Blurring the Boundaries conference : Immediate Reflections 2

Further to yesterday’s contribution from Jon Ord we’re pleased to post Fiona Factor’s initial and supportive reaction to our conference, scribbled as she wound her way home last Friday. If other participants want to chip in that would be brilliant.

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Today I attended the IDYW 7th National Conference, ‘Blurring Boundaries’, in Birmingham. I’ve been around the field in different guises for 30 odd years but this was my first IDYW event. I felt unsure about whether being outside of front-line practice, I would feel an imposter; I’m delighted to say it gave me a chance to reconnect with my ‘professional’ family. I renewed old acquaintances and friendships and made exciting new connections.

This morning’s debate on the place of ‘voluntary association’ whilst engaging, became less significant for me as the day went on. Whether the voluntary principle could or should be upheld in the current climate diminished in relevance as I heard stories from colleagues about their attempts to retain their professional identity and integrity in a commissioning world that does not ‘get it’, youth work that is. I felt embarrassed in my small group to share my forthcoming delight at organising a residential this half term which would bring together young people and the police to talk about how the police can protect and support young people more effectively within the context of child sexual exploitation and associated vulnerabilities. It will, without doubt embrace the youth work principles I practised, taught and researched over the last thirty odd years.

I am fortunate to come to this from the relative current comfort of an academic research post (don’t be fooled, a short term contract with numerous outcomes to achieve and impact to measure), but one that embraces participatory action research, and is committed to giving young people a voice in all that we do. Colleagues suggest this work I am doing is innovative and groundbreaking; I sigh and recall the times I engaged in this ‘innovative’ work as a detached youth worker bringing the police together with young people in the 1980’s to discuss ‘stop and search’. Sue Atkins did this work in Sheffield in the 1960’s.

There is a convenient institutional amnesia about the legacy of the youth work of the past; it suits the political agenda. I for one do not want to revisit what we haven’t done or should have done, but we know we have not been very good at finding a shared language to describe our ‘impact’. As John Holmes reminded us, we might have always been referred to as the ‘cinderella’ service, but don’t forget she did go the ball and the story had a happy ending! We need to engage in the debates across the piste and whether we use critical social pedagogy as a ‘threshold concept’ (nod to Annette and Sinead) or find an alternative language we need to talk the language of our commissioners so they do ‘get it’ and also make clear to young people what we’re about, the opportunities as well as limits of our current professional context.

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I take my hat off to those on the front-line of practice who are able to maintain their professional integrity and still provide services to young people that they value despite the relentless onslaught of the neoliberal agenda, particularly in England; there were many of them present today. Now more than ever, young people need youth workers as advocates and educators; the context within which the dialogue takes place is almost immaterial, what matters is the opportunity for young people to know there is an alternative.

Thank you everyone for your contributions, commitment and passion; the increased fragmentation of the profession means that the need to preserve the space for critical debate becomes evermore important if not to generate answers, but support those who are on the front-line. We all need to consider the ways we can contribute to the preservation of IDYW from whichever position we occupy; thank you to those who have done such an amazing job so far.

Fiona Factor

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