The Divisive Myth of Youth Work Values

It’s perhaps indulgent, but a promise I made to myself in reviving this blog was that I would take the risk and unearth bits of my thinking from the past, which seemed still to be of relevance and interest. Thus below you will find the transcript of a contribution I made to an In Defence of Youth Work meeting held in Lewisham on September 9, 2010. I’ve resisted making alterations in hindsight, but now and again, in the light of shifting political circumstances, I insert a comment or two.

This morning I want to focus on the vexed question of Youth Work Values. Is this idea a slogan around which we can unite or rather is it a claim, which is potentially harmful and divisive?

The immediate irony is that the Open Letter, ‘In Defence of Youth Work’, never once mentions values. However this has not prevented commentators on the Letter in the pages of Children and Young People Now and The Edge (the paper aimed at local government) arguing that those of us in support of the Letter are calling for a return to core values. So too I know that the supposed exceptional significance of Youth Work values has been raised in one way or another at all of the In Defence meetings held across the country this year. Indeed at the launch meeting of the Letter held in Durham back in early March, I was taken to task for voicing my doubts about the very notion of a special set of Youth Work values.

Thus I will try to explain the basis of my concern as a contribution to the critical debate, which ought to be the lifeblood of our collective activity.

Let me begin by suggesting that ‘values’ are very slippery customers in our market-oriented world. It can be argued that under New Labour [and indeed succeeding governments] we have endured an obsession with values:

  • our common values
  • our community’s values
  • our historical values
  • our British values
  • our decent values
  • our democratic values

without ever seriously disentangling what any of this really means.

My suspicion is that the more politicians, commentators, bureaucrats and managers talk about values, the emptier their vision of the future. Talk of values becomes a smokescreen behind which hide those who wish to preserve the status quo. So for the moment, we have much ado about the problematic nature of greed, but little in the way of a recognition that this is, rather than an unfortunate individual aberration, a systemic ingredient of Capitalism itself.

Trying to find a path through this maze is not rendered easier by the fact that the values intoned so pompously mean everything, something and nothing.

RESPECT
EQUALITY
JUSTICE
EMPOWERMENT

There is a sense in which everyone from Gordon Brown to Barack Obama, from Rupert Murdoch to Berlusconi, even can you imagine, Nick Griffin of the British National Party, can wheel on for their purposes these ideas, these values. [I suspect you can replace these with contemporary characters, May, Corbyn, Tsipras, Zukenberg, Orban and Farage. I’ll leave you to decide.] At this level it is all a matter of interpretation or cynical rhetoric. All is smoke and shadow as the Latin saying goes. The test of what these folk might actually mean by Justice can only be gauged in practice.

The lintel of this Venetian gate in Crete reads ‘omnia mundi fumus et umbra’ (all the world is smoke and shadow)

We are not helped either by the fact that where there is talk of values, there is also talk of principles, beliefs, norms and ethics . . . . . .and it seems that these words are interchangeable. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Youth Work literature.

But I’ll resist getting bogged down in semantics. When is a principle a value, or vice-versa and so on. Especially as in documents I’ve perused from the National Youth Agency, from the Welsh Office and from a couple of local councils, nobody seems that bothered. Under the headings of ‘Principles and Values of Youth Work’ we find:

Respect for Young People
Equality & Inclusion
Involvement in decision-making
Empowerment
Support through the transition to adulthood
Promotion of Young People’s Rights
Welfare and Safety
Social Justice
Informed Choices/Fulfilling Potential
Critical Reflection – and last but not least
Voluntary Relationship (to which we shall return later )

Now if these are core Youth Work values (and they are repeated endlessly) I’ve some misgivings. As I have touched on earlier such a list of values, floating at the level of nice ideas in our heads, is likely to gain universal approval by everyone – councillors, managers, workers, young people and communities. Yet this nodding support is meaningless. For example, almost 30 years ago I worked in Wigan, which boasted proudly a Programme of Action, including a commitment to the fullest level of youth involvement in decision-making. When a few of us took this seriously an embryo Youth Council emerged, critical of both the Youth Service and the Local Authority. In the blink of an eye nearly everyone seemed aghast. The management closed it down and we were disciplined. Conspicuously the majority of our fellow workers ran away from us, crying that we had gone too far, too soon. And those were perhaps more liberal times.

How many of you in differing situations have experienced that sinking feeling within the staff meeting when you have sought to challenge your agency’s failure to live up to its values and found yourself attacked by management for being naive, whilst your fellow workers, who agreed with you utterly the day before, shuffled their feet and stared at the floor in embarrassed silence.

Our collective problem is that if Youth Work, if Youth Services were seriously seeking to implement these values in a consistent and committed way, we would not be sitting in this room worrying that Youth Work is losing its sense of self, its identity. We would still be sitting here but in defence of a Youth Service, whose integrity had earned it the respect of many and the wrath of New Labour. In rejoinder, you might well say that there would be nobody sitting in this room because we would all be out of a job!

And if we do for a moment set aside our concern about the gulf between words on paper and what goes on in practice, tell me where is the teacher or social worker who would not sign up at least in theory to:

The centrality of Equality and Social Justice
Respect for Young People
Helping Young People make informed choices
Supporting Young People in a transition to adulthood?

Of course, a teacher or social worker works in different circumstance and under differing constraints, but to suggest that a belief in Equality is especially a Youth Work value doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Now it is this very ambiguity which led us in the Open Letter to eschew talk of values. The Letter contends that we need to reaffirm our belief in an emancipatory and democratic Youth Work, whose cornerstones are:

  • The sanctity of the voluntary principle; the freedom for young people to enter into and withdraw from Youth Work as they so wish.
  • A commitment to conversations with young people which start from their concerns and within which both youth worker and young person are educated and out of which opportunities for new learning and experience can be created.
  • The importance of association, of fostering supportive relationships, of encouraging the development of autonomous groups and ‘the sharing of a common life’.
  • A commitment to valuing and attending to the here-and-now of young people’s experience rather than just focusing on ‘transitions’.
  • An insistence upon a democratic practice, within which every effort is made to ensure that young people play the fullest part in making decisions about anything affecting them.
  • The continuing necessity of recognising that young people are not a homogeneous group and that issues of class, gender, race, sexuality disability and faith remain central.
  • The essential significance of the youth worker themselves, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy is at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.

In this context what might be special about Youth Work (although I think Community Work and Adult Education walk hand in hand with us) is the voluntarily negotiated space, an educational setting within which the young person and youth worker are involved in a mutual critical dialogue about the world in which they are both living. It is a space upon which prescribed targets and outcomes ought not to be imposed. It is a space in which the youth worker is both privileged and astute enough to face up to its volatility. It is a space where the unexpected is cherished. It is a space with no guarantees.

This leads me to propose to you that what we are defending most crucially is not a cluster of values, but a distinctive place and space, a setting and site of practice founded on the voluntary relationship, where an unpredictable process, hugely rich in its possibilities unfolds at whatever pace seems fitting.

And this distinctive setting, if it is to be used for a democratic and emancipatory practice, does require youth workers of a particular kind, improvisatory educators who are capable of both seizing and letting go of the myriad of passing moments that are thrown up by simply being with young people.

This said I must acknowledge that this distinctive place has always been riven with tension. For what it is worth across almost 40 years from being a part-timer in 1970 I have always felt to be in a minority when struggling to be a democratic youth worker. And I’ve felt this even though the version of Youth Work presented in the Open Letter is in many ways a respectful if politicised acknowledgement of the practice promulgated by the training agencies since Albemarle. Indeed back in 1980, together with Roy Ratcliffe, I wrote a piece analysing the hostility to a piece of political education in which we were involved. We commented ruefully, “Instead of now being in a position to examine how liberal theory enlightened practice, we are in the unfortunate position of being confronted by the mass of conservative practice which has negated liberal theory.”

