At our national conference we stressed our hope that local statements about defending youth work would emerge, enriching and stimulating debate. So we are really pleased to receive this eloquent argument from John Ellis at the Shalom Project in Grimsby. Apologies that the four numbered points all begin as 1. We can be dim at times and couldn’t sort this out.
Defending Youth Work
I was standing outside the Centre one Friday evening just after we opened. A white van pulled up and, as I thought initially, two police officers got out. As they got closer to my amazement one of the occupants turned out to be a Youth Worker resplendent in a yellow jacket. He explained he was on a joint patrol with the police. My comment was ‘this is the death of youth work’. He replied that it was ‘positive engagement’! Positive engagement with whom, I wondered.
In his paper ‘Youth Work: A Manifesto for Our Times’ Bernard Davies asks ‘has youth work ever been so fashionable – or at greater risk?’ He continues ‘All over the country services which in the past could barely give it ( Youth Work) time of day have suddenly discovered that it can reach previously ( for them) unreached and unreachable parts of the adolescent population
Davies concedes that ‘this new youth work chic is very flattering’ Youth Work appears to have come in from the cold. ‘Partnership’ is the new buzz word. We are urged to adopt an ‘integrated approach’. This all seems fine. But all is far from well and the cracks are beginning to appear. The fundamental problem is that our new-found allies are attracted to Youth Work’s product but have little understanding of -or patience with, the process. Because the process leads to the product – no process, no product, we may well find that our integrated mates give up, leaving youth work more isolated than ever.
All this, of course, is on the back of the present moral panic about ‘anti social behaviour’ Attend any community group and much of the agenda will be taken up with problems with the ‘yufe’. It only ranks just below ‘dog fouling’ in the horrors addressed by the worthy residents who all appear to be politically a little to the right of Genghis Khan! A couple of years ago Safer Communities produced a list of ‘community concerns’ containing a lengthy catalogue of crimes – in the middle of which appeared ‘ groups of young people’. Keith Towler, a Children’s Commissioner, stated in the Times ‘ The ASBO legislation has made the public think that hanging around and chatting on street corners was now illegal, he said “It seems we now disapprove of normal childhood behaviour. Hanging around, kicking a ball around and chatting and laughing is normal, but people think the police should be called to deal with it. It is into this bizarre muddle that youth work has unwittingly been drawn and it is an unholy alliance we will live to regret!
The PR problem that Youth Work has always suffered from is that the process is a lengthy one taking place over years rather than days or weeks. Take a snapshot at any point along the process and nothing appears to be happening at all and the only explanation those outside the process can adduce is ‘that at least it keeps them off the streets’.
What then is this much misunderstood process? It has a number of absolutely vital elements. Remove any one and the whole process grinds to a halt.In the first place it is about the voluntary association of workers and young people. Young people don’t have to be there – they choose to be there. As soon as youth work moves an inch from this voluntary basis the process is compromised.
- In the first place it is about the voluntary association of workers and young people. Young people don’t have to be there – they choose to be there. As soon as youth work moves an inch from this voluntary basis the process is compromised.
- Then the setting is leisure one. The young people are associating freely in their leisure time – enjoyment and fun lie at the heart of the process. It follows from this that young people are in a position of power which they will experience in few other settings. In purely negative terms they vote with their feet, but in a positive sense they are in control of the depth of their involvement. In the midst of all this apparently chaotic activity something very subtle happens. Like the delicate strands of a web a relationship of trust and understanding builds between worker and young person and that is the key to the whole process. Like all relationships it takes time, it cannot be forced or prescribed. It is extremely fragile, at least in the initial stages. In the interaction between worker and young person, however, it becomes increasingly robust. Oddly enough it frequently develops through conflict situations. This is why agreeing and holding boundaries is central to the whole process.
So, an outsider visiting a youth work setting would be at a loss to grasp what was going on. Nobody seems to be ‘doing’ anything. But great skill is required to develop a relationship with young people and the more dysfunctional the young person the greater the skill required. It is this ability to reach young people on the margins that has so attracted other services. It is these young people who are in the eye of the storm so far as anti social behaviour is concerned. But the apparent ease with which a skilled worker can build relationships with seemingly unreachable young people is deceptive and leads those who have other agendas to think that the process can be used in short term target driven work that seeks to ‘turn young people around’ and it cannot.
The reason this work is particularly effective with dysfunctional young people is quite simply that it is meeting the most significant need in their lives – a long term sustained relationship with an adult that holds even when the wheels fall off. The question posed by the Beatles is still a relevant one – ‘What would you do if I sang out of tune would you stand up and walk out on me?’
- The process is holistic and non-judgemental. It treats the young person as an integrated human being.- not a collection of ‘issues’ that require to be fixed. The drift in youth work away from this holistic approach is alarming. Youth Workers are actually heard talking about triaging young people as if they were running some kind of A and E department. Perfectly normal activities that any young person might expect to simply enjoy are now justified as ‘diversionary activities’ and bizarre statistics adduced to show that ASB has been reduced thereby. Young people – and their parents – need to protest at the notion that if they were not engaged in these activities they would be creating mayhem in the community! The reason why it is only a holistic approach that is effective is that young people are not like toasters. If your toaster breaks down you can take it apart and repair it …if you try the same approach with your poorly cat….! Young people often struggle with problems but these problems are not broken bits that can be fixed. They are a complex weave of social and psychological factors that can only be tackled in the context of the whole person. Any other approach is doomed to failure.
- The process seeks to take young people beyond their present horizons. In the first place it provides a safe and secure environment where young people can try out new things and develop new skills. They receive praise and recognition for their efforts and are encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. For high risk young people this may be the only setting in which they can experience these positives in a world where toxic relationships are the norm. It never ceases to amaze how exposure to a positive secure environment, for even a couple of hours a week, begins to work its magic and counteract so much that is negative and toxic.
At Shalom we have applied this process consistently for nearly forty years in one of the UK’s most deprived communities. Over 3000 young people have been beneficiaries and so many can bear witness to this being a life enhancing, life changing experience. We know the process works and we are passionate about defending it and securing it for the young people who deserve better from the community than to be regarded as the end of civilisation!
John W Ellis
Shalom Youth Project
Find below the piece in Word format in case you want to print out and circulate.
Defending Youth Work : A View from the East