Can youth work have a role in social change? Do youth workers have a responsibility to respond to social change, and to its effects on young people? Do youth workers have to be careful not to become another person telling young people how to think and behave? Youth worker Colin Brent and In Defence of Youth Work co-ordinator Tony Taylor here discuss the role of politics in youth work and youth work in politics.

CB: It was with great interest that I read your on-going debate about politics and ethics on the In Defence of Youth Work website. For many years I have struggled with the role of youth work within wider political change. Sometimes I feel like it really is the radical, emancipatory profession some claim, whilst at others I feel it is a modern day Roman games, giving deprived young people just enough to distract them from the wider structural inequalities of society, or the good cop that enables the bad cops to get on with their work. Do you think that youth work can, or indeed should, have a role in social change, and if so, who decides what this would look like?

Can youth work have a role in social change?

TT: There’s an obvious sense in which social change is never ending. In my opinion the questions are – in whose interests is the social change and who is motivating the change? To take the last thirty years or more we have lived through a period of significant change impelled by an enormously successful capitalist ideology, which has focused on individualism at the expense of social solidarity, on the market and private profit rather than the common good. In this context how do we situate youth work’s role? How far as it accommodated to, even embraced neo-liberal ways of thinking and acting? How far has it resisted?

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERACB: I believe it is this wider social change that puts youth workers in such a difficult position. We are often working with young people in communities that have suffered the most in the increasingly market driven and individualised social model that has developed. As individuals, we offer them support to make the most of the ‘opportunities’ that there are out there for them, although this often means poorly paid, exploitative jobs. We therefore help to oil the wheels of the capitalist system, making the inequalities that young people face bearable. Yet not to do so, to refuse to help these young people into minimum wage work, risks achieving little other than further perpetuating these individuals’ social exclusion.

Given that youth work takes place within, not separated from, the social change that you describe, do you feel that as youth workers we have a responsibility to act on this, and if so, how?

A critical and questioning practice of whatever colour is increasingly threatened

TT: We have a responsibility to respond to the social change and to its effects on young people. Inevitably youth work will begin to reflect the dominant ideas of any period. Crudely prior to the second world War the majority of youth work tried to educate young people into social conformity. In the post-Albemarle period a greater licence was given to a critical and questioning practice, although this has been on the retreat for at least 20 years, even though the training agencies by and large have continued to promote its principles. What held together this plurality of approaches across the years was the voluntary principle – the notion that whatever the worker’s outlook, conservative, liberal, radical, Christian,agnostic, etc., the young person had the right to walk away without sanction. It is this fixative that is now being undermined. I have worked with and managed many workers, who were oiling the wheels precisely because they believed it was right to do so, whilst I just tried to pose some questions. We could live together because the young person had the right to reject our way of seeing things. The problem now with the imposition of prescribed outcomes is that a critical and questioning practice of whatever colour is increasingly threatened. I believe workers ought to challenge this assault on what is distinctive about youth work, but that’s easier said than done.

CB: As youth work in the UK has increasingly become seen as a way to support the delivery of government targets on education and employment, rather than the social development of the young people on their terms, it has indeed squeezed youth workers ability to (and in many Riots_in_Hackneycases their understanding of the need to) create a space for young people to explore social identities. However, even where this still takes place, I think we must ask ourselves whether youth work therefore serves as a catalyst for young people to participate in social change, or whether youth work is merely a pressure valve, safely directing young people’s frustrations away from those it should be directed at. One of the reasons given for the 2011 riots in Tottenham was the cuts in the youth service there. However, the riots were initially about police brutality and racism, something about which youth workers can do depressingly little. Is the implication therefore that if young people had youth clubs they would be too distracted to protest about these legitimate concerns? If this is the case, maybe youth workers should be explicitly political to help young people to fight to overcome the issues they face. Does the fact that young people can walk away allow us to express our opinions openly, or in recognising our influence on young people, do we have to be careful not to become another person telling them how to think/behave?

TT: As I reply can I just return to your question of young people and exploitative jobs? I don’t think it is our role to help them into these situations. Enough folk will be trying to get them to do so and the young people will weigh things up accordingly. I do think it is our role to pose questions and contradictions. I’ve never worried about being experienced by young people as telling them what to do. If that’s how I came across I’d failed and was sure they would reject my interference. In this sense I do trust the process, the critical dialogue. Staying with the issue of employment/apprenticeships, etc., what youth work has failed conspicuously to do is support young people in organising collectively about their grievances. I’d suggest that this is because youth work in the main has been scared of engaging with class politics. It has in its time grappled with the politics of race, gender, sexuality and disability but never class. Therefore I think you are right to ask whether youth workers should be more political in the fullest sense of the word.

Youth work has failed conspicuously to support young people in organising collectively about their grievances.

As for youth work as a distraction this is what so much of the rhetoric used by workers, the youth work trade unions seems to support. The cry has come from everywhere post the riots, in the midst of the cuts, ‘restore the youth service or there will be more crime, more drugs, more pregnancies, etc.’. I believe this a deeply unhelpful way of arguing the case for youth work. It feeds into the illusion that we can prove we are worth funding because we’ll deliver measurable outcomes related to complex social issues.

Funnily enough at this moment perhaps youth workers being explicitly political is about arguing the case for a young person-centred process and practice as a contribution to the creation of the active citizen. It is not about welfare, surveillance , employment. Of course this carries no guarantees, but neither does liberal education in its widest sense – music, art, the humanities. Ironically we should be in the fore of arguing this, given our history as informal education, but we seem to be abandoning our tradition in favour of running behavioural modification programmes. This would involve standing shoulder to shoulder with young people when for themselves they are opposing what’s happening to them. How many youth workers in truth were actively involved in the campaign against the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance?


What do you think? How does, or should, youth work interact with local and global politics? Please feel free to continue to discussion in the comments below.


Featured Image Credit: Jack Sloan

Written by Team Youthwork

Team Youthwork

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