Nevertheless, over the ensuing years, many of us have ducked and dived to preserve that space, within which both conformist and radical approaches to the work argued with and suffered one another. The significance of the last decade has been the way in which this space has been policed. This sense of the increasing censorship within practice has been conveyed by practitioners’ responses to the Letter, which often paint a picture of an isolated worker surrounded by colleagues who have settled for obeying the diktat of Every Child Matters [the 2003 government inter-agency initiative on children and family services], whilst still mouthing their allegiance to Youth Work values. It appears that many in Youth Work are of the ‘both sides buttered’ persuasion.

My argument is that our defence of Youth Work should not be based on the supposed possession of a separate and unique set of Youth Work values, which is preposterous. It should be based on the defence of a distinct voluntary educational relationship and setting. That claiming a special relationship to what are universal and indeed contested social and political values divides us from those with whom we should be making alliances – for example, other education and welfare workers in both the statutory and voluntary sectors. Frankly, it is pompous and pretentious.

We are running a workshop on the In Defence campaign at the Social Work Action Network [SWAN] conference in Bath. For my part, I will be criticising both the idea of an exclusive set of Youth Work values and the correspondingly unhelpful notion of a Social Work value base, which is promoted by SWAN. My stress will be upon the joint pursuit of a democratic practice by both youth and social workers. My concern will be to clarify the differing constraints experienced by youth and social workers in struggling towards an emancipatory practice. In doing so I will underline the ways in which the distinctive terrain occupied by youth workers has been increasingly closed down under New Labour.

As the Letter notes this squeezing of the space is seen in:

  • The shift from locally negotiated plans to centrally-defined targets and indicators.
  • The growing emphasis on identifying the potentially deviant or dysfunctional young person as the centre of Youth Work’s attention.
  • The increasing incorporation of youth workers into the surveillance of young people, perceived as a threat to social order.
  • The insidious way in which delivering accredited outcomes, even if only on paper, has formalised and thus undermined the importance of relationships in the work.
  • The distorting effect of identifying individuals as suitable and urgent cases for treatment and intervention, ‘to be worked on rather than worked with’.
  • The changing role of the youth worker, from being a social educator to a social entrepreneur, submitting plan after bid after plan, selling both themselves and young people in the market-place.
  • And finally, but not exhaustively, the delicate issue of to what extent professionalisation, hand in hand with bureaucratisation, has assisted the suffocating grip of rules and regulations upon the work and played a part in the exclusion of the volunteer, once the lifeblood of the old Youth Service [see Jeffs and Smith 2008: 277-283].

Our argument is that the struggle to defend a democratic Youth Work, to resuscitate a radical Social Work, to revive an independent voluntary sector,- amongst other things- are all part and parcel of a common battle against the authoritarian legacy of three [and now four] decades of neoliberal politics.

I know it’s easy to say this, to spout the rhetoric. I know that for many of you it remains difficult to express dissent and criticism. Whilst our masters and managers have had a rough time recently they are already regrouping to defend the status quo. But we have made a start and I hope we can maintain some momentum and gather strength from each other.

Of course, I’m not sure that we can. There are no predictable and guaranteed outcomes when it comes to social and political struggle. But if we do hang in together, play a part in reviving a collective commitment to the creation of an equal, just and democratic society then we will have something of which to be proud. And what, as youth workers, we might contribute is not some abstract set of values, but something far more intimate and meaningful. At our best, we offer an insight into a way of being with others, a way of making and sustaining relationships, which ought to be at the heart of all human activity.

I’m reminded as I come to this perhaps pompous conclusion of a dear friend of mine, a miner recently passed away, who would urge us to keep arguing and struggling. His favourite saying was:
“Those who stand up and are counted, while the rest remain silent, they are the salt of the earth.”
Let’s help one another to stay on our feet and to make our voices heard.

Thanks for listening.

References:

Ratcliffe,R. and Taylor, T.(1981) ‘Stuttering Steps in Political Education’ in Schooling and Culture (9)

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. (2008) Valuing Youth Work in Youth & Policy (100)

RESISTING THE HAPPINESS INDUSTRY: BEING JOYFUL TOGETHER

HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING: AGENDAS OF COMPLIANCE AND CONTROL?

Notes of the opening contribution I made to the In Defence of Youth Work national conference in Birmingham on, March 22, 2019

Who could be against feeling happy and being well? Where to start?

Well, let me confess I got up this morning feeling sorry for myself, courtesy of painful sinuses. I suppose you could say I was unhappy, not so good, a bit off colour. However on arrival at the Wigan station, I bucked up, my spirits lifted on meeting my daughter Megan. We don’t see one another enough. Once aboard the train we had a wide-ranging chat, diving in and out of the personal and the political, in and out of family and work, grappling in truth with sensitive issues, given my 99-year-old mum’s funeral had taken place only a fortnight before, where we had experienced grief and relief in equal measure. Yet also we were rejoicing in the news that Logan, Meg’s 15-year-old son had been selected for the England Rugby League squad. I’m really pleased we had the chance to talk. Does this mean we were happy? I didn’t think about it at the time. I ask myself quizzically, perhaps we were? By the time though we had reached Birmingham and on our way to today’s venue, I was anxious, worried as to whether my opening to the conference was going to do the business. These fears were set aside on entering the Settlement, meeting friends and comrades – feeling that collective ‘buzz’, created by coming together in common cause. Certainly a morning of shifting emotions.

Enough of my self-centred thoughts. What strikes me is that in all its ordinariness (you will have your own versions of my morning’s ups and downs) it reveals that Happiness is an elusive character to pin down, along with its partner Unhappiness, who is never far away. This contradictory relationship is mirrored in other couplings of mood, emotion, feeling and thought – hope and fear; optimism and pessimism; excitement and anxiety (‘butterflies in the stomach’); pleasure and pain.

And, as individuals, sometimes as a group, finding ourselves in different situations, we experience these contradictions in differing ways and degrees that defy comparison, even as they are perhaps similar. We cry tears of joy. We smile through gritted teeth. I’m minded of an observation of William Blake, the visionary artist:

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. As a man is, so he sees.”

Happiness and Unhappiness weave in and out of our daily lives. Sometimes they seem to vie for our attention in the very same moment. Perhaps it is poetry that comes closest to unravelling the complex relationship. How can you experience happiness without unhappiness, joy without sorrow? W.H. Auden in a New Year letter suggested that poetry was “the clear expression of mixed feelings”. In a more down-to-earth moment, he wrote: “In times of joy all of us wished we possessed a tail to wag.”

Or, if not poetry, exploring what happiness signifies is a philosophical journey of judgement and interpretation, demanding what Aristotle called ‘phronesis’, a concept which Jon Ord utilises brilliantly in his criticism of the instrumental emphasis today on imposing supposedly measurable, prescribed outcomes on our practice. Not content with pressing us to manufacture the emotionally resilient young person who will put up with whatever society throws at them, the National Youth Agency in its Youth Covenant now proposes we should be rendering him or her ‘happy and positive about the future’. We will return to this bizarre proposal later.

The Happiness agenda is deeply individualistic and a child of its time. For now let me propose that happiness is both visible and invisible, provisional and never guaranteed. It is not an instrument of measurement. It cannot be coached or taught. Yet how we understand Happiness and the broader notion of Well-being are vital questions. Given the restrictions of time, I am viewing Individual Well-being in the same frame as Happiness, although this is contentious. I will focus on Social Well-being as potentially a positive concept towards the end of my argument.

The briefest of historical turns

Way back in Ancient Athens, Aristotle famously viewed happiness as flowing from a flourishing and virtuous life. Perchance he lived in unusual times. Centuries later, Hegel, the great German philosopher, observed, “History is not the soil in which happiness grows. Periods of happiness are the blank pages of history.” Indeed the majority of humanity has led a tough existence, often miserable and grim, much less flourishing.

Classically across the ages religion has sought to offer hope, purpose and consolation. As a church-going child I remember (or is it a trick of my memory) being struck by the similarity between the ending of fairy stories, ‘happily ever after’ and the heavenly promise ‘happy in the hereafter’. Evidently, happiness was not to be found in either real-life or on earth.

