IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK JANUARY SEMINARS
FROM DEFENCE TO OFFENCE?
Around thirty supporters came together in our two sessions in London and Manchester respectively focused on ‘Where Are we Up To?’ and ‘Where Are We Going?’. Despite being sodden with drizzle on our way to and from both venues we refused to be downhearted. Passionate and argumentative debate ensued. Across the next week I will post some provisional and partial thoughts on what transpired as the basis for further discussion and activity. Each post will take up one of the four themes of the seminars.
The opening contribution to the first session around the Campaign’s sense of identity and purpose was led by the self-styled ‘raggedy-arsed’ Lenny Sellars from Grimethorpe, home of arguably the greatest colliery brass band formed in the revolutionary year of 1917. His forthright challenge might be summed up as follows:
- Has our commitment to defending democratic youth work been compromised by our involvement in the wider campaign to defend jobs and services in their increasing plurality?
- Are the omens for the development of IDYW good or bad?
- With the demise of New Labour, our initial foe, who or what is today’s nemesis?
- Is IDYW failing to widen its support because it is viewed as too political and/or too intellectual?
Inevitably these questions kicked off a wide-ranging and critical exchange of opinion. Amongst the differing points raised were:
- a continuing belief in the provision of open youth work as an integral part of public services informed by social need not private or corporate greed. In this sense we need both to defend jobs and services, whilst criticising as necessary their purpose and delivery. In particular does this necessitate challenging the right of management to manage, opposing the bureaucratic structures, posing as an alternative the control of services by the users, the workers and the community?
- a deep concern that both the tradition and potential of a complementary partnership between the statutory and voluntary sector was being undermined by both the savage cuts and the loss of independence by voluntary youth organisations, drawn increasingly into delivering the state’s welfare and policing agenda.
- a recognition that the space for critical reflection within youth work – still advocated powerfully by many within the training agencies – has been curtailed severely over the last fifteen years or more. Today many workers have been intimidated into passivity or indeed have embraced the ‘targeting’ regime without question. In fact too there is evidence that a newer generation of lecturers are espousing explicitly the new managerial agenda. Nevertheless islands of reflexive practice survive. In what ways can we revitalise the case – for example, through the Stories workshops? In what ways do we revive the tradition of making space collectively outside of work to discuss work?
- a consensus that ChooseYouth at its best provided an inspiring platform for young people to articulate their support for youth work and that we continue to support the Alliance. However its rhetoric overemphasises the preventative against the informal educational argument for youth work and elides youth work with youth services – see later arguments within the Positive for Youth discussion.
- an understanding that we do need to pitch our arguments in different ways according to differing audiences, but this in itself is neither anti-intellectual or anti-theoretical. Taking the web site as an indicator of the dilemmas raised, most of the content is informed by myself. Clearly it leans heavily to the Left in its inclination, but I hope the posts also illustrate a healthy eclecticism, utilising video as well as text. An obvious antidote is for more supporters to provide alternative material and analysis. In the course of the discussion Lenny made a gripping point about his uncles speaking directly and bluntly to the striking miners in a language mutually understood. Something we should try to do in terms of youth workers. Given, though, that youth workers are a motley crew of volunteers, part-timers and so on, is it not legitimate at least to expect three year trained ‘graduates’ to possess an adequate sociological, psychological and indeed political vocabulary via which to check reality?
As for nemesis and omens, we were reluctant to view the enemy, summed up in one person’s phrase as ‘vulture capitalism’, as unbeatable, whilst feeling that if the Financial Times posits a crisis of capitalism, it’s perhaps a good time to go on the offensive! Indeed Sue Atkins, characterised by herself as ‘a woolly optimist’, was moved to argue that now is very much a moment to be seized. In the coming period we ought to both defend and promote open and voluntary youth work in all its pluralist variety.
As ever, more than ever, your critical responses welcomed. In addition those present at the seminars might well want to point out glaring gaps in this brief report.
The next post from the seminars will focus on the government’s Positive for Youth strategy.