Opening a Conversation – Is In Defence of Youth Work too political and out of touch?

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The last week has witnessed a spontaneous exchange of e-mails between Colin Brent, Bernard Davies and myself about the state of our Campaign. As the issues emerged all of us agreed that our critical dialogue should be shared with a wider audience. Hence we have tidied up the correspondence somewhat, whilst seeking to retain its immediacy. The initial post from Colin is to be found below and in the next day will be followed by the subsequent posts. We hope you find our conversation stimulating and very much hope that you might join in. If you are so moved send your thoughts to and he’ll put them up as distinct posts in their own right.


Dear Bernard and Tony,


Having been involved with IDYW for the last couple of years, and after several discussions with colleagues, I have decided to put together some thoughts about what I feel are trends within IDYW that are hampering our ability to both reach a wider audience and make a deeper impact.  These thoughts are meant as reflections about our current situation, and a nudge to explore how we can make the campaign more effective.


Firstly, I think that we need to be better at listening to youth workers on the ground and supporting them to offer the best possible provision for and with young people. I myself often find it hard to attend IDYW events, as they often clash with my work.  Is there not a better way that we can reach out and start debates then to run conferences?  I feel that the IDYW timetable often reflects the realities of academics more than face-to-face youth workers. If we fail to reach out more to practicing youth workers and listen to what they have to say rather than just criticizing the political context within which they work, then IDYW risks alienating those it is meant to supporting.  Many youth workers I know feel passionate about the value of their work, but baulk at the politicised tone coming from IDYW.  I always look to my father for inspiration on this front.  He was heavily influenced by left-wing politics, and much of his work was nourished by this.  This had significant impact on the young people he worked with and how they experienced the world.  However, not one of his colleagues or the young people was aware of his politics.


I recognise that politics plays a key role in how we support the values we wish to see propagated.  Politics has a very real effect both on the lives of the young people we work with and our ability to respond to their interests and needs.  There is a local election next May in area, and the future of the youth service may well depend on the result.  My issue is not the grappling with political decisions by those in power that directly affect youth work, but more with the general left-wing assumptions that prevail in IDYW. I say this although I share many of the convictions myself.  My concern comes from seeing the effect that SWP dogma had on isolating people from local campaigns during my youth.  Often these were people who had never been involved in a campaign before, fighting to save their local school field from development or against the encroachment of the mega supermarkets on their high street. Their cause was just, fighting against the power of overbearing companies, but when told they were part of a wider class war, many drifted away.  Our campaign at IDYW is surely to support open-access, voluntary association, and youth work that starts where the young people are.  We as individuals may believe that this would be easier in an egalitarian society, but many who share the core values of the campaign would not agree.


I guess the issue for a movement like IDYW is how to empower the core, energising them to continue with their fight, whilst attracting new people to the cause.  This can only be done if we are an open and tolerant movement that embraces the differences within.  For some reason, too few people contribute to the website.  Not enough face-to-face youth workers are on the steering group.  I myself am guilty on both counts. Somehow, I, as well as other people I have spoken to feel a need to tow a party line, that we will be attacked if we use the wrong language (can we say ‘youth services’ in a positive context? Must we always be ‘radical’ in our approaches?).  Although we are a flat organisation, many do not feel included in the movement.  I don’t feel anyone is to blame here, it is certainly not on purpose (or I hope not!).  But somehow we must ensure that IDYW reflects the open, tolerant space that we wish for young people.


I look forward to hearing your response to my concerns, and working together to move things forward.


All the best


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