The capitalist class in recent times paid scant attention to the happiness of those, who laboured under its yoke. As Max Weber stressed its main concern was with the physical health and discipline of the working class. However, the emergence of social psychology, especially in the USA, was closely tied to the world of business, management and profit. On the back of this relationship, Happiness rose up the agenda. As Will Davies notes, one of its pioneering works was Dill Scott’s 1903 ‘The Theory and Psychology of Advertising’ – an exercise in the conscious manipulation of our needs and desires, their sense of what happiness should be. This transatlantic example aside, given that history suggests a lack of interest by the powerful in the happiness of the powerless, at what point does it become an increasing contemporary concern for governments, corporations and the Davos elite?

From social democracy to neoliberalism

We’d never had it so good

To address this question is to visit the history of someone like myself, born in the aftermath of the 2nd World War, into a previous era of austerity. Except that through the 1950s to the 1970s what is often termed a social democratic consensus prevailed within which all parties supported government intervention and the creation of the Welfare State. I don’t know whether anyone from on high said we should be happy but Harold MacMillan, a Tory Prime Minister of the time did claim that, ‘we’d never had it so good’. I didn’t know any better. Despite rationing and an absence of luxuries, we lived in a comfortable, affordable council house. I went to the newly built primary school on the estate. As I grew older it seemed right and proper that my Higher Education was free and, given my parents’ low income, that I got the full grant, a princely £105 per year. After all, I would be repaying my debt to a caring society, to the common good, by becoming a committed teacher. As Liz Heron notes, quoted in Lynne Segal,

“Along with the orange juice and cod-liver oil, the free school milk, we seemed to absorb a sense of our own worth and a sense that the future gets better and better as if history was on our side”.

Ironically as I began both to teach and do some part-time youth work (a bit of money on the side) the consensus was unravelling as class struggle re-emerged. Symbolically Margaret Thatcher, the Education Minister in 1971, ‘Thatcher the Milk Snatcher’, got rid of free school milk for Juniors and above, signalling that life was going to change. Less than a decade later Thatcherism was the name given to an aggressive neoliberal capitalism, hostile to the State, contemptuous of the collective, armed with a quasi-religious belief in the market, caught in Thatcher’s infamous quote that “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women and families”. As for the Higher Education system which had spawned dissidents like me, she sneered, “the problem with HE is that it is equipping people to criticise and question everything’” Happy she was not, and determined to take her revenge.

If we are to sum up neoliberalism, now dominant for four decades, in one word it would be privatisation. Not just in the obvious sense of putting public services into private hands, but crucially in terms of our discussion about Happiness and Well-Being, wanting to privatise the way in which we see ourselves and others, turn us in on ourselves. It has been a behavioural modification project on the grandest scale, the attempted and singularly successful attempt to make of us possessive, egocentric individuals, for whom happiness is the ceaseless consumption of commodities, shopping the elixir of existence.

The Happiness Industry

Gradually as neoliberalism has become dominant the media presents its way of seeing the world as common sense, normal, even eternal, claiming there is no alternative. And a significant element in neoliberalism’s propaganda machine is what Will Davies dubs the Happiness Industry supported by the development of Happiness Science- a multi-billion pound project complete with an array of gurus, technocrats, research scientists, psychologists, physiologists and more than a few charlatans.

Crucially since its rise to importance in the early 1990s, it has reflected both neoliberalism’s insistence on the self-regulating and self-sufficient individual and neoliberalism’s reluctant recognition that all is not well; that its way of seeing the world is not necessarily a happy one. In this context, the financial bubble having burst in 2008, it is vital that we experience our unhappiness, our dismay as emanating from our personal inadequacies and not at all from the social inequality and injustice at the centre of neoliberal policies.

Within the Happiness Industry Will Davies points to psychologists and economists busting a gut to find a common measure of happiness; to neuroscientists scanning our brains to locate neural patterns related to our subjective feelings. One paper claimed to have found specific neural circuits, one dealing with pleasure, the other with price. How convenient! We witness physiologists focused on our bodily activity, aided by all manner of apps with fitness coaches urging us on. Evidently, you can now download Moodtracking, Track your Happiness or even Mappiness. We find doctors and psychiatrists, identifying and diagnosing growing conditions of unhappiness, prescribing drugs to resolve the anxiety. Hence the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (Version 5) has indeed indicated that to be unhappy, to grieve for more than 2 weeks after the loss of a loved one is to be considered a mental illness. A drug ‘Welbutrin’ will evidently sort your troubles out. Last but not least, the Industry’s marketing arm hosts a parade of publishers and a gaggle of gurus producing books, self-help manuals, organising life-changing courses, all in the service of our happiness.

Talking of gurus brings us to Martin Seligman, the creator of the brand, Positive Psychology, who having forged this step forward for humanity, patents his Authentic Happiness Inventory and runs multiple therapeutic conversations online at 2,000 dollars a touch. As Barbara Ehrenreich observes, the positive thinking movement lays the blame for misfortune firmly in the mind of the unfortunate. According to the PosPsy mantra, Happiness is a personal choice and to be happy is to have an advantage in the competition for increased status, power and more money. Every success, every failure is down to willpower or the lack of it, to individual desire and effort. To be negative is almost sinful. The key to happiness is to master your mind.

In the workplace, once a site of collective struggle, the pissed-off worker is more likely to be sick than join a trade union or be present but disinterested, a condition now named ‘presenteeism’ as opposed to absenteeism. Into this alienating and oppressive environment, the Happiness and Well-Being consultants are summoned.

A friend of mine and an exceptional youth worker was a few years ago a critical voice as a Youth Service was dismembered. She was seen as a pain in the arse by management but refused to be silenced. Frustrated management forced her to go on a Wellness training course. As my friend spoke about her situation the response of the Wellness trainer was to refuse to engage with the issue of bullying and intimidation in the workplace. The problem was her attitude. This had to change not the institution.

Worried about the morale of its workforce Barclays Bank ( the outfit guilty of all manner of deceit in the 2008 banking crisis, but now rehabilitated and the purveyor via TV advertising of Barclays Life Skills) warns its disenchanted employees.

“Today’s brain-based economy puts a premium on cerebral skills in which cognition is the ignition of productivity and innovation. Your depression attacks that vital asset.”

Some positive psychologists suggest that lack of ‘engagement’ by workers is contagious and that workers not responding to well-being interventions should be sacked. Ehrenreich quotes from a motivational speech to a group of fixed-term contract workers, encouraging them to be good team players, to be positive, to smile frequently, not complain, but gratefully do as one is told …… so that employer and employee will be happy and competitive in harmony together.

However, I’ve chosen not to dissect the particular approaches taken in the eclectic Happiness Industry, e.g. Mindfulness with its debt to Buddhism. I have my doubts about this, that or the other, but my main point is that these techniques are overwhelmingly put into the service of the individualist agenda and ignore the social and political. It would be remiss though not to mention the widespread use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [CBT] in tangling with people’s anxieties and dilemmas. All the more so as the NYA is organising CBT training courses for youth workers this coming summer. Certainly, CBT, championed by such as Richard Layard, New Labour’s ‘happiness tsar’ has been the cheap, go to therapy in the NHS with its tight structure and timescale. Focusing utterly on the present and refusing to deal with the past, it has had limited success in offering useful tips and cues in relation to the specific concerns but is in no sense a holistic approach. It desires behaviour that is predictable and is suspicious of complication and contradiction. Ironically you can now access computerised CBT treatment online, ‘Beating the Blues’ and dispense with the therapist [or indeed perhaps the youth worker?].

I could go on about the insidious nature of the Happiness Industry’s view of the human condition, but I’ll mark for now that we should not underestimate that this attempted science of human sentiment with its access to a mind-boggling amount of data that we ‘naively’ provide, aims to monitor, manage and manipulate our feelings. And we are complicit in our surveillance. Will Davies wonders if we are moving to a society designed and regulated as a vast laboratory, within which we are unavoidably imprisoned? The question emerges, to what extent are we already bit-players, part-time employees in this Happiness Industry? Certainly, teachers and lecturers are now on board, pressured to deliver a Happiness curriculum in schools and universities.

