My latest shoveling into the IDYW archives for pieces, I think, remain of interest and pertinence.
Back in June 2009, Jean Spence, a leading voice in youth and community circles through her endeavours as a lecturer at Durham University, through her valuable research – see ‘Youth Work: Voices of Practice, available as a pdf – and her pionering contribution to the emergence of ‘Youth & Policy’ in the 1980s, gave this contribution to a Leeds ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ seminar. Within it she engaged particularly with a certain anti-intellectualism within our work, which seems to persist , even unto the present, despite our status as a graduate profession. Her thoughts are not past their sell-by date.
I’m glad to be able to make an active contribution to the series of meetings organised in Defence of Youth Work.
The last meeting that I attended was in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago, where I think more than 90 people turned up. Meetings being picked up in other parts of the country suggest that the Open Letter has touched a nerve amongst those of us who have some commitment to youth work.
Clearly if we feel the need to defend youth work, we must be also feeling that it is somehow under attack. The nervousness, not to say antagonism of some of the managers of local authority services to the North East event highlighted the fact that organising to defend youth work cannot be undertaken naively – it cannot be assumed simply that defending youth work is a straightforward matter of supporting good workers who are working for the good of young people and not being appreciated. Life is more complicated than that. At the very least, if we are discussing attack and defence, we are inevitably engaging in conflict – and there is some need to understand who will be on what side in the conflict, and for what reason.
I don’t want to complicate things too much, but I do want to draw upon some of the issues which were raised for me through my participation in the Newcastle event. Later, and partly in recognition that this event is also to celebrate 20 years of Community and Youth Work education in Leeds, and Marion Charlton’s 30-plus years contribution to the education and training of community and youth workers, if I have time, I want to draw a little from a celebration event that I attended in the same week as defending youth work. This was a 30-year celebration of a voluntary youth project where I worked between 1979 and 1985 as a detached/neighbourhood youth worker with a remit to focus on work with girls and young women. These two personal experiences raised all sorts of questions for me and I want to offer some of these questions to you for debate in the hope that there are some universal concerns in them about youth work.
Firstly, to go back to Newcastle. That event was attended by academics, managers and practitioners from a wide range of projects, practices and working approaches. During its course, we addressed the question of what it was we wanted to defend which involved considering the focus of youth work. Among the various propositions, I heard an academic suggest that the focus should be upon civil society and democracy. This was countered by detached youth workers who wanted to focus upon the process of listening to young people and the following discussion in a small group became oppositional. The language used by the two parties was operating in two different planes. In response to an effort to create a conversation wherein the two sides might find common ground for conversation, I suggested the possibility of listening ‘in context’. Implicitly, listening in context is connected with questions of civil society and democracy because it is a listening which understands the circumstances not only of being young, but of being situated in sets of social relations which are inherently unequal. Listening effectively and actively requires some knowledge on the part of the worker. They might need to know something of youth subcultures, but under this, they might need to know something about class and poverty, about racism and sexism, about the realities of global displacement, about structural relations of power in which some voices are silenced and in which listening must be an active process of encouraging speaking, not just the speaking of individuals, though that is important, but the speaking which enables groups to find collective voices and thus to combine and act on their situation. Just as the ‘In Defence of Youth Work’ meetings are attempting to do for youth work as a profession silenced in a set of power relations. There is a direct connection therefore between questions of power, voice, listening and speaking, and issues of politics, democracy and civil society.
Now I know I must own up to being some sort of an academic – even if the academy has a highly ambiguous and grudging relationship with my area of knowledge relating to community and youth work – and therefore I might be perceived as someone who does not understand the realities of practice. However, I was shocked at the response to my efforts at finding common grounds for discussion. Firstly, the meaning of ‘context’ was misunderstood: it was assumed that I was referring to ‘place’ and therefore the protagonists felt it necessary to inform the group that not all young people congregated where they lived. Secondly, perhaps in pursuit of the point, the detached workers insisted that youth workers needed to know NOTHING. Apparently, all youth workers need to do is learn the skills of listening to young people. I hope I am not misrepresenting the case or offering a caricature here, but I was left with the distinct impression that the position that was being taken, that what we were being asked to defend, was a process of youth work as listening, in which the youth workers act as sponges, absorbing what young people say to them. I have yet to discover what youth workers are then to do with such listening. Of course, not all youth workers were taking this position, but it did force me not only to repeat to myself the question, ‘What exactly are we trying to defend?’ but it also make me ask, ‘Do I want to defend this? Am I on the same side as those detached workers?’
