Speaking Truth to Power- Rys Farthing on Young People and Poverty

The last few weeks have been tumultuous and tragic. In the next few days we will post some thoughts on the present situation, following our Manchester seminar on state-funded youth work and last Friday’s steering group meeting. In the meantime here is a timely and pertinent piece from Rys Farthing’s excellent new blog, entitled ‘A timely note on youth, poverty & powerlessness.’


Noting the significant shift in the public mood – a growing recognition that politicians, amongst others, must be accountable – she calls on youth workers and young people to seize the moment, concluding:

So try to be a part of this zeitgeist. Has your youth group been ranting for ages about an issue you just didn’t think you could change? Do you know young people whose truths need to be told to those in power? Demand a meeting with your MP. Write to the national charity that works on this issue. Chalk bomb the council until they listen. Support your crew to go to every public event you can and organise for them to speak. Write to your local papers. Tell your funders why you need to do this. Now is the time for the young people you work with to be heard, and slowly but surely, maybe it’s now time for power to listen.

As always your reactions appreciated. I reckon it’s more than a good idea to follow Rys at Radical Youth Practice.

Bob Holman R.I.P. – an inspiration, even a legend

Bob Holman

The world of social, youth and community work has lost one of its most inspiring activists with the death of Bob Holman. His 1981 ‘Kids at the Door’ became a classic text, telling the story of his first five years on the Southdown estate in Bath, where he lived, his home the hub of his work with young people. It is a moving tale of a person-centred, process-led practice, which confronted poverty and inequality. Bob had given up his post as professor of social administration at the University of Bath in 1976, declaring that he wasn’t much good at admin and that community workers ought to live in the communities they sought to serve.  He stood by this principle when he moved in the late 1980’s to live on the Easterhouse estate in Glasgow, where he was a member of the Baptist church. Among his heroes were Keir Hardie, the principal founder of the Labour Party and George Lansbury, the great social reformer, both Christian pacifists and committed supporters of women’s suffrage.

In a piece on Keir Hardie, Labour founder’s views on equality still ring true for public services, written in 2010, Bob commented,

Voluntary organisations are now seen as public services, and the major political parties favour charities taking over more of the state’s duties. I doubt if Hardie would have agreed. He did not deny that charities did good work, but he saw them as maintaining an unfair society. He criticised wealthy philanthropists whose factories paid low wages, and accused one of harming workers and then paying a charity to give the homeless a bed. Better, he said, to improve society and “to dispense with Christian charity”.

Today, voluntary bodies are much improved and often employ skilled and committed staff, but Hardie’s criticisms still have some relevance. Philanthropists may give generously to charities of their choice, which allows them great power over who should be helped. The affluent determine the nature of service.

Further, some charities are run by committees of the wealthy and powerful. Top directors of some charities, while decrying poverty and inequality, may be paid the kind of excessive salaries that reinforce these evils.

Hardie argued that the state should take responsibility for essential services. In 1887, he stood in a by-election in Scotland. His address called for the nationalisation of land, the abolition of the House of Lords, and a reduction in the money spent on the royals. He ended: “I ask you therefore to return to parliament a man of yourselves who, being poor, can feel for the poor.”

Speaking of the monarchy Bob Holman declined the offer of an MBE, arguing,

I am an egalitarian. I believe that a socially and materially equal society is more united, content and just. The royal honours system is designed to promote differences of status. It is made clear that those who are made knights or dames are socially superior to those given CBEs, OBEs or MBEs. But all are socially above those without honours. These imposed differences hinder the co-operation, interaction and fellowship, which are the characteristics of equality. Refusing a royal honour is a small step but one in the right direction.


Finally, in 2000, he wrote ‘Kids at the Door Revisited’, in which he interviews 51 of the people he related to during the Southdown project, reflecting on the impact or otherwise of those rooted relationships. In a world where the notion of impact is tossed around as if it’s somehow new and innovative, Bob’s self-critical exploration of his and their stories ought to be required reading for those, who peddle the myth that in the past we didn’t give a toss about the quality or accountability of our practice. The book is on the shelf above me as I pen these inadequate words. I’ll take it down and read afresh this weekend as a way of honouring the memory of an outstanding bloke.

See also an obituary in the Guardian  and an interview with him from 2014,  Leading by example in the fight against inequality.

I’ll leave the last word to Bob.

I’ve lived in deprived areas for nearly 40 years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen poverty or inequality as bad as it is now. And it’s made even worse by this whipping up of feeling against the poor. Most poor people are now in work. I have a friend who’s 59 and has always worked. He’s been on the minimum wage since it was introduced, but it’s so little. He has only one week’s holiday a year and he’s in debt. He’s had to take out loans. There are now three loan sharks and a pawnbrokers in our row of shops in Easterhouse. This is a real indication of what life is like. My church started a weekly cafe in response to the crisis. It offers free drinks and fruit and cheap snacks. We are meeting people in severe financial need. Citizens Advice send in workers once a fortnight to help those sanctioned. I’ve had a friend sanctioned for six months. He had absolutely no money for six months. Ten years ago this would have been unbelievable. But even Labour didn’t protest. One of the services we run from Fare is an annual holiday. We take youngsters to Lincolnshire, it’s all in tents. The holiday costs £140 a week for everything – transport, food, trips. We’ve run it for years but two years ago people couldn’t afford to pay so we cut it to £70 and raised the rest of the money. Last year people couldn’t pay £70. Never before have parents found it so difficult to pay for their kids’ holidays. This is the inequality. One thing we can do is to make sure these kids go on holiday. It’s the Elastoplast level we are down to now. It’s not changing society but it’s justice. There are people who are really struggling. These people are my friends. They’re not my clients.

