In a digital culture, is youthwork stuck in the dark ages?

The days are gone where youd just pull up a pool table and have this kind of open space where there was chaos’

This was a reflection to me, from a community member, recently when talking about young people in a community in the north east. In a way, i could see the persons point, in a ‘digital age’ what point would table tennis be in an age of facebook, snapchat and other entertainment?. In another way, it also kind of revealed that to many people and this person included youthwork was the youth centre. Youthwork is the mobile youth centre that goes into the community. Youthwork is the facility. And though that missed the point, youthwork being the approach that uses the table tennis, or space for conversation. The persons reflection raised the question;

Has youthwork got to leave the dark ages, to have a future in a digital age?

In their recent statements of intent, the campaign group In defence of Youthwork made public their 16 point proposal for the future of youth work in the UK, a link to their post is here: It is about re-imagining the new future for youthwork, and states the following:

  1. Youth Work’s fundamental aspiration is profoundly educational, political and universal. It seeks to nurture the questioning, compassionate young citizen committed to the development of a socially just and democratic society. It is not a soft-policing instrument of social control.
  2. YouthWork as an integral element in education from cradle to grave should be situated in the Department for Education.
  3. The rejuvenation of a distinctive, state-supported Youth Work focused on inclusive, open access provision needs to be based on a radically different and complementary relationship between the Local Authority and a pluralist, independent voluntary sector.
  4. The renewed practice needs to be sustained by statutory and consistent funding, the purpose and allocation of which ought to be determined locally via accountable mechanisms, such as a democratic Youth Work ‘council’ made up of young people, youth workers, voluntary sector representatives, managers and politicians.
  5. Collaborative work across agencies is vital, but youth workers need to retain their identity and autonomy rather than be absorbed into multi-disciplinary teams.
  6. Youth Work should be associational and conversational, opposed to oppression and exploitation, collective rather than just individual in its intent, unfolding at a pace in tune with the forging of authentic and trusting relationships with young people.
  7. Cornerstones of practice should include the primacy of the voluntary relationship; a critical dialogue starting from young people’s agendas; support for young people’s autonomous activity, for example, work with young women, Black and Minority Ethnic and LGBTQ+ young people; an engagement with the ‘here and now’; the nurturing of young people-led democracy; and the significance of the skilled, improvisatory worker.
  8. The informed focus on young people’s needs flowing from open access provision is more effective than imposed, targeted work in reaching ‘vulnerable’ youth.
  9. Youth Work does not write a script of prescribed outcomes in advance of meeting a young person. It trusts in a person-centred, process-led practice that is positive and unique, producing outcomes that are sometimes simple, sometimes complex, often unexpected and often longitudinal. Practice must be evaluated and accountable, but not distorted by the drive for data, the desire to measure the intangible.
  10. Training and continuous professional development, particularly through the discipline of supervision, via the HE institutions and local providers is essential for full-time, part-time and volunteer workers in ensuring the quality of practice.
  11. JNC and other nationally agreed pay scales and conditions need to be defended and extended. However, a respectful engagement with the differing cultures and employment practices of voluntary and faith organisations, with the contradictions of professionalisation, is required. The emergence of independent social enterprise initiatives cannot be ignored.
  12. Closer links need to be renewed and created between the Youth Work training agencies, regional Youth Work units and research centres.
  13. Youth Work needs advocates at a national level, such as the NYA and Institute for Youth Work, but these must be prepared to be voices of criticism and dissent.
  14. Irrespective of Brexit, Youth Work ought to embrace the Declaration of the 2nd European Youth Work Convention [2015] and be internationalist in outlook.
  15. The National Citizen Service ought to be closed or curtailed, its funding transferred into all-year round provision, of which summer activities will be a part.
  16. The renaissance we urge hinges on a break from the competitive market and the self-centred individualism of neoliberalism and the [re]creation of a Youth Work dedicated to cooperation and the common good.

In case you hadnt noticed, there is nothing here about the ‘good old days’ of the open youth club, the table tennis table or the tuck shop with over priced mars bars. There is a sense that re-imagining is what needs to happen. In my previous post here, I reflected on how other service providers are now using the language of youthwork, without the relationship or philosophy of it, in their work with young people, such as teachers and police, and many voluntary groups and churches have been part of the ‘youthwork’ scene for a while, and at least they have had some training in its philosophy. However, critically, whilst the approach and philosophy of it remains crucial, there is a sense that as youthworkers the methods of how it is done may have to be re-imgained out of the dark ages.

But that doesnt meant that we avoid the dark spaces, the places in between, where no other organisation fears to tread, and i dont mean the streets, or the night time, necessarily- as it may even be that there are fewer young people out on the streets that there used to be. (i think in pockets this is changing, as young people are rejecting indoor technology). And so, the time, the place, the space and the method might indeed cause others to worry, but that may be where we have to go.

That place might be the afterschool time, the before school time, the lunch break or other time, it neednt just be the late evening.

Bubbling around for really only the last 10 years is the digital connections youthworkers make with young people. And the ethics of these are not to be repeated here, but in some way we might want to find a way of developing connections with young people that are consistent with the philosphy of youthwork practice, somehow, that isnt deemed unsuitable, grooming or something else. Could there be a ‘digital youth club’ a space for young people just to be in with a range of other young people? How might that work or be realised? How might it retain the safety and informality of the public space and the full humanity of that space too? Just a thought an idea. If that space doesnt exist in the normal apps and programmes, then maybe its in need of being created. But what else might be needed, if youth work is required to ‘leave the dark ages’?

What if it doesnt? What if the future of youthwork is not that different from the strengths of its essence, the purpose of its intentions and its dream for a better world for young people to be participants within. That doesnt seem dark to me, its hopeful and promising. The only thing, in reality that needs to leave the dark ages is the prejudice that people have of young people and the youth workers themselves who represent and stand up for them. Youth work is naturally futuristic, we need to think that change can occur and keep dreaming the possible. Yes, the methods may have to keep adapting, the practices creating space in the new times for the magic of it to occur, and the environment to be realised that causes it. But leave the dark ages?

The problem is less that youthwork needs to leave the dark ages, is that what the open club did was create the space for participation that this persons was asking for. In the dark ages is a perception of what youthwork is all about, the non-descript open youth centre that was a haven for poor behaviour. It is that perception that needs to be resigned to the dark ages, what this person and what youthwork is all about it is nothing other than bringing a perception about young people right up to the future, the cooperation, creative and participative potential that young people, and a political endeavour that this is. It is continues to be futuristic and youthful to continue to believe in the ideas and possibility lying dormant in every young person. In the dark ages is the seen and not heard, the voiceless or the consumer young person, and resigned there, to rot. In the digital space, much that positively young people do is create narratives, create community and contribute, thats what we all probably want, significance. Young people are finding it online, like many of us are, and this same significance might be what youthwork is about.

Does youthwork have a future in a digital age?  It might need to harness what young people find and do online, but ultimately its not what it believes in needs to be resigned to the past, as young people in the future need youthworkers more than ever (its just being ‘covered’ by other organisations, see linked post above) – what needs to be resigned to the dark ages is the attitudes about young people, and also the perception of the old battered youth club. That old battered youth club fostered the kind of conversations that forged youthwork relationships. And those relationships hosted and fostered the potential of young people. And that is timeless.

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