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.
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.
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)
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’  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?
I first met Roy Bailey in person in the dim and freezing toilets of Shirebrook School in Derbyshire. He was having a pee in a cubicle unbeknown to me and I waxed lyrical to a fellow at my shoulder about both Roy’s mellifluous tone and his commitment to the cause. At which point Roy appeared, somewhat embarrassed, thanking me for my kind words. We parted a trifle awkwardly, he to get ready for his second set, me to rejoin Marilyn Taylor, Steve Waterhouse and young people from the Shirebrook Youth Centre, ‘getting off our knees’ to dance to the Housemartins, then riding high in the charts.
The occasion was a fund-raising event in support of the National Union of Mineworkers and the Great Strike of 1984/85.
Roy’s version of ‘Hard Times in Old England’, which he sang that night, echoes down the years.
However, I’d come across Roy a decade before in print upon discovering the book, ‘Radical Social Work’, which he edited with Mike Brake. At the time, a would-be radical youth worker I despaired at the conformity of the Wigan Youth Service, in whose employ I found myself. Looking for inspiration I found little solace in the individualist focus dominant within the youth work literature available. Bailey and Brake’s book, if not a godsend, was a present from Marx and Freire. Fundamentally its contributors argued that it was crucial to situate ourselves and the people, with whom we work, in the underpinning circumstances of our lives, in the limitations imposed, even if resisted, by the relations of class, gender, race and sexuality. In 1978 Colin Pritchard and Richard Taylor argued with one another in the insightful and challenging, ‘Social Work: Reform or Revolution? Whilst in 1980 Bailey and Brake edited a follow-up, ‘Radical Social Work and Practice’, which included chapters on feminist Social Work, radical practice in Probation and Beyond Community Development.
It was only at this point, the turn of the decade, that youth work writing, responding to radical social work’s analysis and propelled in particular by women and black workers on the ground, began to take serious account of the structural. In 1981 Gus John produced ‘In the Service of Black Youth: A Study of the Political Culture of Youth and Community Work with Black People in English Cities’. By 1982 the first edition of Youth and Policy had appeared, featuring articles on social democracy, girls’ work and racism. By the mid-1980s Tony Jeffs and Smith had collaborated to edit, ‘Youth Work’, which included a rather pompous chapter by myself, ‘Youth workers as character builders: Constructing a socialist alternative’. My pretentious argument fell on stony soil! Bernard Davies broke new ground in his own writing with the publication of ‘Threatening Youth’ , which interrogated social policy’s impact on young people’s lives across the board. In ‘Young People. Inequality and Youth Work’  Jean Spence explored Youth Work and Gender, Peter Kent-Baguley Youth Work and Sexuality, Don Blackburn Youth Work and Disability. Indeed it might well be argued that by this time critical thinking in youth work had caught up with that of social work.
In a fascinating contradiction as neoliberalism in its Thatcherite garb took a hold on the economy and culture as a whole, both youth work and social work full-time courses embraced a radical agenda. Indeed, during my close relationship with the Manchester Metropolitan University in the 1990s, which included lecturing there, the explicit collective commitment to an Anti-Oppressive and Anti-Discriminatory Practice brought youth work and social work students together in common cause. There was no sense of there being separate youth work or social work values.
Twenty years on I think this history needs to be remembered and respected. In the crisis faced by Youth Work over the last decade and more, youth workers have found themselves employed in other services and agencies, for example, social work and juvenile justice. There is no doubt that youth workers have much to offer in these settings. However, both leading youth organisations, such as the National Youth Agency, and increasingly youth workers themselves feel the need to argue that they take into these different workplaces a unique cluster of values, ‘youth work values’, unbeknown evidently to anyone except themselves. By and large, they seem reluctant to clarify what exactly these values are. I’ve dug out an old set of notes musing upon this topic further, which I might revive.
I am sometimes criticised for what is perceived as my pedantic and semantic, even obsessive hostility to the mantra of exclusive youth work values, skills and methodologies – see Blurring the Boundaries. However, it is my contention that this presumptuous declaration of exceptionalism undermines building bridges with all manner of other professionals and volunteers within welfare and education. More than ever, at a time of social disintegration and rising authoritarianism, we need to revive our solidarity with one another, to be bound together by a shared commitment to the common good, to the struggle for social and political equality.
