Has this blog killed youth work?

Beyond the title, this is a serious conversation. Not just a provocative start to peak your interest, but a genuine question. Has this blog, and the now many others, become responsible for killing youthwork?

It would be easy to argue against. I could talk about the many 1000’s of views this blog has had. I could tell you about the feedback I have had whereby volunteers, clergy and workers, managers, supervisors and leaders have provided me, telling me how much benefit this blog has been to them. And I am truly honoured. So, this blog has helped practitioners. It has helped guide and advise. It has provoked a question and provided a reflection.

But has it become a problem ?

Because, if this blog, and the many others, have become the ‘go-to’ for the despairing youth worker, ie a Google search for ‘the role of youths in church ‘

Then what happens to youthwork as a profession as a result?

After all, teaching, medicine and social work haven’t dropped off the pace and become ‘online only’ – though their courses and demand for them to exist.

It was fabulous to receive feedback about this blog 4 weeks ago at a number of conferences. But the truth of what that also means is that whilst I may have influence, the profession is showing signs of rapid decline. There’s only shouting voices left, and this one isn’t going to be taken seriously academically or institutionally.

Blogging cannot shape the discourse of youthwork. It really can’t. But that it is doing so, shows what youth work has left, doesn’t it?

If the books are inaccessible and over priced? (Various recently all over £50)

If books that are accessible are under used?

Not just because of blogging, but why spend £50 on a book, unless you really are a student of the profession, a lifelong student.

It’s far easier to read a review here, or elsewhere and then not bother. So there’s another sale down the drain and license to say ‘Naomi Thompson’s book on Sunday schools talks about x and y and z’ without £80 being invested in the source material, the publisher and giving the profession , the discourse, the impetus it needs.

A profession fuelled on blogs and second hand reviews. Where the academic becomes superfluous. Has gone underground and become a protest movement. Not a serious discourse or profession.

Not that you need to read a book to be a good youth worker. Of course. But that’s not the point . The point is that whilst youthwork might continue in it’s various forms in practice, and blogs supporting them are now numerous, are creative and become almost essential. Their proliferation has by default also indicated the systematic death of the profession. Maybe they haven’t caused it. Maybe kindly it’s being propped up by them.

But a credible profession, which is what youth ministry and youth work, both claim to be, can’t rely on the sugar puff of a blog that’s popular for a week. No one is going to take seriously the future of youth work (in whatever form) if it’s main writers are those who have a moan now and then, and whose work isn’t peer reviewed, published and credible outside of the practice field.

We have to take seriously responsibility for our demise. There’s no advert on tv with a university library youthwork department asking for £3 a month to keep it going. But it is more likely to, if you buy at least 5 youth work books a year. Read them, not (Just) this.

Has this blog killed youthwork? Sadly maybe what it is a symptom of how superfluous youthwork has become. The tide might be turning. But from what kind of discourse of a base. Easier to read a few blogs and go to a conference, than really invest thoroughly in it, and you’d still be a good youth worker that many churches might still employ. Or just get a level 3. And there’s nothing wrong with either.

That’s just where youthwork is.

Killed of by chronic under value and funding. Yet we might ourselves need to look in the mirror and ask where we have been part if it’s downfall. Moan about the high street but still buy on Amazon.

Has this blog killed youthwork? Or just keeping the embers alive…..

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How might churches invest in young people? (if that’s one of the only ways young people will invest in the faith)

This is effectively the sentiment from Christian Smith who wrote, in 2003;

‘Young people are more likely to become serious about their faith, if the institution of the church makes significant investment in them”

So.. whilst invest possibly is a word that we might challenge for its financial association. There is a reality that churches who dedicate themselves to young people, and values that include, create safe space for and enable participation, are more likely to have young people within them who have a dedication to the faith. Honestly, drum kits and worship styles might matter far less.. especially, if, as Chap Clark recently suggests in ‘adoptive church ‘ these are merely tokens and are purchases that are bought instead of relationship.

So. Getting back to the sense of investing in young people, the first thing we might think of is money. But don’t. Because buying a Youth worker in, really might not be the right thing. Especially if buying a Youth worker causes all the people in a church already developing positive relationships with 11 year olds, to stop doing so. Honestly.. if you’ve got that far.. the best thing is to continue…

On this basis, investing in young people is far less about money. And far more about investing in them as people. Investing in them and connecting them in relationship with other people in the church, investing in their gifts and abilities, investing in them and understanding their social world with empathy. Investing in them so that they explore and create expressions of church that give them a sense of wonder, relationship and participation, not just attendees.. , invest in young people and their discipleship and their ministry in the world (not just volunteering to to the chairs), but invest in what they can bring to the world in response to God prompting and speaking through them.

So, it’s nothing like just about money. Investing in young people and their faith is a whole lot more.

It’s about investing in thinking positively about young people

It’s about investing in the volunteers who work with young people, with training and supervision

It’s about investing in the young people as more than recipients of resources

It’s about investing in their ministry and supporting them in it

It’s about making spaces inclusive and safe for challenging conversations

It’s about enabling participation in the whole faith community.. including the decision making processes.

It’s about challenging the stuff that young people have to deal with, not just supporting them through it.

It’s about investing in the 5 or less that you have, not the 25 you wish you had.

And a whole load besides… but I’m sure you get the point.. It’s not about money, trips or festivals, it’s about belonging, participation in ministry and the life of God and community.

Creating a culture of sharing life, of family, of participation and faithful risk taking, that might give young people, and anyone, the clearest indication that it’s people that matter to God, not structures and organisation.