Here the ongoing and perennial tension between academics and practitioners, between theory and practice starts to raise its ugly head. This tension is not a new one. In some of the historical work which I have done the question emerges time and again as part of the struggle for professionalization. I digress for a moment, but it is interesting to see how the earliest youth workers in the late nineteenth century, who were integrated within the broad set of activities known as social work, which included community work, welfare rights work, campaigning and various other types of social intervention, and which even sometimes laid claim to the concept of socialism as a term to describe their interventions, it is interesting to see how for the pioneers of this work, there was no split between theory and practice. Indeed, practising social, community and youth workers were also pioneers of the new discipline of social science and it was only when social science began to be accepted within the academy that the split began to happen.
Anyway, to put that to one side, for a moment and return to the reality of the present tensions, in the plenary session, one of the organisers felt it necessary to say something about the fact that this was a grass roots organisation of workers and to underline the point, to say that they wouldn’t be using long academic words and jargon in their approach. No doubt this was said to encourage those who might be intimidated by academic pretensions, and later it was suggested to me that this was in response to the academic use of the word ‘hegemony’. Nevertheless, it came across as pandering to an assumed anti-intellectualism amongst youth workers which to my mind is part of the reason why the profession has been so weak and is now in so need of defending. Can anyone tell me why youth workers should not understand the meaning of hegemony? And if they don’t understand it, why they shouldn’t seek to understand it?
This question is particularly important given that one of the points most frequently reiterated in the feedback from the group discussions was that youth work needs to promote what it does more effectively, that youth work voices need to be heard in appropriate places, and that youth workers should make more effective use of the media in order that they should receive credit and status for their achievements. This is fine, but I do wonder if this is all. Indeed I wonder why we think that youth work is so unknown. There are some grounds for believing that on a day to day basis those who are not involved in youth work don’t really appreciate the complexity of the work, and sometimes confuse it with other social services. There are also some grounds for thinking that related professionals in health, social work, and teaching are sometimes, though not always, vague about youth work, but I am not sure that this can be said to be true of politicians and policy makers. There is now a distinct body of research which demonstrates what youth work does and what it achieves, some of which itself has been commissioned by government and there is a whole programme of policy which relates to youth work practice. The inclusion or omission of youth work from policy directives seems to me to be self conscious. And here we might do well to remember that some politicians don’t actually like some aspects of youth work which many youth workers consider central to their practice identity. To paraphrase an extract from Bernard Davies and Bryan Merton in an article about to be published in Y&P:
One Children’s Minister (Margaret Hodge) generated the headline ‘Youth clubs can be bad for you’ (Hodge, 2005; Ward, 2005); and another (Beverley Hughes) asserted that youth work must be ‘primarily about activities rather than informal education’, with ‘self-development’, though welcome, not seen as an essential goal (Barrett, 2005).
There are not a few MPs who themselves have been youth and/or community workers and often I hear youth workers speaking on the radio in response to some issue that has arisen about young people. So how does this square up with the idea that the work isn’t known? I would like to suggest that the tension between theory and practice in youth work has to be considered in order to understand why youth work is either misunderstood or dismissed. It is no good promoting it. What we have to do is demonstrate in practice that it is a profession with distinct characteristics and that includes, with intellectual credibility, with a historical tradition, with a discourse of its own, and with a desire to engage critically with lively, open and informed debate and action relating to young people and to the type of work we think is central to the profession. This debate is not about promotion. It is about professional, intellectual and political engagement in the areas that are relevant to our work. Ultimately it returns to questions of democracy and civil society.
