With disruptions to them inevitable, Are strategies in youthwork worth the paper they’re written on?

Its not a negative question, but a realistic one; With all the disruptions to a strategy especially in youthwork- is it even worth bothering with one? Is it even possible to develop strategies for ‘industries’ that are so unpredictable, and people orientated? A possible solution is below, but first the case for the prosecution. Why strategies dont work…

It can feel like a strategy for youthwork practice isnt worth the paper, the time or energy to put together – because its disrupted and in need of change almost immediately.

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Because; ask a group of youthworkers about the successful of the strategies that they have been able to complete, as you will nearly always find a whole load of reasons why this wasn’t the case.

They didn’t have the power to execute it

They ran out of funding

A volunteer pulled out

The Bishop decided upon an event instead and my time was re orientated

Young people just aren’t straightforward

The trustees change their minds on the plan

Its just not how things are done in this organisation

and the rest…

There a fairly common saying ‘Culture Eats strategy for breakfast’ and whilst this is true, this hides some of the other disruptions that affect the implementation an success of a strategy. The problem can then become that a strategy might need then to incorporate the cultural issues – as well as all the potential risks and hazards that affect the strategy- so in terms of the above – it might need to include

A funding strategy

A volunteers strategy

A strategy to affect culture

A strategy to deal the volunteers

A strategy to convince the ‘higher’ powers of the value of youthwork – such as the heads of affiliation

A strategy to be flexible to overcome the potential disruptions………..

And in that way, having a strategy that can overcome the disruptions, and be that flexible when these unplanned disruptions occurs almost defeats the object of bothering with developing a strategy in the first place, or not far off. Even the most creatively created, participatory planned and organisationally owned strategy. It may be concise, communicated and coordinated, it may intend to be effective and easy to understand. The strategy might incorporate values, be step by step, measurable and time orientated – and have all the bells and appropriate whistles. But it could all go to waste because of the so many factors that could still cause it to be disrupted. Though at the same time developing and redeveloping strategy, aim and vision – revising, revisiting and reviewing it then become regular. But doesn’t it seem like a lot of time, and managerial, leadership effort – for something too easily challenged and changed.

It would become so broad to encompass the potential disruptions – that to be alomost meaningless, and so flexible to adapt to them to be unspecific.

Some of the business gurus when talking about strategies say that a strategy is nearly always going to be unsuccessful if there is no attempt to name the problems that the strategy is trying to solve.

I wonder whether in youthwork we have become fixated by outcome orientated strategies, because these are often what we feel we have been asked to compile, as often our management group, committee or clergy have understood strategy through the prism of transformational and visional leadership (which sets outcomes and prioritised conformity to these fixed outcomes, elevating the ‘transformational leader’ to set and create ‘their’ strategy within cost cutting/efficiency/ and setting outcomes and indicators first) that has been adopted relatively uncritically over the last 10-15 years in orgaisations.

However. Outcome orientated strategy is barely worth the paper it is written on. Youth workers require an alternative.

What about this;

Good strategy, in contrast, works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favourable outcomes. It also builds a bridge between the critical challenge at the heart of the strategy and action—between desire and immediate objectives that lie within grasp. Thus, the objectives that a good strategy sets stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competencies.

In short – good strategy is about making the right conditions exist, for the potential for the most opportunities to occur – that are favourable to the aims and objectives, and that use the resources and competencies known to the organisation. It is opportunity orientated, not outcome orientated. Opportunities are things we create the environment for. Outcomes are too unpredictable in youthwork that can be disrupted in too many ways. But we can create positive environments that endeavour to facilitate opportunities.

And in youthwork, those opportunities can happen anywhere. The streets, schools, churches and youth clubs. The problem with an opportunity led strategy is that it needs to be close to the action with young people. Or creating opportunities for training, for supervision, for something else that involves equipping, resourcing and supporting youthworkers – then one step removed from the action – but also close to those who are – but that doesn’t negate opportunity orientated strategy – but that the opportunities might be less frequent than the ‘on the ground’ practice.

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Opportunity orientated strategy might suit the openness of youthork closer than an outcome orientated strategy. It also places the emphasis on the agency of those responsible for the strategy to deliver it – through opportunity creation, not dehumanising young people as numbers or potential outcomes, or being frustrated that ideals, or targets havent been met.