Maybe then young people might invest in their faith back…

References

Christian Smith, 2003, Soul searching

Chap Clark, 2018, Adoptive church

Andrew Root, 2018, Faith formation in a secular age.

Focussing on the good in our youthwork; despite culture of numbers and expectations

Because it’s more likely that we’ll be heard saying things like;

We’re not as big as _________ up the road?

Or…They get to pray with their group.. or..

We just can’t get our young people to go to soul survivor?

Or… We only have a few leaders..or..

It just feels like were just going through the motions..

One of my roles is to travel up and down the north of England, talk to youth leaders and project workers in a range of youth work situations. Sometimes it’s to deliver training, supervision or reflection.

A common thing that key youth workers and leaders do is talk down their youth group. Often using one or some of the statements above. Maybe it’s the British thing to talk ourselves down, maybe it’s the awkward thing of feeling like open youth clubs are in competition with the more programme/activity orientated youth ministry like groups.

But what if we started with the good stuff. Start with the positive.

What about asking the question;

What’s good about your youth work?

So, go on then. Forget the negative comparative talk. Talk up the positive. What is it that makes your youth club come alive? Where is it’s spark? What’s good?

Is it the conversations? The volunteers and their team work? That young people feel safe? That there is respect? That young people participate? … go on.. why not write down with your volunteers next time, all the good things about your youth work?

And build from there.

Sod that, why not ask the young people too?!

In a way it’s so easy to reflect on the negative to improve practice, and then dig ourselves into a spiral of looking only negatively. But what if instead we made a conscious effort to focus, identify and describe the good stuff. The gifts, the questions, the space, the interaction, the sense of home. Stuff that’s good. Stuff of value beyond the money.

And if we can’t spot the good and value it, who else will?

If we are able to value the good, the positive, and identify it, build on it, and develop community, then it’s more likely that young people will want to be part of what we do and are. Surely. And our work is with the specific young people we have, not the ones up the road. And so, what is the good about them?

Maybe asset based community work, needs good identifying youth practitioners too.

So..why not start with the good! It’s a tough gig at times working or volunteering with young people, so it’s worth celebrating and giving yourself space to recognise what’s good about it, what’s of value and be encouraged by the sometimes invisible yet meaningful impact that you may be having.

Is what you’re doing worthy, true and lovely? Then..

‘Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, whatever is praiseworthy.. think on these things’ (Philippians 4;8-9)

It’s not going to do any one any harm to focus on the good that is done.. take credit youth worker, volunteer, leader, for the immense good, often unnoticed that you do. And hold it’s value close, and share it amongst you. Treasure the good.

Could the last remaining youth worker, please give the PM a hand with her knife crime problem?

This week, on Monday Theresa May held a conference in downing street with a number of organisations on the back of a rising panic about knife crime in London, but not just London. What this conversation didnt seem to do was start to address the deep seated issues of poverty, cuts and reductions in youth services that have created an environment where these issues have now got to crisis point. And poverty and austerity have created an angry and lost generation of young people. Understandably.

Schools cannot afford to train or employ staff to tackle knife crime.

The cuts to youth and childrens service have been savage since 2010. Under the austerity measures, it is estimated that over 600 FTE (and so with an extensive number of PT staff, this will be nearer 1000 people) youthworkers have been taken out of youth work orientated roles, on the ‘frontline’ an with a broadly youth work remit. Yes, some have been redistributed to social work, troubled families and to other agenda’d areas in local councils and statutory bodies (as my post here suggested. But savage cuts have taken an extra ordinary number of youthworkers away from the local community, and community practices where they were. Do a search of ‘cuts’ on the Children and young people now website and you will find plenty of evidence, such as this piece, written in February: https://www.cypnow.co.uk/cyp/news/2006432/childrens-services-at-breaking-point-due-to-funding-cuts-charities-warn

Youthworkers have expended energy trying to keep youth centres open, trying to be innovative to keep the semblance of a youth service going, become creative in ascertaining funding, yet at the same time training organisations, colleges and courses have been cut too, as their need has collapsed. There is not then the ‘churn’ of new youthworkers entering the field, as there once was. And the same might be said in the church. The same might be said in the voluntary sector, where there are jobs, but few applicants, at times.

Yet, the social panics about young people, county lines, mental health – and this week (again) knife crime – have come to the politicians attention, and the public at large… just… (even in a Brexit toxic week) and whilst I have written before about the knee jerk reaction for the promotion of youth services on the back of moral panics young people deserve better, in terms of being thought of as creative, energising, innovative, passionate and been subject to austerity policy (rather than to blame) .

We are left with the cumulative scenario, that it is now due to the public sector to deal with a response to knife crime  which is really interesting, as I am sure the policy of education revolved around the ethics of the market is really going to accommodate a space for knife carrying education, or peace and reconciliation, in and amongst a data pressured, outcome driven school system, where PSHE and citizenship have already been slashed. Concerns voiced by teachers and unions in this piece here: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/apr/01/knife-prevention-plan-unfair-on-teachers-say-unions

Responding to youth violence through youth work

So ultimately, the axe falls to the teachers in schools.

Because, there isnt the frontline youthworkers left, even though detached youthworkers produced resources into ‘street crime’ responses 10 years ago: https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=9781447323099&i=stripbooks&linkCode=qs. The voice of youthworkers and their ability to respond has been so diminished, devalued and restricted.

Where youthworkers had an on the ground perspective of the issues, the interactions with young people on the streets and have heard, seen and witnessed it, the task is for the public sector workers cocooned in institutions- subject to education policy remit (and not specifically for/with young people) . Yes, some youthworkers have been part of the conversation – but realistically – the question has to be asked ;

Would the remaining youth workers left help the prime minister out with her knife crime problem? 

