If Young people exist in community – should youth workers develop positive community approaches?

In  a few weeks time im delivering a workshop at the Federation of Detached youthwork conference, the title of which I am yet to finalise, but in readiness of the conference and its theme, i have asked around a few places to get a few definitions of ‘Youth work’ as well as gather some from the resources i have to hand on my bookshelf, or recent articles.

One of the themes of the Conference is – ‘Is community back on the Agenda?’ for detached youthwork, with the brief that aspects of partnership and community work seem to be more common place in detached youthwork at present, with the reason being that it might be other agencies, such as the police, that are in effect funding it, and so there has to be a community, or at least a community agency partnership focus to the work. The question i want to ask is

Why did ‘Community’ go off the agenda for (detached) youthwork practice? and as it has done – has the consequence been that young people have become isolated from a wider community in youth work (and youth ministry) practice?

From a historical perspective, the plight of the individual young person came to the attention of the philanthropist or voluntary organisation in the 1870’s or earlier. The Urban poor terrorised the streets, finding their way to the church – who provided Sunday schools, or for the rougher ones, the Ragged schools, where they were educated, and that is why this provison existed (it was never creche for young people who didnt stay in the service..) then organisations formed, such as YMCA, and Barnados. District nurses found the young people on the streets, as did Thomas Barnado, and services formed from this early detached work.  In its history therefore, the act of philanthropy was directed to the young person who was isolated from the community, and to be found in need on the streets, or bedraggled at a local church.

Where club based work had a natural bent towards spending time with young people away from their family community in the building – detached less so – still the primary interactions are with the young person first and foremost – though for detached it is not as if other people are on the streets in the evenings, dog walkers, pub goers, people who need stuff from a late night off license, people waiting for a bus. In a way the argument could be made that young people in all of these situations sought out provision and spaces where they can socialise, and be apart from others in the community. Though at times this might be a decision they dont get to make when they are asked to leave their home for an evening. They might have isolated themselves, so did youthwork focus too much on the young person as an individual distinct from community? , rather than as a social being constructed and in context of their community – and make means to develop community approaches..

Some of the isolation of the young person from their community is reflected in the small scale sample of definitions people have given about what youth work is:

Youth work is a way of giving young people the opportunity to feel valued, accepted and heard. (comment on Facebook)


Youth work seeks to meet people where they are at, engage them, identify their wants and needs and support them to achieve this. (comment on facebook)


‘Youth work is a professional relationship in which the young person is engaged as the primary client in their social context’ (Sercombe, 2010a:27)

As young people were considered as a distinctive demography in society (Griffin, C, p 18,1997) so then did the prevalence of practice that isolated them as an entity became common & justified. As the ‘problem’ in the society, they were the entry point, because they could be found, to help educate, to help transform the wider community (as some of the definitions above allude to) . Detached youthwork in the 1960’s realised that the community plays a significant part in the nature of the practice, Goetschius and Tash determined that The borough of London played a significant part in the setting for its detached work, and the young people they would be in contact with, yet though they specify a ‘work with community’ their predominant role in detached was to educate young people in the services that the community offered and suggest which to “accept, need or reject” (Goetchius & Tash, 1967;209), but they do recognise the need for good community work, which takes time, in conjunction with the detached youthwork they were offering.

Thus, the community of the young person is recognised as playing a significant part of the young persons life, and there is attempt by these pioneers of detached to enable the young person to retain a critical and yet close appropriate connection with it as part of their identity and development, they in this practice unintentionally it appears, developed community practice thinking in detached work, even though they met young people on the streets, often isolated from the community geographically.

What of the church…..?

Last week there was an article which suggested that Young People in churches should be more included in the congregation and services. I referred to it in a previous blog. And so, but from a different perspective- retaining the separation since the early Sunday schools back in the 1850’s – the church in its style of youth work (am not going to go into the definitions discussion here) has retained a separation. Not only that, it has adopted language based on adolescence, and sub-cultures, or generationalisms, that enforce through language the separation of young people. If young people arent in church its because they are different, they need understanding, and they need something separate/relevant/’fresh’, they might be, but in all of those conversations the culture of the church retains normative. They as young people are the distinctly different, and therefore need isolating or treating different distinct from families, or the wider faith community, (let alone the community of a young person who doesnt attend the church). Isolating so that a youth worker can work with them.  The language of ‘family and childrens work’ and ‘youth and community’ work has become more common recently in job titles in faith settings where youth work/ministry once dominated, but that might be due to restricted finances than because of a shift in approach to develop whole community practices of faith – though i stand corrected where this occurs. But in the main the separation is retained.  And ministries are formed, conferences are had and conversations occur which maintain the distinctions, the differences and view of young people as isolated units- separated from the people of the organisation of the church – in the main.

