Questioning innovation: A recommended podcast

Jon Ord. Thanks to Talking Youth Work for the image.

Post by Tania de St Croix

Innovation is one of those words that – when used in relation to youth work – is difficult to argue against. After all, who would say that youth work shouldn’t be creative, in tune with young people’s changing lives, and willing to take risks? Yet as Jon Ord points out in this highly recommended podcast episode, innovation needs to be considered critically; it is a concept from the world of business, where innovation (when perceived as successful) means a new product or market, a new approach that leads to profit. As youth workers we are not in the ‘business’ of profit; and innovation itself is contextual, disputable, contested. As discussed in the podcast, a particular approach to youth work practice might be innovative in one country yet traditional in another; and what ‘counts’ as innovation is not fixed (for example, both an online youth group and a club that aims to reduce screen time might be considered ‘good’ and innovative).

I get a bit frustrated when people accuse youth work and youth workers of not innovating. This is partly because (like the calls to measure impact) the accusation too often misrecognises the causes of the continuing disinvestment in youth work. Unless it is acknowledged that political and economic factors are at the heart of the devastation of youth services, I feel disinclined to discuss whether we as a sector have been ‘innovative’ enough. There is a sense in which youth workers are responsibilised for the cuts. Responsibilisation is a Foucault-inspired concept in which neoliberal societies govern partly through shifting the responsibility of social lacks and inequality onto the individuals most affected. So we are told (or it is implied) that youth work is being cut because young people didn’t fight for their youth clubs enough, youth workers didn’t innovate enough, organisations didn’t prove their impact enough – we are told we are responsible, at fault, to blame for forces beyond our control.

Another doubt I have over innovation is that it tends to overlook the contribution of historical practices that have been built up over many years, often through struggle and grassroots activity. Youth work – for all its faults – is a result of young people identifying that they want spaces (physical, temporal, conceptual) that are for them – spaces that are different from school, college, work, youth offending offices and clinics, where they engage by choice, and where their peer groups are central. This has not happened by accident, but through young people and youth workers and communities struggling to create and defend these unprofitable, often unfashionable spaces over many decades. Some of the best places I have worked – those most valued by young people and youth workers alike, where creative practices have flourished – had buildings and resources that were a little scruffy, perhaps outdated. This is not to defend lack of investment and care in youth work’s infrastructure, but rather to point to the danger of throwing the core aspects of youth work away at the alter of innovation.

None of this is to say that youth workers shouldn’t be creative, try new things, move beyond our comfort zones, and challenge ourselves, our colleagues, and young people. (Although personally I am still uncomfortable with the word innovate!) There was a really lovely conference a few years back at George Williams College on innovation in youth work, organised by Naomi Thompson and others; this resulted in a free open access book, with a chapter by IDYW folk on creating spaces for radical youth work. And we often hear about the new and creative things youth workers are doing when we get together at our IDYW conferences and events. But surely youth workers’ imagination and creativity is constrained by the context in which we are currently working: a hugely challenging funding environment; precarious employment; lack of support for volunteers; the intensification of workload, bureaucracy and email; and the continuing exhausting threat to our youth work organisations, buildings, courses and infrastructure.

But back to the podcast! I love podcasts, both for relaxation and for learning and understanding. I have listened to a few youth work related ones, but this is my favourite so far. Listening to Jon speaking with Salto’s Anita Silva and the podcaster Rui Branco was like eavesdropping on a conversation. This is the kind of podcast I enjoy – not polished or corporate, but rather a particular kind of chat, one that invites listeners and involves thoughtful reflection without too much editing or worrying about how it might come across. A good podcast often values informality, improvisation and dialogue – like youth work itself. Innovative or traditional? Discuss!

Download or listen online here, or through itunes here, or subscribe to Talking Youth Work through your podcast app if you have one. Apparently Jon is penning something on innovation in youth work, and we look forward to seeing this and sharing it in future!

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