European Conference – Enter!: from Policy to Practice. Colin Brent reports

The media headlines continue to be dominated by the issue of Brexit. As IDYW we’ve yet to get our heads around its possible consequences. In a piece some of us have been scribbling we made a brief and provisional last minute addition to the text.

Our effort to be outgoing is now suffused with complication, the consequence of the BREXIT decision to leave the European Union. On the ground, as youth workers, we must engage afresh with both alienated young people from working class communities ‘left behind’, who voted to leave and young people, frustrated with the prospect of diminishing opportunities abroad, who wished to remain. Both groups will be disadvantaged if the ERASMUS+ programme, combining the EU’s schemes for education, training, youth and sport, disappears. Uncertainty prevails.

Meanwhile much continues to happen on the European scene and Colin Brent reports from a recent Council of Europe event.

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Unfortunately, I could not make the IDYW Conference the other week, as I was sat on the Eurostar, accompanied by Tania de St Croix’s fascinating new book on grass roots youth work, trying to digest the past three days. I was on my way home from a Council of Europe seminar on “Enter! Policy to Practice, a seminar on the implementation of the Recommendation on the access of young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods to social rights [CM/Rec(2015)3] through youth work and youth policy practitioners” taking place at the European Youth Centre in Strasbourg. The seminar brought together around 40 youth workers, local authority representatives and NGOs to discuss the implementation of the above recommendation.

The recommendation, which was adopted by the Council of Europe last year, is as wide-ranging as the Council itself(which stretches from Greenland to Vladivostok), and is full of measures to support young people from “disadvantaged neighbourhoods” to access health, housing, sports, leisure and culture, employment, education and training, and information and counselling. The recognition of youth work and youth workers is highlighted, although the definition of both is vague. You can read more about it here. Whilst some of these measures are very welcome (the adequate remuneration of apprenticeships, special attention to the health needs of young people suffering from poor mental health, etc.), as with documents of this size and nature it is naturally rife for criticism. It starts with the assumption that change must be from within institutions, without questioning the nature of these institutions themselves – they must provide opportunities for young people to include themselves, rather than look for wider societal change. The focus on education and employment is meant to support young people’s insertion into the labour market, without question whether the current system has any role in their initial “disadvantage”. As one of the speakers made clear, young people must “accept” society. Our role, it seems, is to help them towards that.

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Away from the inevitable fudge of a document agreed by 47 nations, the connections and shared frustrations of the participants of the seminar was what made it worthwhile. After the first day several people, who would usually be working face-to-face with young people, told me that they weren’t quite sure what they were doing there. This wasn’t meant for them. In the lunch-breaks and evenings, as well as in working groups, the complex realities of people’s work on the ground started to come to the fore. Several times in the seminar people’s impatience wore thin, and for me these frustrations confirmed that the importance of youth work across Europe is not found in a document, but in people’s diverse experiences on the ground.

The people attending were from a fascinating range of projects (well sought out by the organisers), with democratic educators from Portugal, street workers from France, workers on projects for young people with disabilities in Croatia,… We shared the challenges of work in our areas, from setting up youth work under the repressive regime in Chechnya to working with isolated young people in Finland. The reaction as I spoke about IYSS (our monitoring database) was incomprehension from Bosnia and verging on disgust from Germany. We looked to share ways that we work, better communicate that work and ensure its relevance to young people’s lives. In short, I’m moving to Finland. I had the opportunity to present IDYW’s story-telling resource and to underline the importance of the cornerstones.

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So as I arrived back in London I had mixed feelings. Had our presence in Strasbourg done anything to shape future policy from Europe’s institutions? Probably not. Had I met some wonderful people who I hope will work together with me in the future to develop our practice? Definitely. One thing I know, I’m looking forward to seeing the young people after a week away.

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