005)and the devaluing effects of these processes are evidenced by the state of UK ethnic and racial inequalities (Byrne et al. 2020). Inequalities also manifest spatially. People of colour are disproportionately represented in income-deprived neighbourhoods (ONS, 2020) and these places are frequently subject to territorial practices of misrepresentation and stigma (Wacquant, 2007; 2008).

Wacquant (2008) and others (Slater, 2018) have usefully outlined the processes by which stigma symbolically degrades and devalues places. Territorial stigma labels places as ‘risky’ and ‘lawless’, tarnishing geographies in ways that can justify amplified social controls. Stop and search powers, for example, continue to be used disproportionately against ethnic minority people, and ethnic minority groups are increasingly and disproportionately represented in the youth criminal justice system (Shankley and Williams, 2020).

Critiques of Wacquant, however, have also drawn attention to the lack of focus in his work on (i) the views of residents inhabiting stigmatised neighbourhoods, or (ii) practices of resistance to the imposition of stigma (Sisson, 2020). Consequently, recent scholarship has paid increasing attention to the daily practices of stigma management and resistance performed by the residents of stigmatised localities (Elliott et al., 2020). The activities of UGP are particularly relevant in this regard. The neighbourhood encompassing Unity Gym is the subject of longstanding deficit narratives, with frequent reference to criminality and racialised images of ‘the gang’ (Solórzano and Yosso, 2002; Alexander, 2000). Yet, a recurring frustration voiced by young people concerns the mismatch between pejorative misrepresentations of the neighbourhood and the far more mundane and broadly positive realities of living there. Young people accessing UGP have consistently expressed a will to challenge this narrative and, in the context of youth work, we have found that participatory filmmaking constitutes an effective vehicle for that resistance.

Youth work, counter-storytelling and resistance

Youth work is a critical practice with resistance and radical possibility at its core. Youth work spaces are characterised by dialogue and youth work relationships have the capacity to foster intergenerational listening, understanding and action (Freire, 1970). Despite significant precarity and obstruction, youth work that is open access and community-based continues to offer dynamic ‘sites of resistance’ to counter the manifold inequalities experienced locally, but manifested at broader structural levels (Clarke et al., 2017; de St Croix, 2016).

Counter-storytelling is a method developed within Critical Race Theory to challenge and resist racist characterisations of people and place (Solórzano and Yosso, 2002).Racialisation is central to stigma and critical methodologists have outlined how majoritarian storytelling (through journalism, research or otherwise) can inadvertently contribute to ‘master narratives’ that essentialise and flatten “the complexities and richness of [groups’] cultural life” (Montecinos, 1995: 293see also Smith, 2012).Despite progressive social justice orientations, unfortunately youth work is not outside of these processes. Community-based youth workers, for example, often experience tensions between their commitments to resist localised deficit narratives and the requirements to articulate ‘risk talk’ to compete for problem focused funding (Smithson et al. 2013). In the US context, Baldridge (2020: 3) has described a youth work paradox, where services supporting minoritized youth can oppose structural inequalities at the same time as “perpetuating cultural and individual explanations for… low achievement by locating problems within youth that “youth work” can fix”.

We acknowledge the risk of these tensions in our own practices, alongside the method of participatory filmmaking itself. Rodgers (2014) has examined how participatory film projects can both be shaped by, and play into, the marginalising discourses that counter-storytelling methods seek to resist. Mason’s positionality as a white academic and volunteer also adds an additional layer of complexity to the ethics of representation played out in participatory youth work and scholarship activities generally. A reflexive attentiveness and constant revisiting of these issues shapes our collective approach.

Participatory filmmaking: creating #unitydoc

We are not the first to document participatory filmmaking as critical youth work practice (Blazek et al. 2015; Blum-Ross, 2013). #unitydoc was supported by a small grant from the Sheffield City Council Cohesion Fund alongside some additional resources from The Faculty of Social Sciences at University of Sheffield. Young people accessing UGP were involved from the outset and planning began with co-construction activities scheduled across two consecutive youth club sessions (Horner, 2016). We used loosely structured focus groups to introduce the project and groups of up to 10 young people (aged 13 – 19) were prompted to reflect on: (i) the ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ of everyday life locally; (ii) the potential to make a film; and (iii) the local stories that they would like to tell. These discussions proved dynamic and raised a number of unanticipated subjects for the documentary, including local hang out spaces, small businesses and weekly football sessions.

Production quality was a clear priority for the young people. For that reason we chose to collaborate with a professional filmmaker, who would work with the brief created throughout our co-construction activities. We recruited a filmmaker (Brett Chapman) purposefully, according to recommendations from trusted sources and examples of community-based outputs displayed on his website. Filming took place over a period of two weeks and encompassed activities including: loosely structured one-to-one interviews, walking group interviews and background shots of community and youth work settings. Brett practiced a reflexive and ethically grounded approach, recognising his power and positionality as an ‘outsider’ invited to document activities ‘within’. Time was allocated for all participants to informally meet with Brett and ask questions before consenting to any activities on camera. This approach proved invaluable, enabling Brett to take on an overt but unassuming presence, allowing activities and narratives to unfold without undue prompting or interference.