The cart and horse had bolted at the time of the London Riots, government cuts to youth services produced anger and outrage, and yet here we are 7 years later. More cuts, more moral panics, and Theresa the hero holds a conference, yet has over seen the most damaging series of cuts to youth services in their 100 year history. Young people are almost left with little choice. Anything now is reactive, being on the ground in the first place might, just might have brought about more social cohesion and community, more understanding, influence and moral guidance with young people – take that all away and a youth worker is just an informal police officer. My guess is that the police dont want this gig either. Youthwork is not their speciality, neither is it as possible in such an environment. So – would the last remaining youthworkers give Theresa a hand? would you?

And if you do – what are you saying about how this ‘problem’ is caused by, and being complicit to an agenda which places the individual, rather than society at large, and the government for its cuts partly responsible.

Should Youthworkers be ‘policing’ young peoples emotions?

Getting young people off the streets, that was and still is one of the old mandates for youth workers, getting young people into other institutions was another.

Youthworkers effectively were tasked with policing the streets – or policing the third space in between organisations, so that young people wouldn’t fall through the gaps.

There is a new place for youthworkers, to effectively police ‘in town’.

And, though it is not new, it is back with a vengeance.

Youthworkers now tasked with policing young peoples emotions?

Young people are to be happy, and to be well.

The area of value is not the social space of the park, but the heart space, the attitude, the feelings of the young person.

Policing young peoples emotions so that ‘they are not unhappy’ with their lot..- I wonder.

I am just returning back from todays In defence of youthwork national conference, in Birmingham, in which the principle subject was on ‘happiness and well being’ . A number of conversations curated the day in which the concept that youthworkers had a new responsibility of ensuring the happiness of young people was a significant part of them.

I might suggest, that we would do well to be able to determine what ‘Happiness’ is – or even what ‘well-being’ is (and well being was only referred to during the day). But Happiness was explored in brief by Tony Taylor in the morning, and referring to Aristotle talked about human flourishing, and ended with a call to social happiness, social well being – after regaling his own frustrations with happiness as concept that focuses on the individuul to find contentment in the most shittest of situations, the most restricted of settings, education systems and welfare and benefit systems and housing scenarios, not to mention family, health and employment situations. But yes – ‘Be Happy’ throughout.

Related image

If the world of psycho- therapy and self help – places much of the responsibility of determining happiness with the individual, and I admit at this point, having recently undergone a period of time where counselling and therapy has been profoundly useful for me personally, I am also intrinsically aware that an individual can only affect their own happiness in a certain way. And equally, it has only been after my own counselling that I may even have tools and concepts to hand to help young people deal with their emotions. But is that the point?

I agree with Tony. We can do so much. We can decide individually how we might react in situations, we may even try and regulate our emotions, we may even feel happy. We may be able to to this ourselves individually.

But ‘Man is not an Island’. We are in community, as are every single young people and the groups of them who we interact with. There is a flow of communication, attention, emotion, complaints, pressure, tasks and trauma passed around, and young people may not, can not have the tools and experience to cope with these. Not without serious therapy and counselling – surely (and that isn’t the role of the youthworker is it..)

I am reminded of the considerable work of Cormac Russel and the Nurture Development site. Whilst there may be critiques of the purist Asset based community development. What I find in that resource, is a real determination to understand that community flourishing, community use of gifts, community development is the principle key to unlock many of the issues that any individual within it (including young people) will be. Developing community is key, good youthwork only exists in good community work. Social happiness may only be possible when the whole community is more on an equal footing, as ‘The Spirit level’ book ascertains. And so, poverty and inequality are factors in the depression and sadness that all face – even the rich- because their wealth is never enough. Loneliness is not an individual problem, it is a community problem.

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I might break off from this point and insert that it is far too difficult to not look at even our most prominent belief stories as episodes of individual faith, because our lens has shifted so far into the quagmire of individual thinking. A tendency to tell the Christian story about ‘how God saves me’ – might be dominant – but the reality, as the most famous verse in the Bible says ‘God so loved.. the whole world’ … the isrealites wandered in community, the trinity is a community, the early church was a collective. It would be dangerous to read to closely the position of the christian faith (as one example) as solely about ‘the individual’ – yet from our vantage point where individualism is key it would be harder not to. This is the point Christian Smith makes, saying that american Christianity for young people has become less of a community transformation programme (Vanhoozer, 2010), but a ‘self help therapy for the struggling’ – ‘Jesus is for me’ (Smith, C 2003)

I digress, but I think you see my point.

The rise of individualism has infected religion. Our lens is on ourselves, and our own miscontentment. We are own advertisers nightmare. Plagued by our own sense of disconnect and deficit, waiting or the next product to help us feel good, or shopping to alleviate the pain. Or alcohol. Id is from our own plane that we stand. Not ours in community context, but thats what we need to resist to think about young people. see them in community context. See them as Goetschius and Tash (1965) tried to say. within a web of community with values, behaviours and interests all interacting in a web of community.

Community flourishing seems a distant dream. The subtlety of neo liberalism, and its evangelists, has placed the responsibility of the shite of the world on the individual to cope with and be happy within, and find all manner of things for dealing with it, and their own mental health – exercise more, eat healthily, meditate – but don’t dare try and make the system be responsible.

