Detached youthwork : taking our cue from the context

If every single moment with every young person is a new moment, a different moment, then what are the cues that we take into that encounter?

One thing ive realised, that, different to the club or centre based work, is that the context of that space is hugely significant. I found especially recently, even in one area of Durham, that doing detached youthwork in a neutral open space like the skate park, has a vastly different feel to it that in a park surrounded by houses, or in and amongst the streets between those houses. Maybe that’s a reflection on how i feel about the space – but i dont think its far off the mark to say that encountering young people in a space they’ve chosen to go to to have their own activity away from their homes, is different to when we encounter young people within 20m of their front doors, and when parents may be in the front garden watching, or looking through the kitchen window. its not a neutral space, chosen by a young person, its only where they’re allowed to go and within eyesight.  Being aware that the detached youthwork is taking place in the heart of the community is due reason to have greater diligence in terms of the performance of the detached work, it would be truly accountable to the community, who may be watching on, and also being ready to be introduced to parents and relatives who could be introduced to.

It also brings up the awkward question of speaking to young people, not only when they might be in their front gardens, but also if they are with their parents? my usual thought would be to ‘ignore’ family groups on detached – but that might be discretionary – and only count in the ‘neutral’ spaces of public parks, not just outside young peoples houses, where it might seem odd not to.

Over the last few years i have done or tried to do detached youthwork in two very similar sized small towns/large villages, and if you were looking at population size, local amenities and proximity to larger town/city – they wouldnt too different.  Yet trying to do detached youthwork in a more middle class area, such as East Devon – where almost young people dont need you or on the contrary expect huge amounts of stuff – seems vastly different to East Durham villages where young people are intrigued, ask questions, are happy to chat, in comparision they seem grateful. They also, in comparison with the same age young poeple have a greater confidence in the space of the small town, they grew up in, that the city-based young people who are in a pecking order for territorial influence, on estates where larger groups of 15-6’s roam around like packs on the pride. Surveys in the Guardian, based on the Census results also showed that in this same East Durham Village there was a higher proportion of people who identified with a faith tradition/community – this again has been reflected in the oppenness of the young people to share and have questions about an aspect of their life they are familiar with even if they dont attend the village parish church.

So, in exploring the land, in encountering young people in their chosen context, we are to be aware of the nature of the land that we are exploring, not who it belongs to per se, but how the land has an effect on the young people – what it means to them in that space? how safe is it for them? how chosen is it? and what does our presence do in that space on the occasions we are there, and what about the times we’re not?

Does it make a difference if we observe and be part of the young persons activity? ie football or skateboarding, or if we are the activity – when theyre bored and we are the entertainment- there are differences to us and how we are with them, and how they interact with us.  What if we’re to be with them during activity that they dont want us to be with them – ie drinking?  or if the entertainment they want from us is to be publically racist/sexist and endorse their way of thinking. Does the context have an impact on this – well i guess it does- if their language and endorsed values stand up in a small community- seperate to family- then it might be that these are easier to break down and encourage reflection, but if this positon is held in proximity to a larger closer knit family community – then it becomes a significantly different ball game.

Just a few more reflections about the context of detached and how being part of this space causes us to think about the kind of space it is for the young people and the kind of space we’re creating by being there.




Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( , though this blog is my own personal views. I am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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