Who gets to make the decisions about young people?

This afternoon I was listening to Radio 5 live in which they had an interview with Lenny Henry. He was talking about the reflecting he was doing for a lengthy Phd which had developed over a period of time. During the time he researched at the colour of skin of sports people (black) in films over and against their coaches ( white/ usually the lead role in the film), of the number of Black actors in the film industry and their roles, as well as the numbers of women and their pay in the same industry. He also talked about Prince, the musician and his fight to regain power of his music rights in the late 80’s.

One of the paradoxes in my current role as a manager in a youth work organisation, and the extra work that I do in a variety of places, for FYT for example. Is that I am often asked about activities, approaches, initiatives on the basis of whether they would be suitable for young people, or more to the point young people in the context of the Durham, Hartlepool or the north east.; “you have young people- will they like this?, or if we had this resource would it be what they want?”

As a fledging youth worker in a local church, a long while ago, there was a bright spark (im keeping all names out of this) who thought it would be great to hold a weekend event for young people, based in churches, advertised locally, a band would come up all the way from southern England no less .  (and no not delirious) . Many meetings went into the planning of this event, meant to be ‘town wide’ (ie it was held in the town), fresh (never before has a youth event been held with a band) and exactly what a few youth leaders aspired for their young people to be part of.

Lenny Henry in his interview said that the main thing that all of the situations he described had in common was the following question :

“Who gets to make all the decisions?”

So, is it the film producers and director to decide who plays which parts – and what do they take into account – a movies saleability, advertising or the powerful hegemonys of society, what of women in films and their pay. What of artists such as Prince (RIP) who took on having control of their finances, artistic rights and writing but had to change his name to symbol to assume those rights- yet for him taking control to make decisions meant being cast as weird, as rebellious, the norm didn’t like it, and fought back.

“Who gets to make the decisions regarding young people? ”

Its clearly not even teachers than make decisions about the education policy, nor doctors about the health policies, but should youth leaders follow the same model and make decisions about young people? And what about the occasions when access to decision making is closed off, restricted or inaccessible? its another sign that young peoples decision making, not just consultation is not valued or encouraged.

If they have to be done at all, Whose events are youth events for? and where are young people throughout their process? if theyre only attendees and congregants then all we’ve done is remodelled a bad, but current, model of church. Participation only granted for the attendees.

I wonder if the question is “who gets to make the decisions about young people?” – it should also read “who doesn’t get to make decisions about young people?”

 

Its as much an inclusion question, a participation question, a power question and a value question. Its also an approach question that distinguishes a ministry model for working with young people and an educational youth work approach. the latter will find tensions in the former.

If young people aren’t given the space, like anyone else, to make a decision, and be encouraged to have their voice heard, opinion sought or question explored then they’ll probably go somewhere else where this happens.  There is no working with young people if the method doesn’t involve them.  Surely if young people, though some schools dont let them, make decisions about school subjects at 13 for GCSEs (important), then, especially in church groups, giving young people opportunities to be part of decision making processes is key to the group flourishing but also their own. It might be a brave thing, but if young people aren’t making the decisions for themselves about the group that affects them then they’ll vote with their feet eventually. And no great big event will bring them back – young people want, deserve and have more to contribute, and more for adults to learn.

There are more than one way of asking- if young peoples decision making skills is what is encouraged then its going to take a change in processes, to create environments where this can happen.

 

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Money, Sex and what was it again…

When was the last time you heard a sermon preached, or open conversation in a church about Power?

When I was on Oasis Frontine teams in 1996, we talked in one of the training sessions about the main temptations, and some of the main issues that are prevalent in churches that cause issues, they were, in accordance with a Book title, Money, Sex and Power.

Fast forward to a sex and money obsessed culture, either gaining it, having it, or winning lotteries to realise dreams because of it. In the church too, conversations about Sex (not just because of Gay Marriage, but the increase in youth ministry mean that its a conversation that occurs regularly in groups) and Money (tithing, poverty, resources, ) are both ongoing conversations. But the other one..?

Why the reluctance to talk about Power? to think about the power that resides in church organisations, from meetings, committees, to charismatic leaders, oppressive practices, power in language, control of resources, expertise, or popularity.  to name but a few. And power issues can be so destructive as well.

We know it exists, but why it seems the reluctance to talk about it?

Whilst there might there be resources to help people deal with sex (romance academy) or Money (CAP) – for example – but not to think about Power, or more pertinently the oppression that power could cause, in community, and also self critically in the church itself as an organisation?  Is no one talking about it?