The question is – can we afford to develop ‘opportunity’ orientated strategies in a culture of cut throat funding that often seems to demand targets and outcomes – or have we got in some cases the favour an capital to take a risk and communicate opportunity orientated strategy. Often we are asked in funding bids ‘what are we going to do about a situation’ – which a cue to share the proposed opportunities- but as well we might need to be specific about the outcomes – which goes against the flexibility of an opportunity orientated strategy – pushing and driving it to numbers based. It might be a luxury to be able to construct an solely opportunity orientated strategy for youthwork practice. But – on the other hand – it a luxury we might want to afford ourselves given the almost pointless practice of trying to create outcome orientated strategies – that get eaten alive in the culture of organisations and in need of constant revision.

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If were not able in the culture of our organisations to create opportunities for young people and those who work them – then we might need to question what kind of young people orientated practice we are.

With an opportunity orientated strategy it is less affected, to an extent, by disruptions- because we do have slightly more agency in its realisation. Though even then the level of disruption can still disorientate strategy – especially if the resources become so slim that opportunity creation is minimalised – but again at that point- we will be spending time increasing our resources, changing approaches and adapting to the disruption –which might turn out to have surprising results. We might not have enough leaders to manage the youth club – so we take our presence and provision out onto the streets (for example) a change which might end up creating new opportunities – even more that we hadn’t predicted before hand.

In the opportunities might emerge the disruptions we are looking for. The next bright idea might emerge from the point of action.

References on Strategy and Management in Youthwork can be found on this page on this site: https://wp.me/P2Az40-QV- or via the menus above, and many more on strategy in youthwork and managing strategies can be found via the tags and menus. For further on this and maybe to develop the conversation, contact me via the menu and arrange training or workshops on the theme.

Special mention to Jon Ords book which talks about faith based management , and also in his introduction critiques the transformational leadership that has brought forward outcome orientated strategy building.

Youthwork: the importance of developing young peoples narrative identities

Johanna Wyn and Rob White say something, i think, quite profound about the views of adolescent development; one that certainly youthworkers in faith based settings, and schools should reflect on, they propose that:

Product Detailsa relational concept of youth offers an approach to understanding the social meaning of growing up that can take into account the diverse ways in which young people are constructed through social institutions, and the ways in which they negotiate their transitions (Wyn and White, 1997)

What they compare their approach to is many of the psychological, and physiological theories of youth development which can objectify this period of time for a person as a stand alone moment, and more significantly can imply that there are correct, uniform ways of completing this phase of life, and by not being ‘correct’ a young person can quickly be deemed at risk, deviant of different.

So, what Wyn and White are suggesting is that instead of  ‘youth’ being a period of transition, instead it is a time of construction.

Some of you might have more likely come across David Elkinds book, All grown up and no place to go (1998), in it, following work by Piaget, Elkind suggests that at some point during adolescence a young person will begin to create personal fables of themselves, doing so with a concept of past, present and future experience. It might only be when the person has the capacity, mentally, to do this that it occurs, but at this point something shifts in a young persons thinking. But they can start to go beyond the here and now, they might be able to describe themselves differently and play around with word play, however, it is the fable construction that i think is interesting, especially as it ties in with Wyn and White above, that youth is a time for construction and negotiation of social institutions, because at the same time, this negotiation involves a young person being able to narrate their own fable for coping/surviving/flourishing within it.

We are heading towards thinking about narrative identity.

A Narrative is another way for saying story. Bruner says that as humans we either reflect on our lives pragmatically (the facts and figures) or we understand the world through stories (human wants, desires, goals, motivations). It is part of ourselves to tell ourselves stories during every day to help us through incidents and experiences, it is a story of a memory that is positive that might help us through something unpredicted, it might be that we survived something previously that means we can do it again. Some of these stories have themes, such as agency ( i survived with purpose and confidence), Redemption ( it was tough but i made it through, or something happened to rescue me), Communion (i was helped and we got through the ‘love’ of someone motivated me) and without probably realising it, we tell ourselves these stories, as adults all the time. However, when it comes to difficult or trauma situations, we can find ourselves only being able to tell half a story  (as we are still living it in the moment) or a contaminated one – (all was going fine, then this happened, and i lost it, got angry and i am never going to go and see that person/dentist/doctor again- for example).