External factors in Youth work have determined the shift to isolation, as Mark Smith identified, the problem of individualism and case study approaches to working with young people is not a new one  http://www.infed.org/archives/e-texts/individualization_and_youth_work.htm , and in this government policy context, talk of resilience, personal development, employability of the individual became second nature in the conversations about youth work – fitting neatly with person centered therapy approaches of Carl Rogers, and taking the political sting out of a Freirean approach to education. The individual young person became valued and respected – and appropriately so, and this is reflected in some of the definitions, there is barely a mention of the young person as a social being or their social education in a community. But did they then as young people only become even more isolated from their community – as they became worked on. They formed new community in a club, a programme or a project – such as a YMCA or a Princes trust course – not knocking these, but thinking of how the young person is isolated from and it is not the whole community educated through such a process – they are individualised further with development plans or evaluations.

The question then is;  has Youth work isolated young people from their community too quickly?  did it narrate (was it forced to narrate) a discourse about young people that serves its own reason for existence as a practice. The government are reducing statutory youthwork, the church and voluntary services retain an element of youth provision. But how that youth work provision, and how young people are segregated from the wider community where it occurs is to be questioned. And critical questions of viewing young people in their community context remain.

So, what could be a solution?

Maybe the shift is first in the thinking around the language of young people, of young adults to start off with. As Sercombe identified- youth work might be able engaging with young people in their social context’ – A community approach to youthwork might consider that young people are to be engaged with, with their social context, not isolated from, but deliberately with those around them, in local groups and communities. Richard Davies writes that

At the heart of youth work as an activity is the development of young peoples ability to live better lives and in part this requires a grounding in community

Maybe this is a start, as often its not only that a young person is isolated from a community. But how the community is viewed is also important.  Not unlike the situation that befell the churches in the 1850’s, the community is often blamed for the state of the young person who then turned up bedraggled, but who now might be rude, loud, or displaying other behaviours. So, its not just that the young person is isolated by agencies away from the community, but that the agencies have a negative view of the community itself. Young person is the victim of the community  is a common mentality.

If you have got this far, (and you deserve a medal), then can i point you in the direction of this article on the Nurture development website: http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/weve-tried-isolation-hasnt-worked-politics-communit/  . What Cormac argues for is that an isolated approach of Asset based community development is risky without a whole community approach, where a community is needed for its gifts, its resources, and its strengths, and to be a contributor over and above that of agencies.

In a way it is a picture of how an approach has isolated people to itself from a community and expected change to happen as effective without it. I wonder if forms of youthwork suffered the same. When individual approaches, or even group approaches with young people that provide distinction from a wider education (be it personal, social, spiritual) of a community, have occured, when community approaches, or the recently popular, intergenerational approaches have been whats required for long term understanding & change. Maybe it has been easy to isolate young people and work with them to enable them to a different future despite their community, but surely a whole community approach where gifts and resources are identified (circa ABCD, or Goetchius & Tash, 1967)  makes this a distinctly better path to travel?  The same could be said for the church as an organization – youth still feels a problem to be solved. 

Maybe community is back on the agenda for detached youthwork, given its proximity to a local community it never went away, but in addition maybe asset based community development & education should be on the agenda as a pre-requisite for all meaningful youth work.


Davies, R , Places to go, things to do, people to see, in Kraft P, Horton J, Tucker F Critical Geographies of Childhood and youth, 2013, pp 79-91

Griffin C, Representation of the Young, in Roche & Tucker, Youth in Society, 1997, p17-24

Sercome H, Ethics of Youthwork , 2012; p28

3 thoughts on “If Young people exist in community – should youth workers develop positive community approaches?

  1. Interesting.
    to look at it from a different point of view, might it not be that community is back on the agenda, or that it ever went away, but became intuitive to practice but not explicit to practice.