Guided in this way by the direction of young people, and the stories that they chose to tell, #unitydoc raises awareness about the UGP, whist offering a broader account of the activities and places that are meaningful to those involved in the project. Draft edits of the film were shared for comment and minor adjustments were made to the film before completion. You can watch the documentary here.

Outcomes and discussion

The film premiered as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science in November (2019), at a community-based event near the gym. We have been humbled and surprised by the response. To date #unitydoc has been viewed nearly three thousand times and has been the subject of positive reflections and reviews. The extracts below are taken from comments posted underneath the YouTube video:

Brilliant!! Way to go lads, proud of our community… Makes me believe there is hope.  Love, Life and Unity brothers.

Wonderful video… Made me homesick for the Broomhall community, and its caring people. Well done everyone involved in this amazing project 🙂

I must say this is absolutely and utterly amazing. It gave me goose bumps watching this. I am honoured to be part of that community. I am also delighted to see a lot of our youngsters involved.

As evidence of counter-storytelling, we are moved to see that the film has evoked feelings of pride amongst some of its local viewers. #unitydoc is a celebration of the community and young people have described how they shared it with family members and teachers in order to demonstrate their involvement. As such, the finished film has inadvertently became a resource that some participants have used to evidence their engagement in positive activities and to counter the impositions of stigma faced across various settings.

Making the film constituted a lively and engaging project in and of itself. From co-construction through to screening, #unitydoc encouraged critical reflection and informal learning concurrent with core youth work principles (Batsleer and Davies, 2010; de St Croix, 2016). Reflecting on the harms of misrepresentation is not uncommon within UGP settings. However, there is something empowering and hopeful about actively resisting those harms through the practice of counter-storytelling (Solórzano and Yosso, 2002). We recommend counter-storytelling as a critical youth work activity, particularly for those working with stigmatised groups.

The #unitydoc film has also served unplanned evaluative purposes. Contemporary studies of impact and evaluation in youth work has challenged the value and utility of dominant mechanisms in the sector. In their recent Youth & Policy article Doherty and de St Croix (2019) argued that evaluation should “be more clearly rooted in the needs and realities of practice” in ways that (i) suit the setting; (ii)enable challenge to unequal power relations; and (iii) capture both everyday and remarkable aspects of practice. #unitydoc was not devised as an evaluative project. However, on reflection we feel it achieved these goals more naturally and clearly than our previous evaluation activities, which have largely constituted more conventional survey methods. Critical advances in the conception of evaluative practices, like those proposed by Doherty and de St Croix (2019), suggest participatory methods like filmmaking could constitute effective tools for evaluation and demonstrations of ‘impact’.

Finally, #unitydoc has proven particularly useful as an asset for describing UGP to outsiders. Beyond conventional written descriptions, #unitydoc has proven to be more engaging and easier to share via a range of online mediums. This has been useful in discussion with potential funders, in opening discussions with prospective collaborators, and as a tool for co-produced teaching and training activities.


We do not want readers to think our project was without limitations or challenges. Participatory filmmaking is relatively expensive and time consuming. It also requires high levels of technical skill and there is an obvious trade-off between the benefits of involving young people in all parts of the process and participating in collaboration with a professional filmmaker. In our case, participation worked to the extent that young people set the tone and content of the counter-story, working alongside Brett who shot and edited the material in dialogue. This enabled us to produce a film that had a professional aesthetic within a shorter period than may have been possible if young people were supported to do it themselves. We hope that, beyond the finished artefact, this experience has encouraged some of our members to develop and explore their creative potentials.

Responses to the current moment have done little to challenge the reproduction of stigmas facing minoritized young people. Reporting on serious violence, protesting and adherence to Covid-19 restrictions continue to reinforce the racialised narratives of ‘risk’ systematically ascribed to young people of colour. There is something deeply unsettling about the fact that telling a positive story about a community constitutes an act of resistance. Counter-storytelling is a critical method because of the entrenched and systemic imposition of racialised stigma in society (Tyler, 2020; Solórzano and Yosso, 2002). One of the ways that youth work, as ‘sites of resistance’, can help to challenge stigma is by supporting young people to create the stories that they feel are representative and important. We have found this a productive activity, and one with unanticipated links to more meaningful youth work evaluation.

Youth & Policy is run voluntarily on a non-profit basis. If you would like to support our work, you can donate below.

Last Updated: 27 November 2020


With thanks to all those involved at the Unity Gym Project, Sheffield


Alexander, C. (2000) The Asian Gang: ethnicity, identity, masculinity. London: Bloomsbury.