And this brings me back to the fact that the academic in my Newcastle group has a particular interest in community development raising an enormous question about the distance between the language of community work and that of youth work. As Jeffs and Smith argued years ago, the thrust of policy since the Thatcher period has been towards an increasing individualisation of youth work. Incrementally, youth work has been moved away from working with groups, away from working with political issues, away from working with local cultures and questions of community identity, away from working with the large social issues of poverty, class and social inequalities. As I tried to argue in ‘Youth Work: Voices of Practice’, what is central to the self understanding of the youth worker, has become marginal in the contemporary conditions of practice. And those things which should be secondary, have been made primary. So instead of working with potential, we are required to work with problems. Instead of working educationally, we are required to offer support. Instead of seeking partnership with colleagues on the basis of issues arising from our engagement with young people, we are required to be integrated from an organisational perspective. And most importantly, instead of being able to use the privilege of professional status to build confidence, and trust, and to make professional decisions about risk and about sharing with others, we are required to act as technicians delivering policy directives and feeding information into highly dubious systems. Insofar as we are increasingly driven towards children’s services and social work, so we are incrementally driven away from community and community work issues. The consequence is an absence of political engagement. Do we think that work with young people is not political? Do we think that we can work with young asylum seekers without dealing with the disgrace of policy in these matters, without dealing with global issues, without thinking about racism and sexism, without considering community identities for instance?
So if we are keen to defend youth work, what do we want to defend? It really is the simple question but it is meaningless without considering what we need to build and what we need to attack and destroy. We can have no chance of answering these questions without engaging in critical and informed debate. So the second question must be:
How can we hope to engage in critical and informed debate if some of us continue to denigrate theory, if we do not acknowledge the value of intellectual understanding and the importance of continuous learning in what we do. So how do we challenge this tension between theory and practice? What can we do about it?
And linked to the need to develop a disciplinary discourse for professional youth work, is the question of where we would like our field of knowledge to reside. How do we think about the core of our practice? Is it within the disciplinary domain of social work, or education or politics or community work? Or is it worth thinking of it as different from all of these and if so, can we build a unique body of theory around its core practices drawing from the related disciplines and professions without being sucked into them as second-class actors?
And having asked these questions, I want to turn to the questions which emerged from my 30 years of Southwick Neighbourhood Youth Project anniversary experience. Firstly in this regard, I would like to say that there are some advantages to growing older and one is the privilege of being able to attend more of such events and through them to gain a view of the longer-term impact of youth work practice, education and training. It is easy at gloomy moments to think that we have little impact but a reunion or an anniversary celebration can really inject some optimism about the importance of youth work. I first had a sense of this when I went to the launch of Celia Rose’s book on the Clapton Jewish Youth Club. There was a gathering of people who had been members of the club from as long as 50 years ago. Some had even travelled from the USA to meet old friends at the Jewish Museum in Finchley where the event was held, and it was seriously moving to hear people’s testimony to the positive impact which the club had had on their lives. I once interviewed a man who was a member of a Sunderland boys’ club during the 1930s which was a hard time in Sunderland as everywhere. This man had returned to Sunderland on his retirement, having been an engineer and an FE teacher in Lewisham. I asked him what membership of the club had done for him, and he told me that it had made him believe that he could be somebody in a world where that message was coming from nowhere else. He retrieved and showed me the reference which the Warden of the club had written for him to help him in his search for jobs, and he firmly believed that any success which he had in life, had been a consequence of attachment to the club.
Southwick Neighbourhood Youth Project, known as SNYP, emerged from the Inner City partnerships of the mid 1970s. It started as a small youth club in a Neighbourhood Action Project (SNAP) and was successful in gaining Urban Aid funding for 3 years in 1979. I was appointed with one other full-time worker as a neighbourhood and detached worker in early 1979 and was very pleased to be given the brief to work focus my attention on work with girls. The project was situated in an area of Sunderland which had had a long history as a village, only joining with the town in 1923. It had retained a strong village mentality and community identity. Many of the people who lived there had done so for generations and they tended not to travel far. There was no way any outsider could work with the young people of that area without addressing the question of community, without being accepted by the community and without understanding something of the local culture and family relations. The industrial development and growth of Southwick had been built upon shipbuilding and mining. As a consequence, the local culture was strongly masculine in a very old-fashioned sense. Men and boys ruled OK and there was a general acceptance of this truth. The area was also almost completely white and most of its inhabitants were unselfconsciously racist. So as youth workers we had to work very self-consciously to know and understand local social relations, and this meant local history and culture as well as active relationships between people, and at the same time, in order to mobilise the principles of equality and justice which we brought as core values to our work, we had to work critically and developmentally with the sexism, racism and homophobia which were part of the everyday relations of that community.