The National Youth Agency is very keen, taking leave of its critical senses in my view in its Youth Covenant, which promises amongst other things that we will render young people happy and positive about the future, underpinned by the deeply problematic theory of adolescent developmental psychology. Evidently, as Hans Skott-Mhyre suggests we are asked to be “the missionaries of development, spreading the good word of adulthood as salvation from the storm and stress of adolescence”. In the words of the NYA Covenant, we are the adults who know what is needed, a position utterly at odds with a Youth Work tradition, which seeks to negotiate a relationship with young people within which we don’t claim to know what is best. There’s more than a whiff in the NYA’s pretentious claim of the Happiness Industry’s emphasis on experts knowing better than us how we feel. It shares too the Industry’s utter unwillingness to ground its relations with people, young people, in their actual lived circumstances.

Facing the Future

For a moment let’s compare my generation’s optimism that the future was going to get better, that history was on our side, with the situation facing young people today. It’s utterly legitimate, sense-making and not at all negative for young people to feel things are getting worse and that history’s face is set firmly against them.

The future is precarious. It’s not for nothing that the ‘precariat’ has replaced the proletariat. Berardi, the Italian critic declares that the future has been cancelled. Young people experience a world of short-term contracts, low wages, mounting unmanageable debt, little or no access to affordable housing, asked to hide their insecurities by projecting an upbeat self, a commodity with a smiling face, forced to be part of a cult of compulsory happiness. Looming over them (and of course ourselves) are the consequences of neoliberalism’s casino capitalism, where the rich get richer and the poor poorer, where its inability to face the consequences of perpetual, unfettered production and ceaseless consumption threatens the future of humanity.

And let me make a crucial point, young people are not just young people, a homogeneous category. The precarious experience outlined above is experienced in general but also in specific ways, according to the mixture that is a young person’s identity, informed by class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith. Austerity has spawned rising prejudice and xenophobia. It has also fed growing misanthropy, a lack of trust in others.

What kind of illusion allows some to suggest that young people should feel happy and positive in this depressing scenario? Unhappiness is a legitimate and even necessary response to injustice and exploitation. Anger and indignation perfectly in order. In a spirit of critical negativity and resistance, I’ll outline some possible areas for us to explore. The prevailing view of Happiness and Well-Being is thoroughly individualistic. Rather than beginning with the body politic, it refers only to the body personal. We must turn this upside down.

Social Well-Being

We can draw inspiration in thinking about social well-being as the underpinning of individual well-being from the work of Critical Community Psychologists with their commitment to ‘Responsible Togetherness’ and to the feminist inspired Ethics of Care and its notion of reciprocal compassion.

Let me propose to you a way of exploring social well-being through a triangle of the Material, the Relational and the Subjective., drawing on the work of Sarah White.

For example, thinking about well-being at the level of a community, electoral ward, village, the catchment area of a youth club – what we often called the community profile.

The material would involve looking at income levels, levels of debt, quality of housing, employment opportunities, the presence of public services, the range of amenities, the quality of the environment.
The relational would involve investigating the makeup of the community in terms of class, gender, race, etc.; the diversity of supportive organisations from churches, sports clubs to activist groups; relations with the law, with welfare agencies, with schools, with the youth club; and the history of collective action.
The subjective would involve the community’s sense of identity; its hopes and fears; its sense of its place in the wider society.

This outline is sketchy but I think it has possibilities and my challenge would be to ask you to take back into your projects a willingness to embrace this larger picture of well-being as a prerequisite for exploring well-being at an individual level.

Political Well-Being and Collective Joy

What needs to be added to the triangle is a more explicitly political dimension. What sort of power has the collective, the demos, over the conditions of its well-being? The question brings us to the crucial issue of an authentic democracy. Interestingly Hannah Arendt talks of ‘public happiness’, which she sees as the active and enthusiastic participation of people in the creation of norms, laws and institutions which serve the common good. William Morris called for the liberation of the desire to question all existing values, knowing together we can create values most pertinent to the common good. Lyman Sargent and Ruth Levitas speak of the collective longing for an improvement of the human condition, of the need for utopian rather than dystopian imaginings. In drawing our attention to these radical democrats Lynne Segal argues for the revival of collective joy, that uplifting sense of being at one with others in struggling to prove ‘another world is possible’.

Some of us in this room have been privileged to share such moments. Forgive the personal recollection, I am talking about years ago now, for example, the startling impact of the Women’s Caucus on the Community and Youth Workers Union in the early 1980s (gendered collective joy?) or being together, men and women, freezing on an early morning picket line during the Miners Strike. Nostalgia aside I believe the young people on Climate Change Strike last week felt something of the same festive joy, all the more intense when in Goethe’s words, ‘the festival is not really given to the people, but one that the people give to themselves’. I suspect too the idea of collective joy can be much less politically explicit – making or listening to music, dancing together, being in a team together (although in sport where there is collective joy, isn’t there collective misery?) [Or as Janet Batsleer pointed out in the ensuing discussion what do we make of a collective joy inspired by fascist ideas? It would be good to explore this further.]

In Praise of Resistance

I want to argue strenuously that we should resist being incorporated into the Happiness industry, but should try to develop a politicised and collectivised sense of Social Well-Being. which ought to be at the heart of our relationships with young people.

I would suggest that the best of the open-ended youth work tradition has something significant to contribute to what ultimately is a struggle for democracy, what Castoriadis terms the struggle for the inextricably interrelated notions of individual and social autonomy, ‘taking control of our lives’ in concert with one another. Recently I’ve taken to suggesting that a young person-centred practice, within which listening intently is the bedrock, within which learning from one another in a critical dialogue is central, might be seen as a form of what Rosi Braidotti calls ‘intimate democracy’. Thus youth work produces a proliferation of intimate democracies important in and for themselves, but also a preparatory and essential ingredient in the flowering of direct democracy, Arendt’s arena of ‘public happiness’.

Lest I be misunderstood as a miserabilist, I hope that youth work is full of fun, play and moments of happiness – ‘the wild zones and free spaces’ lauded by Filip Coussee and Guy Redigand ‘the dancing in the streets’ recorded by Ehrenreich. Inevitably though there will be awkward moments of challenge, argument and tension too. There will be tears of joy and sorrow in any honest relationship.

Let me finish by remembering a meeting of a few years ago, a Social Work conference in Durham, where the final plenary was held in the church-like hall of the NUM Headquarters. On the platform was a diminutive woman in her late 70’s, she began sotto-voce asking us ‘were we sitting comfortably?’ Then as we shuffled our bums, the pews were hard on our posteriors, she posed the question afresh and then shook the hall to its rafters with a ringing ‘well you bloody well shouldn’t be!’, before cataloguing the misery inflicted on her community as a result of pit closures. Her heartfelt cry can be inspiring, but also off-putting. In the face of such a call to arms, we can feel overwhelmed. However, at the very least if we claim to be critically reflective practitioners committed to social justice we are obliged to scrutinise what we are up to, where we are up to in challenging the self-absorption of much of the Happiness and Well-Being agenda.

To paraphrase a classic humanist concern:

‘I cannot feel well unless you too feel well’.
‘I cannot be happy if you are not happy too’.

Thanks for listening.

POSTSCRIPT

A glaring omission in the above is the lack of attention paid to the need for love and sexual intimacy in the pursuit of happiness, which in itself poses the question of to what extent is this discussed in youth work? As to its significance across history, it’s only necessary to point to the tradition of love songs traced in Love Songs: The Hidden History by Ted Gioia.

