Being Cultural Navigators with young people

Over the last few weeks, in readiness for some training i was delivering today, i have been thinking further about the different layers of culture within society, and in particular our role as detached youthworkers within these cultures.

To paraphrase Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 – we see but a glass/mirror darkly – ie what we see,  experience and understand is from the distorted, pre understandings of our own reality, our own culture, its norms, behaviours, values and artifacts. Yet as detached youthworkers we should reflect upon the culture we represent to the young people we seek to be with, and at the some time realise that our behaviour is representative often of the cultural hegemony that has distorted reality for power, influence and the perjorative status quo – that which we have and know is said to be superior, more worthy than the young persons experiences of reality, culture and experience – their sub culture is merely ‘sub’ – substandard?

At the same time as reflecting on our own cultural perspective, we , in being with  young people seek to understanding and learn from the dynamics of the cultural values and artifacts ( fashion/music/sports..) that young people choose to embody, occupy and associate.  If youthwork is an art, an exercise in moral philosophy ( Young 1996) then reflecting on the culture, the world views of society , the culture of the young people, and also the faith cultures and communities is something that we should attempt to do, do with understanding, do with listening and and open eyes to see- each for what they are, the power structures. Being deliberately both incarnational, and also detached , to be where the young people are at  only means that some of what we held to be true, for us, is up for grabs in the instance of being with the young person, in their culture.

Not that we lose sight of truth, or who we are, but intentionally being open to the other, and recognising the way in what the young person has navigated their existence and identity within the culture around them, and in doing so given themselves a chosen community of friends, peers and some influence and independence.  By being with them, becoming accepted in their evening community, we reside temporarily in their culture. I think of situations in Perth, and how the groups on the South Inch would talk to us, and eagerly at times have us around them to chat, keep them safe and walk them to bus stops, this takes time.  Being part of their culture has its disadvantages, yet is what we would expect missionaries to do, we as detached youthworkers would do well to realise how listening and learning how the cultures in our communities operate as we reflect and support young people to navigate and give them tools to reflect upon them, challenge and flourish in them.

‘We drink from our own wells’ is a phrase i discovered earlier today, and to realise that we may have dug, sculpted and furnished the wells and spaces of life within culture – whether thats the park, the skate park or the club, at these point a gathered community is present who represent a myriad of worldviews, beliefs and behaviours and as we drink the same water, or sit, chat and converse we realise that in being with the other, we learn to enrich both themselves and ourselves through mutual understanding and respect.

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Interjecting in Conversation

Quite a bit has been written about the importance of and nature of conversation as education within Youth work – see for example Jeffs & Smith (2005 & 2010) , or http://www.infed.org as examples. It is something that i often maybe incorrectly ask trainee detached youth workers or volunteers to deconstruct too far, when they start training in detached work.  Yet within detached youth work, conversation remains a critical, if not sole tool for interaction. Within which is a whole host of aspects, such as verbal/non verbal cues, questions, tone, endings, power, secrecy – or styles such as ‘banter/chit-chat’ or what might be considered more meaningful dialogue ( Smith H 2010 in Jeffs & Smith 2010).

Often, however, its not just the content of these intentional interuptions that has an impact upon young people in our detached youthwork, its the fact that we have interjected at all. By being there, in some cases to respond to a cheeky comment – this week the opening gambit from a young person was “arent you a school teacher?” – one time in Perth it was swear words from across the bus stop.  Our response to these questions says something not just about ourselves, and our attitudes, but also how we seek to value the young person as a human being.

After all, its part of who we are that we are communicative beings, maybe to be is to communicate (Vanhoozer 2010), and thus being in communication, or shall i say interjecting in conversation with young people, in the unpredictable , unplanned environment of detached youth work is akin to helping us and them fully realising our identity as humans.

As Migilore claims “We live in Dialogue” , Bakhtin would argue that “To live, means to participate in dialogue; to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth” , having dialogue or Dialogism could mean “less about literature than to life, “Dialogism begins by visualising experience as an event. the event of being responsible for (and to) the particular situation existence assumes as it unfolds in the unique (and constantly changing) place i occupy in it” (Holquist)  And so, as we occupy spaces in these particular moments of space and time and make an injecting effect in it, we change history for the young person, we affect them, share the way, or the stuff of life. Being an outsider interjecting in and with young people in our detached youthwork we communicate in voice and acts to enable potential to be fulfilled.

So whilst Conversation and dialogue is considered a useful tool, or core method of education in the philosophy of youthwork, fundamentally it is much more than that, it is part of who we are. we are dialogical communicative beings. As christians this kind of dialogical interjection also represents something of the God who speaks and acts to us, his creatures, in as much an unpredictable way, and we are free to accept or reject the call of his voice.

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