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.
The article, ‘Just Us Is All We Got’ appears in the January 2019 edition of CYC Online, the journal of the International Child and Youth Care Network – a broad-ranging publication which deserves a much wider readership in the UK.
JUST US IS ALL WE GOT
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to see thousands of youth workers at work or heard their stories of engaging with young people. They have been workers in residential programs, street outreach, emergency shelters, schools, rape crisis centers, community storefronts, government social service programs, day care, and foster care, among others. They have worked with small children, gangs, families, immigrants, queer kids of all ages, racially diverse populations, youth, straight kids, young people living in poverty or wealth, kids of various faiths, spiritualities, and communities. Compositionally, they themselves have been all these things and more. However, what has struck me in all this rich diversity of history, ethnicity, religion, race, gender, class, sexuality and so on is how idiosyncratically all of these elements come together to form the work of each one of us.
I often remind my students that when they are in an encounter with a young person they only have one tool and that is themselves. They can have a rich and in depth knowledge of the theoretical literature of the field, have attended and absorbed the more innovative and pertinent new techniques for resolving life difficulties, practised all the skills they have been taught in school and in professional development workshops, they might have aced the licensing or certification exam, but none of that matters if it hasn’t been fully transformed and integrated into who they are as a radically unique living composition of body and mind. To the degree that we understand how our bodies and minds work and are composed in each moment of our encounter with the world around us, we will engage that world more fully and with more life-affirming force. To the degree we are limited in what we can apprehend about ourselves and our relation to the world that forms who we are, we will be restricted in our creative capacity to compose a life.
Now that might sound a little esoteric, but every child and youth care worker I have been privileged to know, works somewhere along a continuum of self-awareness and a certain openness to the richness of the experiential and experimental composition that is living relations. It is what shapes that ineffable aspect of our work we might think about as intuition. I am thinking of intuition as the ability to sense the exact words to say or not say in our work with young people. To know when to speak and when to be still, to take a walk, have a sandwich, reach out and touch or refrain from touching someone, share our own experiences or keep them to ourselves. This is the stuff we can’t teach. We can attempt to codify it in best practices, endless discussions about boundaries, interviewing techniques and so on, but none of it really gets at what makes a great CYC worker.
Mind you, all these things point in the right direction, but they are training wheels for those just learning to ride the bicycle. One hopes not to keep them affixed for the duration of the ride. The idea is to learn enough to get going and then to leave the training wheels behind and trust the relation we develop between the bike and ourselves. To learn the delicate balance, the tensile strength of the brakes, the tension and play of the gears, and feel of the various road surfaces, weather conditions, our own muscular capacities, and limits of breath. When we ride well, we hope to be so in sync with the bike that we can pay attention to all that the ride encompasses; the wind in our face, the thrill of velocity, the scenery passing by, our own breathing, the gradual release of endorphins, and that great feeling of just riding the bike. When we are out of sync with the bike, everything becomes more labored, more mechanical. We have to limit our focus to those aspects of the ride that are causing us difficulty. We lose the freedom of motion and the full exhilaration of riding.
Of course, we hopefully learn from these moments of difficulty at many levels. Perhaps we learn that we need to persevere in our fitness regimes so we have to pay less attention to body mechanics and more to the seamless flow of the body in motion. Maybe, we have to pay better attention to the road conditions and plan our journey so that the number of hills and difficult terrain is more in keeping with our skills and stamina. It is possible, that the bike itself is at issue and we need to learn to pay better attention to its capacities and maintenance. Or, there is the chance that we neglected the weather report and need to learn that a blue sky at the beginning is not a guarantee that it won’t storm later. In all these adverse conditions, our knowledge of the elements that compose the relation of the bike, our body and the environment are key to our ability to let go and truly master the art of riding. Indeed, mastery is the moment in which we have painstakingly gained enough intellectual knowledge and body wisdom to go beyond the conscious application of what we know about the relationship between ourselves and the bike. It is when we develop a sense of oneness through which we can begin to test the limits of what can be done.
I remember being at a concert featuring the great jazz bassist Stanley Clark. As I watched him play, I became aware of how he and the rest of the band sensed where they might go, rather than predetermining where the song should go. This is not to say that the song wasn’t highly arranged and stringently rehearsed, but as the musicians entered the improvisatory sections, they opened the song to possibility rather than certainty. Two things became clear to me as I watched and listened. First, it was obvious that what Stanley Clark was accomplishing with his fingers on the large standup bass he was playing seemed physically impossible. The speed and dexterity with which he covered the rather large geography of the instrument were breathtaking. The ease with which he moved in sync with the instrument appeared effortless and yet, even a rudimentary understanding of what was involved proved that to be an illusion. Second, as he played, the relation between the creative thoughts he was having about what he would play and what he played looked to be seamless. It was as though his mind and body in relation to the bass were operating as one organism. It all came at once; thought and action.