    To often when I ask staff about the role of youth work, in there lives and the young people we work with I get half answers, not because people don’t understand there practice but like much in helping professions people who do the work take for granted certain element and we forget to properly knowledge and celebrate them. Which results in less focus and refinement of practice but not always to a reduced role.

    ‘The question then is; has Youth work isolated young people from their community too quickly? did it narrate (was it forced to narrate) a discourse about young people that serves its own reason for existence as a practice. The government are reducing statutory youthwork, the church and voluntary services retain an element of youth provision. But how that youth work provision, and how young people are segregated from the wider community where it occurs is to be questioned. And critical questions of viewing young people in their community context remain.’

    I don’t think we as a field create a context around young people that individualise them, or I would say compared to other fields informal youth work maintains it’s community focus more than most other services. I would point to for examples the difference between what now exist as Targeted youth support services, that often exist with the sole focus on the individual and group work if and when it is used is used in the context to support the individual.
    Youth work of the more traditional kind both detached and centre based retains at it core, the belief that voluntary association and the group space have value to the education and development of young people both individually and as a group.
    Addtionally Youth workers are often local, if not from the direct area from the wider community, often volunteers and part time staff are directly from the area that the young people live and have many time ‘come up through the ranks’. More than just this local feed in from worker and older peer, particularly within the youth centre or club setting young people are brought into the same space as people they might not know. It fosters a community within the club. That association is built.
    There is a element of creating or bringing out a community of young people that yes might be seen to isolate them from there elders, this I would say is more a social ill we struggle as workers to over come rather than something we have done for our benefit as a profession.

    Within my practice I do my best to also tie our small club and detached work into the wider context of the community, wether taking part in church services, community events or just being around the community. It’s worked well and myself and the young people are more on the radar than if we hadn’t been working. It’s not prefect button for example a village were young people hanging around was the 3rd biggest issue for residents of all ages. Having the church congregation come onside and donate time and money is massive.
    I this way I feel we often undervalue that day to day effect of community in our work. Because it is just often the natural practice of the youth worker.
    Again while you speak of the club as isolating young people from there community and detached less so. I would again suggest we can also argue the opposite. Within the club setting you can foster community be bringing in other local people, wether as guest or by having people happen to drop by. The club it’s self from a focal point of a community that people can drop in and out of.
    While detached meet young people out in there community they are often isolated into groups of people there own age away from adults who might judge. We as workers have to earn the trust of young people to approach them and suddenly turning up with health visitor, the local vicar or vicki down the roads who brought some cakes can often not be a move that can be made or at least not for a long time.

    In a society that has moved more to the individual over the collective (for good and ill nothing is ever simple) with government and social agendas that have changed to reflect this, practice has often followed the wider social shifts (again for good and ill), when under labour we have had statutory guidance, there was broad moves to follow not just the statutory obligation but the underlying explications (every child matter, integrated youth service connexions etc) or under the collation and now the conservatives we’ve been told what were not doing well. We have of course as a field moved to show that we do these things.

    I think some of this is also about how we capture evidence of practice. It is far easier to measure an outcome in an individual than a group. It can end up pushing our evidence to look individual focused. When this is what we are asking our staff and are asked of ourselves to find, it can begin to trickle into practice, a subtle nudge that the individual is more important. It’s not however because the community element was ever off the cards just under valued.

    We can, must and will do more, I think it less why community is back on the agenda. But why we didn’t notice it in the corner this whole time helping us out behind the scenes, un seen often unacknowledged but always still key to youth work.

    In the same vane I believe that youth work has to long seen it’s self as informal education. when more rightly we should consider the role of the youth work both modern and historical as the informal education and care.
    We as a profession constantly undervalue the role we have to play in the development of young people as a holistic whole rather than a narrow view we have carried as primarily educators.
    I apologise that this is a rather quick but long and rambly reply to your well though out blog post.
    once again thanks for an interesting POV on youth work and youth ministry.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK and commented:
    Given yesterday’s notice of the Federation of Detached Youth Work conference and its theme of ‘community’, James Ballantyne, who is going to be one of the contributors, offers some advance thoughts, adding that you deserve a medal if you make it to the end of his piece. Obviously I’ve already put in for my reward.

    Liked by 1 person

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