Being Ourselves – An encouragement to Street workers

Sometimes working on the streets gets us involved in seeing the shitty bits of life for young people doesnt it?

You know, those moments where you see guys taking advantage of drunk girls, see 12 year olds vomitting from drunkenness, see young people insult and fight amongst each other, hear and feel their cries for attention, or their need to escape something worse.  Yet in being there, and being with them we hear them at their most unguarded or real, or most at ease.  Though its a painful exercise at times, one that sucks the life out, and causes a deep intake of breath at times.  However it can be overwhelming at times, and sometimes i guess we can get sanitised by it, or unable to see things again.

Over 40 years ago, in their pioneering work, Goetschius and Tash described the second year self consciousness that was setting in with their detached youth workers, in a project in London. They’d strived to reflect on their experiences, however their ongoing reflection had provided them with unanswerable questions, and heavy burdens. Having just re-read this again, i want to share it with you, to encourage you in your detached youth work, wherever you are. Not to give up being angry with young people, fighting injustices, being frustrated, being compassionate, caring on the streets. If you didn’t care you wouldn’t be there, so as they say, continue to be there with them, build a good team and be yourself again

 The crisis in self awareness which was at first an individual matter reached by each worker separately,  became a team problem some time during the second year’s work. In retrospect we saw the problem of growing Self-awareness as implicit us in the attempt we were making to extend the traditional approaches to youth work, In making this attempt we recognised the need to change our attitudes about the problems of Identity, mobility, values end standards, and this meant that we had to find new resources within ourselves, to meet this challenge. Most of the things troubling us were real and deserved consideration we had become over-sensitive in our reactions, We were afraid to show anger when we were anger, discouraged about our ability to help the young people and unable to say we were discouraged. unsure of what, how and why, we were observing and recording. We were feeling swamped by pressures over which we could never hope to have any control, pressures upon the neighbourhood, the young people and ourselves. We were perplexed by questions arising from our work on the streets, to which we could never know the answers.

Although it was of little help, we had to remind ourselves at this stage, that by the very nature of this work, there invariably occurs a period during which things have to be thought out and experienced from the ‘inside’ and that during this period confusion and discouragement are part of the game. We managed to get through this crisis for the most part by changing emphases in supervision and training. We concentrated on the need for the detached workers to be themselves, to be angry, discouraged, rejected- the lot, but simply to be aware  of it. 

The analogy that seemed to help us in this was that of someone who hears Beethoven for the first time, is carried any by the wonder of it and spontaneously and freely reacts to it tic then begins to read music criticism, listens to it again and finds that with his new knowledge he is aware of a host of different aspects of the work, and that be has lost the essential, natural pleasure of listening. He then forgets about the whole thing, comes back to it again later and simply listens. At the third listening be finds that what he has learned from his analysis of the work is still a factor in his listening, but it no longer prevents him from full spontaneous participation.
We found that after we had passed through the analytical stage we too could gradually return to being ourselves. without being too self-conscious about the theoretical implications of what we were doing. So we were able to regain a good bit of our original spontaneity and self-trust.It was a great help to be a team, in which we could support one another, and see the humour of many of our most serious predicaments. (Goetschius & Tash 1967)

I guess i have been guilty of enabling an over-analytical perspective of detached youthwork, through thinking about training, focussing on the specifics, the processes, skills and tools, and also the need to reflect. In some of that i have forgotten the spontaneity of being real with young people, of sharing of self, being frustrated with them, angry with them, and not just trying to justify the system on the systems behalf. they might not fit….and is that their fault?

And i so agree with the sentiment that humour is often what is required after an emotionally tiring session, with the young people.., a natural coping strategy after dealing with, seeing, hearing and involving ourselves in some of the shitty, real bits. So go on, you can be professional and be real, be equipped and be yourself, be reflective, but continue to feel the pain. Is there anyone else out in that moment, being with young people in your context, no? then dont give up being there either…

any action will only emerge out of a painful, searing, physical and mental acceptance of a generation (of young people) which is painfully different


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