Relational/Detached youth work – hamstrung by uncertainty

I remember a time between 2004 and 2008 when as a youthworker i wasnt worried about finances. Not that i had any, or much. But because the type of work with young people i was involved in was largely programme related groups, or short term activities, it was relatively easy to ‘go through the motions’ of the groups and activities, because in the main the depth of the relationship was at arms length. This isnt meant to sound harsh or callous, just the reality of the situation.

In detached youthwork there is nothing programmatic about it, it is purely about developing a professional relationship with a young person in their context (Sercombe 2010) and so it relies upon the worker and young person giving of themselves into the space to negotiate a relationship. It is an emotional act, because it is a personal , person to person one. It involves effort on both parties.

Because it is an act of relationship, it requires the capacity to go the distance, if detached has short term agendas, thats probably a different type of animal. But if its purely relational then i am beginning to recognise that the conditions for it to work effectively have to allow for long term connections to be possible from the outset. Because, and not unlike mentoring relationships, if either party knows that the relationship is finite then it might be less likely either will invest and give into it, and if one party doesnt then, the neither will the other.

In some detached youthwork, young people connect with the people, actually they nearly all connect with the people, for others they also connect with the brand, the project and accept different workers who appear in the same jackets. though I wonder if neutral space places of detached like parks/skateparks and slightly more well off areas (like Perth, and im thinking from experience but not proof generally) are more accepting of different workers, whereas the community estate is about connecting with the same people.

With the national uncertainty of funding, or where local centres of youthwork start to struggle to find funding for detached youthwork, and this started to happen in Perth, when the future became more uncertain, it became more of a challenge to rise above this to develop the possibility of a supportive relationship with a young person on detached because I knew that it only had so long to develop, it just meant that i gave less into it, almost as a psychological self protection, human nature not to want to get hurt, or emotionally invest, to let them or the relationship down.

In effect relational work is hamstrung by uncertainty. It occurs when young people who meet detached workers find out that the worker is only going to be there another few months ( ie in June when the workers are students) – the young people back off, but also so do the students- at least the ones who have tried to develop relationships, but even then they know theyre only going to be there a year, its still an uncertainty in the development of the relationship. Self preservation, especially for the most hurt young people who dont want to be hurt or let down again.

Its probably an irony that the most relationship orientated approach in youthwork, with often the most ‘at risk’ young people, is the one where the longest term relationships developed in such as way are the most impactful of the most ‘deemed’ at risk or where the young persons promise is fulfilled, is also the most difficult to fund and provide the certainty for it. Its why it becomes a signposting thing so young people jump from it to someone else, but thats not them in relationship, its them being passed on. Or where the best detached youthwork is done by volunteers who can commit to the long haul, not students or paid people who rely on funding and become hamstrung by funding or the direction of the funding.

I may be wrong, i often am, but the type of youthwork, which is most, and not just detached, that requires at its heart the building of relationships as a form of educating and supporting and growing groups is one that because of our collective human nature is hamstrung the most by the uncertainties of the profession. Please someone win the lottery and donate it to detached youthwork projects in the UK… then itll just be a matter of convincing volunteers to stick around (and with great training they often do!)


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