Being Bold and Being Political : Can Youth Work throw off its shackles?


A group of leading youth work organisations has made a welcome and early intervention into the post-referendum debate about the future. Whilst a touch presumptuous in claiming to make a statement on behalf of the youth sector, the six involved [the NYA, UK Youth, the Mix, vInspired, Leap and GirlGuiding] begin by saying:

With confirmation, in the early hours of the 24 June 2016, that the UK has voted to leave the European Union, we face a period of uncertainty over the next few months whilst new thinking and policies are developed to support our pathway to independence. This will inevitably impact the lives of young people and the youth sector that supports them.

Our hope is that young people will see this dramatic shift in our nation’s circumstances as an invitation to engage with the decision making process that is now underway. This is the time for the next generation to shape the future of the UK.

They continue,

Our hope is that the 75% of young people who voted for ‘Remain’ and the 25% who voted ‘Leave’, as well as those who were too young to vote, will recognise that this is a pivotal moment in our history and take action to shape the world in which they live.

We are calling on young people to be bold and to set out a new vision for the UK that will benefit them and our wider society over the decades to come.

They end, somewhat limply,

.We are committed to empowering young people to create the world they want to live in by supporting them to access information and opportunities, to engage in decision making, and to lead social action initiatives.

Read in full – Youth sector statement on the EU Referendum Result

It’s going to take a lot more than encouraging young people to be involved in Step up to Serve opportunities if we are to challenge seriously what many have dubbed a war on youth over the last two decades. Young people have lived though a hostile period, in which successive neo-liberal governments have consciously imposed social and economic policies contrary to the needs of both young people and society as a whole –  low and stagnant wages, zero-hour contracts, burdensome debt and lack of access to affordable housing, to name but a few. The future for young people is precarious.

If we are to make the rhetoric of this statement real, youth  work has to become political, a notion conspicuously absent from the statement. To say this has nothing to do with party politics. It has everything to do with the classic questions, ”who has power?’, ‘in whose interests do they exercise that power?’ and ‘how do we question and challenge that power together?’ Or in contemporary parlance, ‘in what ways can we speak truth to power?’

By and large the youth sector has not asked these questions. It has accepted austerity as somehow natural and inevitable; it has embraced the neo-liberal desire to individualise the social, accepting that its role is to create the emotionally resilient young person, willing to put up with whatever crap life throws at them; and it has failed to challenge government. And it’s empty to talk of supporting young people to shape the world, knowing that will be an enormous struggle, when the youth sector agencies themselves have been afraid to stand up and be counted. Indeed it’s vacuous, when the youth sector has so often abandoned, disciplined and made redundant youth workers, who have supported young  people protesting against cuts to youth provision.

However it’s never too late to reflect critically on what we’ve been up to. The statement is a start. In order to move things forward we need to seize the moment and politicise youth work afresh. This means that everyone involved – young people, youth workers and youth organisations – become critically active in the struggle for a just and democratic society. We cannot predict exactly how this will turn out. It will take different forms, some pragmatic, some rebellious. In particular if we are genuine about supporting young people we must respect first and foremost their independent initiatives , organised under their own steam, resisting the pressure to press these into formal channels. It will mean that youth work and young people will need to be both in the corridors and on the streets.

The organisations issuing this statement have done us all a service, but it will mean little if we fail to organise, at the very least, an exploratory, inclusive, inexpensive gathering to burrow more into what this call to arms might mean in practice. In Defence of Youth Work will certainly be up for playing its part in making this happen.





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