I’ll leave the last word to Roy, a song recorded only a year ago, ‘Refugee’ – a heartfelt humanitarian plea.
Roy Bailey, academic and folk singer, born 20 October 1935; died 20 November 2018
The Guardian often does these kinds of stories quite well. However; they never draw the obvious conclusion. The system is not ever going to be fixed by a worried / outraged article in the press and some more regulation / money.
The problems described in this article are the inevitable result of bringing the profit system into the field of social care for looked after young people. Of course if you do this calculations are going to be made on the basis of profiteering and of course this will not result in the “best care” for young people.
There may be some fields where the profit-motive can produce results which socialised production cannot. An obvious example is the case of any field in which technological innovation can be stimulated…
With my father in mind, for whom Remembrance Sunday was essential to his identity, I was trying to write something about my deep misgivings about the tone and purpose of today’s commemoration of the end of World War One. In the end, I’ll settle for linking to Steve Arnott’s impassioned piece on the Facebook page of The Point, together with a poem by Wilfred Owen.
Is it just us? Or does anyone else out there feel that the ongoing sanitisation and revision of the brutal historical reality of the First World War more than just a little disturbing?
A pointless mechanised slaughter of millions of working-class boys and men of various nationalities at the behest of their own capitalist classes and various Royal Houses should be remembered as precisely that; and not some ‘jolly’ thing to be commemorated in Brit nationalist terms, with just the right amount of due saccharine sentiment to make a good family night in.
Even the return of the term ‘Great War’ must be suspect. It was the common descriptor prior to World War II – but since then the normal way of referring to the conflict has historically been as World War One. Given that ‘great’ has more than one meaning, the creeping return to the use of the old term seems to us to be part of the sanitisation and revision of this organised mass murder in the cause of profit and Empire (on all sides); part of the none-too-subtle attempt to recast this war as somehow a ‘just’ war. In the way most people understand the word in modern times, the First World War was anything but ‘great’.
And where is the remembrance of the fact that in almost every nation participating ordinary working people, soldiers, sailors and the poor rose up against the war at the end, and against their own national ruling classes that had fomented and promoted the whole horrific, blood and mud-soaked, infernal farce?
No culturally appropriated poppy is needed to remember my great-grandfather, who lied about his age to join up and fought in the Somme at age 16, survived and went on to become a lifelong and unrepentant communist till his death in 1986. And the many like him who both lost their lives and who survived to live with the trauma for the rest of their adult lives.
The ultimate sacrifice? For what? Imperialism and the hubris of Empire?
The entire British ruling class should have been put on trial for this war crime that used their own people as machine gun fodder, like cattle to the slaughter.
– Steve Arnott. Editorial Co-ordinator, The Point online platform
Dulce et Decorum Est
BY WILFRED OWEN
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
The Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
As I play around with what I might post on this revived blog I’ve been exploring what I might call pretentiously my archives – stuff I’ve written over the years, not yet consigned to the waste bin. An obvious dilemma is how well has such scribbling stood up to the test of time. I’ve decided not to worry unduly about this question. If the argument falls flat, I’ll just have to dust myself down and have a rethink.
With an IDYW dialogue event, ‘What is Youth Work?’ about to take place this coming Friday, November 2 in Birmingham I thought I’d revive this 2012 response to NYA’s call to make youth work training for police officers a more systemic and universal practice. At the time Fiona Blacke, the CEO ‘said she wanted to see more teachers and nurses, as well as police officers, trained in youth work skills. “They need to understand some of the nature of adolescents, how to create a relationship with young people and the tensions of being an adolescent in 2012,” she said. Blacke added that, by using youth work skills, police officers would have to revert to their statutory enforcement powers on fewer occasions. “It’s got to be a good thing,” she said.’
BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES: Youth Workers as Soft Police or Vice-versa?
Rotherham Council has announced that two police constables have qualified with the council to become youth workers. The officers will work in partnership with the council’s youth services department and in youth centres throughout the area.
Thus the blurring of boundaries about what is meant by youth work and what constitutes a youth worker continues to worm its insidious way. When and where are our two constables youth workers? When and where are they coppers? Can they be both youth worker and copper at one and the same time? Funnily enough, despite the nowadays obligatory claim that the Rotherham initiative is trail-blazing, versions of these questions about the relationship between young people, youth work and policing are not new.