However, the stories we tell, that shape our narrative have a huge impact. For if we can tell ourselves positive redemptive stories of past experiences, then we are likely to be courageous or confident about a situation. (after all it didnt go too bad last time, or the pain was worth it..) The narrative identity provides us as with a unity of the horizons of our past, and our future in order that we can make sense of actions in the present. McAdams and Mclean state that; ‘Narrative Identity is a persons internalised and evolving life story, integrating the reconstructed past and imagined future to  provide life with some degree of unity and purpose’

If any of you have seen the film Inside Out (2015) by Disney,  you will have seen an example of how a traumatic event brought chaos to the narrative identity of a young person, all the thoughts about their life that were in positive joyful stories became affected by one event. The trauma became the lens, and the young person struggle to renegotiate and reconstruct new stories, redemptive, agency stories about how she could cope in the future. What you might have noticed was that it was not the events per se that cause the negative emotions, and what might (if it wasnt a Disney film) have resulted in depression or mental health concerns, but it was the narrative created by the young person towards the event. They had disunity of themselves and couldnt cope, and no experience of a similar situation to overcome.

So, Youth is a time of construction. Constructing narratives about 1000’s of interactions, about 5-10 institutions, about friends, about heroes, about hobbies, about skills.

But where do they get the tools to create stories, well, easy, for many young people it is from their childhood, the stories they hear, the archetypes of characters, the arc of storylines from Mr Men books to Harry Potter, to watching films. Crucially a young person may conceived of many narrative types and assimilated their own to it, before that have the mental capacity in adolesence to construct their own stories.

At this point it is worth reflecting on the roles of the people then to support young people. If the young person is in a period of time where they are constructing narratives of their principle institutions,

If the young person is in a period of time where they are constructing narratives of their principle institutions, care givers, friends and the like – what might be the best role for a youthworker to take in this? especially when a young persons mental health ( and incidents of mental health issues amongst young people are rocketing) is at stake?  There is the temptation to ‘be another institution’ – so an employment group, a schools lesson provider, or something else similar, maybe even the church

There is the temptation to ‘be another institution’ – so an employment group, a schools lesson provider, or something else similar, maybe even the church sunday school – it could have the same institutional feel. Quite interestingly if a young person doesnt have power or autonomy in a situation then they are more likely to construct a negative narrative about, one that demotivates- and to a point we all know what that is like. So, even though it might be a personal narrative, socio and economic factors are in play, for not only might less opportunities for a young person be available if they are from a ‘poorer’ background, but the ability for them to have choice about their destiny is reduced, as is their autonomy, agency or power. What might this mean for their narrative identity? what kind of stories will they continue to tell themselves? – so it

What might this mean for their narrative identity? what kind of stories will they continue to tell themselves? – so it isnt that there is a scheme for disadvantaged young people and they are labelled as such, it is that they might have no choice but to go on it… or be sanctioned by the job centre, or be forced to leave a care home. Even if something deemed positive is presented – are they as likely to have choice in the matter..? its so important..

The key ways in which a young person is given affirmative tools for narrative construction are, yes the stories from an early age, but also the space to reflect and talk, someone who will listen and affirm them, and some one who will help them to understand their experiences and reappropriate them in their own story.

It like being what Coburn and Wallace say youthwork should be – a ‘border pedagogy’ (2010)- someone who is  between the institutions, in the gaps, to help learning across it all. Someone who helps a young person by asking them reflective questions and helps them make sense of the world. The tragedy is that those who want to fund youthwork want to put youthworkers in institutional roles, in delivery agencies- rather than in the gaps where they can be most helpful and helping a young person form constructive, and reappropriate negative- narrative identities.

What is additionally interesting, is that young people assimilate their narrative identity, like we all do, with an emerging larger story about their place in the world, of life purpose or goal – or ideology, meta narrative (dont tell me they dont exist)

If you’re not that interested in faith based youthwork/ministry – then maybe look away now – but the ideology could equally apply as something like socialism, marxism or agnosticism.

During the period of narrative construction, the young person is also trying to discover how their life story includes, resonates with and is part of the bigger life stories in the world, such as religion, ideologies, beliefs or values. The mind of the young person is trying to make sense of the world and therefore is asking questions about faiths as they see contradictions, or inauthenticity – but also because they want it to make sense, and be true enough to adopt, and form their narrative identity around the ideologies that they are part of.

So, let me ask these questions –

  • For the young person who has been brought up a faith – and leaves the ‘church’ before the age of 12 – are they likely to incorporate the ideology of that faith into their life narrative?  maybe – maybe if they find an alternative, or had a bad experience of ‘leaving’ .
  • Alternatively how might a young person adopt a faith as a life narrative if they only join it at 14-15?
  • What damage is done to a young persons narrative if a church rejects them, but they wanted and needed the ideology of faith to motivate and guide them? –
  • How might the young person narrate the church as an institution, verses its story of faith as an ideology..?