About 11 years ago I was involved in a mentoring programme in and linked to schools, helping young people who struggled with school to re connect back, increase their timetable or to deal with some of their issues. Within that programme, it became apparent that dealing with young peoples emotions, or shall I say, helping young people identify, to name, and to reflect on their reactions due to their emotions was a key part. I read Emotional intelligence by David Goleman, as a result. I started to use the Brief solutions therapy mantra of ‘steps’ ‘numbers out of 10’ and giving, I thought young people space to explore emotions. But in such a short term, formal mentoring space it wasn’t ever really possible. It was not done in trusted relationships, and they were too agenda’d. But what I am trying to say is that dealing with young peoples emotions isn’t new. But dealing with young peoples emotions, anger, frustration, hurt and pain, in isolation is doing them a disservice. Helping them cope is only one part of the equation.

And measuring this… well that’s a minefield…..hoping young people tell us how happy they are… really? – when most of us feel happy differently by the hour…

I am not going to return to points ive made previously about ‘Austerity Generation’ and the ‘Market Ethics of schools’ – but something is as clearly wrong. And it is not social medias fault. Social media is a tool, and is often an escape. (and least young people aren’t drowning their sorrows in alcohol as much anymore)

So – what does it mean for youthworkers to be the police of young peoples emotions? Are we in danger of returning the role to the chirpy ‘youthworker as red-coat’ that Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith describe – always being the buoyant entertainer that distracts with fun – or the friendly youth work therapist who tries to go deep… quickly. But really – what is a youthworker really able to do? Or is qualified to do?

Image result for emotions

I end this piece with a short delve into some psychology that I am increasingly finding useful.

Deci and Ryan suggest that all human beings are motivated by each of these three things:

Relationship, Autonomy and Competence. (Bryan 2016)

From a youthwork perspective; Howard Sercombe writes that youthwork is a ‘professional relationship in which young people are engaged as the primary client in their social context’ (Sercombe, 2010)

My overriding question, if youthworkers are to be the ‘emotion police’ is – what kind of connection, autonomy and competence in this space is a young person actually able to participate in? – and in addition – what does this focus on emotions, as a target, do for engaging with young people , as the primary client, in their social context.

If we meet young people in their space, or try and create safe spaces for conversation, what kind of space is a young person going to engage with if its not derived by their agenda, their interests and passions and gifts – rather than be a space where their emotions are under scrutiny.

Youthworkers, who curated during the day, are some of the most imaginative around for trying to do practice that ‘looks like youthwork’ even in a space dictated by the latest agenda ( and knife crime is also another one) – and significant credit where credit is due, as any work with young people is valid and important. But policing the streets was an impossibility and best left for police – the intensity of young peoples emotions might be best left with the kind of well trained counsellors who can do this.

Maybe youth workers have crosses the line and subliminally become the crisis therapists, employed by the crisis theoreticians as spoken of by Freire here;

(Education for critical consciousness 1974 p11)

But whatever happened to just trying to to create spaces of relationships, of creativity, or groups, of activity, of participation and even entrepreneurship all of which will allow young people to have connectivity, autonomy and become competent. Then, and this done in community, with families, with the institutions, and others, might be the best way of making more than just young people happy. It might make the community happy too.

We would never say that we would want young people to feel worse after meeting us, but happiness might not be likely if we have exposed and helped them become more self aware of the issues that affect them and how they react. They might know more but be less content as a result, needing a personal struggle to assimilate new information into their previously normative world view and identity.

We’ve got a long way to go. But the journey doesn’t start with fixing young people and helping them feel something, despite their circumstances. Policing young peoples emotions… really? Is that what youth work has come to?

Detached youthwork stage 1; Observation

Instead of writing a whole load of stuff on observation. I decided to make a film about it instead. See what you think.

Yes I need help with the technical bits.. but enjoy none the less…

Here it is detached youthwork stage 1 – observation

The stages stuff you’ve seen before. And I go into more in detail in Here be Dragons.

Anyway. Enjoy. Cringe or Laugh..

What if our youth practices are the trigger for young peoples challenging behaviour?

When i was delivering detached youthwork a few years ago and develop thinking about young people and their alcohol misuse, i developed (though probably more likely lifted from other similar processes) a diagram which tried to explain it that looked a bit like this : (excuse the quality, its a photo from a power point screen, i didn’t have publisher to develop it originally)

A short note of explanation. We sort of worked backwards.

We saw young people drinking on the streets and asked them why and how they came to do this behaviour. There was often a trigger for it, and at the same time this could coincide (though not always) with a ‘vulnerable time’ that the young person was going through. And some, no, nearly all, the vulnerable times were significant. From anniversary of friends death, family bereavement or exam time. The triggers ranged too. From ‘it being what we always do’ or ‘its friday’ (so same as the adults in town too) , to ‘shit week at school’ . But the two, a trigger, met with a vulnerable time – as well as a combination of collective planning via social media, and the desire for escape, collective social gathering and fun created for them the perfect reasoning for drinking on the streets. That just moving them on wouldnt make much difference.

Image result for challenging behaviour

Yesterday I used this slide – and a number of other similar ones (inserted in this piece) to help youthworkers reflect and help to create responses to challenging behaviour that they might have experienced in a youth club scenario.

Within similar models and processes of thinking about challenging behaviour a number of common questions arise (youll see them on the diagrams)

Image result for challenging behaviour

The questions tend to be:

  1. What is the behaviour – what types are being expressed?
  2. Are there patterns to it? – ie are situations more common
  3. In the situation – what are the moments that trigger the behaviour?
  4. Are there any underlying causes?