What kind of resources would be good to help explore issues of power with young people – might cans of worms be opened? well yes, but that might not be a bad thing. It might be helpful for them to have a critical eye on life and powers that oppress, or powers that help, or powers that manipulate. Might it be that then activities for young people will have to take seriously how they might be tempted to manipulate, in whatever form.

Im not going to deliver a key note speech here about theories of Power, sources of it, and authority/control. People like Sykes, Lukes and Habermas can do all that, but its slightly intriguing that the conversation about power rarely occurs, and when it does its after the event – oh ‘our previous vicar was a bit power hungry’.

 

A theological understanding of Power might be that Gods power is enabling, encouraging and directive in accordance with his will, which is deemed good and perfect. So, thus Power from ultimate belief is deemed good. But that doesnt mean to say that power in the organisation of the church is necessarily good though. And those damaged by the church will have a different view. What about when churches have hierarchies, manage people, roles, responsibilities – who is helping churches and people to reflect on power in these dynamics?

How might the church act differently if it didnt consider itself to be powerful any more? How would its language (about being an army, of poverty, or serving) adapt accordingly – when these hold with them an element of being able to make determinations of definitions from a position of power. Would it make judgements of people in the same way?

Does retaining a belief in the all-powerful God, cause power to be uncontested within itself and for it to consider itself as holders of power in communities still?

What about power of normalisation ( Foucault) – this occurs when the ideas (or theology) determine the ‘middle/normal’ ground (especially but not exclusively theologically)- and then opinions divergent to this are disregarded, parodied or belittled rather than engaged with and had conversations about.  Is this a type of retained power to be critiqued? or is there too much at stake in the ‘normal’?

What if the church began to unmask the powers that oppress people in local communities, yet it might have to reconcile its own plank first, but might this be a more helpful use of its time and enacting liberative freedom in peoples lives, other than what seems continually obsessing about Sex, or worrying about Money.

As Foucault said : Power is everywhere. Lets open up the discussion about it and not let it fester, and i know, i dont have the power to say this or enact it, or enforce it, but maybe cause it to be thought about.

 

Helping young people just cope isn’t enough..

I was recently in a conversation with a youthwork professional who was describing a situation where they had given young people in a church the opportunity to share their issues about life,  questions they had and to use these to plan the future direction of their group in terms of activities.  Amongst other things, such as bullying, eating disorders and pressure to conform,  the worker mentionned that the young people started to ask questions of the church and growing up in it, struggles they had and felt being there.

It was a church based group after all, for them a communuty in which they could be part of, that their parents were definately part of and involved and they were also there.
I would imagine that this is a well trod scenario, where if you give young people the open space and the trust in you to provide issues and opinion then they may just do that.

Its our responses to it that matter. For it would be the easy option, the, ‘we can feel needed option’ , if we plan a course to give young people the tools to cope; cope with being bullied, cope with school pressure,  cope with fears and worries, cope with uncertainty, cope within communities like a church or other community where they feel out of place, out of sync, ignored, unvalued or unimportant. But just cope.

Maybe this is the get out for the easy option for many of us as youthworkers in whatever setting. Maybe this is the mantra of our funding reports, aims and objectives.  We’ll support young people to x or y or z, help young people deal with their issues.

And not only cope, we could as youthworkers add to their lives by distracting entertainment,  play, group work, education.  All good skill based activities, not addressing the real issue,  the elephant never even in the room.

What would it look like for youth ministry professionals in church settings to challenge any oppressive power based organisational structures in churches as young people name and identify them?
What of the youthworker that tries to take on the system or ideology of a school that exerts a type of education that doesnt fit the young person?

Is it time to be honest with the realities young people name for us,  if theyre struggling how might change be enacted with them to enable them to flourish? . What are the systematic powers in society that are subliminally causing oppression and might these also ring true in the organisations?

Coping cant be the sole solution.  Yet coping in these powerful systems is apparently the easy way. Its especially the easy way when its the system that also pays the bills.

We have a faith and a philosophy of youthwork that can challenge the powers and in doing so liberate the captives. If organisations and churches have structures and processes that restrict, disable or inhibit then its the role of the
youth worker to critique and propose with the young people opportunities for change.

Youth ministry and youthwork has to do more that help young people cope, become resilient or play the system. Its the oppressive systems themselves that need
naming and for young people to be liberated from and within.

“Unfortunately, what happens to a greater or lesser degree in the various worlds into which the world is divided is that the ordinary person is crushed, diminished,  converted into a spectator, maneuvered by myths which powerful social forces have created. These myths turn against him ; they destroy and annihilate him… they drown in leveling anonymity, without hope, without faith, domesticated (in the system) and adjusted” (Freire 1976)

Young people might sometimes be treated like the stray cats of society,  but instead of domesticating them into systems, lets give them space and encouragement and permission to challenge, critique and be free from just coping spectators awaiting rescue but to be actors freely playing in the theatre of the world.  I feel like the youthwork equivalent of bloody braveheart. Maybe its Freire getting to me.

