Youth workers take heart – you’re trying to do the (almost) impossible!

Over the last few weeks my Son and I, have been playing a game – I have also used in leadership sessions on strategy that I have facilitated as part of my role for Frontier Youth Trust. The game is called ‘Forbidden Island’  and it involves setting up the pieces iin a formation, to form an island, and then using each others abilities, and the game play to collect treasure and escape from the island before it becomes flooded. We have had the game a while, and when we got it aside from a few scrapes we managed to do it fairly easily. However, last week I played it in a group of 4 at the leadership training, and according the way the island formed – and doing the game with ‘new’ people we lost. Last night my Son and I played, and though we changed the settings from ‘novice’ to ‘expert’ we still lost – twice.

Whilst the game relies on a number of factors, each very changeable, and then some strategic thinking – how it is set up also contributes to how difficult it is. Making it virtually impossible for a group of newbies, or even more experienced players.

On a slightly different note, I once went for a job doing door to door sales for Gas and Electricity company, in the interview i was asked if i had done anything similar before. My response was that i had done door to door evangelism (dont judge me) as part of working for a church a few years before. It was, i think, the only part of the interview 20 years ago that i got full marks, for the interviewee said; ‘well if you can sell people religion at the door, you can sell them gas’

The point being – some times we dont realise quite how difficult – almost impossible the work we do actually is. And if we stopped to think about it – many of the conditions around make being a youthworker considerably difficult – and almost impossible at times to think that we might have ‘succeeded’ or ‘reached an outcome’, yet that doesnt stop us believing, trying, and being determined that something could be different for a young person, their family or the community around them. 

Now of course, there are other ‘impossible’ jobs around. Many in social work, the NHS and education might feel the same. Undervalued and Overworked, and under resourced. But some of those roles carry with them a large weight of political or organised will to make things different, unions, or the general public favour (especially for the NHS). And for many even in these professions they are under resourced and busy because of lack of nurses, for the youthworker under resourcing looks very different, it is no money. There is no shortage of work or even vacancies for employment in some of these sectors, and they are in the current climate still very much impossible jobs.

In regard to clergy, there is a fair amount of challenge, following vicars on twitter, and acknowledging the high issues of stress and mental health problems in the role is a sign of it becoming significantly more difficult, demanding and discouraging a role that it might used to have been. But again, there are vacancies for clergy, and long term contracts for clergy- its not the only thing – but security in a role can go a long way.

In another example, within Youthwork practice, whether we like it or not, theres a big push to help young people with ‘developing resilience’ that youthworkers are involved in through clubs, groups and activities. Yet at the same time theres not really the same push in society to create a better environment for young people to grow up in, especially the stressed out schools, the target driven teachers, or ofsted orientated outcomes. So, the youthworker ‘trying to build resilience’ is in a way trying to push against a heavy weight that is playing the game against the individual or group of young people. None of which is in its favour – just neo-liberalisms way of trying to get value out of education. So, the youthworker is almost trying to do, or measure, or actualise the impossible. But in a small way, its better to keep trying at the impossible, to keep believing that a young person might still flourish within or outside the ‘system’ and create those opportunities. And there are many other barriers, including poverty.

For the youthworkers in a faith context, or dare i say it in a faith-evangelism context- your task is as impossible. It is difficult to get anyone interested in the church, in the christian faith at the moment – let alone young people. You might only have a year contract to do the miracle, or be employed by the church without actually any other human resources or volunteers to ‘do the miracle’ – and theres no wonder its proving difficult and challenging. Because its virtually impossible (even with faith as an inspiration or motivation). But again, thats not to stop, its to realise that what you’re doing is not the game on an ‘easy’ level. What you’re trying to do isnt solved in a quick win, a short game – its long term. Nothing in faith based youthwork is about making something sustainable happen in the short term. Getting the church to ‘change’ though they pay you to get young people into the church (without saying as much) – impossible- almost… 

The youthwork manager – often forgotten in ‘youthwork blog posts’ – you know your job is impossible. Theres 28 plates spinning, from fundraising, to a child protection issue, to planning an away day, to writing a strategy, to recruit and train volunteers and everything else besides, you dont need me to say how impossible it can all feel. And everyone wants to tell you how they prioritised and organised, sometimes one dropped plate makes a heap of mess. And at the same time theres a longing for just ‘easy’ face to face action with young people – which isnt easy at all. Its not a completely impossible job – but it can feel like it, especially when funding gets tight and decisions about employment, contracts, activities and resources need to be made (including your own). But as a manager, you try and create an environment where others have the backing to do some of the difficult face to face stuff, create space to talk, training and supervision, try and eek out some funding for a trip, or a resource, or create an atmosphere of reflection, of determination and also support for the staff, the young person and the volunteer, and you fight, fight to keep the noise about young people to be more positive, to try and change the narrative about them. You galvanise and work in partnership, you gather and organise, you campaign and push for justice. All against the tide. The media tide, or local community opinion about young peoples place in society. It is an almost impossible task – but keeping on keeping on is what you and we all need to do. Image result for youthwork

For many reasons then, youthwork in its variety of forms, practice and approaches is an almost impossible job. It tried to act for justice and equality, tries to hear and respond to the voice of young people and give them trust and dignity, it flies in the face of those who write off young people in education or health systems. But think for a moment how much more impossible life might be or feel for that one young person you meet today without the conversation, question, activity or support that you are able to give them. Be encouraged, you’re doing an impossible job, yet for many young people you are making something positive more possible, and thats a beautiful thing and an impossible thing all at once.

The times we think it might be ‘easy’ in youthwork – hmm i think they are long gone…. ‘novice’ setting doesnt really exist. Take heart over Easter, have a break if you can, and deep down reflect on how you’re trying to create the beautiful in the places that can feel like the impossible.

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