The police had it coming : Reading the Riots

In the very midst of the August riots a youth worker posted us a response from the streets, in which she noted,

I met a group of young people I know on my way home tonight. They said the police had it coming, that the riots were overdue, that people have been angry for a long time and now the police have killed someone it’s no surprise there are riots. They said young people from rival postcodes were united last night against the police. They said they are angry that they are not listened to, there are no jobs and the police treat them badly. One of them said, ‘they call us violent but the prime minister has a button to set off a whole load of nuclear weapons that would kill everyone, that’s violence’.

This perspective was ridiculed by Cameron and Company, who preferred to talk of ‘mindless thugs’ and the centrality of gang culture.

Three months later the Guardian and the London School of Economics are publishing the findings of their study, Reading the Riots, in a range of articles.

English riots were ‘a sort of revenge’ against the police

Rioters interviewed for the study say they sought retribution for what they saw as police abuse of power in their communities. These are but a couple of paragraphs from this piece.

Antipathy towards police within black communities appeared to transcend generations. One young black man in Liverpool spoke of how participating in the riots was an expression of his identity: “Grown-ups … the elders of the community … were making it known that they didn’t like the police so … that made me personally feel more like yeah, I was representing them.”Nowhere were frustrations with police tactics more apparent that when rioters spoke about stop and search. Of the Reading the Riots interviewees, 73% said they had been stopped and searched in the past 12 months – they were more than eight times more likely than the general population in London to have been stopped and searched in the previous year.

One 32-year-old black man from south London said police “stop you for nothing” and “violate” his personal space. “Because you might live on that estate or you might hang round that estate … OK, I fit the description. What’s the description? Young black male … I just come out of my yard and I’m chilling for you to come and stop me and search me up. And violate me. Because that’s what it is, a violation, talking to me like I’m nothing.”

Indifferent elites, poverty and police brutality – all reasons to riot in the UK

In this article Gary Younge argues that “this summer’s social unrest in Britain was destructive and incoherent, but it was still a form of protest”, concluding,

In a year that started with the uprisings in Tunisia and is ending with police raids on occupations protesting inequality across the globe, only a naïf would understand these disturbances as a random, isolated moment of mass social deviancy particular to Britain. It would be like claiming that the two black athletes who raised their fists on the podium during the Mexico Olympics in 1968 engaged in individual acts of protest in no way related to the students in Paris, the massacre in My Lai or the passing of the US civil rights act.

The 2011 riots would probably win gold as the year’s most destructive, least coherent protest of disaffected youth against indifferent elites, economic hardship and police brutality. Rioters were more likely to give the finger than clench the fist. But what this report makes clear is that they belong to the same category of protest.

Looking ahead those involved in the riots see them as a beginning rather than an end. From the point of view of those involved in youth work this is a salutary message. Efforts to draw a line between deserving and undeserving youth – most embarrassingly symbolised by the NCVYS ‘Not in my Name’ opportunist cuddling up to the Coalition’s demonising agenda – lack any sense of contradiction, betray a short-sightedness that hides behind the self-congratulatory rhetoric of Positive for Youth.

English rioters warn of more to come

Four out of five participants in summer unrest think there will be a repeat, with most believing poverty to be a factor.

And here is the link to the Newsnight piece on the implications of the research with the rioters underlining their hostility to policing, whilst the Coalition minister and ex-commissioner of the MET remain in deep denial.


And as Gus John observes in reflecting on the 1981 Moss Side disturbances and the significance of poverty, to what extent is education and that includes youth work,  anything to do,

with giving people the tools to take control of their own lives, equipping people to act collectively to bring about change, and it is certainly nothing to do with understanding the evolution of British social history, such that we can as a society learn from our advances and defeats. That kind of discourse is seen as a throwback to the days of ‘red-led’ protests of the past for lefties. The assumption is that it is not necessary to think in terms of class or the individual up against the state, and that we should be counting our blessings. Meanwhile, stratification within society becomes more entrenched. Those who are poor are not just disenfranchised by lacking wages through which they can live dignified lives; they are also denied the tools by which they can organise in defence of their lives.

Thirty years on, plus ca change? Discuss and argue.

Official: Cabinet ministers wrong about cause of riots

Further to our coverage of the riots official sources now admit that Cameron’s, ‘it’s criminality, pure and simple’ is simplistic.

Young, poor and uneducated – but most rioters were not in gangs

For the young and the poor there are few ways to claw back status from society

UK riots analysis reveals gangs did not play pivotal role

Official figures show those arrested came from deprived backgrounds, striking a blow to theory that tackling gang culture is key to preventing repeat of disturbances.

At the recent Youth and Policy History conference two workshops examined differing interpretations of the riots, both controversial in their condemnation of the rioters as ‘stupid’ and ‘narcissistic’. Look out for a report on the conference soon.

And while you’re waiting, here is an historical overview from Jerry White of the LSE.

The history of riots in London shows that persistent inequality and injustice is always likely to breed periodic violent uprisings.