Coping isnt living, its just coping.

Where is reflective youthwork practice in the Practical Theology discourse?

One of the real benefits of studying at ICC on the Ba in Youthwork and applied theology, and I imagine some of the other equivalent courses in the UK, was that a deliberate attempt, due to national youth & community work accreditation, for these courses in ‘Christian’ colleges (colleges which adhered to ecumenical Christian values ) to educate and give christian youthworkers a language of their practice which enabled them to be as well versed in community based, council funded, settings as also church related settings, and for this much credit has got to be given. Shared language and practice guidelines were and are exceedingly helpful

And so, many shared aspects between christian faith based youthwork, and non-faith based youthwork have similar characteristics, and some of these i have identified in my #ywaf15 blog which is here http://wp.me/p2Az40-fJ. Along with practice aspects such as reflection (Kolb) , person centered work (Rogers) and liberation ( Freire et al) . This is immensely useful.

However, in my Practical theology lectures for my MA, aside from work by Pete Ward, the overall discourse about youthwork, and youth workers using Kolb, or reflective practice is sadly lacking. I wonder why is this? (many state that professionals such as teachers or social workers use Kolb- but theres barely a youthwork mention in sight..)

Are there youthworkers who are writing in the practical theology field? – well i’m sure there are (other than Pete Ward), but why in all the guide books on practical theology is a ministry that has an 4,500 FTE workforce within the church not even mentioned? Does it not exist? does no one realise that youthworkers who have been academically trained might have insight into reflective practice which might actually help clergy and others studying academically practical/reflective practice?

So, whilst the christian youth workers have strived to keep up with the discourse of youthwork (when i say strived i mean that at least they have been in the main given the tools to from some academic establishments on the course) – the direction of youthwork practice has remained under the radar for clergy in training (who will have to do some practical theology). The ironic thing is that, because of imposed ideologies within other practices, such as teaching and social work (these are often mentioned in the practical theology discourse) these professions have more limited opportunities to develop a true reflective practice, and not that i’m saying youth workers always can either, but youth work might have some good examples of its use, and be a educative practice that could provide clearer insight of its use for clergy. So, i lay down something of a personal and collective gauntlet,  to make further contributions in this field. Maybe youthwork is too new a profession and thus there are few contributors. Maybe youthworkers are too busy to write using a theologically reflective methodology?  and contribute to the field.

What is encouraging is that Practical theology is creatively reshaping the methodology, derived from Kolb, adapting it to include collaborative, and collective voices,  or as in Eric Stoddart (2014), to take seriously the powers at work in the context of reflective situations. These too are an area that youthwork is rich in , as it strives for young people to be liberated, and that forces of power are often stimuli for action in the world of young people. Its enlightening that theology has creatively shaped reflection from Kolb, and so Youth work should in some ways catch up and contribute to the discussion. If it is, and I’ve missed it thus far then great, I clearly haven’t done enough reading on it, or too new in the field. But at the moment the youthwork voice and example is sadly lacking as a profession in the discourse.

So , whilst being able to contribute to professional youthwork has Christian youthwork/ministry not kept up with the educative discourse of clergy in their training, thus is one possible factor in clergy not being able to manage youth workers as effectively because they have no reference as to what they do. Its probable that if you’re a youth worker in a church right now, you might have no idea that your minister (if Anglican) might also know Kolb…(at least its a starting point for shared language..)

This week i am undertaking a practical theology assessment on Thursday, on the subject of management of youth workers in churches. Maybe this is a toe in the water of contributing to the field.

But come on Christian ministry training – give credance and acknowledgement to Christian youthworkers whove been using Kolb, Argyris/Schon, Freire (amongst others) in practice for at least over 20 years now… ignore the youth workers in the midst of the church no longer….

