Challenges in detached Youthwork (1)- Managing Relationships

There have always been a number of challenges in regard to the delivery of and sustainability of the practice of detached youthwork, and i thought it would be good to share some of these here, but also begin a conversation about some current and what might be future challenges.

Detached youthwork by its own strength is hugely unpredictable, it is difficult to say for certainty what is going to happen, when and where and with whom. Not unlike a drop in session or club, every night is different, every young person interacted with has had different experiences in the preceding time. Yet, possibly, the variables for detached are that much greater – at least in a club setting a young persons attendance is more likely in the rain – not less ( of greater significance a factor in the last two years of our british climate- , so not knowing or being able to prepare for a session can be a challenge, and being ready for the unexpected is also part of the planning.

As a consequence detached youthwork, which starts from a position of meeting young people in their chosen spaces in their community, at their chosen time has a challenge to know when to be in the right places, what to do there and how to be appropriate.

Yet, the unpredictability of contact time means that often the relationship between the young person, or group of young people and the detached worker/team is more difficult to quantify, if anything it is de-constructed to being a series of spontaneous conversations, often in the context of the whole group, and in a public space.  Is this any different to club work? well it kind of is, given that the sharing of tasks, games, activities, and the process of decision making, or the politic of the club can be a method of developing purposeful relationships. Outside on the streets, there could be 3 or 4 fleeting chats, or a number of acknowledgements, or ‘playing the rules of the game’ for a while ( See Goetchius and Tash 1967:93-111),in which the young people are assessing intentions, trust, acceptance, testing boundaries, exploring authenticity of the workers, and this takes time, as does immersing yourself in their culture to understand their values, behaviours, attitudes and beliefs.  I wonder what space there is for this to happen in a club/centre environment or is all assumed? until things ‘kick off’?  However, i digress, and so the relationship is the cumulation of conversations, of actions and behaviour, of testing the water – and yet how in detached youthwork can we coherently articulate that that is a relationship that is developing, or the identify the strength of it – even at an chronologically early stage? – especially if there isnt the possibility of shared activity over a xbox game or pool?

Evaluating change and effect is one of the more notoriously difficult challenges in detached youthwork, though not too dissimilar to centre based work. If the nature of the contact is categorised by a series of actions then it may be able to say whether the relationship has reached certain points, but relationships aren’t linear, and often a time of trauma in a relationship occurs after the point when a young person might have dared to trust.  You may have a really detailed conversation with a young person one week, but then only see them with their friends, in groups for a number of subsequent sessions, and so things to you might stall – but for them, they are wanting you to be trusted with that personal information, and not talk about it- right now in front of their friends- but if you do the right thing with this information now, what about next time? 

Again, there might not be the quick moment in the kitchen or back room of the hall to have that ‘how did things go?’ moment, when on the streets. But does that invalidate the significance of the relationships, no not at all. If anything, because the young person has confided in you, at a time that is their own, in their ‘territory’ then it carries even more significance, given the effort, and ‘game playing’ that might have been needed to lead up to such a scenario- some of that random banter, where you have felt no where in control has in fact oiled the wheels of the developing relationship- from their perspective. The challenge is how to validate this with others, with our management, our trustees, and often our funders.

Theres the challenge; supportive, purposeful relationships, if the desired outcome of detached youthwork, will take time. Meeting young people where they are at, will mean playing the rules of the game for a while, gaining trust and acceptance, and realising that there may be unpredictable significant moments, as well as many evenings of just random banter, or acknowledgements, or no one. Sometimes it is enough to just ‘be there’. Sometimes in the relationships that start cagey or with offence are the ones that last the longest, as you have stuck in when others have judged and left. And then theres the challenge of identifying how your progress is going with a ‘group’ but also what the relationships is like between you and (all) the individuals within such a group.

Over the next few weeks i am going to have a look at a few other challenges in detached youthwork, if there is something that you would like to have a discussion on, then please send me a comment.  A few things that are planned are : social media and the planned activity of young people,  measuring change, and dealing with conflict.  Contact me if you would like to begin a discussion on a new topic…





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