Detached youthwork as a community building exercise

Earlier this week i wrote a short piece that held a mirror on the faith organisation of the church to the comparison of ‘the community’ in Cormac Russells blog on the nuture development site, this article is here: I notice that on the same Nurture development site, Shaun Bartlett has written a sequel, titled ‘building bridges or walls’ – this is here, and worth a read:

In the article – Shaun comments, from the perspective of being a youthworker for a while in Ayrshire, that;

In every neighbourhood, there are residents who care deeply for young people and who believe in them. They are not motivated by the impulse to keep young people “off the streets” or “out of trouble”. Instead they have a genuine and well-intentioned instinct for connecting young people into civic life. They see the untapped energy of all young people, and are sincerely perplexed and often distressed as to why others can’t see what they see in the young people of their community. Where some only see trouble, they see potential.

Among such folks, there are a number who are able to bridge the gap between young people’s potential and potential places of welcome in their communities for the gifts that young people have to offer.

This first section describes perfectly the tension experienced by the detached youthworkers, their volunteers and some of the criticism or expectations of it. For some, detached youthwork can be a means of social control, a catalyst of physical movement – yet as Dynamo international state in ‘The international methodology of streetwork throughout the world (2008);

Social street work favours an innovative proximity approach where the people play a predominant role in any action undertaken, from its beginnings (the request) throughout its development (accompaniment). It is this trust-based relationship, built up with the subject, which will help break the silence and enable support to be given to the person.

The underlying idea in social street work is not to take a person away from the streets or their surroundings “at all costs”, especially if it consists of compartmentalising them in a new social context where they will feel uncomfortable.

Whatever the context, be it a child, a young person or an adult, the work of accompaniment means building self-esteem, developing personal skills, independently from the degree of exclusion, and enabling participation in social life.

Increasing young peoples capacity in the social life, their participation and reducing exclusion (not of their making often) of it is part of the process of youthwork – especially that which starts from the streets . Yet there can still be expectation that detached work leads to a building- in the short term. What Shaun is suggesting, I think, is that often many local people understand the culture of the young people and have some sympathy with them. As i am in the process of helping to train people in detached youthwork in a specific place, those from the area, tend to not only have more knowledge of the young people, but equally if encouraged, have the desire to see them thrive despite it, being slightly less prone to see needs, but more untapped gifts. It can be as constant a tension between seeing the potential and actual of the gifts of young people, and worrying about their reactions and assessing their needs and trying to help, a natural response at times.

Shaun makes a further point worth reflecting on though. How often are the gifts of the young people, who are encountered in detached/mission type youthwork, given back into the community in order that they can re access it and create identity in it?.

Giving a young person a leadership role in their own youth club is one thing, or maybe even a leadership role in the sunday school – but where might they pay it forward as to speak, not just serve those who helped them become ‘redeemed’ or have their gifts harnessed – but give that back to the community that once rejected them?  Places of welcome where these gifts can be harnessed, can be as fluid as the conversation on the streets, in that space there is a moment of ‘theatre’ where a scene is outplayed, and performance is displayed, played by a gifted young person. The gift needs to be payed back so that young person can increase in their civil life in society, allow not just ‘the youth/church organisation’ to see & feel the benefit, but for others to see a change too.

Further on Shaun makes the point that we as workers on the streets, in the public places with young people are to become the steward;

A person that doesn’t lead, but offers guidance and stewardship nurturing strong citizenship amongst young people and the civic life of their community: they find space for, and often broker young people into community space, to take action on what matters to them.

On detached, the key issues for the young person are often brought to the fore, they are real, and honest at times, and often quick to lay the blame of their situation elsewhere. The game that is often harder to play is to have the toolbox of questions, or converstions that guide the young people into becoming the agents (agency) of their potential future change. Often we maintain the helper role, as adults, or the signposters, but building community, even building community as a faith group involved in detached youthwork, might involve a type of community building that provides only the structures for young peoples gifts to be awakened and they individually and collectively undertake actions of change for themselves and the community at large. They might be their own stewards after all.

If young people are citizens in their community first and foremost – how dare we on one hand proclaim their ‘anti-socialness’ ?  is this the value and language of the community organisation (Goeschius & Tash, 1967, 100), rather than the informal community- the families or the young people themselves.  The kind of language that restricts freedom and movement. To build assets is to remove the walls, often constructed by language, and for communities tarnished by external reputation, but filled with signs and actions of true community to become places of welcome, and spaces for young peoples gifts to be harnessed, and stewarded.

If i was going to reflect a little theologically on this, the obvious place would be to think about Jesus mission strategy with the disciples to go in pairs to local villages and await being welcomed, a model of practice  Jesus himself shows the disciples with the incident with the woman of Samaria (see for this in more detail), and it is also throughout the Bible narratives of people being commended for the gifts that they bring to be shared in the community, not just the emerging faith community, though this was more evident as the faith community closed ranks during intense persecution. The essence of the Biblical drama that is ongoing is summed up by Kevin Vanhoozer, a catholic evangelical theologian who says:

“The Christian faith is not a private affair for individuals but a community-building project” (Vanhoozer, 2014)

Building the kingdom is a building process.

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