These arent easy questions – but have we ever considered them in youth ministry in relation to a young persons narrative identity, and what it might mean that their identity becomes wrapped up in the story or stories of the faith?

For a young persons narrative identity in youth ministry – what kind of story do they feel part of when they join, or as they have been part? – is it a story at all – or moral propositions? what purpose does having faith have in the long term and how might that create motivational goals for a young persons identity and behaviour? It is worth then reflecting on how the narrative identity construction of young people is directly affected by their relationship with a faith

It is worth then reflecting on how the narrative identity construction of young people is directly affected by their relationship with a faith institution, or an ideology. I remember at school, lots of people became vegetarian aged 15, because a teacher could show a video of cows being inhumanely slaughtered and animal welfare being shoddy, it sickened enough of my friends not to eat meat for a few weeks, but it wore off. But a very simple ideology and message had a two week effect for most, and one or stuck with it and became green party activists. Is that the same effect of simple presentations of other faiths? Or do young people maybe want something they can believe in and find purpose and meaning in for their life story, purpose and future. I guess that’s what costly discipleship of any faith might look like.

As youthworkers, maybe our role on the streets and in the schools, is that helping young people make sense of the world, but it is also to help them to reflect on their life’s experiences to form positive unifying stories that enable themselves to have confidence, agency, purpose and determination, and that often used word resilience ( but i think i am using it right) . If we’re working with young people who have less opportunities and choice, then this will affect their life narrative – and so regardless of the scenario we need to promote autonomy and choice as much as is possible, as a way of helping their mental health. And then, as an addition, the philosophical questions of life may be significant to a vast number of young people, how might faith become coherent as part of their story, so that they play a role in whole community and human flourishing through it.

Youthworkers in the spaces, all the more reasons why its good to have conversations with young people.


Coburn Annette, Wallace, David, Youthwork in schools and communities, 2012

Elkind, David, All grown up and no place to go, 1998

McAdams, Dan, The stories we live by, 1993

McAdams Dan, Kate McLean Narrative Identity, Current Directions is psychological science Vol 22 issue 3, pp 233-238, 2013

Wyn J and White, D, Rethinking Youth, 1999

Detached youthwork – 8 frequently asked questions…

I thought it might be useful to compile a list, and some responses of the frequently asked questions that people ask often about detached youthwork. So in no particular order;

  1. What do you say to young people, I wouldnt know where to start?

Simple trick, say what you see. Talk about what’s going on, what the young people are doing, wearing, planning. Ask for their opinions or dreams, their likes or dislikes. Then build from there, go with what becomes presented, or then the questions they ask of you. Introduce yourself to help them feel at ease…

2. Do you get scared, arent the young people threatening?

Nope, well, sometimes scared, and adrenaline moments do happen. But most of that scaredness is irrational fears of spaces, or people based on prejudices. If young people dont want us around, then we walk away, because we can. no harm done.

3. But im too old to be out on the streets…

A common one this one. If you can walk, and be present in the space to respect, listen and try and understand life in the shoes of a young person, then age is no barrier. Its more important to be real, genuine and find them interesting, theyre usually not that bothered about us, or you for that matter. In my experience they often respond better to people of experience, and are more surprised, flattered and respectful that an ‘older’ person would actually give up their time to spend time with them. They’re tragically used to being only related to by other young adults, or adults who treat them as projects.

4. What if its cold, or dark, or wet?

Then we wear warmer clothes, take more frequent breaks, and if no ones about just leave it for the evening. Young people arent stupid, but if they are out then maybe theres more of a reason. Winter is good for navigating the area, training teams, and showing dependability. Summer helps to build on the grafting of winter.

5. What if young people are abusive?

Depends what it is, of course theyre likely to swear, to push boundaries, to ask awkward questions, but thats part of the negotiation of space, sussing us out, testing our authenticity, and working out if they can or want to trust us. Lying, swearing, joking, banter are all part of their game, part of our game is to hold onto the bigger picture taking place in the smaller picture of the conversation in front of us.

6. Do you have any top tips? –

Yes – and theres 30 nuggets of helpful tips for new detached youthworkers here

7. Can you take young people back into a building?

Yes of course you can! sometimes young people might want a look around the church, or office, if its safe for them. If its not something youve initiated or coerced then of course. some of the best times can be when theyre back in the church and they want to explore the lecturns, or pews, or bibles, or if they want a chat in a space with a drink and talk about an issue more privately. However, detached youthwork doesnt have ‘taking the young people off the streets’ or ‘taking young people to an established group’ as part of its main focus, these uses of a building arent predetermined, theyre opportunities negotiated with young people.

