Steph Green explores talking to young people about poverty

Across the decade and more of the In Defence of Youth Work web site, we have tried erratically to include posts entitled, ‘Talking to Young People about…..’. In doing so we have sought to argue for a practice that doesn’t assume to know what is best and trusts that conversations about what’s happening in the world will emerge ‘naturally’ out of our unfolding relationships with young women and men. In this absorbing piece, Steph Green breathes fresh life into this aspiration.

Talking about poverty

It is three months into lockdown due to the Covid 19 pandemic and I have been thinking about how potential youth work conversations might be taking shape in the current situation. Youth and community workers use ‘sparks’ from everyday life to start conversation with young people to begin making sense of their lives within the social and political environment and there is plenty to work with as a result of the pandemic. 

One example of a potential youth work conversation was when, in mid-June, Marcus Rashford, a 22 year old Black Mancunian (who plays football for Manchester United and England) successfully campaigned for a U-turn in government policy. He persuaded the Johnson government to continue free school meal vouchers in England during the summer holidays, because of the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic on poor families. A number of other bodies also campaigned for this change (including the Labour Party) but the achievement has been universally credited to Rashford as he was able to use his celebrity profile to mobilise huge support. Players, managers and supporters from Manchester City and Liverpool football clubs, quickly voiced their support for Rashford, despite the normal animosity between these teams. This would certainly be a point of conversation in many youth clubs if they were open. 

The British press hailed Rashford as a hero. He is both articulate and humble and his achievement in this campaign is laudable. In the he BBC interview he spoke of the importance of free school meals when he was growing up in a single parent household in Wythenshawe – a huge council estate on the edge of Manchester. He said he had been allowed to start at the Manchester United Academy a year early and that ensured that he got the right food to aid his development. He was well aware that other young people were not so fortunate. It struck me that going to the MU Academy was the sporting equivalent of a grammar school scholarship for the brightest working class kids. 

BBC Breakfast interview with Marcus Rashford, 15 June 2020

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/av/football/53047796

Rashford speaks of living on just-enough food and going to friend’s houses when there was no food at home. He talked of food at home being rationed, giving an example of having one pot of yoghurt a day, bought from Pound World. This isn’t a picture of starvation, but it is an admission that he and many other young people did not have the quantity or quality of food for proper growth and development.

I remember growing up in Manchester, as the child of a single mother and getting free school meals, four decades before Marcus Rashford went to school. Our experiences will be different in many ways, but his account of growing up poor was eerily recognisable. Not much has changed for children experiencing poverty. I had a happy childhood. I was loved, supported and well cared for. I get the same impression from Rashford’s interview. His mother pushed for him to be admitted to the Manchester United academy a year early. I remember my mother successfully fighting the local authority to get me into a ‘good’ secondary school, rather than the one near my home that I had been allocated to. Looking back, I also played a lot of sport and was always the kid who went back for second helpings of school dinners. At home I knew that there was never any extra available, so I never expected it. At the end of the week, if mum had any money left, we shared a bar of chocolate. Hearing Rashford speak about the limited food available to him has made me re-consider those experiences, which, at the time I didn’t really think about.

It is truly damning that in the UK, which is, according to Credit Suisse, the 5th richest nation on the planet, 30 percent of UK children are living in poverty with starkly higher proportions of Black and ethnic minority children amongst them (CPAG, 2020). Children are often too hungry to be able to focus on school work unless schools provide them with food. Free dinners and breakfast clubs are recognised, in many schools, as essential for children’s concentration (Graham, N. Puts, E. Beadle, S. 2017).

Youth clubs and projects now also regularly provide food for young people. Tuck shops have been replaced with cooking and eating meals together in most open access clubs and projects. Youth projects get supplies from food banks and supplement them with their own funds. Food is a regular topic of conversation in most youth work sessions. The provision of food is helpful, even essential for some young people. It probably also means that youth and community workers are generally focused more on dealing with the symptoms of child poverty than working to eradicate it. 

Thanks to the Felix Project

Can we do anything to address the poverty that makes food such a key topic in our day to day work? Are we having the conversations with young people that enable them to make sense of food poverty, and empower them to have a voice about it? 

