I can’t believe it’s six years since my dear friend and comrade, Steve Waterhouse died so tragically. By chance, a week or so ago, sifting through old boxes, I came across this photo of Steve and I demonstrating in Chesterfield against the privatisation of the NHS. Taken in the late 1980s we were marching particularly in support of the striking Scarsdale Hospital cleaners. Ironically, the government of the time was not calling on us to save the NHS, its policies being to the contrary.
Then I realised that although this blog is dedicated to Steve, along with Malcolm Ball, the obituary I penned at the time for IDYW has never appeared here. Hence I’m taking this opportunity to put the record straight. I think the piece still resonates.
RIP Steve Waterhouse : A youth worker’s youth worker
I first met Steve Waterhouse in late 1984, drawn together by both youth work and the Miners’ Strike. He was a part-time youth worker in Shirebrook, a pit village at the heart of community resistance to Thatcherite violence. I was the newly appointed District Community Education Officer, ostensibly his boss. Steve was a young, fresh-faced, passionate anarchist with a marvellous gift for relating to people, already a significant figure in the local music scene and co-founder in 1983 of a jobless youngsters’ Open Shop. I was a more wrinkled, yet passionate socialist, not keen on management’s right to manage. We hit it off right away. Indeed we got closer on our train journey to the Department of Education and Science, where I had to convince a panel that Steve was a diamond, despite having a trivial conviction for cannabis possession. They were suitably impressed, which thankfully meant that later Steve could pursue a full-time qualification.
We became fellow Bolsover Bucket Bangers, the name our diverse Community Education team adopted in the face of criticism that we took the progressive policies of the Derbyshire County Council too seriously. Steve was not interested in pretence. He was committed to what in those days we called a radical youth work praxis, opposed to exploitation and oppression in all its forms.
Crucially, though, and this is reflected across his whole career, he never sought to convert a young person to his way of seeing the world. He wanted simply, but not so simply, to be in a questioning, always respectful conversation with young people, which was lightened at every turn by his quick-witted sense of humour. That this was so is reflected in the outpouring of grief and love from hundreds of those he touched across thirty years of work with young people. Time and time again we read messages on Facebook that say, “Steve and I hardly ever agreed with one another, but he meant so much to me”.
He was deeply involved in the Community and Youth Workers Union and in our Socialist Caucus through the late ’80s, into the ’90s. I remember us arguing the toss about the nature of the capitalist state in the back garden of the Exeter Community Centre. Reluctantly I confessed to him that I thought he was much closer to the truth than my dogmatic assertions allowed. He didn’t hold it against me. As I left Derbyshire under a cloud, pursued by leading figures of the Council, he was my supportive case-worker as Audit sought to find transgressions within my travel claims. His faith in my integrity saw me through.
His move to Liverpool saw him become the key youth worker at what was to become the highly regarded Interchill Project. A comment from one of the original members says a great deal.
A guy walks into the interview room at Interchill and sits down confidently although slightly nervous. His name was Steve Waterhouse. Being Interviewed by a group of teenagers wasn’t what he was expecting. But we wanted to pick the right person ourselves to manage our youth facility. Needless to say, regardless of his dodgy socks 😂 Steve was our man. And the service and inspiration he went on to provide for the young people of Speke & Garston over the years will never be forgotten. It is with great sadness and disbelief to hear of his recent passing. A true peoples person and a father figure and advisor to so many. Steve you will be sadly missed.
With Interchill falling foul of cuts, he moved over into the Liverpool Youth Service, where his outstanding endeavours were rewarded with an award for his dedication. As you might expect Steve was embarrassed by the attention.
In the early days of the In Defence of Youth Work campaign, Steve and I were reunited in the struggle to defend a young person-centred, process-led youth work. In retrospect, though it’s clear that the assault on open youth work, on his beliefs and values, was taking its toll on this remarkable bloke. It’s easy to say, but I don’t think he realised how much he had influenced young people’s lives.
Listen to just a few of the moving comments made:
I can’t believe this news. He was an important person to me. He changed how I felt about so much. Inspirational is just a word, but he changed my life and so many people around him. He loved people and wanted the best for them. The world has lost a fantastic human and I will miss him so much. Xx
I remember first meeting him at Interchill when I was 16 and being amazed at the set up. How he inspired young people to take control of their own services and supported them while maintaining excellent relationships. He was always warm, engaging and funny and such an integral part of my early youth work experience.
A few years ago Steve stayed with me on holiday and we had a surreal discussion on the terrace at the back of our house. In the teeth of all his own practice, Steve was arguing that youth work was just a job. Hardly able to believe my ears I responded that he didn’t really believe this, that the youth work, we believed in, was closer to something we might dub a calling. Given our atheism, this was not a calling from a deity, but a calling from all those past and present, who have sought in concert control over their own lives. It seemed to me that Steve’s denial that night of his own commitment was an expression of the mental and physical exhaustion that can accompany always giving of yourself, expecting little back in return.
To return to Facebook with all its contradictions this is where young and old have returned their love and gratitude, however belatedly, to a very special bloke. And, I don’t think Steve would think me opportunistic in saying to politicians and management alike, ‘if you want to grasp the significance of youth work, bin your manufactured outcomes and read the reactions of people to Steve’s passing. Take a breath and have the vision to see beyond tomorrow’s soulless data’.
Let me finish by saying that Steve’s way of being with young people was rooted in his anarchism, in his rejection of imposed authority and his belief in the creativity of those written off by the system. If Steve had faith, dented though it might have been, it was in our ability to create a more just and equal world. Together we could never accept that the present state of play is the best that humanity can come up with. I can but shed a tear at realising that we will never chat critically again; that we will never link arms again in the struggle against injustice; that we will never again laugh together at our pretensions. He was a dear friend and comrade or as one message defined him, ‘a youth worker’s youth worker’. Like so many others I loved him and I regret not conveying this enough in recent years.
Our best tribute to Steve’s memory is to continue defending the tradition of improvisatory and empathetic youth work he symbolised – a way of being with young people that is ‘volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees’. But a way of being, as many have testified, that brings enormous rewards; that truly has an authentic impact on young people’s lives.
I’ll sign off, Steve, in our time-honoured way.
In love and struggle,