Launching Critical Student Voices: “The lightbulb moment”


Happy Youth Work Week 2019! We are delighted to celebrate Youth Work Week with the launch of our new series Critical Student Voices with this piece by Emma Naisby, who is a JNC Qualified Community and Youth Work (University of Sunderland Graduate) and Youth Worker at Southwick Neighbourhood Youth Project, Sunderland. If you are a student or recent graduate in Community and Youth Work and you would like to contribute to In Defence of Youth Work’s discussions and debates, please consider contributing!

The lightbulb moment, by Emma Naisby

In this piece I will describe some theories which have enabled me understand the – often complex – lives of young people we work with. I hope this can inspire other youth workers to get comfortable using theory and applying to praxis….

It wasn’t until I was studying my final year of the Community and Youth Studies degree when I started working at Southwick Neighbourhood Youth Project (SNYP) – and this coincided with each other – when I could see the inequality….the young people who lack opportunities through no fault of their own. Reflecting, both as an adult and a professional Community and Youth Worker, I can see how similarities such as being born into a working-class family in an area of deprivation do not allow us to experience the same life experiences, privileges or oppression faced.

I grew up in a working-class family in a town in Sunderland, one which is still classed as an area of deprivation. Both my parents worked, both could drive and they encouraged me to be active and have hobbies including swimming lessons and music lessons. As a child, I attended local youth clubs, whilst playing trumpet in a youth orchestra at weekends. As a young person, these different hobbies and activities helped exposed me to different friendship groups and the different lifeworlds they operate within. For example, through youth work I became empowered and learned social and life skills, while at orchestra I developed understanding around fairness, life and political structures; these combined to prove equally nourishing to my transition as an adolescent.

Thompson’s PCS (Personal, Cultural, Structural) Model is just one tool that youth workers can use to help consider the different layers of discrimination a young person faces, looking at their personal, cultural and structural situations. Here I describe a fifteen-year-old who is a young carer for their single mother:

On a personal level, the young carer faces discrimination in the school setting, where they are required to have a minimum attendance (however this can prove difficult when caring for an ill parent), while meritocracy dictates that young people need X number of GCSEs to study their desired course at college to working the profession idealised to them. Culturally, the common discourse in media and society is that people on disability benefits are ‘benefits scroungers’ and this makes the young person feel uneasy about sharing their own caring role (for fear of being shamed), meaning they may miss out on help and support in their role.

Structurally, this young person is one of many who have been affected by cuts to local youth clubs and the young carers service at the local carers centre, caused by austerity. Also, policies regularly highlight ‘the nuclear family’ as having an advantage both financially and also in terms of positive outcomes for children and young people: research shows, a child in a lone-person family is at an economic disadvantage compared to a child in a two-parent family:

Recently, it clicked: learning of Bourdieu’s concept of capital, I came to see just how my own involvement with positive activities (as I have listed above) can provide further positive opportunities for increasing capital.

Bourdieu describes reading music as somewhat prestigious (cultural capital). Playing an instrument, for me, also brought about opportunities for social capital and the potential – had I studied grades or went on to teach – economic capital. I struggled with maths in school and was predicted to fail, but, luckily, through social connections at the orchestra, I found out a cello player was also a maths teacher and she would tutor me in exchange for homecooked dinner.

My manager at SNYP, Ruth always points out that we, having disposable income, are fortunate that we can access provision such as the ballet or the theatre should we wish; because of economic capital WE HAVE THE CHOICE….while also culturally, my friends wouldn’t laugh if I wanted to go and I wouldn’t have homophobic comments made or be discriminated against because of this – but some young people I work with might….

Gramsci’s teaching around hegemony describes the way in which we may accept ‘it’s just the way things are’ and that is the case for lots of young people who may not always be able to challenge the systems that rely upon meritocracy; which we know can link to socioeconomic factors that are often out of the young person’s control.

This year, lots of my young people left school, aged sixteen. Current law in England states that young people must stay in education, training or employment and lots of our young people tell us in youth sessions that their parent(s) has told them to go back to college so the child tax credits doesn’t stop.

It could be argued that a system that targets those on low incomes (who we assume may rely on child tax credits the most) in order to keep government figures appearing as though the current government has solved youth unemployment issues. In encouraging young people from areas of deprivation to stay in education, number of young people NEET (not in education, training or employment) will drop. THIS is how you think critically and if we can teach young people this, I believe we are giving them power in order to question social justice and how we, as a society, can provide for a fairer world in our communities. THIS is the lightbulb moment Community and Youth Studies tutors talk about….finally the theories I had learned (and struggled with so much!) made sense – so I hope these will to you to.

A link that helps understand Thompson’s PCS Model:

Note: Emma is an independent author and any views or comments made here are her own (and not of her employer).

One comment

  1. What a powerful set of arguments about structured inequality, dominant cultural messages and how the life chances of young people are so easily confined. Acknowledging our own privileges is so important. Very proud you took the risk to share your thoughts and experience. Thank you

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