Being inspired by Malcolm Ball: Kalbir Shukra reflects

During the 35+ years that I knew Malcolm, he was an inspirational colleague, unswerving comrade, and treasured friend. His was an exceptional mind – a sharp intellect with wide knowledge and a long memory. I valued his insights, which he shared generously, and admired his gift for thinking strategically while being tactically astute. Malcolm could see a bigger picture when others could not. Yet he also remembered the details to identify patterns and pose the key questions.  I feel gutted that Malcolm has been taken away from the world so early and miss him hugely. 

Malcolm grew up in an Irish working-class family in the New Cross/Deptford area in the 1960s and 1970s and remained committed to the people of the locality through his work. Indeed, Malcolm dedicated at least four decades of his life to supporting young people, workers, students, and communities of London Borough of Lewisham. He’d been a trustee/manager of voluntary sector organisations as part of his youth and community development work. He’d also been a trade union representative and supported people when their jobs were threatened. He’d been a community and youth work lecturer and supported numerous students as a tutor and in offering placements or work experience. Those were the sorts of things he did, but he identified as a marxist. He would say ‘I’m not a youth worker but a marxist in an anarchist tradition who happens to be employed as a youth worker’.  His analysis of the world and social change contributed to growing people’s critical consciousness to build social movements because he believed that another world is possible. This he applied to his youth work, wider union activism, solidarity work and co-founding of groups such as In Defence of Youth Work and the Critically Chatting Collective.  

Malcolm was also an internationalist and encouraged others to see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ and to remember that in Lewisham we all hail from somewhere else as a legacy of empire. He organised local walks around the borough (long before they became fashionable and commodified) highlighting Lewisham’s multi-ethnic, anti-fascist, anti-apartheid, anti-racist and musical heritage. He would start or end each walk around the area of Deptford Town Hall to show where the Black People’s Day of Action march had gathered and to explain how Deptford had been at the heart of the British Empire.  

Mal in Porto 2017 – many thanks to Josef

Malcolm was an early adopter of the Erasmus scheme and accessed EU funds to create opportunities for young people and youth workers to meet across national borders. He set up regular international exchange visits for young people and youth workers. These grew into particularly strong connections with projects in Portugal, Poland, Czech Republic, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Norway and beyond and he enjoyed bringing them together.  

As Tony and Doug have shown, Malcolm was the best of relational youth workers. Not only was he in a league of his own when it came to improvising, but in his practice he was fun, witty and highly empathic. He could see when and what sort of support was needed in any moment.  He sensed whether it was a matter of reassurance and encouragement, practical help or strategic direction that mattered. He could offer a critical perspective and alternative idea, leaving you feeling stronger for it. You always knew he was on your side, could offer an alternative analysis and would help to figure out an elegant way to resolve a dilemma or conflict. He could do this because he trusted people: ‘People are generally decent – they just need to be reminded of that’. 

When Malcolm returned from studying in Leicester in the early 1980s, he worked at St. Andrew’s Centre where he supported the centre’s community groups as well as the youth club. He relished working with the parent and toddler group, the centre’s nursery and the older people’s lunch club as well as with the vibrant youth provision. I got to collaborate with him in the local Community Development Forum, through his management committee role at Voluntary Action Lewisham and in NALGO as comrades. Malcolm went on to play a significant role in the 1990s in bringing Single Regeneration Budget funds into the area, giving residents access to new projects and resources. As a Senior Area Youth Worker for New Cross/Deptford, Malcolm co-created and led Deptford Youth Forum and connected youth projects around the borough through a borough-wide Youth Participation Project – the precursor to Lewisham Young Mayor Programme that he was involved in setting up with his late colleague and friend, Dennis Hunter.  

Malcolm was open about feeling lucky to be in a job where he could do what he enjoyed and so he gave his time and energy to everyone who asked for it. It meant he took on too much at times, but it was all important to him. Even when he felt the strain, he’d take care to be fully present and appear ‘chilled’. He resisted ‘professional preciousness’ and created opportunities for practitioners or politicians who wanted to support and work with young people to have conversations and work together. Under Malcolm’s leadership, the Young Mayor Programme was a space for young people to inhabit as their own rather than to fit into. Before COVID, everyone was welcomed with a warm handshake and chat. Participants were encouraged to ‘be yourself’, stay grounded, to speak to their lived experience and mobilise their peers. He shunned formalities that acted as barriers to bringing people together to discuss how to change the world around them. He reflected that ‘professionals are good at telling you it’s complicated when it’s not complicated at all’.  

I am proud that we had managed to write some articles together but alas he did not have time to follow up on his most recent Ph.D plans for an analysis of capitalism and how it had degenerated into what he called ‘carrion capital’. Malcolm had more than one doctoral thesis within him. He could have written on the political economy of youth work, urban regeneration, community development and youth democracy. Preoccupied with his work and political priorities, he had instead generously shared his reflections with others over the years, inspiring students, professors and fellow youth workers/activists.  So his ideas and analysis are sprinkled extensively, far beyond his own work. They can also be found in other people’s projects, writings and how they live their lives. Such was his influence. 

My deepest condolences to his family, friends, colleagues and the young people he worked with. 

Kalbir Shukra

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