8. Where might detached youthwork lead to?

That depends on many factors, usually linked to what you might negotiate with the young people in the course of getting to know them, they might suggest activities, community projects, or personal support for help finding jobs, quitting smoking or something else. The important thing is to be there, to create the possibility of something happening. And maybe, by being there young people want to explore their personal faith (s) & beliefs, and you and they undergo learning and reflecting together and sharing moments of worship, or of faith, or questions or prayer, right there in the moments. The important thing is to be open, present and aware of the possibilities.

There’s just a short selection, 8 questions that are common in the FAQ’s of Detached youthwork, probably in a few weeks, ill write up a few more. Some of the reseources for detached work can also be found in  Meet them where theyre at on Kindle by Richard Passmore (especially if you’re a church group) its sequel, Here be Dragons ( see links above) or information on the Federation of detached youthwork website – see links. All useful.


Surveying the landscape

I am writing this from the 2013 Federation of Detached Youthwork conference (FDYW) in which i am with other detached youthworkers from across England and Wales ( as no one from Scotland could make it) who have gathered to listen and learn and share. The theme emerges and is repeated of stories, anguish and pain of the demise of not only youth services across the country, but also the curtailment and restructuring of detached/outreach youthwork within the statutory sector. I guess theres no surprise in this. However, its a painful reality that many detached youthworkers are having to reframe their work around not just anti-social targets, or NEET targets, but also within integrated services and the so called ‘problem family’ mandate of the current Tory government. And as a result youthworkers with the title ‘detached youthworkers’ are having to :

  • only work with ‘named’ young people
  • be sent round to specific ‘houses’
  • work with the family as well as the young person
  • Find young people that no one else has been able to

Essentially becoming more outreach social workers, working with an even tighter remit that the connexions/NEET/ASB mandates previously.  Now this isnt the same for all the youth services detached youth work out there, but the cut backs seem to have been severe. It may be that detached youth workers have never been very good at being able to frame their work around informal education, human flourishing or changed behaviour, given that evaluating this on the streets would be almost artificial to do. (one worker has been given a check list of 25 aspects of a young persons life to go through with them, whilst on the streets, so that someone somewhere can input this into a computer system) Yet the value of prescence, of non judgemental approach, of conversation, trust and a supportive adult(s) changed, improve and enhance groups and individual young people, and do this is in a way that almost no computer system could calculate. Strange how sometimes human interaction is mysterious and unquantifiable- we are more complex than forms, targets and systems

We have been encouraged this weekend to consider that this challenge to detached is nothing new, that the misunderstanding of the role of detached existing at the time of the albermarle report (1960), the warnings then for young people in society, who would have no informal education & support remain today, especially whist much work both government and voluntary sector funded is so outcome and target led. 

One of the stories of hope is that there are examples of good practice out there, and good youthworkers whom are having to bend the rules so that young people benefit from a youthwork approach, despite the pressures made on staff by management/funders/police etc, but its a shame that detached youthworkers are needing to work subversively at times so that young people are ‘met where they’re at’ and not because they appear on a computer somewhere as a hotspot.

The opportunity is out there, as whilst i have been in the minority, ie non council worker , it has become more that evident that detached youthwork, with an educational pedagogy, with a conversational, genuine ‘relational’ approach may/will only soon be delivered by community based christian youthworkers, in/with churches and community groups that have the insight/willingness to value and invest in working with young people in this way.

When the last person who is delivering ‘youthwork’ in the youth services shuts the door and turns out the light – will these churches and groups be ready to take back the baton from the state- they once held anyway?  maybe some will be, but those groups with ‘just’ an outreach or conversionist approach to christian youthwork/ministry might not have the tools to be ready to respond to local needs, and surely by being ready the church’s mission ,amongst young people outside of its building, has the potential to happen? and be done in a way that is acceptable to the community, is value based, educative and transforming.

So, community based christian youthworkers, get ready. Lecturers of Christian youth and community work prepare your students. There is no greater opportunity than this to develop and invest in young people in the community, as unfortunately the state is reducing its inclusive, broad youth services. The landscape is bleak out there and it will be young people who will lose out the most. The church already has the most ‘youthworkers’, soon it might also have the most community based detached youthworkers too.

If you are interested further in the federation of detached youthwork, please visit http://www.detachedyouthwork.info/, for details of 52 youthwork projects who are actively involved in streetbased work from a christian and youthwork approach see http://www.streetspace.org.uk/Streetspace/Home.html