During a month shadowed by family bereavement I’ve been labouring to put together my opening contribution to last Friday’s annual In Defence of Youth Work conference, ‘If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands – youth work and well-being?’ Hopefully, in the next fortnight I’ll type up my notes [always a tortuous, one-fingered process] and post them on this blog – quite a few folk encouraged me to do so.
Meanwhile, I’ve amassed a number of links to stuff I think deserves our attention. Rather than just compress these into an all-consuming list I’m choosing to give each of them a separate billing over the next week or so.
First off a warm welcome to a piece, inspired by the conference debate, from one of youth work’s favourite bloggers, James Ballantyne. In his inimitable way he rattled this off on the train back to Middlesborough from the Birmingham event, claiming, which I believe, it was done and dusted before Sheffield. Given my leaden progress when writing I am awestruck in the face of such alacrity!
Getting young people off the streets, that was and still is one of the old mandates for youth workers, getting young people into other institutions was another.
Youthworkers effectively were tasked with policing the streets – or policing the third space in between organisations, so that young people wouldn’t fall through the gaps. There is a new place for youthworkers, to effectively police ‘in town’. And, though it is not new, it is back with a vengeance.
Youthworkers now tasked with policing young peoples emotions? Young people are to be happy, and to be well.
The area of value is not the social space of the park, but the heart space, the attitude, the feelings of the young person.
Policing young peoples emotions so that ‘they are not unhappy’ with their lot – I wonder.
If we meet young people in their space, or try and create safe spaces for conversation, what kind of space is a young person going to engage with if it’s not derived by their agenda, their interests and passions and gifts – rather than be a space where their emotions are under scrutiny.
Youthworkers, who curated during the day, are some of the most imaginative around for trying to do practice that ‘looks like youthwork’ even in a space dictated by the latest agenda ( and knife crime is also another one) – and significant credit where credit is due, as any work with young people is valid and important. But policing the streets was an impossibility and best left for police – the intensity of young peoples emotions might be best left with the kind of well trained counsellors who can do this.
But whatever happened to just trying to to create spaces of relationships, of creativity, or groups, of activity, of participation and even entrepreneurship all of which will allow young people to have connectivity, autonomy and become competent. Then, and this done in community, with families, with the institutions, and others, might be the best way of making more than just young people happy. It might make the community happy too.
We would never say that we would want young people to feel worse after meeting us, but happiness might not be likely if we have exposed and helped them become more self aware of the issues that affect them and how they react. They might know more but be less content as a result, needing a personal struggle to assimilate new information into their previously normative world view and identity.
We’ve got a long way to go. But the journey doesn’t start with fixing young people and helping them feel something, despite their circumstances. Policing young peoples emotions… really? Is that what youth work has come to?
On International Women’s Day you’ll find below the link to and the closing lines of the hugely influential and still relevant article, ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’, written by Jo Freeman, getting on for half a century ago. Certainly, it impacted significantly on the in-service training programme for youth workers in Wigan, where I worked, complementing the emergence of feminist practice in the Authority’s Youth Service.
Once the movement no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of “structurelessness,” it is free to develop those forms of organization best suited to its healthy functioning. This does not mean that we should go to the other extreme and blindly imitate the traditional forms of organization. But neither should we blindly reject them all. Some of the traditional techniques will prove useful, albeit not perfect; some will give us insights into what we should and should not do to obtain certain ends with minimal costs to the individuals in the movement. Mostly, we will have to experiment with different kinds of structuring and develop a variety of techniques to use for different situations. The Lot System is one such idea which has emerged from the movement. It is not applicable to all situations, but is useful in some. Other ideas for structuring are needed. But before we can proceed to experiment intelligently, we must accept the idea that there is nothing inherently bad about structure itself — only its excess use.
While engaging in this trial-and-error process, there are some principles we can keep in mind that are essential to democratic structuring and are also politically effective:
1) Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures. Letting people assume jobs or tasks only by default means they are not dependably done. If people are selected to do a task, preferably after expressing an interest or willingness to do it, they have made a commitment which cannot so easily be ignored.
2) Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them. This is how the group has control over people in positions of authority. Individuals may exercise power, but it is the group that has ultimate say over how the power is exercised.
3) Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible. This prevents monopoly of power and requires those in positions of authority to consult with many others in the process of exercising it. It also gives many people the opportunity to have responsibility for specific tasks and thereby to learn different skills.
4) Rotation of tasks among individuals. Responsibilities which are held too long by one person, formally or informally, come to be seen as that person’s “property” and are not easily relinquished or controlled by the group. Conversely, if tasks are rotated too frequently the individual does not have time to learn her job well and acquire the sense of satisfaction of doing a good job.
5) Allocation of tasks along rational criteria. Selecting someone for a position because they are liked by the group or giving them hard work because they are disliked serves neither the group nor the person in the long run. Ability, interest, and responsibility have got to be the major concerns in such selection. People should be given an opportunity to learn skills they do not have, but this is best done through some sort of “apprenticeship” program rather than the “sink or swim” method. Having a responsibility one can’t handle well is demoralizing. Conversely, being blacklisted from doing what one can do well does not encourage one to develop one’s skills. Women have been punished for being competent throughout most of human history; the movement does not need to repeat this process.
6) Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible. Information is power. Access to information enhances one’s power. When an informal network spreads new ideas and information among themselves outside the group, they are already engaged in the process of forming an opinion — without the group participating. The more one knows about how things work and what is happening, the more politically effective one can be.
7) Equal access to resources needed by the group. This is not always perfectly possible but should be striven for. A member who maintains a monopoly over a needed resource (like a printing press owned by a husband, or a darkroom) can unduly influence the use of that resource. Skills and information are also resources. Members’ skills can be equitably available only when members are willing to teach what they know to others.
When these principles are applied, they insure that whatever structures are developed by different movement groups will be controlled by and responsible to the group. The group of people in positions of authority will be diffuse, flexible, open, and temporary. They will not be in such an easy position to institutionalize their power because ultimate decisions will be made by the group at large. The group will have the power to determine who shall exercise authority within it.
A world without politicians – reimagining ‘Athenian’ democracy in the 21st century –Tony Taylor
Politicians are held in little regard, seen as corrupt, self-seeking and out of touch. Yet their place in the order of things is rarely questioned. However, as crisis consumes contemporary society, parliamentary democracy itself is exposed as a spectacle of deceit. Disillusioned with both politicians and the ballot box the demos retreat into passivity or flirt with fascism. Tony Taylor will propose its time to rid ourselves of these parasites and escape from the illusions of representative democracy. He will suggest that direct democracy as the authentic expression of ‘the power of the people’ is within our grasp, provided we recognise that politics and democracy, forever open to question, are our collective business and nobody else’s. Without such a revolutionary shift in our consciousness an Armageddon of humanity’s making lies on the horizon.
Οι πολιτικοί κρατιούνται ελάχιστα, θεωρούνται ως διεφθαρμένοι, εγωκεντρικοί και από άγγιγμα. Ωστόσο, η θέση τους στη σειρά των πραγμάτων σπανίως αμφισβητείται. Ωστόσο, καθώς η κρίση καταναλώνει τη σύγχρονη κοινωνία, η ίδια η κοινοβουλευτική δημοκρατία εκτίθεται ως θέαμα δόλου. Απογοητευμένοι με τους πολιτικούς και την εκλογική κουβέρτα, οι άνθρωποι υποχωρούν σε παθητικότητα ή φλερτάρουν με φασισμό. Ο Αντώνιος Τέιλορ θα προτείνει το χρόνο του για να απαλλαγούμε από αυτά τα παράσιτα και να ξεφύγουμε από τις αυταπάτες της αντιπροσωπευτικής δημοκρατίας. Θα υποδείξει ότι η άμεση δημοκρατία ως αυθεντική έκφραση της «εξουσίας του λαού» είναι μέσα μας, υπό την προϋπόθεση ότι αναγνωρίζουμε ότι η πολιτική και η δημοκρατία, ανοιχτά για πάντα ερωτηματικά, είναι η συλλογική μας δραστηριότητα και κανείς άλλος. Χωρίς μια τέτοια επαναστατική μετατόπιση στη συνείδησή μας, μια καταστροφή της ανθρωπότητας βρίσκεται στον ορίζοντα.
Apologies to my Greek friends for imperfections in the translation.
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.
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. . . . . .
Quite a lot of us are uncomfortable and ambiguous about our relationship with such social media as Facebook, yet its hold is strong. Within youth work practice itself there is concern about young people’s digital literacy.  Personally, I’ve felt in danger of being smugly ignorant, content, despite the occasional doubt, to google to my heart’s content. My complacency has been shattered by Shoshana Zuboff’s compelling thesis that we are living through the latest phase in capitalism’s evolution, the emergence of ‘surveillance capitalism’. An excellent introduction to her argument is to be found in a Guardian interview, ‘The goal is to automate us.‘ I would urge you to engage with her thoughts.
‘It [surveillance capitalim] works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.’
Some quotes from Shoshana Zuboff to whet your appetite
Surveillance capitalism is a human creation. It lives in history, not in technological inevitability. It was pioneered and elaborated through trial and error at Google in much the same way that the Ford Motor Company discovered the new economics of mass production or General Motors discovered the logic of managerial capitalism.
Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy.
Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free.
Democracy has slept while surveillance capitalists amassed unprecedented concentrations of knowledge and power. We enter the 21st century marked by this stark inequality in the division of learning: they know more about us than we know about ourselves or than we know about them. These new forms of social inequality are inherently anti-democratic.
It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. Paradoxically, this coup is celebrated as “personalisation”, although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal.
So what is to be done? In any confrontation with the unprecedented, the first work begins with naming. Speaking for myself, this is why I’ve devoted the past seven years to this work… to move forward the project of naming as the first necessary step toward taming. My hope is that careful naming will give us all a better understanding of the true nature of this rogue mutation of capitalism and contribute to a sea change in public opinion, most of all among the young.
I’ve ordered the book with some trepidation. It’s over 700 pages long. Even when I claimed to be a Marxist, I was of the cultural rather than the economic sort. And I failed Maths ‘O’ level three times. Wish me luck and I’ll report back.
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…
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.
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.
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.