And these, as the above shows, often retain in a cycle. One of the things about the alcohol use and challenging behaviour that is different, is that the trigger and vulnerable time happen or during the decision making of then going drinking. So, as youth workers we could work backwards with them knowing that the patterns and triggers where proceeding. Though sometimes drinking could be a trigger for further drinking (again same for everyone..?)

With responding to challenging behaviour in the youth club environment, whilst there is still a very good chance that underlying issues and some community activity prior to the youth club may have been trigger ( ie being bullied, a social media message, family issue) – and this could be met head on at the door (rather than in the club) – there is a more than likely possibility that our youth provision is the trigger for their challenging behaviour.

There is a saying that for many issues in a youth organisation, most can be traced back to the governance.

The challenging behaviour in a youth club expressed by young people, might have some of its cause, and some of the patterns and triggers for it, could similalry be traced back to within the youth club itself.

But for a short moment, Ill scale back a bit and ask – who is the youth provision for? Who is there for the benefit of who?

If young people are the primary client – as per Howard Sercombe’s definition:

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

then this means that young people are the people who the youth provision is for, it is they whom we as youth workers serve. It is less the programme, the activity, the building and the funders or trustees – albeit all do have a part to play. If the youth club is a youth venue, then young people, unless they are told differently and given the option of not attending it because it is not about them (ie it is a religious service that they did know about and self opted out). But the open youth club, that seems to be an open space for young people to chat, choose to do activities, create, make and develop purposeful relationships through conversation is intrinsically a space that is for the principle purpose of serving young people. ‘Client’ may be a not very nice word, but if it helps us to think about the practice of youthwork as serving (and empowering and enabling to participate, and valuing young people) then it suffices.

So, in that case – there is an issue if the very spaces that should be about serving young people – are the places where for one reason or another , because human interaction is complex and challenging – might be the very places that are the trigger for the challenging behaviour.

Of course it would be easy to say that its all the young people ‘triggering’ each other… like

  • one of them crushing the table tennis ball
  • someone shouting insults
  • one of them threatening the other
  • and this list might go on…

But what if its not them, or maybe, even if it them doing the above – what is it about the way in which the social space has been created where we as leaders and workers havent attempted better ways of reducing challenging behaviour even between the young people?

The same goes for the challenging behaviour that seems to triggered by our actions.

On one hand, whether through negligence or accident – we did not communicate the codes of behaviour very well, or how the evening was going to be different to ‘normal’, or spent time with a volunteer who was struggling before the session ..and they then said something a bit provocative to a young person… – a myriad of ‘small ish’ things that we could have done differently to aid and create an enironment that may have maintained more calm spaces than ended up. (And it usually is a myriad of small things)

But it is our challenging behaviour if our reflection is ‘weve always done things this way and no one complained before’

or ‘if they dont like it, they can leave

Who has the challenging behaviour then?

And these are more obvious. As one contributor to my session yesterday considered. What if it is the raising of awareness of a different way of being, acting and behaving- that this challenges young people outside their comfort zone? where, the kind of example might be that young people dont know or say they cant ‘no fight back’ in an argument – or are learning a new way of being in situations like group work, open club spaces. So a task we have, in working with them is to create small steps of trying out new behaviours, and rewarding them (probably), with lots of affirmation and encouragement (even if this in itself might be hard to take) .

The obvious triggers for receiving challenging behaviour are easy to spot and possibly do something about (we need to up our game or change it, or stop doing something).

But what if its much deeper than that, what if the different way of conceiving the world – is too outside the norm, too far removed for a young person to want to buy into, or is threatened by? And before you jump in, its not just young people. organisations who dont collaborate as a new way of being, or see a new way but find this too difficult to comprehend may also act as if threatened.

To note, some of this is fairly likely as it will question the young persons internal narrative – how they made sense of the world up to that point made sense to them. By presenting a new way of being this has to be tried, tested, or ignored, disregarded or accepted (Dan McAdams, 1993, 2001) to become part of the young persons narrative identity. An identity they are continually constructing (and so, but it takes a slower time, are we) . Young people are trying to make sense of the world and their part in it, through the receiving of information – our information through conversations may ultimately expand and add to that story in a good way – but there are tension points for them in allowing it to. Then again we should get this… after all we all have beliefs and deep opinions that take a while to change, whether its the acceptance of Female Bishops or the belief that young people aren’t the disobedient lazy oafs the daily mail present them as.

So – in a number of ways – what if we are the key triggers of the young peoples challenging behaviour? – after all we might actually need to be to ultimately help them or support them into thinking more positively about themselves and their futures.

References

Sercombe, Howard Youthwork Ethics, 2010.

MacAdams, Dan The Stories we live by, 1993, another piece i wrote on Narrative identities is here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-LA

Detached youthwork- An A-Z Guide

I have written a number of pieces on detached youthwork, most of which are on the archives on my http://www.jamesballantyneyouthworker.wordpress.com site , many top tips, top tens, and pieces on specific issues. But I have never tried to write an A-Z, and do so with the aim of collating a definitive guide to detached youthwork. Image result for a to z

So, at the beginning of 2019, I have tried, with mixed success on some letters to write one. wondered what an A-Z of detached youthwork would look like. So, here, with a sentence or so for each, is my A-Z of detached youthwork – see what you think:

A. Available. This is one key essence of detached youthwork, that workers and volunteers make themselves available in the spaces where young people are. Its obviously but its key. 

