Our fears and resistance to working collaboratively

In today’s post, Ruth Richardson shares the notes from her challenging and thought-provoking talk at our recent Youth Work Week seminar on resistance. Ruth is Development Officer at the Institute for Youth Work and has worked as a Youth and Community Worker both for the statutory youth service and voluntary sector, specialising in Global Youth Work. It was great to have Ruth at our seminar, and excellent to have a representative of a national sector organisation who is not afraid to challenge the sector to do better. Ruth makes clear links to the politics and unequal power relations (at macro and micro levels) that shape this situation. From an IDYW perspective, we note that the current political and economic context dominated by neoliberalism (yes, that word again) has created an environment where competition has become the norm, and collaboration or cooperation are sidelined (unless within the strictures of top-down requirements for small organisations to join ‘consortia’ and the like). Although we suspect that Ruth would say we can’t just blame neoliberalism – we all have a responsibility to be the change we want to see. Ruth writes:

It is my absolute privilege to be invited to speak at this IDYW event. I’m really grateful to be here, thank you so much.

I’m going to talk a bit more specifically to the point on the agenda of ‘Our fears and resistance to enable us to work collaboratively’.

Do we work collaboratively? Instinctively I have to say ‘no’. Firstly, I think of my role at the Institute for Youth Work (IYW) and some of the oversight of the Youth Work national infrastructure that I have experienced. I’m new, so forgive me but I don’t see collaboration in a genuine sense. Don’t get me wrong, my Council Members at the Institute are fantastic human beings and in my time I have met some amazing Youth Workers working in a broad range of settings but I do think that the sector is rife with fear and that true collaboration is evading us.

So, then I reflect on my local experience of youth and community work and I ponder; do we work collaboratively? And I regrettably have to say ‘no’ again. The same competitiveness, and ego was evident at a local level as much as I’ve witnessed at a national. Devastating but maybe fascinating… If we can crack this nut so to speak it could have widespread positive ramifications both for local groups but also for our sector as a whole.

I appreciate this might seem a bit negative and I apologise in advance for that. However, I think it is beneficial to explore the problems, to name the challenges because then we can talk openly about the potential solutions. It’s also important to flag that there will be examples of successful collaborations. I’m genuinely chuffed when I hear about examples of collaborative working that have resulted in positive outcomes. For example, when Local Authorities, the Voluntary sector and community groups work successfully together or when teachers, social workers, police and Youth Workers collaborate well.

At the start of the pandemic (a time of crisis) there was a sense of Youth Sector organisations coming together to support each other and young people. But has that dissipated over time and have people retreated back into their silos? I recently heard an example of a healthy Youth Work team working collaboratively in Rotherham and thought that it sounded awesome. I would want to use my role at IYW to celebrate that work. I did wonder, with this example and maybe similar to the example of the pandemic, was an appreciation for Youth Work and good collaboration with the Youth Sector only born out of crisis and would it dissipate again? So, I do appreciate that there is some good practice and I apologise if I’m being overly critical, but I don’t think I am alone in my observations and concerns about heightened competitiveness and disingenuous ‘partnership’ working. Certainly, recent endeavours by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to bring Youth Sector Leaders with national agendas together and try to improve collaborative working illustrates that I am not alone in my concerns.

What might be the reasons? What are the fears and why we might resist collaborative working? Some organisations and staff might be concerned about reputational damage and/or status. For example, ‘what if I/we don’t do this piece of work? Will we look like we’re losing our grip or our purpose?’ Or ‘what if they do it and do it better? What does that say about my organisation?’ These examples might really connect with the fears and ultimately, it is my belief, that they are connected to one of the main barriers which is competition. This is something that has only been exacerbated by widespread cuts to youth services and increased demand for those available pots of funding.

Honestly, if I had £1 for every time that I’ve observed an organisation that employs a full-time fundraiser and full-time marketing officer with a suave, suit-wearing CEO who source all of the available grants while hard-working Youth Workers making personal sacrifices to deliver quality work at a community level get completely disregarded… well, I’d probably still be here doing this because I’m committed and passionate and the repeated injustices haven’t broken my spirits just yet! But this sort of example is endemic.

The point is, that the ability to ‘play the game’ and ‘talk the talk’ is benefitting some groups over others at both at a local and national level. Egos, defaulting to binary positions and power-play are all at work. These are linked to systemic issues of inequality, racism, patriarchy, and class prejudice but is manifested as vying for power and competition for money.

I don’t think that Youth Work is alone in facing these challenges. They’re certainly visible in the voluntary sector too.

It has always been my opinion, and I’m obviously totally up for discussing and hearing differing perspectives, but I’ve always felt that often Youth Work has existed to serve and support those who suffer at the hands of mainstream society. To walk alongside and support those who feel side-lined and marginalised. So, with this in mind, it has always seemed odd to me that we/ organisations would try to mimic the very systems of power that create the problems that we exist to try and address.

Currently, the sector can feel infantile and lacking professional maturity. Like back in school; there’s an in-group. This group seems to have power and influence. Those blessed to be in the in-group back it unquestionably and bolster its position. But with an in-group also comes an out-group.

In my time as a Youth and Community worker I would drive myself insane trying to create positive collaboration and partnership work. Banging my head against a brick wall, even offering to work for free to try and create partnerships that could benefit our young people and/ or the wider community. In the end I came to the realisation (with thanks to a young person that I was working with for this nugget of wisdom) that you can only work with those people that want to work with you. If they don’t want to work with you or don’t see the benefit, there’s literally nothing you can do. The best thing, we decided, was to work with those people/ and organisations that do want to work with us and hope, just hope that the examples of good practice that should result may have an impact on those who didn’t want to work together. Maybe they will see what we achieve by working together and it might influence their practice. There is no point wasting good energy after bad.

Youth Workers are a divergent bunch, critically thinking, notorious for asking the difficult questions; why do we feel this way? Is there any evidence for that? Is there another way to look at this? It’s one of the many reasons that I love our profession. It is not homogenous, and it should not be forced into being homogenous or presented as such. Its diversity can be its strength.

When we start to consider collaborative working, we should focus on what we can ‘bring’ to the table (to add value) rather than what we take (for ourselves). In competition there are winners and losers, in-groups and out-groups, in collaboration we all win. Here’s a vision for genuine collaboration: our sector should welcome our differences and encourage respectful questions and dialogue. Let’s be critical friends who:

  • Support one another in the areas where we excel.
  • Challenge each other when we feel an organisation is stepping outside of their remit.
  • Highlight when we feel our professional values (that should underpin our practice) are being undermined.
  • Crucially, we should be accountable to our peers.

Thank you.

Guest post by Ruth Richardson, written 6th November 2020, published 16th November 2020

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