POSSIBLE READING hopefully I’ve indicated sufficiently my debt to these writers

The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being by William Davies, Verso 2016

Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy by Lynne Segal, Verso 2018

Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Picador 2010

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich, Picador 2007

Hans Skott-Myhre explores youth and adulthood – a mythical journey to maturity

I’ve got a half-written, critical response to the National Youth Agency’s announcement of a Youth Covenant-cum-Promise with its other-wordly notion that our task is to render young people ‘happy and positive about the future’ – tell that to the young people out on the Climate Change Strike a few weeks ago. Hopefully, I’ll post my specific reply to the Happiness agenda in the next week. However much of my unfinished piece focuses on the NYA’s confident assertion that adolescent developmental psychology, aided by ‘teen brain’ speculation is to be the theoretical underpinning for our relations with young people. It’s not clear who is party to this very significant shift in how we choose to understand our practice. For instance, are the training agencies on board? Is developmental psychology now a central feature of the curriculum in Higher Education?

The Nationa Youth Agency argues:

“Youth” is the adolescent developmental phase between childhood and adulthood that brings significant physical and emotional changes. It requires particular skills to support young people at an important time for making significant life choices, to safely explore risky impulses, form new relationships and take on new challenges. Adolescence starts around the beginning of puberty and finishes in the late teens, but with critical stages of transition from 8 years old and as young adults typically up to 25 years in particular for vulnerable or marginalised young people.

Where help and investment in early years and older people is well-recognised and reflected in public policies, the Youth Covenant helps ‘make the case’ with a clear narrative in support of adolescence as a period of life that brings significant physical and emotional changes; the latest neuroscience tells us that the teenage brain undergoes huge physical changes during adolescence which impact on behaviour, self-image, social interactions and decision-making. It is also an important time for making significant life choices and decisions, increasingly complex social interactions and dealing with an online world.

Whilst I sort myself out, given I’m still told to grow up, I recommend as an antidote to NYA’s embrace of an abstract, generalised young person going through stages and transitions, who in reality doesn’t exist, Hans Skott-Mhyre’s provocative and moving, ‘I am the Young Person Who Impacts Me’ to be found in CYC-Online, March 2019.

Hans Skott-Myhre

Here are a few extracts to whet your appetite.

To take on adulthood, as the defining characteristic of our identity, is to resign ourselves to an encroaching irrelevance to the lives of the young people we encounter in our work. Immersing ourselves in adulthood, as a way of life, consigns us to a gradual ageing out of the world of lived experience that is at the heart of Child and Youth Care as a relational practice. It is, in a way, a kind of betrayal of our faith in the young people we encounter. To insist on being an adult is to say that being young is never enough. One must move on to something more. In a quietly arrogant way, it is to assert that the something “more” is represented in us as the adults. Perhaps, it is to suggest, with a moderate degree of narcissism that, as adults, we can guide and mentor young people out of the phase they are in and into “reality.”

At one level, we are asked to be missionaries of development, to spread the good word of adulthood as salvation from the “storm and stress” of adolescence. At another level, we are to be youthful but not youth.

Erica Burman, Professor of Education, Manchester

[Erica] Burman notes that we internalize development as a set of markers by which we determine our “healthy” progress through life. The world of Child and Youth Care is saturated with this logic in our assessments of ourselves, the young people we encounter and their families. The fear of being developmentally outside the norm is a prominent feature of family life, driving parents (and CYC workers) to constantly assess appropriate developmental trajectories into adulthood and beyond. Developmental truths have a profound influence on social policy, legal statutes, the organization of child welfare systems, as well as agency policies and procedures. Because developmental ideas are so influential, it is sometimes hard to remember that they reflect the values of a particular culture and society.

The idea that I don’t leave a certain aspect of my life behind me opens the possibility to think of myself as a collective. I am not a series of stages, but a composition of everything I have been. Society would have me believe that at my age I am a senior who had passed through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age and so on. In that version of me, I am relatively alien to young people and can’t really relate to them because I have passed beyond those stages of life. I am no longer a child, youth, middle-aged and so forth. I am supposedly more mature, wise and so on. If I put those ideas aside, then I begin to see that I am not so different from people who have spent less year on the planet. The perceived differences that create young people and elders as alien to one another are largely socially constructed.

Hans closes as follows – read the fascinating whole to make the best sense of his conclusion.

Perhaps, one of the most egregious effects of developmental ideas is
the way they divide us against ourselves. We are put in the position of
denying our childishness if we are to mature, to abandoning our adolescent explorations, if we are to be an adult. We are asked to put our lived experience of different stages we have “passed through” into our history. They are relegated to memory and often only revisited to uncover childhood trauma or for the purposes of nostalgic reverie. I would argue that this is a truly unfortunate loss of an important element of who we are now. All that I am and have been is now. Finally, it is this respect that I can say that I am the young person who impacts me the most.

In the spirit of collective, reflective practice I’m minded to buy and send Leigh Middleton, the Chief Executive of the National Youth Agency a copy of Erica Burman’s ‘Deconstructing developmental psychology’ [2017], Routledge.



Managing democratically: A contradiction in terms?

Since the turn of the year, I’ve all but abandoned a couple of pieces I’ve been composing, feeling self-indulgently that I’m not saying anything new or that others have expressed the same ideas much better in the past. The first of these focused on the question of hope and despair, which gives you a hint of my mood. Any road I’ve given myself a good talking to and am back on track. However, I’m travelling this next week plus I’m preparing a talk on ‘A World Without Politicians’ for an audience on Crete. Hence, to fill in the gap, I’m recycling a piece from 2007, in which I reflect on the possibility of being a democratic manager. I’ve left it more or less in its original form, which means it opens with an anecdote about Tony Blair – still amusing and relevant, I think. In the midst of the present Brexit mess and the roles being played by Teresa May and the rest of the parliamentary circus, it would be easy to find a parallel example from today.

Ta to globalresearch.ca

MANAGING DEMOCRATICALLY: A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS

Contrary to past hopes and even past successes in the project to create a just and equal society, today’s Britain remains hierarchical and bureaucratic to its core.  Bureaucratic centralism is the order of the day. To take but an example unearthed recently, you may or may not be surprised to hear that in the first eight months of New Labour’s reign the Cabinet took only one collective decision.  Tony Blair had absented himself to attend Church. Thus John Prescott presided over the dilemma of whether or not to go ahead with Millenium Dome. One can only imagine the anxiety expressed in the furrowed brows of ministers, ostensibly let loose to think for themselves.  In the end, the Cabinet decided in a leap of imagination that the final decision was best left to the Prime Minister, perhaps especially because he’d been in touch with his Saviour. According to the Cabinet Secretary of this period, when the Cabinet met the first question was ‘what are the issues of the week?’ as defined by the leadership, followed by the task of identifying ‘what spin should we put on them?’  The cabinet never debated nor determined policy.

Does this suffocating scenario ring any bells when it comes to thinking about Youth and Community Work?  For me, it resonates with conversations with workers across the country, who describe staff/team meetings as ‘being told as much as they are going to tell you and then doing as you’ve been told’.  Critical discussion about policy and practice is increasingly conspicuous by its absence. Of course, you might well rejoinder that this is inevitable. Despite its past and even present rhetoric about participation and involvement, Youth and Community Work reflects increasingly a top-down manipulative model with all its arrogance and waste, symbolised by the embrace of so-called ‘new managerialism’ by many of its officers.


Against this tide of conformity, I want cussedly to argue that it is vital to resist this blinkered way of seeing things.  I want to suggest that it is the obligation of anyone who claims to hold to such notions as ‘democracy’, equality and justice’ to aspire to be a manager committed to openness, to critical debate, to collective decision-making – to making supposed principles of youth and community work a reality.  Now some of you, up to your ears in the mess of practice, might be inclined to think I’ve lost my marbles. Indeed those of you, who know my love of Greece and worried about my mental health, might be excused for suggesting that in return for the Elgin Marbles I should return to my senses. And yet, my proposal is not all talk without substance.  All manner of mistakes and lapses aside, from my first managerial post as a full-time worker back in 1974, through to the strain of being a Chief Youth and Community Officer through the 1990s, I sought consistently to be a democratic manager in practice.

