Sitting in my simple, but comfortable house set beautifully, even romantically on a Cretan hillside it is easy to turn in on myself, to indulge my narcissistic desires. And, yet with all its dilemmas my access to social media precludes my withdrawal from reality. Over the last few days harrowing stories of the plight of refugees on the Greek islands have emerged afresh out of the silence imposed by the mainstream media’s short-term attention-span.
Just the other day Symi, a small island in the Dodecanese, a haven of mine 30 years ago as I escaped every summer my paid labour, saw 400 refugees arrive. The mayor Eleftherios Papakaloudas at his wits end cried, “children are sleeping on the streets, wandering, crying. There is no doctor, there is no food. The people depend on the kindness of the local tavernas. The government is not interested.’
Whilst, feeling hopeless, easing my conscience by donating to the Dirty Girls of Lesvos, I came across the latest piece to flow from the always challenging pen of Hans Skott-Myrhe, entitled ‘Homeless Young People under 21st century Capitalism are Disposable!’
As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, we are surrounded by reports and images of abandoned and neglected children worldwide. From images of drowned immigrant children in Europe and the U.S., to young people in cages at the U.S. border, and youth living on the street in barrios, favelas, ghettos and urban centers across the planet, the 24-hour news cycle presents us with a flood of images demonstrating, in the harshest terms, our social brutality towards the next generation.
We have great rhetoric about the importance of young people as the future, but just as we seem to have lost interest in genuinely caring for the future in ecological terms, we also seem to have lost interest in caring for the next generation. There appears to be a cynicism driving my generation that precludes taking the necessary material actions necessary for care of anything or anyone other than ourselves. We go on and on about the importance of “self” care, while abandoning any “other” to the whims and mercies of a rapidly deteriorating social and biological milieu.
Drawing on Giorgio Agamben, Hans ponders whether ‘in our current system of unbridled and ever-proliferating erosion of material care for living things, including young people, I have to wonder how many of us and the next generation have become “bare life.” – bodies that can be killed [or I would add, forgotten and utterly ignored] without transgressing the laws of 21st century global capitalism.
There are powerful hints that we have entered a new era of feudalism in which the wealthy decide who and what is valuable and worthy of continuance and support. As the late Toni Morrison said in a conversation with Angela Davis, we have moved from being citizens to becoming consumers and in that shift we have lost our sense of collective force and accountability to each other. Our worth is no longer measured in terms of our social contribution, but only in terms of our ability to generate wealth for the ruling class.
And what of those bodies that fall outside the parameters of wealth generation? What of those whose skills and inclinations don’t fit within the system of perpetual training and a seemingly endless conveyor belt of low-wage jobs? Those bodies whose families already face the social devastation of addiction, the corruption of generational care, the violence of endlessly deferred expectations? The young people whose hopes and expectations are bound to a world already past or a world that has not yet arrived?
These are our homeless children and youth. Some of them literally without a home, living on the streets or shifting from place to place without stable or safe shelter. But these are also those young people seeking asylum, bodies flowing across borders, forced into refugee camps and subject to the bullets and bombs of those who seek death for death’s sake. These are the ways that we treat the next generation as disposable bodies, as bare life. But they are not and never have been disposable or dispensable. They are valuable beyond measure. They are us and we are them and if we are to avoid extinction, we must affirm the living force we share together.
Hans Skott-Myhre is a professor in the Social Work and Human Services Department at Kennesaw State University, is cross-appointed to the graduate program in psychology at the University of West Georgia and holds appointments at Brock University and the University of Victoria.
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.
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 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.
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’ , Routledge.
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.