 

10 things detached youthwork is very good at

In response to the 10 misconceptions about detached youthwork of a few weeks ago, here are 10 things that detached youthwork is very good at:

  1. It build relationships with young people that have the added bonus that both parties can walk away.
  2. Because the youthworkers go into the space that the young people are in, detached workers dont have to worry about equipment or buildings, and just focus on the actions, conversations and body language of the young people
  3. Detached youthwork gets youthworkers out of buildings, and seeing something of the real lives of young people, how they interact with peers, in their chosen space, maybe with their families nearby, its sees them in their chosen context, not just spaces that are socially orientated by systems, adults and structures.
  4. Detached youthworkers will nearly always become in contact with young people whom have gripes with other services aimed at young people, such as schools, job centres, social workers, or even other youthworkers – and give young people opportunity to negotiate building a more effective relationship with someone who meets them on their terms.
  5. Detached youthwork gives adults an opportunity to dispel fears about young people.
  6. A Detached youthworker might not be able to meet every need of every young person they meet, but its often because of the nature of the voluntary relationship that a young person may have the first conversation about it.
  7. Detached youthwork allows for the adult to be a learner in the space with young people, to share space with young people in the outside, to be involved in the activities of young people whether swings, football or skateboarding.
  8. Detached youthwork provides the opportunity for great conversations with young people – even on the first time of meeting a young person.
  9. Detached youthwork starts the process of enabling young people to see adults differently in the same way that it gives adults & youthworkers the chance to see young people differently
  10. Detached youthwork is possible in a range of contexts, city centre, town, community estate and parks.
  11. A detached youthwork session can be successful seeing lots of young people and having many conversations or one group of young people and spending an hour with them, all of these moments are about building conversation, continuity and rapport with young people.

Oh yes theres, 11. Detached youthwork goes beyond the boundaries, sometimes of time, of number and mixes in the margins where other people often fear to tread. Its where Friere would say that it starts with young people and asks them to cooperate in personal, social or community reflection & action, rather than invade their culture to take away their power.

Theres probably a few more….

 

Gender issues in Detached Youthwork- Why boys dont let girls speak

One of the things that remained constant in delivering detached youthwork in the small (ish) urban setting of Perth, Scotland , and initially surprising ( revealing perhaps prejudgement of the situation) was that in the main there was almost a 50/50 split between the number of females to males out in the public areas of the town. Im comparison, in a rural town, the groups are predominately males.

However, its not the proportion or quantity of the genders that became interesting, it was how as we, as detached youthworkers, ‘operated’ within these public areas and involved ourselves in conversations with them that sociological hierarchies occured, within and between the groups, and these were often gender related.

Before i head into some of this, it would be fair to say that this is nothing new, yet often what is written about gender focussed youth work appears in the literature about buildings, centre or church based, and i wonder if there could be such things as gender nuanced detached work amongst young people? given that the contesting of the public spaces takes a different course depending on gender.

As to the ‘new ness’ – Goetschius & Tash in 1967 discuss their reflections of how after conducting observation sessions, and beginning to get to know groups, that how they worked with males & females had to take a different stance, yet implied was the almost intacit notion that ” boys would bring them (girls) or that they would be comfortable to come on their own ( to the coffee bar/stall)” (G&T 1967)  – the same treatment is not offered to the boys, by definition the space became something the boys would be comfortable with, or that they would dictate as such. Status was fulfilled, then, when the boys competed over them, giving them ‘much needed attention’ . And whilst these antiquated views have been much critiqued/challenged recently ( hopefully) , they went on to provide a picture where the girls in the groups they interacted with developed almost mumsy behaviour towards the boys in that they; “supported the boys with money, cigarettes , bus fares… subsided occasional trips, made excuses to employers, spoke to mums, tried to prevent run ins to the police” Yet G&T realised that there were boundaries to the extent at which they could help the girls, or at least help the girls in relation to their relationships with the boys, which could be ascertained as a threat to the boys, even for the girls to have their own group was seen as a threat. Yet their work overall with the girls groups was dependant on the reluctant acceptance of the boys to let the designated worker create this space for the girls, and it not be a threat.

Ok, so whilst alot has supposedly changed in 50 odd years, some of the power dynamics within the genders remain the same, especially in detached work, and especially if unchallenged.

One of the most nuanced, is the control of the conversational space.

Often in approaching a mixed group, permission is granted through the eye contact, body language between lead worker and self appointed group leader, and taking the first example of male workers and all male groups, this all follows a regular pattern. usually with the boys being provocative, lewd and nonsensical ( commonly known as ‘banter’)- trying to impress or lying. If there are a few girls in this group, often they will remain silent/quiet at first.

However, should the occasion arise that in a mixed group, or an all female group ( that’s near to a group of boys) that the females are encouraged by the detached workers to speak, chat or have an opinion, its often the case that either the process of them speaking, or the opinion itself is derided, distracted from or shouted down by the boys. Often males would try and speak over the girls, or take the attention away from the girls ( especially if they have something to say) back to themselves. The Girls are often shouted down, or when a girl speaks the males do what they can to distract the attention from it. It becomes really difficult to ignore them, but its something that does have to be done, especially when it is realised.

