Bernard Davies reviews ‘Radical Help, asking are there messages for youth work in its pages?

In the latest addition to Youth & Policy’s rich library of analysis, Bernard Davies reflects on Hilary Cottam’s ‘Radical Help’, and searches for links between youth work and Cottam’s broader propositions and proposals.

Hilary Cottam, 2018, Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us and Revolutionise the Welfare State, London, Virago.

He begins:

By the time I got to read Hilary Cottam’s book Radical Help[i]I had a lot to catch up on – and not only because it had by then been out for over a year. Cottam had set up Participle, the organisation which is the focus of the book, in 2006 as an ‘experiment to design working exemplars of a new welfare state’. By 2019, the Guardian reviewer who alerted me to the book was calling it ‘ … a social activist’s series of experiments giving people control to improve their own lives’.[ii] And whereas for him it was ‘inspiring’, coming to it as I did from a youth work perspective, the word for me that best describes it is ‘challenging’.

Hilary Cottam

Towards the end he chances the following:

Though rather simplistically extracted here (and with emphases added), her more positive working ‘principles’ – many of which would again seem to touch the youth work practitioner experience – include:

  • A commitment to moving from making the priority to ‘assess risk and then attempt to manage it’ and from focussing on ‘what might go wrong…’; to focusing on possibilities and on developing ‘cultures of open trust’. (209)
  • A commitment to moving from a ‘management’ response (which) ‘tries to fix discrete and individual problems with no bigger developmental purpose’; to providing ‘forms of help that will support us grow our capabilities’, not least by ‘responding to the natural human desire to flourish’ – where ‘flourishing’ is understood as ‘a collective and political concept that embraces participation in the structures of society …’ (198-9; 201)
    • A recognition that, though ‘what we can be or do depends on our inner worlds, our beliefs, our self-confidence, our skills’, also crucial are ‘our concrete external realities’: where we live, whether we have money, and how we are connected’; (200) and that ‘…structural inequalities … influence in ways that are sometimes invisible…’ (201)
  • A commitment therefore to move from ‘traditional approaches’ which ‘… focus on what is lacking – food, money, work or health – and (which) cast people as dependent’; that is, from ‘arguing that … those who don’t succeed somehow lack agency’ (201) and need ‘to … pull (themselves) together or take care of (their) own problems’ (199); to approaches which
  • start by ‘first taking into consideration the inter-connections between the internal and the external structural realities of our lives and then help … address both’ (200);
  • ask what real possibilities … people have to earn, to find work, to live healthily …’ (201);
  • thus ‘grapple with the knotty issues of power, access and learnt norms…’ (202-3); and so
  • are, more positively, concerned ‘about continual development’. (203)
  • A commitment to focus ‘above all’ on relationships – ‘the simple human bonds between us … the foundation of good lives’ – by for example seeking ‘a shift in the dynamics of power’ and by creating ‘the fertile conditions for collaboration’. (205-7)
  • A commitment to drawing on ‘the single biggest resource a welfare state has to call on’: ‘… people – their relationships, knowledge, time, skills and sometimes possessions …’; so that in particular we ‘blur the boundaries between who needs help and who is the helper’. (208-09)


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