Sue Atkins, an extraordinary woman – 80 Years an Activist

 

Sue Atkins80

Last weekend Sheffield was warmed by autumnal sun and the joy emanating from those gathered at Sue Atkins’ 80th birthday party. Crossing the festooned threshold of the venue was to be thrown into a melting pot of humanity – youth workers past and present, the very young and the quite old, the toothful and toothless, folk from a diversity of cultures and backgrounds, All were thrust together through their shared respect and affection for a remarkable woman, who has devoted much of her life to a form of youth work, that aspires to be ‘volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees’, informed at every turn by a genuine love for young people.

For my part, I met Sue first at a tumultuous Community and Youth Service Association [CYSA] conference in around 1980, out of which through the power of caucusing emerged the Community and Youth Workers Union [CYWU], of which she was to be a future President. Of her lengthy sojourn within youth work many a tale could be told, which suggests much sooner rather than later, an interview with Sue would be fascinating and revealing. Indeed it would shed light on why in the late 1980’s, in a memorable phrase, she described me, amongst others, as ‘a shite in whining armour’. Watch this space.

For now it’s sobering to note that she continues to be a leading light of the voluntary organisation, Youth Association South Yorkshire, a member of the Education and Training Standards Committee (ETS), the body that provides professional validation for youth work qualifications in England, on behalf of the JNC for Youth & Community Workers, not forgetting her formidable presence on our very own In Defence of Youth Work steering group.

Amongst the variety of tributes made during the day a highlight was the heartfelt rendition of this clever rewriting by Julia Lyford of a Flanders and Swann ditty, ‘The Gas Man cometh’. I suspect its lyrics will strike a chord with many a youth worker visiting these pages.

 

The Youth Worker Cometh

(With acknowledgements or apologies to Flanders and Swann)

 

In June of 1940 a circular was born

It spoke of building character, for brains but also brawn

It hoped to foster places where young people chose to be

Both physical and social, or just for jamboree

And it all made work for the volunteer to do dum dum dum…dah dah dah

 

The fifties kept on building up the recreation show

The teenager was born, discovered coffee and Bongo

In uniforms or sports strips or in drama, choir or dance

Communities and charities took up a moral stance

And it all made work for the youth leader to do dum dum dum….dah dah dah

 

‘Twas in the 1960s that Albemarle was cool,

It led to flashy centres, to arts labs and to pool

The dawning of Aquarius gave pace to drugs and sex

And self-determination meant that most of us were wrecks

But it all made work for co-counsellors to do dah dah dah…dah dah dah

 

The Seventies saw people start to recognise the gaps

To notice gender, race and class and reach for the detached

Nintendo loomed, and numbers fell, young people stayed away

So issue – based and project work began to have their day

And it all made work for the activist to do dum dum dum dah dah dah

 

The Eighties saw the riots, young people were ‘at risk’

From HIV or pregnancy or other kinds of fix

The Union fought the cuts and tackled section 28

We had to look for outcomes, with process out the gate

And it all made work for youth officers to do dum dum dum dah dah dah

 

From YTS to work – or not – young people bore the brunt

The nineties went thematic and put learning at the front

We taught in schools, had casework loads and tried to join it up

We ended with Connexions, aspirations all amock

And it all made work for personal advisers to do dum dum dum dah dah dah

 

The Noughties said ‘Youth Matters’ and we ended up in Trusts

We raided health and care funds and pretended to consult  

We safeguarded the vulnerable but not so much ourselves

We got bogged down in paperwork or starting stacking shelves

And it all made work for the volunteer to do dum dum dum…dah dah dah

 

So – in the twenty-tens Sue’s raised us all up in Defence ……

She’s given us momentum, to let youth work re-commence!

 

FOR THE TUNE!!

And, just to close by observing that to say Sue has been an activist for 80 years seems to be stretching a point. Yet I can just imagine Sue emerging from the womb with a half-apologetic, searching question already on her lips. So eighty years it is and long may it continue.