The quagmire of creating genres in youthwork

Driving back from dropping my kids off at the local church youth group, and listening slightly obliviously to BBC tees, the country hour. Now im not into country music really at all. But as I was listening it got me thinking and wondering about whether the descriptive genre could be utilised within youthwork. And if so, what would they be, and how might they be defined.

In 2008, The Scottish government published a document, ‘Moving Forward’ in it the then government started to consider the role of the ‘use’ of youthwork to fulfil the needs of the government. Also, within it, proponents of youth work were keen to spread the use of youthwork into other agencies, such as schools (curriculum for excellence), police, probation and social health.

In some way, there’s possibly two ‘genres’ there. Youthworkers using youthwork skills to fulfil set aims and agendas, and non-youthworkers using youthwork approaches to fulfil the needs in their professions, reducing youthwork to ‘having a conversation’ without an understanding of the social & power environment of that conversation.

What other genres could there be?

In Cockburn and Wallace (2010) they describe then Scottish youthwork to have three main threads or streams, Liberal (open club type/ value orientated), functional ( with a change intention) and Critical (using the space to challenge status quo’s in society that doesnt favour a young person)- they go onto consider that most youthwork contains more than one strand/theme.

What about activity based youthwork – such as in outward bound activity centres? or Arts/ Drama/Sports focussed youthwork? – might they be considered a different Genre?

Then theres non purpose building – building focussed youthwork – ie that occurs in a faith building, or a school.

Or the youthwork that occurs in the remit of a specific charitable aim, such as youth clubs within mental health charities, Barnados, or equivalents. are they similar but yet different again?

And then Detached, or Outreach type youthwork that occurs not in a building – and depending on its aims or values could be considered another Genre.

Many words have prefixed ‘youthwork’ over the past 20 odd years, some more helpful that others; Rural, Urban, Detached, Faith-based, Christian, Muslim, Voluntary, Jewish, Symbiotic (Passmore 2013), Sacrilized (Nash 2012), Street-based, Centre/community -Based, – have any of them become so clear that those within the profession know what they are? well detached maybe.

And does it depend who is using them? – hence a good amount of confusion.

Whilst there is blurry space around the edges, and in a period of time where clear defined genres for film & music may be hard to find (except repeated ballads on X factor, or Michael Baye movies) , does it matter anyway, and what might be the deciding factors in trying to create genres in youthwork anyway.

After all, to say that a genre of youthwork practice is one thing, might only set it apart, but infer that a practice of youthwork isnt doing that thing. So to say for example that a practice of youthwork is ‘values led’ would infer than ‘non’ values led would have no values, where this might clearly not be the case.

In the past the prefixes have focussed on the setting (centre-based) – the belief of the worker or sacred building( Christian, Muslim) , the approach (detached) , its alignment to a faith perspective (Symbiotic/Sacrilized- which enable a contrast between youthwork done by people of the Christian faith and the much easier to recognise ‘youth ministry’) or whether people are paid or work for the voluntary sector (as opposed to state- thus ‘Voluntary’)

To start off with here’s a few;

Liberating youthwork –  regardless of where it is based upon helping young people be free from constraints, to become freed from aspect of personal, community, educational, social life that act as a hindrance. Based on values of liberation (of the oppressed & liberation theology, and acts accordingly. )

Political youthwork- goes one step further than the above- but challenges at a higher level, in politics &  governance

Mandated youth work with young people – where a youthworker is using youthwork to fulfil mandates of funders/programmes., or have preset programmes.

Youthwork approached ______________ (policing/probation/pastor/church) – where youthwork is a tool in the box within a predefined space in a different profession/vocation.

Might there be others?  or might the top two be considered ‘youthwork’ and the bottom two not anyway…

Heading to Jeffs and Smith (2010) , the aspects that characterise youthwork include; young people, welfare & association, education, voluntary participation and being friendly and acting with virtue & integrity. Most could be complied with every setting – with the exception of voluntary participation. 