Conversations with young people about poverty can be challenging. There is a stigma attached to poverty which means that young people don’t always want to discuss it, especially if it directly affects them. Youth and community workers can find it difficult to make sense of too. Some of us work in communities where everyone is poor and young people take it as normality. Some of us work in more mixed communities and know that we shouldn’t ‘out’ anyone living on the bread-line because of the stigma attached. 

The issue of child poverty is much bigger than just the provision of free school meals during the Covid 19 pandemic. Rashford’s ‘win’ may even enable this inhumane government to appear to have acted humanely towards the some of the poorest children in the country. In truth, if we compare the cost of these free meals to the cost, for example, of outsourcing NHS services to private profit-making companies, we can see that these children are getting the crumbs (Garside, J. Neate, R. 2020).

Thanks to 21stcenturychallenges.org

The real issue is the persistent poverty that so many people experience in the first place. Rashford spoke of ‘the system’ in his interview. Poverty is not an accident and it is not inevitable. Its cause is systemic, not the product of individual failure (Dorling, D, 2017). We could choose a different way to organise the social and political relations within nations and across the planet, enabling everyone to have a decent, more equal standard of living, but we don’t. Global capitalism treats people and planet as consumable resources. It operates from an assumption that the economy can keep growing, despite the fact that we are already consuming more of the planet’s resources than it is sustainable to consume. George Monbiot argues that capitalism is like a cancer and that we need to eradicate it (Monbiot G. 2020).

Professional football is seen world-wide as a route out of poverty for talented young men from poor backgrounds. It is now a big capitalist enterprise. It is a competitive and highly commercialised game. It also instils values that are very useful to capitalism – work hard, make sacrifices, exploit your talent at all costs, beat the competition to be successful (have money and appear desirable) your future is in your hands (so don’t be a loser)!

The reality is that with capitalism, there are a few big winners, some who get by, and many losers. The winners (unlike football) almost always start with inherited wealth. Football has universally accepted rules (called laws) but professional players are coached to find loopholes and even to make ‘professional fouls’ in the interests of the team. This is analogous to the system for corporate accounting and the exploitation of tax loopholes.

As I think about how a youth worker might approach a youth work conversation sparked by the Rashford interview, three things seem important. First, there needs to be a culture in the project where dialogue is genuinely possible and young people are accustomed to talking, listening and engaging with each other in an open and respectful way. That does not happen by magic. A good youth and community work culture takes a lot of building. Many youth and community workers are familiar with Paulo Freire’s ideas about the conditions for dialogue to be possible. Freire said those involved must have humility, hope, faith in people, love (care and commitment) and critical thinking (1970). Participants (including the youth workers) must be open to questioning what they know and be prepared to change their minds as new knowledge is created together (Freire Institute, 2020). In practice, this is always a work in progress because the dominant culture pulls in the opposite direction very forcefully. Nevertheless, I have been in many youth projects where this safe, dialogical space is evident and the young people are flourishing.

Secondly, another key youth and community work concept that is relevant here is ‘conscious use of self in relation to others’. For this I use a four pronged approach, to locate myself and the other participants in relation to each other and the topic of discussion. These four levels of location affect each of us differently. Each of the people participating will be, to at least some extent, conscious of existing within their own internal and inter-personal frames of reference. They will have their own identity, beliefs, feelings and attitudes and they will know that their interactions with others affect how they think, feel and act. Recognising that our internal sense of self is strongly connected to the way we are treated in inter-personal contact is a helpful start. It was those inter-personal relations that taught us our gender, ‘race’ and class etc. Much the same can be said for our beliefs and attitudes, especially as young people. 

We are also affected by the culture and decisions of the institutions involved – in this case, schools, youth projects, local and national government. They in turn, operate within international systems of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. These are systems of division and control. Young people may be less conscious of how they exist within these institutional and international frames of reference, but they are just as important to make sense of. 

Thirdly, the concept of intersectionality (first coined by Crenshaw Williams,1994) helps here too. We all have many aspects to our location in the social system. Age, gender, class, ‘race’, disability and sexuality all play a role in how we are treated and ‘located’ by others as well as how we ‘locate’ ourselves. The way that these things intersect makes a big difference. Rashford’s mother is a working class Black single mother. Her experience of poverty (and therefore his as a child) is strongly connected to (if not the product of) her being female and Black, so gender, ‘race’ and class inequality had a direct effect on Marcus Rashford’s life.