It takes some skill as the worker to deliberately ignore the attempts by the males to distract the worker and focus on the words, questions or story that the female has to offer in that space. watch what happens when you try this – the attempts to distract get even more fervent….. but by challenging we are communicating to the boys that a) we see what they are doing and b) that this is unnacceptable, that ultimately the girls have a voice too.

Its as if the conversational space is the arena of action, the theatre, where character, actors, audience and script are all up for grabs. Yet it is a place where the gender values of society are outplayed in a ‘value neutral’ space, a space recreated, and contested by the young people themselves. How the time, content and direction of conversation occurs, and the relationship between young person ( group of) and youth worker emerges,  can reflect the gender dynamics of the young people themselves, their attitudes to societal views towards each other.

We began to find in Perth that the groups of girls would be quite protective of each other, and protective of the space, against other groups of girls. But would react differently to the boys, as it was often the older males who ultimately controlled the supply of drink or other substances. This was another obvious way that the boys could be powerful, yet at times they would leave the girls to it, but just supply at arms length. On other occasions young brash powerful males strutted around like heads of the proverbial pride with ‘gaggles’ of subservant girls around them. On these occasions the male is very threatened if the girls could be in any way listened to or given the space to talk, and only done so with his  permission. The girls in this situation are his.

I am unsure if these situations are idiosyncratic to Perth, or Scotland, or detached youthwork per se, but in the light of recent challenges to cultural hegemonies in the public sphere regarding gender (no to page 3, lads mags etc) – these things caused me to think about how the detached youthwork spaces, or at least in the contested spaces of the public parks and streets are environments where subtle and cultural gender values are outplayed. And how when we as detached youthworkers involve ourselves in this space we have a responsibility to see what is happening before our eyes, and also challenge the status quo where appropriate.

 

So is what you’re doing christian?

was a question i was asked by someone in church the other week, someone who was a visitor to the church and who had found out that i was a ‘christian youth worker’ and because of this wanted me to put some of their evangelistic mission posters up in a local school. It has taken me a little while to want to articulate a response to this, as even though i did make much of a response at the time ( didnt feel it appropriate in the context) i began to realise today, a week later how i might respond to this.

Use of language is an important factor here, and so when we think of something being ‘christian’ what does that mean? ie

Christian music, Christian book shop, Christian festival?

are the artefacts of these things inherantly holy? – ie the paper and ink of the books in the book shop, or is it that person is a christian?

is it that things accepted by the church to be within the church community can be labelled as Christian – without too much of an argument – and yet when something, somebody, a ministry is outside of such a framework – their so called christian credentials are questioned, and their belonging within the acceptable demography of ‘christian’ is doubted, yet in itself is a labelling, prejudgement phrase – not unlike ‘youth’, ‘generation X’ , said by those intent on preservation of the status quo, the cultural hegemony if you like.

Its the easiest thing to do, judge others by the stock phrase of what we have derived to be christian – from our own cultural landscape of what it means to be christian, however broad or narrow, broad, global, western or eastern that is.

Some of this, for me, reeks of a Platonic dualism, that still pervades, where something is derived as one thing or another,  a platonic view of the early christian world that stated that something was either one thing or another. an examples being what is seen/unseen, where what is seen is physical and temporal, and ‘bad’ and what is unseen is eternal, and thus Good, where Heaven is sky, and World is earth. Even now this is embedded in our language of work/home, and similarly in ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ , christian and ‘non’.

What we realise when we read Jonah, is that God is not escapable, not set to places that we think, not only in one thing or another. That he is already in the city – before he manages to get Jonah to get there too. There is no sacred, secular divide with God.

So, my response. If you want to derive the ‘christian’ of the ‘christian’ detached youthwork that i do to the artefacts that somehow are accepted as christian – such as assemblies, God talks, taking young people to soul survivor (other festivals are also available- but even they may not be ‘as christian ie Greenbelt!), RE lessons, doing the monthly worship event in a church , then that makes me and the youthwork that i do not christian, as i dont do any of these.

However, if by listening to young people in their territory, if by being there, with them in the dark spaces of their lives, if by enabling them to see hope, faith and dare to dream through the conversation that i have on the streets with them. If in these moments with the young person, as a human person they explore faith, their humanity and they flourish and encounter a new vision of God, a God who is already with them, for them and wanting not for them to perish – then this to me is what i do. It has no labels, it may not be derived as christian to some, its about expanding the stage of the Gods ongoing drama to include the streets and parks and in those spaces rehearsing the Kingdom (Vanhoozer 2005). Maybe its not christian, maybe its Kingdom.

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