So for the sake of our discussion, and at the risk of over-simplifying complexity, I want first to suggest some essential ingredients in a democratic recipe and then recognise the numerous ways in which the democratic cake can fall apart.

A Democratic Manager:

  • Should refuse the right to manage, the notion that your workers should do as they are told.  For it is necessary to ask in whose interests are you managing. Are you turning in to serve the agenda of Gordon Brown, of the Chief Executive, of the Head of Service or whomever, or to serve the young people and the communities within which you work?
  • Should trust his/her workers.  Call me naïve but you should think the best of them until pissed upon, although you would hope to head off this humiliation!  In this increasingly misanthropic society, where evidently you can trust no one (see the problematic impact of Protection and Risk strategies on the character of Youth & Community Work) the democratic manager should be a philanthropist, from ‘philanthropos’ in Greek, a lover of humanity. But to be philanthropic is not at all to be easy-going, seeking a comfortable life, wanting to be everyone’s mate.  Rather the opposite. For the democratic manager wishes to be part of creating an atmosphere within which everyone feels able to question, criticise and, when collectively strong enough, resist orders from above.  To do this is to make your life far from rosy.
  • Should be committed to furnishing workers with the fullest information about what is going on and, together with them, ensure that a consistent in-service educational programme is maintained, focussed on raising collective understanding and consciousness.  To take a banal example that, say, at every other monthly team meeting, there is a commitment to extend the gathering into the afternoon so that issues can be discussed in depth.
  • Should be committed to telling the truth.  To amend a famous phrase of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, “being able to explore together what might be the truth is revolutionary”.  This is profoundly important to my eyes (and I’ll touch on the dilemmas soon), but just trying to be truthful has significant repercussions. Why?  Because it is the very antithesis of the bureaucratic capitalist managerial outlook within which dishonesty is so deep-rooted that its day-to-day manifestation is barely recognised.
  • Finally, but this list is not exhaustive; the democratic manager must stand by and argue for the collective decisions about how policy and practice should unfold.  She or he should see themselves as the representative of the staff team, accountable to the collective for their actions.

I’ll stop there.  This rough sketch invites perhaps the charge of being fanciful and utopian.  I don’t think so, but it is a perspective which is buffeted by stress and strain from above and below.  My own practice in the hurly-burly responded inevitably to shifting pressures and changing circumstances.

Obviously, the effort to manage democratically will be greeted with hostility by the majority of those in senior management.  They will scoff, sneer, and conspire in attempting to undermine the democratic project. They are without doubt threatened by its presence.  The attempt sheds light on the incompetence of their own authoritarianism. I won’t say much more about these people, ten a penny, as you will all have examples of the bullying that masks their own insecurity and fear.

Ironically though, there will be those with more nous, who will recognise that ‘democratic practice’ if sufficiently monitored and controlled (so that it doesn’t get out of hand) is to be supported.  In the name of ‘recreating civil society’, they are both allies and enemies.  The space opened up should be seized, but alertness to being co-opted, to the seduction of incorporation is vital.

But at this moment what I want to stress most is that the biggest threat to the nurturing of democratic practice is ourselves.  My efforts to be a democratic manager were forever haunted by the responses of the workers themselves. And this brings us to a profound dilemma for all of us desiring radical social and political change.  As of now, the ruling class, its bureaucracy, seem to be in control. Understandably, given the retreat of the social forces which gave capitalism a bad time in the 20th century, they wish to impose their imaginary neoliberal norms onto us.  To put it crudely they want us to settle down as obedient, passive, satisfied but never satiated consumers.  As far as democracy goes, whilst intoning the word endlessly, they are inimically opposed to its resurgence. We can hardly complain that the rulers rule.  That, so to speak, is their function. More pertinently we must ask of each other, why do we allow ourselves to be ruled?

Back to my efforts to be democratic in Youth and Community Work, a constant tension revolved around workers wanting to be managed.  I remember vividly many arguments with workers who demanded angrily that I managed them. ‘For fuck’s sake, Tony, tell me what to fuckin’ do!’  The process of collective decision-making is demanding. It seems to consume time, a constant criticism from those antagonistic to its intent. Although my own opinion is that much more time is wasted under authoritarian direction as workers whinge endlessly about how crap their managers are, basking in hopelessness, utterly demotivated and fed up. On the bright side, my experience too is that many workers gain confidence and strength from involvement in direct and collective democracy, and are bonded by the sense that the decisions are theirs and no-one else’s.

How do we learn to be democratic?  In what ways, through what process can we reach informed judgements on political matters about which, as Castoriadis puts it, there is no science. There is only one way. It is by doing democracy, by way of argumentative debate, by moving to collective decisions, through the experience of putting these decisions, for better or worse, into practice and through a constant process of collective self-criticism.  Thus I think a fundamental task in resisting the bureaucratic view that we are objects to be managed, incapable of making decisions for ourselves, is that we grasp any opportunity to come together as subjects, as creative actors.  For those in Youth and Community Work, the question of how to manage is precisely such an opportunity. I would venture that we have a political obligation to do so. Not to do so seems to me to collude with the powerful. As Malcolm Ball often underlines, the present regime gets away with its behavioural programme because we, the objects of its control, are not the social force we have been in the past. Trying to manage democratically is an important contribution to recreating collective opposition, dissidence and resistance, to becoming again a social and political force.  At the very least it’s a venture worth arguing about. . . . . .

——————————————————————————————————-

‘What has Cornelius Castoriadis to say about Youth Work’ in http://www.youthandpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/youthandpolicy_105-1.pdf

Participation and Activism: Young people shaping their worlds
Kalbir Shukra, Malcolm Ball and Katy Brown in http://www.youthandpolicy.org/y-and-p-archive/issue-108/

Being Black & Dead While Excluded

IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK

gus john Professor Gus John

In the context of the tragic killings of young people in recent weeks and months, we have been sent a powerful statement from the Communities Empowerment Network by their co-founder, Gus John (youth worker, scholar, author, and the first black education director in England). It begins:

On Tuesday 8 January 2019, 14 year old Jaden Moodie was stabbed to death on a street in Leyton, East London.  It is alleged that he was deliberately knocked off the moped he was riding and was stabbed repeatedly by three men who had been in the car that rammed him. Moodie had been a student at Heathcote School in Chingford and had been excluded  weeks earlier … This is the latest shocking incident in which an excluded black male school student was killed as a result of serious youth violence.  Given the regularity with which black young people are killed by other…

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Hans Skott-Myhre – ‘Just Us Is All We Got’

Since the turn of the year, I’ve been desperately trying to write something worth reading about optimism and pessimism, hope and despair. As to my effort, I do despair. However. a piece by Hans Skott-Mhyre has lifted my spirits and he’s agreed generously that I can post it in its entirety here, salvaging my need to kick off the New Year thought-provokingly. Reading Hans rang all manner of bells so I’ll mark but three, whose notes caressed my ears.

einstein intuition2

 

  • The importance of the intuitive, the experimental and improvisatory in our practice.
  • The overwhelming significance of who we are and who we are becoming, our consciousness of ourselves and others.

Both these points are caught at least partially in the last of the In Defence of Youth Work cornerstones – ‘The essential significance of the youth worker themselves, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy are at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.’ And in this excerpt from Hans’s article – ‘I am thinking of intuition as the ability to sense the exact words to say or not say in our work with young people. To know when to speak and when to be still, to take a walk, have a sandwich, reach out and touch or refrain from touching someone, share our own experiences or keep them to ourselves. This is the stuff we can’t teach. We can attempt to codify it in best practices, endless discussions about boundaries, interviewing techniques and so on, but none of it really gets at what makes a great CYC worker’.

  • The crucial recognition that being a youth worker is not some cloak of identity that can be shed on the way home from work. As Hans says, ‘we work with people and people are everywhere’. In my inadequate way, I’ve tried always to relate to people in the same way, through a consistent lens, recognising different circumstances, whether at work in the youth centre or in the office, in the pub, in the trade union, in the sports team and indeed at home.