B. Bravery, and courage, is required for detached youthwork. Bravery is required, not because of young people necessarily, most most young people are chatty, lively and amiable. Few aren’t. There’s bravery in being in the public spaces in the evening, often drunk adults or dog walkers can be more abusive than young people. There’s bravery in trying something new. We didnt call the book on detached work ‘Here be Dragons‘ for nothing… 

C. Context is key. Every context shapes detached youthwork, a housing estate with a park causes detached youthwork to feel much different to a city centre, as does a rural space or village environment. All have an impact on the background of young people and their social interactions, it makes every context different and important when it comes to detached.

Another ‘C’ is Cold Contact, this seems to be the key marked difference between detached and other youth provision, and the aspect most likely to provoke fear and trepidation. Its an important aspect of detached – that first meeting with young people, and where you ‘warts n all’ try and engage in conversation with them.

D. Dialogue. I would have said conversation, but i think C should be context. Dialogue is conversation that leads to action. Most times on the streets conversation is the aim, beyond banter, where there might be some disclosure, some amiable chat where a transfer happens.

E. Education. Much youthwork, but i think detached more than most is about constantly learning. Also there is education involved constantly in helping young people understand our role, and the dynamics of this, in the informality of the space of the streets, there is transferal of knowledge. it is an educative experience. (its also why R= research)

F. Freezing cold nights. Its a fact of detached life. Yes there are pleasant spring afternoons, but some of the best chats are at evening, and in autumn, and these can be cold.

G. Groups of young people. Its the meat and drink of detached. Detached is about finding, identifying, listening to, learning from, groups of young people. How they operate, what they do, what they like, the leaders, the core and the purpose. The task of detached is to find a way of gaining rapport and acceptance with that group, to have conversation and develop group work.

H. Hopeful attitude, is what is needed at the beginning of each session, and every conversation, to try and be positive and help young people towards an individual or collective dream, to ask the ‘what if’ question.

I. In their spaces. Detached youthwork happens in the context of young people. it changes the power, responsibility and duty of care issues considerably. It changes the nature of the relationship created. Improvisation is another I that is part of detached work, it involves thinking on your feet.

J. Jousting. Sometimes the conversation is more of a jousting match of random banter. You might just be present whilst young people are in their zone doing their thing communicating with each other in the contextual codes of banter, grunts, comments and expressions. Detached youthwork gives you this insight. It also gives an opportunity to be questioned and be challenged, it can be a joust. But that might be the kind of adult/adult conversation that is possible where the power dynamics are so different.

K. Killing time. Or Keeping up morale on quiet evenings. Quiet nights could be opportunities for doing informal supervision and training with staff, to learn about the context, to take a breather.

K is also the Kit bag. After all: what do you take on the streets with you?  – This could include, games, toys and activities, torches, first aid kits, hand warmers, hats gloves, bottles of water, confidentiality policy, referral sheet, organisation business cards (ie ‘the project’) , spare change,  and probably a few other things besides. All neatly packed away in a small kit bag. That now weighs a ton.

L.Long term. Detached youthwork is a long term game. It requires patience, it is counter cultural to the quick fix mentality operating in much of support services. Detached is a long term venture that when done well requires time, time to learn, identify and work with groups.

M. Money is tight even if the budget is low. Because it can be difficult to get funding in the first place, because although usually very needed and worthy, fitting detached into outcomes and funding requirements is still tricky.

N.New. Even though its been around for 100 years or more. For many people who have orientated their youthwork or ministry around buildings and institutions, detached youthwork always seems new. Strange. 

O. Opportunities. Most youthwork is this to be honest. But detached youthwork gives you opportunities to

  • see young people in their chosen space, doing their chosen activities, with their chosen people
  • to converse with young people where they may be more at ease
  • to be in a place where young people have more opportunities to deny adult engagement & conversation
  • to work with and develop conversation with young people not in other provision (not that there is much other provision)
  • Opportunity to have conversation with young people without worrying about buildings, materials and equipment.

P. Policies. You must have them, even if they need to be specific to detached youthwork. And another P, planning. Detached youthwork still needs it, its different planning, but it involves getting volunteers trained, observing in the local area, identifying which area, contacting and discovering other agencies, creating ID badges, safeguarding, team building, contacting the police (possibly). There is planning involved, it just looks different

Q. Quiet. It can be. But not always.

R. Research & Reflection . Detached youthwork hones the skills in a really good way. Its as if you start to develop young people awareness goggles, trying to observe, listen, and discover them, how they react in the community context, what the community is doing, what might be learned through the context, research is continual as groups change, activities change and communities change. Then of course, from research comes reflection, thinking and asking the critical questions of those observations. R for ‘risk’ also works, young people might be doing ‘risky’ behaviour, young people might provoke us with risky questions, we might push young people to new actions which might be risk taking on their part. Risk is unavoidable – but lets do what we can to minimise actual harm… 

S. Supervision. Either you need it, or you need to give it to your team, volunteers and staff. Some good guidelines and ideas for it are included elsewhere on my other site. 

T. Team work. Even a team of two is a team,attending to the relationships between the team is crucial as you will almost always need to work together and trust each other in decision making large and small. All activities that enhance team are worth it, from before and after session reflection, conversation and debrief , team meetings, end of year dinners out. All build team. And young people see that a team is doing stuff for them. It may reduce dependency. And help young people develop relationships with many supportive adults, not just one.

another T is Training. Some get out there try stuff, and then develop it, some people prefer the before the starting training to allay fears and give staff and volunteers a sense of whats to be expected and how to deal with things, both are valid.

U. Undervalued well yes,  detached may be cheapest, and be often able to reach some of the more difficult young people, but its hard to define, measure and manage, so because of this it gets undervalued and chopped easy.

Its also Unpredictable – and that’s a beautiful part of it. But no youth club night is the same anyway.. is it?