By the time I left Southwick in 1985, these issues were becoming more acute and pressing as the industrial base which underpinned social relations and local culture and community disintegrated and the youth job market collapsed. Problems associated with displaced working class masculinity, including violence and crime increased, and racism became more active as a poor area became even poorer and as the young people became increasingly hopeless about their future. Although the language we used was not the same as today, the workers in SNYP understood their youth work with reference to both the context of the local community and with reference to a broader set of values about the type of social relationships we wanted to encourage. We were in no doubt that our work was political, that it was allied to community work, that it was educational and that it was concerned with groups, social change and social conflict as much as, if not more than with individual support and social cohesion.
So what did I find at the 30 year celebration and reunion. Firstly, I found lots of aging young people. And some of their parents. Those who I had worked with when they were in their teens, were now in their mid to late forties. One whole family had turned out, the parents telling us that they had just celebrated their golden wedding. Secondly, I found how poverty had taken its toll with tales of accidental deaths, suicides, alcoholism and serious ill health amongst some. In those tales, it was strikingly obvious how services failed to meet the needs of people in poor communities. I also heard tales of rags to riches and great escapes. However, what was most touching were the repeated tales of how SNYP had broadened the lives of so many of the young people who associated with it.
One woman talked with some passion about how we had shown her different types of food and how we had taken her to Kent, and shown her things she could never have seen otherwise when she had never previously been out of Sunderland. Actually, we took her to Belgium, but what was important was Kent. It was like the other end of the world to her.
Most significant for me, a woman who was a lesbian who just wanted to tell us how important it was to her that we showed her how to ‘get out’ and how she had been trapped and would never have found the way out had it not been for the youth project. Never in all that time did we ask her to address her sexuality, or refer to her sexuality, or make an issue out of it, even though we knew about it. But of course we were addressing it by providing a physical space for her to participate in a project in which she knew that prejudices were challenged, where justice was central and where there were opportunities for moving beyond what was given.
And I was left wondering at the end of that night, in the end, is this all that I want to defend in youth work? The right to work with people in a way which accepts and understands who they are and why, which addresses inequality and injustice and which offers opportunities for them to broaden their lives? I think it probably is. And ultimately, this is the right of a professional worker, based upon responsibility, knowledge and skill, to interpret the context in which they need to work with young people and strive with them for a justice in a wider world than that into which they were born. This means defending a whole understanding of the meaning of professionalism which is clearly at odds with the technical definitions of professionalism to which we are currently being asked to subscribe. And this leads me to my last three questions for informing your discussion.
The first is about the extent of our claims for the value of our engagement with young people. What do we really offer? Is it certificates, information, advice on applying for jobs, information about sexual health and healthy eating ? Or is it the space in which to experience difference, to consider alternatives and to learn about things which might not otherwise enter the frame of lives limited by poverty, silence and injustice?
The second is about organisations. Is it an organisation like SNYP that I want to defend, or is it simply a way of working that is expressed in some organisations? Is there a dange that in defending youth work, we simply try to hang on to our own organisations?
The third concerns the meaning of professionalism. How can we be professional youth workers if the space to take risks, to criticise, challenge and develop alongside young people is closed? What do we want to defend, and what do we want to open up? Do we think that the promise of professional status which is supposed to accompany the degree level qualification in 2010 means that we will achieve the type of professionalism that we need?
My final word today is my own view. Do not think that youth work can defend its practices in isolation or that it is the only profession under threat. One of the central threats to all the people professions, is the incremental removal of opportunity for self defined collective organisation, conversation and informal space in everyday practice. To quote a favourite academic of mine – Stuart Hall: Speaking at a seminar in Durham in 2001, and referring to the policy initiatives of New Labour, he said ‘This is the most deeply penetrative government we have ever had’ and to add to this insights from Jeffs and Smith, it is also one of the most deeply authoritarian administrations we have ever experienced. Government has colonised professional practice from the centre down. And if we do not think that our practice is and our action is political in this context, then our practice is not worth defending and our action will be pointless.
If I have to pull out three key questions from this, they are as follows:
- Is all our practice worth defending and what should we defend?
- Is there a need to address the tension between theory and practice, between the academic and the practitioner as an aspect of our defence? And if so, how do we do it?
- What can youth work legitimately claim about its achievements, and how do we know or evidence these achievements and use them to support our defence of youth work?
In Defence of Youth Work: Leeds 10th July 2009.