The article, ‘Just Us Is All We Got’ appears in the January 2019 edition of CYC Online, the journal of the International Child and Youth Care Network – a broad-ranging publication which deserves a much wider readership in the UK.

Hans Skott-Myhre

JUST US IS ALL WE GOT

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to see thousands of youth workers at work or heard their stories of engaging with young people. They have been workers in residential programs, street outreach, emergency shelters, schools, rape crisis centers, community storefronts, government social service programs, day care, and foster care, among others. They have worked with small children, gangs, families, immigrants, queer kids of all ages, racially diverse populations, youth, straight kids, young people living in poverty or wealth, kids of various faiths, spiritualities, and communities. Compositionally, they themselves have been all these things and more. However, what has struck me in all this rich diversity of history, ethnicity, religion, race, gender, class, sexuality and so on is how idiosyncratically all of these elements come together to form the work of each one of us.

I often remind my students that when they are in an encounter with a young person they only have one tool and that is themselves. They can have a rich and in depth knowledge of the theoretical literature of the field, have attended and absorbed the more innovative and pertinent new techniques for resolving life difficulties, practised all the skills they have been taught in school and in professional development workshops, they might have aced the licensing or certification exam, but none of that matters if it hasn’t been fully transformed and integrated into who they are as a radically unique living composition of body and mind. To the degree that we understand how our bodies and minds work and are composed in each moment of our encounter with the world around us, we will engage that world more fully and with more life-affirming force. To the degree we are limited in what we can apprehend about ourselves and our relation to the world that forms who we are, we will be restricted in our creative capacity to compose a life.

Now that might sound a little esoteric, but every child and youth care worker I have been privileged to know, works somewhere along a continuum of self-awareness and a certain openness to the richness of the experiential and experimental composition that is living relations. It is what shapes that ineffable aspect of our work we might think about as intuition. I am thinking of intuition as the ability to sense the exact words to say or not say in our work with young people. To know when to speak and when to be still, to take a walk, have a sandwich, reach out and touch or refrain from touching someone, share our own experiences or keep them to ourselves. This is the stuff we can’t teach. We can attempt to codify it in best practices, endless discussions about boundaries, interviewing techniques and so on, but none of it really gets at what makes a great CYC worker.

Mind you, all these things point in the right direction, but they are training wheels for those just learning to ride the bicycle. One hopes not to keep them affixed for the duration of the ride. The idea is to learn enough to get going and then to leave the training wheels behind and trust the relation we develop between the bike and ourselves. To learn the delicate balance, the tensile strength of the brakes, the tension and play of the gears, and feel of the various road surfaces, weather conditions, our own muscular capacities, and limits of breath. When we ride well, we hope to be so in sync with the bike that we can pay attention to all that the ride encompasses; the wind in our face, the thrill of velocity, the scenery passing by, our own breathing, the gradual release of endorphins, and that great feeling of just riding the bike. When we are out of sync with the bike, everything becomes more labored, more mechanical. We have to limit our focus to those aspects of the ride that are causing us difficulty. We lose the freedom of motion and the full exhilaration of riding.

Of course, we hopefully learn from these moments of difficulty at many levels. Perhaps we learn that we need to persevere in our fitness regimes so we have to pay less attention to body mechanics and more to the seamless flow of the body in motion. Maybe, we have to pay better attention to the road conditions and plan our journey so that the number of hills and difficult terrain is more in keeping with our skills and stamina. It is possible, that the bike itself is at issue and we need to learn to pay better attention to its capacities and maintenance. Or, there is the chance that we neglected the weather report and need to learn that a blue sky at the beginning is not a guarantee that it won’t storm later. In all these adverse conditions, our knowledge of the elements that compose the relation of the bike, our body and the environment are key to our ability to let go and truly master the art of riding. Indeed, mastery is the moment in which we have painstakingly gained enough intellectual knowledge and body wisdom to go beyond the conscious application of what we know about the relationship between ourselves and the bike. It is when we develop a sense of oneness through which we can begin to test the limits of what can be done.

I remember being at a concert featuring the great jazz bassist Stanley Clark. As I watched him play, I became aware of how he and the rest of the band sensed where they might go, rather than predetermining where the song should go. This is not to say that the song wasn’t highly arranged and stringently rehearsed, but as the musicians entered the improvisatory sections, they opened the song to possibility rather than certainty. Two things became clear to me as I watched and listened. First, it was obvious that what Stanley Clark was accomplishing with his fingers on the large standup bass he was playing seemed physically impossible. The speed and dexterity with which he covered the rather large geography of the instrument were breathtaking. The ease with which he moved in sync with the instrument appeared effortless and yet, even a rudimentary understanding of what was involved proved that to be an illusion. Second, as he played, the relation between the creative thoughts he was having about what he would play and what he played looked to be seamless. It was as though his mind and body in relation to the bass were operating as one organism. It all came at once; thought and action.

Both instances of bodies and machines (bikes and basses) could not have occurred without strenuous and long periods of practice and training. I am reminded of the psychiatric hypnotist Milton Erickson who reached levels of hypnotic skill still unrivaled in the decades after his death. Watching him work also gave the impression of effortless performance. However, his biography demonstrated skills forged in extreme hardship and struggle. He was paralyzed from the neck down twice in his life and had to regain control of his body muscle by muscle until he had full utilization of all his bodily functions. He was tone deaf, color blind and dyslexic and yet, through tirelessly exploring alternative methods of apprehending sound, tone, color, and language he became powerfully adept at deploying all these aspects of his capacities in his work. Those who knew him reported that he was someone who practiced and experimented with his capabilities tirelessly and relentlessly. He treated his faculties the way athletes, musicians and artists treat their bodies, instruments, and tools of their craft. In each of these instances, the craft/art of each endeavor doesn’t stop at the end of the work day but extends into every aspect of a life until there is no barrier between the artist and the art, the musician and the music, the healer and the healing.

If we take seriously the idea proposed at the beginning of this column, that we are the only tool we have in working with young people, then the examples we have explored so far have some powerful implications. Possibly the most accessible is the idea that if we are to get good at working as CYC practitioners, we need to go beyond the well-intentioned and necessary training wheels offered to us by the field as a profession. The idea that we are professionals has unfortunate resonances of limits and boundaries. It can imply that there is a distance between us and others, including those we work with. It can call for state regulation of our work, in which bureaucrats begin to legislatively dictate the terms of best practice. It can inadvertently instantiate training wheels on our work and give us the idea that there are universal ways to do what it is we do, rather than idiosyncratic, creative, and experimental responses to the living engagement we find in our work. Professional training wheels can be stultifying and draw us away from the messy and entangled realities of the encounters we have with those in our daily work. This is not to say that training wheels aren’t useful in small doses. We all begin this work somewhere and it can be very helpful to have some guidance and mentoring along the road. However, we need to be cautious about institutionalizing training wheels. We need to explore when to let go and how to allow each of us to discover the unique capacities we alone can manifest as we learn from the encounters we have with others. In this sense, we are always practicing and our practice as CYC (like that of artists, musicians and athletes) is never limited to the job site. We work with people and people are everywhere.

The idea that we only work with some people some of the time is an extremely limited idea premised in capitalist ideas about labor time and payment for time worked. This way of thinking would have us believe that we are only CYC workers when we are being paid to be so. That our work is for an agency or organization and that the young people we serve are only accessible to us when they are within the purview of that organization. In a sense, the argument is that we and the young people we encounter are subject to the organization and the terms of employment that the organization imposes on both of us. We are told to separate our work and our life; to achieve a “life-work balance.” The idea is that our time spent with young people is a kind of labor like that done in a factory and that our relationships outside the place of labor is radically different.

