Theres a bit of a recurring conversation going on in a number of different places at the moment, that is building a conclusion that Youthworkers today arent speaking from a position of strength.
On one hand there has been the decimation, or virtual obliteration of funding from local councils (brought about from national government funding reductions, excused by ‘austerity’ as a narrative) towards statutory youth services. This has had a knock on effect almost everywhere in regard to youth and community work, and for young people themselves. Much ink has been spilt on working out all the effects. From loneliness, knife crime, mental health on an individual and social level – but also where schools and other institutions have been subtley charged with filling in the gaps – making a mockery of funding cuts and also trying to ‘do youthwork’ without the agenda less approach of youthwork. (That post is here: The effect of disappearing youth clubs ) This reduction in youthwork, then has an effect on those seeking to be employed and qualified in it, and the reduction in courses, funding and applications for these. Yes, the voluntary sector and social businesses may have been given the open book to fill the gap, but they do so with orgainsational survival and competition as core objectives – stuff which flies in the face of partnerships, collaboration and community which underpins the very nature of what youthwork is all about. Anyway. Thats one conversation.
The other conversation is in the faith ‘sector’ , and it is similar. Though not starting from centralised funding cuts. It does have funding as part of its issue. The last 10 years has seen the gradual shift in youth work posts in faith organisations/churches in the UK. Whilst there are still many vacancies in some areas , this is also coupled with the reductions in courses across the country. A conversation about the pay for youthworkers, isnt new, given the extortionate housing costs in some places means that this is only a profession for the single, the young, or with those with a decent second income in the family. Unless a position also includes accomodation. Some of the high water marks of youth ministry, such as Soul Survivor, and collaborative working on resources (see ‘joined up, 2003, and other resources) gave the impression of a growing impetus for youth ministry as a profession and the hope of a collective voice, that inspired and could encourage many. A look back at Youthwork magazine from 1999, and it reveals colleges and courses cramming up the pages with adverts to attract people to them, a variety of jobs and vacancies, a rhetoric of positivity and a belief that youth ministry was the future, and the church needed to catch on and up.
The conversation now is that Youth work and ministry is not in a position of strength.
The reality is that youth work and ministry never was in a position of strength. Position of ‘stuff’ maybe.
Of course stuff was happening. The myriad of activity… But was the stuff happening that was in the corridors of the power brokers?
Youthwork slipped from the department for education (where it had sit for a considerable length of time) , but were youthworkers in that conversation. How might youthworkers affect education policy – rather than the other way around? Yet the place of youthwork slipped to crime prevention departments and now leisure and tourism…
At the same time were youthworkers in churches busy taking kids to soul survivor, were they also holding or furthering conversations at the time about increasing the status of youth ministry in the church, at a systematic level? Ensuring better pay, or housing, or stipend, or support, or recognition for the ministry within these settings? only a few, and that seemed hard work, easier to play the passive game. Not make a noise or fuss. Accept a low wage for the sake of calling. Contribute to a year out scheme that could be deemed like modern slavery. Then move on to not be a youthworker and represent young people for a stable role that carries a ‘higher calling’ (by others), but would that occur if the youthwork role was more stable?
Yes, as youthworkers we like to be in the thick of it, in the action, behind the scenes, getting messy in the margins, much of the time we’re trying to encourage young people to have a voice, and promote their voices (all fantastic) such as the recent youth parliaments and protests – all the time not realising or being able to do anything about the rug of that process and practice being pulled from under our feet. Empower others, dont do political. But thats not got anywhere. Youthwork is political. And the campaign groups continue, just. Though in youth ministry, its less a campaign group, more a few experienced youthworkers trying to get something done. Its difficult to make waves in a culture of compliance in a role that is paid for. Dont upset the payroll.
Systematic change is still required. All the stuff about young people in society requires and demands it. Imagine if loneliness is reduced because youthworkers (the same one) is present in communities for 10 years. Thatd be helpful wouldnt it? What about the same for all the activities youthworkers do, sports, social and spiritual – all things bereft in communities, where theres one crisis (obesity) to another (mental health) – so what if there was strategic and systematic commitment to youth and community work provisions in every community. How might that encourage the process of helping young people flourish, its probably immeasurable, and thats probably the point.
Would this be the same in churches? The best examples of where youth ministry works is where the persons have been around for more than 5 years. Not unlike the community, any community thrives on this kind of stability, and young people are no different. And I am guilty as charged, given up a role after 2 years, and struggle with another after the same. It would systematic change of thinking from funding and affiliations to commit to fund workers who are involved with youthwork for them to have significant long term contracts, and the stability equivalent at least to the minister. But this is not an argument from a position of strength, but then again, even at its surfing of the crest of its own bouyant wave, it was barely strength anyway. Strength implied that people were listening to youthworkers and their voice and enabling them to have increased participation in processes, methods and politics, that youthwokers were trying valiantly to encourage young people themselves to have. And whilst i write off the last 20 years in one fail swoop, there are and were some exceptions to all of this. But very little of that has lasted to the point where current decisions about youthwork and young people are made in the knowledge and collaboration with youthworkers or their approach. Theres dragons den meetings to decide funding, and consultations that appear relatively tokenistic.
What might it take for youthwork to actually be in a position of strength? In both the government and the church?
and who is prepared to make a stand to cause this to happen, and how will anyone know when this has happened?
Was youth work in a position of strength? Maybe it was just in a better place than it is today by a long way – but strength? not sure about that one..