Both instances of bodies and machines (bikes and basses) could not have occurred without strenuous and long periods of practice and training. I am reminded of the psychiatric hypnotist Milton Erickson who reached levels of hypnotic skill still unrivaled in the decades after his death. Watching him work also gave the impression of effortless performance. However, his biography demonstrated skills forged in extreme hardship and struggle. He was paralyzed from the neck down twice in his life and had to regain control of his body muscle by muscle until he had full utilization of all his bodily functions. He was tone deaf, color blind and dyslexic and yet, through tirelessly exploring alternative methods of apprehending sound, tone, color, and language he became powerfully adept at deploying all these aspects of his capacities in his work. Those who knew him reported that he was someone who practiced and experimented with his capabilities tirelessly and relentlessly. He treated his faculties the way athletes, musicians and artists treat their bodies, instruments, and tools of their craft. In each of these instances, the craft/art of each endeavor doesn’t stop at the end of the work day but extends into every aspect of a life until there is no barrier between the artist and the art, the musician and the music, the healer and the healing.
If we take seriously the idea proposed at the beginning of this column, that we are the only tool we have in working with young people, then the examples we have explored so far have some powerful implications. Possibly the most accessible is the idea that if we are to get good at working as CYC practitioners, we need to go beyond the well-intentioned and necessary training wheels offered to us by the field as a profession. The idea that we are professionals has unfortunate resonances of limits and boundaries. It can imply that there is a distance between us and others, including those we work with. It can call for state regulation of our work, in which bureaucrats begin to legislatively dictate the terms of best practice. It can inadvertently instantiate training wheels on our work and give us the idea that there are universal ways to do what it is we do, rather than idiosyncratic, creative, and experimental responses to the living engagement we find in our work. Professional training wheels can be stultifying and draw us away from the messy and entangled realities of the encounters we have with those in our daily work. This is not to say that training wheels aren’t useful in small doses. We all begin this work somewhere and it can be very helpful to have some guidance and mentoring along the road. However, we need to be cautious about institutionalizing training wheels. We need to explore when to let go and how to allow each of us to discover the unique capacities we alone can manifest as we learn from the encounters we have with others. In this sense, we are always practicing and our practice as CYC (like that of artists, musicians and athletes) is never limited to the job site. We work with people and people are everywhere.
The idea that we only work with some people some of the time is an extremely limited idea premised in capitalist ideas about labor time and payment for time worked. This way of thinking would have us believe that we are only CYC workers when we are being paid to be so. That our work is for an agency or organization and that the young people we serve are only accessible to us when they are within the purview of that organization. In a sense, the argument is that we and the young people we encounter are subject to the organization and the terms of employment that the organization imposes on both of us. We are told to separate our work and our life; to achieve a “life-work balance.” The idea is that our time spent with young people is a kind of labor like that done in a factory and that our relationships outside the place of labor is radically different.
I would argue that this is a very silly idea. Young people are young people and they populate our lives inside and outside work. To the degree we see our job as founded in the idea that the young people we encounter in our work are broken or damaged, then our work is constrained by this idea. If we believe that the young people we work with are somehow radically different from us, then our work is also constrained by this idea. If somehow we see what we do as helping young people deal with things that are significantly different than the world in which we live, then we will not seek to expand our work outside the CYC factory. However, if we come to understand our work as intimately and extensively connected to our lives and the communities in which we live, then our work and lives are afforded the possibility of not being fragmented, but seamless.
The tool that is us, does not come fully formed or with a universal set of instructions. It is formed and shaped over time through entangled encounters with everything and everyone it encounters. If we pay attention to who we are becoming in our ongoing relations with the world, then we can begin to understand both the limits and infinite possibilities of how the tool that is us may be deployed. To discover what we are capable of requires an openness to experimentation and extensive applications of what we think we can do and who we think we are. It means being open to seeing ourselves as unknowable in any final way. The goal is not to discover who you are, but to discover all that you might become. To do this implies that we comprehend ourselves as more than just a “self.” It means to see how we are shaped in an infinite number of ways by each and every encounter we have with the world around us. As CYC workers, if we want to access the true capacities of the tool we are, we must understand that our capacity is interlinked with all the capacities of the living force that surrounds us.
The psychoanalyst, philosopher, and activist Felix Guattari suggest in his work, that we might apprehend ourselves as a work of art in progress. That we are constantly creating ourselves as an experimental canvas. That, like all art, we are an expression of the world out of which the work of art emerges. We are both the artist and the art simultaneously. How diligent we are in investigating the compositional elements, techniques, and practices involved in producing ourselves as an emerging work of art, will define the depth, integrity, and beauty of the piece. Our practices as CYC workers, across the span of our lived experience, is a rich field of materials through which we can co-create ourselves in the work we do inside and outside our formal work space. After all, in the end there is really nothing in CYC that is outside this process. In this sense, just us is all we got and that is very probably more than we could ever need.