V. Visibility. A detached youthwork team needs to visible (and distinctive) and is different to the general public and other public space adults like police, street pastors or sales people for under age nightclubs..

W. Walking to where theyre at. Not just walking a drive might be needed. Yet alot of walking is often required and repeatedly so. We make the road by walking…

X. Hmm. Poetic licence required.. exit strategies? Detached youthwork is as much about being self aware (like much youth work) as it is being spatially aware, knowing where you are, the dynamics of the route, the cul de sacs, and alley ways are critical for knowing how to leave a situation if it starts to get out of hand and you need to extricate yourselves. Its a strategy and action, not just a reaction, leaving says something about how you might be being treated by a young person, you can leave, and so can they.

Y. Ymca/YWCA If i might be personal for a moment, Perth YMCA was where I cut my mustard as a youthworker doing detached work, and YMCA’s have in the past been good at doing detached work and sticking with it. It was a YWCA where Joan Tash and George Goetschius developed detached youthwork and researched it at the time and wrote ‘Working with the Unattached’ for me the Bible of detached youthwork. A review is here .Other organisations may have done detached work to. But Y standing for the Ymca seems to fit quite well. 

Z. Zealous. Were a zealous bunch at times, us detached youthworkers, making ourselves out to be unique, ‘the only true youthwork left’ and defending the practice of it to the hilt. But then again, if youthwork itself it maligned then detached.. Someone might have to stand up for it..

There you go – an A-Z of detached youthwork… enjoy.. oh and I know that..

Even with a list of 30 or so aspects, this is probably not conclusive, i havent talked about outreach vs detached, or referrals and signposting, about partnership work or schools, about alcohol, sports or specific interest detached work, or faith based detached work. So there are more to add, definitely. Neither have i mentioned the few writers and theorists, like Graham Tiffany, Richard Passmore or the Federation of detached youthwork, or organisations like FYT which do alot of detached work too.

But then again, theres always more to add…

 

In safety first cultures; risk taking is more required in youthworkers than ever before.

It comes as almost no surprise that there has been a backlash to the cultural messages of safety, harm and avoidance of risk that have been prevalent in culture, and also I might add the church over the last few decades.

Talk now in youth ministry is of taking risks with young people. 

Or maybe more pertinently, talk is of ensuring that risks are important in the relationships with young people.

It was the focus of last years Youthscape conference in which 1000 youth workers attended. Its been the focus of FYTs resources also. But – is it ever the subject of clergy conferences?

This risk provoking goes against one of the key principle cultural and organisational implicit drivers of organisations, notably church based youth ministry, which has, as said by Pete ward in 1997 – been more about safety and conformity within the church, than the kind of radical discipleship offered by Jesus. (Ward, 1997, Youth work and the mission of God, p16)

It is a theme I have spoken of before in this post ‘Young people will go elsewhere if youth groups are too safe’ and Why a risky church might be the right one for young people?

Taking risks was a key aspect of Jesus’ ministry – don’t you think?

Taking a risk with us as humanity was a risk taken by God overall – don’t you think?

Pushing the disciples to risk taking – and even exposure to difficult situations- was a key element of how Jesus pushed the disciples- agreed..?

At the end of this piece I will refer you to a resource which has been collated by Frontier Youth Trust to help you develop risk taking in your youth ministry, do take a risk and have a look at it – the link is here: (and no I don’t get any commission)  101 Risky Ideas for your youthwork

But before you do that, Id like to offer a short reflection on risk taking within youth work and ministry, basing this on two principal ideas. The first is a chapter in ‘Youth work Ethics (YE)’ by Howard Sercombe, the second is the 9 stage process of youth work as developed by FYT a number of years ago. I hope you find both useful.

In ‘Youth work Ethics’ Howard Sercombe identifies 19 areas of youth work practice that he gives insight and reflection to, on the basis of suggesting that youth work itself is an ethical endeavour based upon itself as a profession, and a definition of youthwork as a ‘professional relationship in which a young person is engaged as a primary client in their social context’ ( YE, p 27, 2010). What this does, is form the basis of youthwork as a negotiated, limited, yet professional relationship – that transcends the plethora of activities, venues and delivery agencies- but frames it as a relationship. Something i think that is music to the outcome bleeded ears of the youth worker.

Before going further with Sercombe, here is the 9 stage group work process that once and still is core to the FYT Streetspace community, note especially the element of Risk, that its needed and where it is located.

You can download the whole document here: http://www.fyt.org.uk/downloads/

The logic being that, over a period of time developing the relationship that you as a youth worker (especially as a detached worker) will be able to take a risk with the relationship that you have with a group (as you may by then have developed small group work, gained their trust etc) and been able to make suggestions to enable them to do something they maybe wouldn’t have done other wise. A push too soon may indicate that the relationship has been perceived differently from youth worker and young person/group. But note, that from the process of developing spirituality – a ‘test’ is whether ‘risk’ can be taken with other maybe easier concepts – like travelling to watch a football match, trying to raise funds for an activity, undergoing a personal change like quitting smoking (as an example) – gauging how risks in these areas might be seen as some kind of indication of how risk taken to think spiritually might be perceived. For more explanation of these – you might want to buy the Here be Dragons resource, in which all 9 stages are explored further. This is here: https://wp.me/P2Az40-4t

But lets just say from this example that Risk is needed in the youthwork relationship, and possibly even that Risk is needed for faith.

Back to Sercombe. Helpfully in a chapter on ‘taking care and managing risk’ , Sercombe identifies that in the main there has been a confusion about ‘harm’ and ‘risk’, but also that a number of risks are needed in youthwork, more so, there are a number of hidden risks that we would do well to help young people avoid.