I would argue that this is a very silly idea. Young people are young people and they populate our lives inside and outside work. To the degree we see our job as founded in the idea that the young people we encounter in our work are broken or damaged, then our work is constrained by this idea. If we believe that the young people we work with are somehow radically different from us, then our work is also constrained by this idea. If somehow we see what we do as helping young people deal with things that are significantly different than the world in which we live, then we will not seek to expand our work outside the CYC factory. However, if we come to understand our work as intimately and extensively connected to our lives and the communities in which we live, then our work and lives are afforded the possibility of not being fragmented, but seamless.

The tool that is us, does not come fully formed or with a universal set of instructions. It is formed and shaped over time through entangled encounters with everything and everyone it encounters. If we pay attention to who we are becoming in our ongoing relations with the world, then we can begin to understand both the limits and infinite possibilities of how the tool that is us may be deployed. To discover what we are capable of requires an openness to experimentation and extensive applications of what we think we can do and who we think we are. It means being open to seeing ourselves as unknowable in any final way. The goal is not to discover who you are, but to discover all that you might become. To do this implies that we comprehend ourselves as more than just a “self.” It means to see how we are shaped in an infinite number of ways by each and every encounter we have with the world around us. As CYC workers, if we want to access the true capacities of the tool we are, we must understand that our capacity is interlinked with all the capacities of the living force that surrounds us.

The psychoanalyst, philosopher, and activist Felix Guattari suggest in his work, that we might apprehend ourselves as a work of art in progress. That we are constantly creating ourselves as an experimental canvas. That, like all art, we are an expression of the world out of which the work of art emerges. We are both the artist and the art simultaneously. How diligent we are in investigating the compositional elements, techniques, and practices involved in producing ourselves as an emerging work of art, will define the depth, integrity, and beauty of the piece. Our practices as CYC workers, across the span of our lived experience, is a rich field of materials through which we can co-create ourselves in the work we do inside and outside our formal work space. After all, in the end there is really nothing in CYC that is outside this process. In this sense, just us is all we got and that is very probably more than we could ever need.

Hans Skott-Myhre

hskottmy@kennesaw.edu

 

 

Pedagogy of the Oppressed revisited 50 years on : the relevance of Freire today?

 

Cover image by Robin Sukatorn at drawingdemocracy.com

In the early days of In Defence of Youth Work, we upset the then CEO of the National Youth Agency, Fiona Blacke by criticising the organisation’s embrace of neoliberalism and its outcomes-led, market-oriented agenda. Frustrated by our evident idealism she accused some of us, particularly those of an elderly bent, of ‘drowning in history’, clutching for survival onto battered copies of Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. As it was we were quite taken by being so represented. We flirted with the idea of printing t-shirts with the slogan ‘Proud to be a Pedagogue of the Oppressed’, but the mood thankfully passed. Ironically too, in terms of my own political biography, Freire has been a footnote rather than a chapter in the narrative.  Truth is, my copy of ‘Pedagogy’ sits somewhere on my bookshelves in very good condition, not at all well-thumbed.

Encouraged by colleagues, who had qualified through the Manchester Polytechnic Youth & Community course, I did read Freire’s seminal work in around 1977. Leave aside the tortured style I warmed to his argument, the emphasis on dialogue, on a politicised consciousness [conscientização], on the struggle against oppression. However, it was not a revelatory experience. Now this muted response, I will claim, was not born of an excess of arrogance. It was no more than my journey towards some form of radical pedagogy followed a different route. By twist of fate, a cocktail of child-centred teacher training, non-directive counselling and Marxist-feminist education, the latter as a member of a small Trotskyist grouplet lubricated my faltering effort to comprehend usefully the relationship between the individual and society, between agency and structure. If names need to be cited, John Dewey, Carl Rogers, the young Marx, Sheila Rowbotham, Jo Freeman and  Christine Delphy were an eclectic mix of influences – see below.

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Dewey, J. (2011). Democracy and Education. Milton Keynes: Simon and Brown.

Rogers, Carl. (1969). Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become. (1st ed.) Columbus, Ohio: Charles Meril

Marx, K. Grundrisse: Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1973)

Rowbotham, S.  Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (Pelican, 1973; Verso, 2015)

Jo Freeman aka Joreen,  The Tyranny of  Structurelessness  at https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm

Delphy, Christine, (1977) The main enemy: a materialist analysis of women’s oppression at https://libcom.org/files/delphymainenemy.pdf

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Thus, although I was heavily involved in the creation of what were viewed in those days as controversial part-time youth worker training courses, references to Freire’s work were noticeable by their absence. However, in the mid-1980s, whilst working for Leicestershire’s Community Education department I bumped into Freire once more, courtesy of his greater influence on community work and his significance on the curriculum of the De Montfort University full-time diploma and graduate courses. Indeed one of its lecturers at the time, Paul Taylor was to find prominence as the author of ‘The Texts of Paulo Freire’ [1993] and the INFED piece, ‘Dialogue, conversation and praxis’.

Yet, despite this proximity, I continued to keep Freire at arms-length. Ironically he fell foul of my growing rejection of Marxism as a quasi-religious dogma, complete with its own holy scripts, defended by a hierarchy of authoritarian leaders and obedient followers. Stimulated by Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘theory as such is a making/doing, the always uncertain attempt ….to elucidate the world’, I became increasingly cautious about the way in which theory stagnates into no more than the reiteration of established beliefs, passed down from gurus of one sort or another. Despite Freire’s insistence upon the centrality of reflective practice – Marx too demanded ‘the merciless criticism of everything that exists’ – his adherents seemed often less than self-critical and more than self-righteous about their practice, not so different in their blinkered outlook from my erstwhile revolutionary comrades. I decided I was neither a Marxist nor a Freirian.

None of which means I’ve no time for either Marx or Freire, far from it. It might though reveal that I’m guilty of reiterating mindlessly a seemingly dismissive perspective on Freire, which I haven’t questioned for decades. In the case of the latter this can’t continue, given the welcome publication of the latest edition of the Scottish Community Education journal, CONCEPT, a ‘Special Anniversary Issue: Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.

For now, I’m tangling with the challenging consequences of reading the truly fascinating diversity of articles that make up this celebration of the 50th anniversary of ‘Pedagogy’s’ publication, whilst contemplating Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw’s conclusion to their editorial.

We regard the Special Issue as a fitting tribute from a range of distinctive voices to perhaps one of the most distinctive, compelling and (still) contemporary voices in popular education.

I hope you will find the time to explore the contents and even join in a discussion about Freire’s legacy. A few immediate thoughts spring to mind.

  • The special issue underlines the continuing importance of Freire for community education and community development, particularly rooting this assertion in the Scottish experience. To what extent is this optimism that ‘the Freirean road remains open and full of hope’ mirrored elsewhere in today’s disUnited Kingdom?
  • Significantly none of the articles speaks directly about youth work, posing the question for youth workers, past and present, what has been or is the influence of Freire on their every-day engagement with young people and perchance the community?

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Special Anniversary Issue: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

CONTENTS

Editorial – Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw

Why Freire still matters – Jim Crowther and Ian Martin

Reclaiming the radical agenda: Paulo Freire in neoliberal times –  Margaret Ledwith

Northeastern Brazilian: Memories of Paulo Freire – Budd L Hall

The road not taken: The road still open – Colin (withGerri)Kirkwood

What Freire means to me •Lyn Tett•Louise Sheridan•Christina McMellon

Pedagogy of the oppressed and the power of big words – Nicky Bolland and John Player, CAMINA

Pedagogy of courage: For a spiritual materialist praxis of humanisation in critical pedagogy – Joel Lazarus

Freire at the ceilidh! Community dance as a training for dialogue – Stan Reeves

Why Gramsci offers us a framework for understanding the work of Freire: And why their work is crucial at this time – Keith Popple

In solidarity: international reflections

Freire at the University – Emilio Lucio-Villegas

Reflections on popular education in the context of Latin America and the Caribbean – Viviana Cruz McDougall

Celebrating Freire: A message of solidarity from South Africa – Astrid von Kotze

Review: The student guide to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Antonia Darder, (2018) – Bill Johnston

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Thanks to everyone at Concept for bringing together this collection. I hope it gets the attention it deserves.