In opening this conversation with a group of young people, the youth worker would need to be conscious of who is participating, who else might be on the periphery, and what they know about their positionalities, interests and what they have enjoyed discussing before. 

If any of the young people had seen one of the Rashford interviews on TV or via social media, they might start the conversation themselves. If not the youth worker could think about which issues from Rashford’s interview might strike a chord for them. If they are keen on football, mentioning Rashford himself might be an opener. Young people who play the FIFA football game in a youth club often choose Manchester United as their team, so that’s another possibility. If they have talked about the food they like best, or what they think of school dinners, that could also be a way in. Or perhaps they’ve talked about coming from a single parent household. It doesn’t matter which ‘hook’ is used to put the young people at the heart of the conversation, as long as no-one is being put on the spot. The age of the group can play a part in the level of discussion possible, but I have sometimes been surprised by some of the youngest in a youth project, being just as keen as anyone else to engage deeply with this kind of issue.

The youth worker also needs to think about what personal experiences they would be prepared to talk about if it was helpful to the conversation. I might use the fact that Rashford plays for the football team that I’ve supported since I started primary school, or that I also grew up in a single parent household in Manchester and received free-school meals. I have lots of other stories to re-count about growing up poor, but I would stick to using what’s most relevant here. Rashford has given me a way in, by talking openly about his experience of food poverty. The reason for sharing any of my own experience would not be to shift the focus onto myself, but to create a safe enough space for dialogue in which I am also an equal participant. It is easier for young people to speak about their experiences of poverty and defy the stigma when a youth worker or someone else, has opened up in this way. 

Once the dialogue gets started the youth worker can start to ask critical questions about why poverty exists and begin to challenge the common narratives about it. This is a slow process, not a single conversation. It might fizzle out after a few minutes, or it could be returned to over several sessions if the young people want to. Sometimes a reluctance to engage can mean that the young people are taking time to consider new ways of looking at things which unsettle their common sense understanding of the world. They may come back to the subject at some point in the future, having thought more about it and begun to engage with it on an internal level.

The dialogue, if it took off, could involve looking at their every-day experiences in a new way. That might mean discussing why it can be difficult to relate to the idea of being poor (carrying the stigma of ‘losers’) or how people treat young people if they are aware that they are poor, for example, bullying about unwashed clothes or trainers. It could be about how young people can be excluded when others are not aware that they can’t access the things they take for granted. They might discuss poor families’ strategies and the effect they have on the young people. Some families try to hide the poverty (passing as middle class) while others find strength in solidarity with others who are going through the same experiences  and are typified as the ‘gobby’ ones, who stand up to the abusive and patronising attitudes of some charities and schools etc. 

They could discuss how gender inequalities lie at the heart of this too. A single mother usually has less earning power and faces more stigma than a single father. She will also be treated as a suspect parent, and be expected to /blamed for raising ‘badly behaved’ children. She will experience being stereotyped as a loose woman, and a benefits scrounger. The white ‘chav’ and the Black single mother are both demonised for being women living independently of the fathers of their children. Black mothers also know that they and their children will be subjected to racism, which will additionally damage their confidence and ability to compete in the ‘game’ of living-under-capitalism. This intersection of class, gender and race in Rashford’s interview gives plenty of scope to engage in conversation about stereotypes, inequality and bullying, and how that relates to the group’s feelings, identities, attitudes and interactions with others.

The youth worker could also find questions to draw the conversation onto the decisions of the institutions involved. Why, if free school meals make such a difference to educational achievement, would any government cut back on them? What would happen if all children got free school meals? Why don’t all schools have breakfast clubs and after-school clubs that provide food? Why doesn’t the welfare system enable all families to eat properly? Is the education system really a ‘level playing field’? What part do the media play in creating the stereotypes and attitudes around poverty? What words do they commonly use to typify poor people?

All of that would potentially open up space to go to the fourth level of location, and critically question poverty and capitalism internationally.  Questions like, what’s happening for refugee young people in the UK and elsewhere during the pandemic – are they able to eat properly? Who makes the expensive trainers that signify a successful young person (not a loser) and do those people become rich as a result? Why do a small number of people have such a huge share of the world’s wealth? Why do elected governments go along with it all? 

