An interesting and thought provoking article from JKP author, Vanessa Rogers on what it is to be a youth worker today. Vanessa is the author of a number of titles on working with young people including, Working with Young Women, Working with Young Men, Let’s Talk Relationships, 101 Things to Do on the Street, and new from JKP the Little Books on Alcohol, Drugs and Tobacco Set.
What is Youth Work?
Today I realised that I have been a youth worker for over 15 years, yet I still struggle to explain exactly what that means, especially to someone outside of the profession. It is not a simple answer and I have even been known to say, ‘social worker’ in certain social settings just because it is easier.
The irony is not lost on me; that I am prepared to betray my profession, even though I feel so passionately about it, because I can’t be bothered to explain what I do and that it involves more than playing pool and sorting out squabbles about which track to play next on the iPod in the youth club. Explaining detached youth work is even harder, and has even been met with snorts of laughter at the thought of being paid to wander the streets talking to unknown young people. ‘But what is the point?’ is a constant refrain.
It has not always been so. There was a time not that long ago when it would be hard for me not to weigh in with my views. In fact, many of my ex-students could stand testament to the fact that, ‘what is youth work?’ is one of my favourite assignment titles, and the 500 words produced in response are a constant source of interest and heated debate.
Then it dawned on me that perhaps the sinking heart I get whenever someone asks me what I do for a living is not merely personal apathy, but because I have had the conversation one too many times. The sense of justifying what youth work is, why it matters and the unique place it has in supporting young people – not only amongst friends, family and strangers but also with youth workers and other professionals – has become habitual. I realised that I am a bit tired of the struggle and don’t want to spend time any more time analysing the process at a cost of actually doing it less.
It hasn’t always been so difficult, although I am in no way harping back to some mythical golden age of youth work. I am simply pointing out that if you had asked me 15 years ago what I did my answer would have been pretty easy – an area youth worker for the Youth & Community Service responsible for developing girls work, work with young parents and managing a large and busy youth wing on the site of a school in an area described as ‘deprived’. So far, so clear.
The role of a Youth Worker
Fast forward and my role, but not my professional title, has changed so many times that writing a CV can be a daunting thing. Terminology for the young people, or ‘client group’, has changed from young people ‘at risk’ through ‘vulnerable’ to ‘targeted’; youth services have dropped the ‘ & community’ tag and been variously part of the education, leisure, Connexions and social care departments.
Responsibilities have changed to include meeting parents, undertaking social care assessments, creating community profiles and measuring work by the number of accredited outcomes achieved.
What constitutes ‘youth work’ has changed so many times that it can now be tagged on to virtually any service that works with young people.
But is this a good or bad thing? Is the increase in those using traditional youth work skills to engage with young people something to be celebrated or lamented? All I know is that ‘youth work’ is a notoriously difficult term to describe, and it isn’t getting any easier. The task of trying to find a pithy one-liner to sum up the collective aims of so many different clubs, societies and detached projects is almost impossible.
Perhaps it is that so many people now describe themselves as ‘youth workers’, whilst working in areas more traditionally associated with social workers or youth justice? I have even spoken with police officers that say they do ‘youth work’. Really? Are the professional boundaries so completely enmeshed? Please note this isn’t about professional qualifications, or even the lack of them, more a questioning of how the ethos of voluntary participation and the gradual process of building positive relationships and engaging and empowering young people fits within a law and order or social care framework.
The ethos at the heart of Youth Work
Historically, youth work did not develop just to ‘keep people off the streets’ or to provide aimless amusement, it has always offered social and political education in an informal environment. Good youth work may look as if it just ‘happens’ but the success of it actually depends on good planning, clear aims and measurable outcomes. This ethos should be at the heart of all youth work – especially detached projects. Surely an exciting detached project that motivates young people to get involved should result in more, not less, youths on the street? And that should constitute success?
Put simply, providing young people with a ‘good time’ is not enough. Effective youth work should offer young people the opportunity to meet, socialise, develop new skills, explore the world around them and learn to question and challenge what they see effectively. Detached projects should not be about forcing young people off the streets and away from adult eyes, but more about building trust and developing interesting projects that are relevant to their needs, reflecting the things of importance to them. Which is unlikely to be the same as the media focus on demonizing young people as part of a lawless counter-culture.
As I see it the need to build two-way respect between young people and other members of their community is paramount – after all it is hard to encourage young people to take up their responsibilities and become active citizens if they are treated like social outcasts. Why would you want to be part of something that clearly doesn’t want you?
Perhaps the answer is purely financial. In the struggle to chase funding and secure projects we have been forced to chase the pound, rather than offer what young people truly want. Or maybe as numbers dwindle in traditional old-style youth clubs what’s on offer is simply outdated and no longer meets the needs of teenagers. In that case let’s stop hanging on to the solutions of the past and try new ideas.
Listening to Young People
Young people can be innovative and visionary, with energy and enthusiasm to shape and change the world. To do this they need to find ways to get their voices heard and be able to see that their participation in things like youth councils, forums and consultations actually makes a difference. To be honest, as an adult I am happy to give my opinion on things that matter to me but I get disheartened and then disinterested if nothing ever comes of it and I don’t receive any feedback. Too often I think young people are let down because although they are told that their opinions count, when it comes to money and budgets, they don’t. Participation has to be more than a paper exercise or a way to ‘tick boxes’.
So I think it is time for youth workers to stand up and reclaim youth work by celebrating how different it is to other work with young people. It should be seen as a whole, not as a useful pick’n’mix to compliment other services, and defined in our own terms – whether that is through a Youth Work Academy or some other collective process – before someone else does it for us.
In another 15 years time I don’t want to still be ducking the question, ‘what do you do for a living?’ – I want to be able to say (still with pride), ‘I am a youth worker’, and for that to mean something.