So if all of these factors are included then would it be better to not confuse things by using youthwork in situations where all five of those factors arent in play. work with young people yes – youthwork no. But what about young people in a school lunchtime, or in a voluntary space but in a Prison? – would that be youthwork.. i fear im treading into a mire….

I guess going back to the original thought, a movie, book or music is very easy to define as a substance, and then have derivatives from in terms of genre. Is youthwork itself as definable- being as its is a way of working with people in accordance to a number of young person centred values, philosophies and ideals. Might youthwork itself a genre of liberating practice in communities anyway? as a thought to ponder and reflect on.

So, youthwork can be creative, liberating, political and contextual and with the young person, – shall we stick to these. Anything else isnt youthwork at all, its working to or for young people.












Detached Youthwork – the last remaining outpost for pure youthwork

Today i paid a visit to a detached youthwork project in County Durham (Consett detached project) to meet their team, discover their history, and find out the things that energise and frustrate them. One of their staff had been doing detached work in the community for over 20 years, in fact had done detached work for the parents of some of the young people currently out on the streets, it was a fascinating insight into long term detached work, long term investment in an area, in groups of young people, in young people individually and yet despite all the work that they had done, trying to make this level of quality work, fit the criteria expected of funders was a desperate and heartbreaking challenge. It reminded me of the recent issues surrounding Kids Company, not the issues, but the lack of funding for good work.

Despite this, it was the same volunteer that said in passing, that what he was doing was the ‘pure youthwork’ – this was said to me by a council youthworker in Perth ages ago, and that was to me working for a voluntary/christian detached project. The commendation and labelling of detached as ‘pure youthwork’ still rings true, and to those of us who ‘get detached’ and also ‘get youthwork, for its philosophy/values and education, we are maybe in a privaledged position, a dangerous challenging one ( to meet ‘scary’ groups of young people on the street) to be the first point of call, to work in the margins, to do irregular shifts, to work outside – all sometimes in the name of realising that these fleeting, but momentous, voluntary, educative and inspiring moments with young people can occur. Its pure youthwork, its maybe the only place left for it, on the streets.

Maybe detached was always this anyway, and now given the reduction in attention given to young people (because people are on phones all the time), and the stretched nature of specialist services for them, detached youthwork because of its relative cheapness, might bridge the philosophy gap in practice from the closure of the youth centres to the hoped for new youthwork of the future, detached keeps the youthwork dream alive.


What do you do on a quiet night on detached?

Over the years, there have been countless wonderful, engaging moments with groups of young people on detached, and you’d be forgiven that us detached workers give too good an impression of the amazing time, like some kind of evangelist for the work. Yet as well as the good/busy/interactive nights there can be plenty of nights where this is not the case, and if you’re a detached worker, and the night is quiet, here are a few tips to keep you going:

1. Remember that as a youthworker, your regularity in a space is a good thing, young people can choose to interact with you if you’re there, they cant if you’re not

2. Its a good opportunity to team build with your volunteers, chat with them and have conversation as you walk around.

3. Continue to observe the nature of the community in the space, the movement of people, buses, travel through, dog walkers, other adults

4. Reflect with your volunteers about of their experiences of detached thus far, personal challenges, essence of the work, conversations, referrals, groups thus far

5. The community will still see you, whether its young people on the streets, but others will and may be inquisitive, being involved in the wider community is no bad thing, use this to help gain acceptance and influence

6. Use the time to do informal training with the volunteers as you walk around with them, pick a theme, ie ethics, boundaries or challenges and talk through it with them

7. On a quiet night use the opportunity to maybe walk to areas that you wouldnt normally do, expand your remit, just for the odd occasion, take on a wider span

8. Realise that every night you are in a particular area is another opportunity to be accustomed to the space, whether its dark or light, and to be more confident in the space, so that its easier to use when its full of young people.

9. Keep a sense of humour, make the most of a quiet night, if you’ve done your research you’ll know its just a blip

There may be other things you can do, and please comment here to add your own to help other detached youthworkers. There is no such thing as a wasted evening on detached.