To get anywhere with these questions youth and community workers constantly need to be working to understand what’s going on and what the alternatives might be, but we can make a start even if we don’t know it all. This is all about having conversations not teaching lessons. It is always possible to look things up together and return to conversations later. It can be very powerful to come back to a young person after realising they were right about something that we doubted, and to acknowledge that in the group. It strengthens the sense of trust, respect and equity. 

Youth workers can include some positive thinking in all of this too. They might suggest an activity of drawing a re-designed society that’s more equal. They could research examples of efforts to make things more equal from other countries (smartphones enable this to be done during a session). The group might even join in with some campaigns and wider political discussions about the key issues that they feel strongly about. The learning will be two-way. The youth and community worker will learn as much as the young people in this process. Their role is to be a creator of the space for dialogue and a facilitator, not the decision-maker or leader. It takes time to create this kind of group culture, with small steps, focused on creating the safe space. Once it begins to be established young people will bring their own discussion topics and passions. Then part of the youth worker’s role is to keep an eye out for the intersections, connecting the oppressions of age, class / wealth, gender, ‘race’, sexuality and disability. As a group of young people discuss creating a more equal world there will be other spaces opening up, to widen the discussions, for example considering the environmental crisis, which are also the result of capitalist, colonialist, and patriarchal systems.

This description of a youth work conversation might sound a bit deliberate and unspontaneous. In practice, we have conversations reflexively, in much the same way that we might play ball games. Footballers and other sports players will practice new skills, build up particular muscles and refine their play using an analysis of their previous games. This has similarities with the reflective processes that youth and community workers use to develop their practice. One of my favourite descriptions of youth work is as a form of disciplined improvisation:

Good youth work can be seen as having some of the same contradictory qualities as great jazz. It is well prepared and highly disciplined, yet improvised. And, while responding sensitively to the signals and prompts of others, it continues to express the worker’s own intentions, insights, ideas, feelings – and flair. (Davies, B. 2010)

The kind of critical dialogue I allude to here is joyful and life affirming, even though it deals with the effects of oppression. Long term youth work projects can achieve this, but each step in the process is important and valuable in itself. Rashford points out in his interview, that after the virus we can expect things to get worse. Let’s hope that youth and community workers go beyond the (important) sticking plasters, like cooking free meals, and seize the opportunities for critical dialogue about what’s going on and what to do about it.

References

CPAG, (2020) ‘Child Poverty Facts and Figures’ available: https://cpag.org.uk/child-poverty/child-poverty-facts-and-figures (last accessed 24.06.2020)

Crenshaw Williams, K. (1994)’Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color’. In: Albertson Fineman, M. Mykitiuk, R. Eds. The Public Nature of Private Violence, New York: Routledge, p. 93-118.

Davies, B. (2010) ‘What do we mean by Youth Work’, in Batsleer, J. Davies, B. (Eds) What is Youth Work?, Exeter: Learning Matters

Dorling, D. (2017) ‘The Equality Effect’ New Internationalist, July/Aug, available at: https://newint.org/features/2017/07/01/equality-effect (last accessed 21.06.2020)

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Bloomsbury Academic

Freire Institute (2020) ‘Concepts used by Paulo Freire’, https://www.freire.org/paulo-freire/concepts-used-by-paulo-freire, (last accessed 21.06.2020)

Garside, J. Neate, R. 2020, ‘UK government ‘using pandemic to transfer NHS duties to private sector’’, The Guardian 4th May,  https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/may/04/uk-government-using-crisis-to-transfer-nhs-duties-to-private-sector, (last accessed on 25.06.2020)

Graham, N.  Puts, E. and Beadle, S. (2017) ‘Evaluation of Breakfast Clubs in Schools with High Levels of Deprivation Research Report’ DfE , available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/603946/Evaluation_of_Breakfast_Clubs_-_Final_Report.pdf (last accessed 24.06.2020)

Monbiot, G. (2020) ‘Capitalism is the planet’s cancer: operate before it’s too late’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEuSpqc-uqg, (last accessed on 21.06.2020)

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