When I first came into the work in the early 1970’s the appropriate local bobby sat on the management committees for two of the centres, for which I became responsible. The post-war consensus that we were in it together was just about holding. By the end of the decade as unemployment rose and youth harassment became the norm we wouldn’t let the police across the threshold of our centres. In the mid-80’s my office was in the old primary school of Shirebrook, a Derbyshire mining village violently invaded and occupied by Her Majesty’s constabulary, playing its crucial part in intimidating the NUM’s opposition to the rule of the market. In the aftermath young people and the community rejected any involvement in the local Police Liaison Committees. As struggle died down I found myself in the 90’s working with the Inspector of Community Affairs in Wigan around the spectre of youth troubled ‘hot-spots’. We created a Youth Mediation project, employing a team of youth mediators, explicitly neither youth workers nor police, who refereed between young people, the local community and the local State. There was agreement. The roles of youth workers and police ought not to be confused. Youth workers ought to be on young people’s side. The police represented law and order, even when this law and order was demonstrably unjust. And, as an aside, I was a tutor on a year-long part-time youth worker training course in 1978 with two constables as students. Their desire to be part-time youth workers was ridden with contradiction but was not further confused by them wanting to be seen as hybrid Youth/Police Officers.
However, as you might know by now, today’s Chief Executives suggest that these qualms are but the dilemmas of a past best forgotten. Rolling out a ‘systemic’ programme of youth work training for police officers across the country is simply a good thing. Time has moved on. All that stands between young people and a trust in the police is the emergence of a couple of empathetic coppers. Forget Stop and Search, it’s now Stop and Smile. And their sensitivity will trickle down through the pores of the Police’s collective authoritarian psyche, even reaching its Metropolitan heart. Except that in the last few years some things don’t seem to have changed that much. Young people protesting against the end of EMA and the hike in tuition fees were kettled, frightened into feeling that resistance is career-ending. Whilst, by anyone’s account, last year’s riots were partially a consequence of the systematic hostility towards young people, especially black youth, displayed by these very forces of law and order.
None of this is to dismiss the important question of how the police interact with society, but this raises issues around race, gender, class, sexuality, disability as well as age. If we believe the police can be sensitised to the significance of these social and political divisions, the implication is that the whole workforce, not some scattering of token individuals, has to be on board. If we take race as an exemplar it is clear that this is an enormous task. The Metropolitan Police started race relations training in 1964. In 1984 following the Scarman investigation into the 1981 uprisings a revamped Community and Race Relations programme was put in place. Nevertheless, the 1999 Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence declared that the Met was institutionally racist. Over a decade later the 2012 riots following yet another black death in custody signalled at the very least that awareness training has its limitations.
None of which is to suggest we fold our arms and do nothing. It is though to suggest we proceed with caution and humility. On the contrary, we are told by the NYA in a fit of some pretension and hubris that, as well as police officers, teachers and nurses could do with an injection of youth work skills. What might be these mysterious skills unbeknown to others? “They [need to] understand some of the nature of adolescence, how to create a relationship with young people and the tensions of being an adolescent in 2012.” A deep breath is needed here. Of these three areas, only one is about skills, namely creating relationships. The other two relating to how we understand adolescence are about theoretical explanations, be they psychological or sociological. None of these – Communication Skills, Developmental Psychology or the Sociology of Youth – are the property of youth work. In one form or another, they are taught, for better or worse, across the people professions.
So, what’s going on here? For what it’s worth my feeling is that this exaggerated desire to be indispensable to others, stemming from a collective inferiority complex, is a result of abandoning the very basis of our distinctiveness. If we have been, still are special, it is not to do with some fantasy about our unique values, skills or methodologies. It is to do with meeting young people without the security blanket of compulsion or sanction. It is to do with meeting young people in a mutual exploration of what the fuck is going on. This creative dialogue knows no pre-determined outcomes, carries no guarantees. It is this authentic uncertainty that distinguishes youth work from other forms of work with young people, which demand the pursuit of prescribed outcomes. For the moment many within the youth ‘sector’ seem intent on brushing this distinction deep under a carpet of conformism. Evidently, in their eyes any engagement with young people can be called youth work – even an encounter on the streets between a young person and the police, provided the latter have done their youth work training.