Youth workers’ every day marvels… when does persistence become resistance?

In today’s guest post, Janet Batsleer shares the text of her talk at our recent Youth Work Week seminar on resistance, in which she reflects on themes of resistance in the diaries sent in by youth workers as part of the Citizen Enquiry in times of Covid.

In her talk, “Youth workers’ every day marvels… when does persistence become resistance?” Janet started with a quote from one of the diaries and went on to discuss other quotes and themes:

The weariness of trying to get young people and youth workers to take the health and safety elements seriously and sometimes the beautiful traits of youth workers, (including myself) of being informal, negotiating, questioning and having healthy skepticism can hit against the need to be clear, black and white on health and safety, infection control and clean use of spaces and buildings. Interesting tensions.

As another diarist says, writing on the same theme: I know it is right but my heart silently cries out against it.

The Citizen Enquiry into Youth Work in the time of Covid has been running since May. This provides  a rich account from 40 diary writers of the ways in which youth workers have been creative and responded in the current crisis. In the five minutes we have here it is not possible to give even a brief overview of what is in the diaries. For that please do read Youth and Policy where we have given short reports every couple of months.

Of course it is important to consider the powerful forces shaping our lives under capitalism and its accompanying control cultures and there is certainly evidence for that in the diaries… there is the reality that online platforms shape work in ways which make youth worker directed sessions and programmed one to one work easier and other ways of working harder.  Capitalism on the way up is fueled by greed and by fear on the way down and recession is where we are now, even before the impact of Covid can be fully felt.  Fear leads to an intensification of control cultures both online and offline and youth work in the radical democratic tradition needs to resist this for sure.

But the diaries offer a sense of  a complex continuum of responses……we are never entirely controlled even by the most powerful capitalist systems, as the re-emergence on to the streets tells its own stories.  In response to the powerful ethics of capitalist systems, the practice of youth work is driven by other ethics than that of ‘keeping the economy going.’   There are three aspects of the every day lives of youth workers recorded in these Covid diaries which I want to draw attention to as they are in tension with capitalist ethics even if they are not openly in resistance to them. 

Control society is often analysed as being led by digitization and being technologically driven. So the embrace of the digital by youth workers (like other educators) enforced by the conditions of life in this pandemic certainly needs to be considered through a critical as much as a celebratory lens.  Whilst those already engaged may have at first also engaged in digital work, there is also plenty of writing about the ambivalence which accompanies this: the ways that young people don’t or can’t engage…’another day of no returned calls’ as one diarist put it early on; the worker on a bench outside patiently texting and waiting for a response from a young woman she is supporting through trauma; the youth workers acknowledging that there are many young people who are prevented from accessing the digital and online worlds because of poverty; parental controls or control through orders placed on them by safeguarding procedures; and yet the role of Zoom in making LGBT and Trans youth work possible and flourish in a whole new way, as young people access safe enough brave enough spaces when physical meetings would require more travel than they can cope with or afford.  And still there is the sheer delight in returning to face-to-face engagement with young people:  ‘It was great to go outside and meet with young people outside the centre (even though they had been jumping on the roof) … it was great to be actually talking to young people’.

The current economic arrangements have been widely discussed and analysed as leading to neglect and abandonment of the poorest populations.  In the diaries there is evidence of youth workers challenging this treatment of people as worthless, through the organization of practical relief (for example in the form of food parcels and other means of sharing food) and of emotional support.   The precariousness of life in the most economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods is experienced by some part-time workers too, alongside the young people. A few diarists record examples of youth workers facing social isolation and mental health difficulties on furlough, of youth workers threatened with eviction from private lets and in need of food parcels themselves.  There is critical reflection on the difficulties of language.  How will future generations respond to the idea of  the distribution food parcels in one of the world’s richest nations being called  ‘Freedom Food’? Or the designation as ‘key workers’ accompanying threats of redundancy and project closure.

Finally  youth workers are staying attuned to social movements which embody the yearning for sustaining the life of people and the planet and for fair treatment and human rights. They are aware of and angry about the ways that  young people are being stigmatized and scapegoated for the spreading of the virus.   Diarists write about the resistance to circulation of plastics; shout outs and quiet conversations about sexual violence; about mental health needs; and above all, erupting into all the diaries, about Black Lives Matter. Some attend demonstrations and some organize them, despite the lockdown rules.    Everyone writes and reflects about what the movement means for their practice.  This youth worker, having talked with colleagues during the day about the events, and touched base with Black workers  workers in the youth project she runs, is still (like many) engaged in the evening (and in the months which follow):

My son and I talk more about Black Lives Matter and, at 7pm, play Jimmy Cliff’s ‘the harder they come’ on the doorstep- it’s something we found out about via our streets WhatsApp and is something organised by Black Lives Matter UK. It’s grey and drizzly and my son bounces around on the trampoline and we talk. No one else is out which I find sad.

But she is there surely in part because she is part of that youth work conversation, which starts from young people’s agendas, from their here and now, in the widest sense, and in all its complexity.

This persistence of creativity in youth work can be framed as resilience rather than resistance but we should not see these things as in entirely separate from each other.  Youth workers are far from simply  compliant to dominant drivers within capitalism and this reality can, with the right support, open up into wider conversations and actions for a  future in which the greed, fear, control and neglect which the system generates do not have the final word.

Guest post by Janet Batsleer for IDYW, from a talk given on November 6th 2020, posted November 20th 2020


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