Baldridge, B. (2020) The youthwork paradox: a case for studying the complexity of community-based youth work in education research. Educational Researcher. DOI: 10.3102/0013189X20937300

Batsleer, J. and Davies, B. (2010) What is youth work? Exeter: Learning Matters.

Bell, K. (2019). The ‘problem’ of undersigned relationally: Ethnographic fieldwork, dual roles and research ethics. Ethnography. 20(1): 8-26.

Blazek, M. and Askins, K. (2020) For a relationship perspective on geographical ethics. AREA. 52(3): 464-471

Blazek M, Smith F, Lemosova, M. and Hricova, P. (2015) Ethics of care across professional and everyday positionalities: the (un)-expected impacts of participatory video with young female carers in Slovakia.Geoforum.61: 45–55.

Blum-Ross, Alicia (2013) “It made our eyes get bigger”: youth filmmaking and place-making in East London. Visual Anthropology Review. 29(2): 89-106.

Byrne, B., Alexander, C., Khan, O., Nazroo, J. and Shankley, W. (2020) Ethnicity, race and inequality in the UK: state of the nation. Bristol: Policy Press.

Clarke, B., Chadwick, K. and Williams, P. (2017) Critical social research as a ‘site of resistance’: reflections on relationships, power and positionality. Justice, Power & Resistance. 1(2): 261-282.

de St Croix. (2016) Grassroots youth work: policy passion and resistance in practice. Bristol: Policy Press.

Doherty, L. and de St Croix, T. (2019) The everyday and the remarkable: valuing and evaluating youth work. Youth & Policy. [Online] Available at:

Elliott, E., Thomas, G. M. and Byrne, E. (2020) Stigma, class and ‘respect’: young people’s articulation and management of place in a post-industrial estate in south Wales. People, Place and Policy. 14(2): 157-172.

Facer, K. and Enright, B. (2016) Creating living knowledge: The connected communities programme, community-university relationships and the participatory turn the production of knowledge. Bristol: University of Bristol/AHRC Connected Communities.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

Gormally, S. and Coburn, A. (2014), ‘Finding Nexus: Connecting Youth Work and Research Practices’, British Educational Research Journal.40: 869–85.

Horner, L. (2016) Co-construction research: a critical literature review. AHRC

Mason W, Brasab S, Stone B, Soutar J, Mohamed A, Mwale T (2019) Youth violence, masculinity and mental health: learning from the communities most affected. [Online] Available at:

Montecinos, C. (1995). Culture as an ongoing dialogue: Implications for multicultural teacher education. In C. Sleeter & P. McLaren (Eds.), Multicultural education, critical pedagogy, and the politics of difference (pp. 269-308). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Murji, K. and Solomos, J. (2005) Racialization: Studies in Theory and Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ONS (2020) People living in deprived neighbourhoods.[Online] Available at:

Rogers, M. (2014) Problematising participatory video with youth in Canada: the intersection of therapeutic, deficit and individualising discourses. AREA. 48(4): 427-434.

Shankley, W. and Williams, P. (2020) Minority ethnic groups, policing and the criminal justice system in Britain. In: Byrne, B., Alexander, C., Khan, O., Nazroo, J. and Shankley, W. (Eds.) Ethnicity, race and inequality in the UK: state of the nation. Bristol: Policy Press.

Sisson, A. (2020) Territory and territorial stigmatisation: On the production, consequences and contestation of spatial disrepute. Progress in Human Geography.

Slater, T. (2018) ‘The invention of the ‘sink estate’: consequential categorization and the UK housing crisis’. The Sociological Review. 66(4): 877-897.

Smith, L. T. (2012) Decolonizing methodologies: research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books.

Smithson, H., Ralphs, R. and Williams, P. (2013), ‘Used and Abused: The Problematic Usage of Gang Terminology in the United Kingdom and Its Implications for Ethnic Minority Youth’. British Journal of Criminology. 1(53): 113–28.

Solórzano, D. G. and Yosso, T. J. (2002) Critical race methodology: counter-storytelling as an analytical framework for education research. Qualitative Inquiry. 8(1): 23-44.

Tyler, I. (2020) Stigma: the machinery of inequality. London: Zed Books.

Walsh, C. and Harland, K. (2019) Research Informed Youth Work Practice in Northern Ireland: Recommendations for Engaging Adolescent Boys and Young Men. Child Care in Practice. DOI: 10.1080/13575279.2019.1612734

Wacquant, L. (2007), ‘Territorial Stigmatization in the Age of Advanced Marginality’, Thesis Eleven, 91: 66–77.

Wacquant, L. (2008), Urban Outcasts. Polity Press.

YMCA (2020) Out of service: a report examining local authority expenditure on youth services in England and Wales. London: YMCA.


Will Mason is a volunteer youth worker and lecturer in Applied Social Science at the Sheffield Methods Institute, University of Sheffield

Unity Gym Project is a Sheffield based charity, committed to community development and the promotion of health and wellbeing