A few summary thoughts from the chapter:

· Because we want to develop, transform even, the lives of young people through the relationship we seek to have with them , and they to some extent put themselves in our hands– this is an engagement that is inherently risky because we could get it wrong, create defensiveness, create exclusion or be a disappointment

· We expose young people to other relationships with other adults, professionals or services – there is a risk here, as these too may end up being destructive.

We are as youthworkers responsible for the intervention in other peoples lives and have a duty of care, and Sercombe goes on to describe the influence of a number of legal decisions and oaths that have an impact on how youthworkers are responsible, and ultimately states that:

‘The first responsibility of the professional is to make sure that nothing worse happens to the person than has already happened’ – though this is obviously difficult to promise – especially in medicine.

This is key ‘we need to do the best we can to help a young person in their journey. That may involve harm. It may involve greater harm. We don’t know that our assessment of that, even in consultation with the young person will be accurate’  We might want to avoid it, but harm is almost always a possibility in any intervention we might take, whether its helping them across the road to the ‘safety’ of the bus shelter on detached, the football or table tennis match, the cookery group, or game of pool. All can be harmful, and minimising harm is key, but it cant be avoided completely.

Whilst a few high risk activities have reinforced a tendency to avoid risks due to fear and litigation (such as PGL disaster over 20 years ago), and insurance companies dictating which activities youthworkers can and cannot do, there has become a tendancy, as i stated above, for risk avoidance. The real issue is being sued and avoiding harm to the organisation. 

often it is our job to increase risk’ (YE, p110)

Whilst the risks that get banded around for young people are the usual list of subjects; drugs crime, unemployment, homelessness etc and these get the usual attention. There is a range of risks for young people that don’t: passivity, resignation, fatalism, cynicism, low expectations, isolation, and you might add a few others here. Like lack of political engagement or community participation. Our role, according to Sercombe, is to help the young person assess the risk as best they can and help them decide through the possibilities. In the short term there might well be harm for the young person, a better life might, controversially, not be a safer one. (YE p110)

The role that Sercombe suggests we take in this risk manoevering profession is that of a guarantor. We manage the risk, think about it, we assess it, and consider it. But what we also do is hope, believe and project. We want to believe that young people can do, will do, and might just rise to the risk, because we see them as capable, confident and want to give them the opportunity to be the adults that they want themselves to be. By treating them as adult – they become adult. Right? Isn’t this a risk in itself? – but not an entirely non altruistic, positive one?

For despite the best interests at heart, best support and best conditions – there is still a chance at ‘failure’. This is the guarantor, and our role. We hope and help to provide the best conditions, resources and buildings in the hope that this will help young people develop agency, confidence, to be adults to make decisions. This is why this puts us at risk.

Thats why we take risks in youth work – because we still believe in the possible, we still have faith in the potential, we still dream. We take risks, and need to receive good management on their risks. ‘Risk is a key resource in youthwork’ (YE, p111).  It frames the logic of our intervention. Without it there would be no change, no transformation, no improvement, no new reality being explored. Whilst young people ‘at risk’ can be seen as an issue. Many of these occasions are when young people themselves do not have the capacity or resources to prevent being exploited, exposed or manipulated, by populist politicians, tabloids, sexual predators or extreme faith groups.

It is our role to defend young people, and take risks in preventing what might be a default pathway into these risks. Yet, risk is not the same as harm, it is not our role to decrease the risks, as arguably young people need risks so that they can exercise sound judgement, and we need to push young people to new experiences for their learning. We take responsibility for the process, we might consider ourselves lucky at times for the risks we have exposed young people to and the lack of assessment thought through. When young people enter into a relationship with us, it is a risk in itself, they entrust us, the information we give, and for them to push back on it. We might do well to recognise where we might have failed young people and their development because of our own reluctance or avoidance of taking risks, we need to be skilled enough to know and make the possibilities open, and resourceful in encouraging young people to take the risks. We might need to take risks to challenge barriers in organisations which hold young people back, we need to be as brave and courageous. We need, as this suggests, not to be content in only bringing young people to our beautiful place – but pushing them through the barriers we create to the somewhere new.

We have to take risks. Faith is about taking risks. Life is about taking risks.

Whilst the section above is less about faith, and more about risks in general. It is not difficult to make connections about barriers in churches and providing the support for young people to develop an adult faith.

As a reminder: Those 101 risky ideas for faith based work are here

At random – these are numbers 41-50 on the list and are aimed at helping to develop spirituality in young people, if you like these, why not download them all..for free. i mean what kind of risk is that, even…

41. Rewrite a parable and base it in your local context. Tell the story to young people without revealing its biblical origins. What are their interpretations?

42. Get up early to watch the sunrise and pray for the day ahead.

43. Ask young people to write a new parable.

44. Go to a cathedral or ancient church. Do some research about the the faith communities that have been there over its history.

45. For an experience of awe and wonder, sleep out under the stars.

46. Identify some of the metaphors used to describe God (ie Lion, Teacher, Tower, Rock). Ask young people to come up with some new metaphors based on the local context.

47. Cancel youth group or church in order that young people might find God outside the spaces you can control.

48. Arrange a visit to the building and community of a different faith. Use the time as an opportunity to dialogue about what values are important to you all.

49. If you meet with young people to explore and discover God start calling it church rather than Bible study or youth group. How do young people react? When is church, church?

References
Sercombe – Youthwork Ethics, 2010
Ward, Pete, Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997

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