“If it’s someone smoking a joint, than it’s well sod it, ok, it’s illegal, but it’s not actually my role to get involved with low levels of criminality… It’s a thin, wobbly, unclear line and you often don’t know whether you’re getting it right.” In this extract, the youth worker discusses the difficulties of youth workers in positioning themselves in relation to young people’s lives and their interactions with official institutions.
I: Is there a danger of youth workers getting too involved in young people’s lives? Do you think that as a youth worker you have to have some detachment from young people’s lives as well, or should we be getting as involved as we can?
YW: When you’re involved, you have to be aware that you are a worker, that you’re paid to do it, you’re not a friend. And if you start pretending you’re a friend then it becomes unstuck, because you’ve been compromised by that, other people then see you having like a friendship with these kids, and you can’t work with others. So you have to keep it open and not get too involved. I mean, there’s a point at which you need to be fairly close, particularly taking kids through court can be quite intense, but then that was for a short time and there was a clear purpose, to get through a court process with minimal damage to them.
I: But sometimes do you think that as youth workers we’re in a rather difficult position as you’re dealing with young people who are often on the wrong end of the system and injustices, but also we are part of that system. Stuff with the drugs, for example. Society, the government decides what is legal and not legal and we somehow have to… You’re working in a reality where it’s a norm to, I don’t know, smoke weed…
YW: Norm within the group, but not the wider society.
I: Yeah, yeah. And how do you, where do you position yourself within that? It can be difficult.
YW: Yes, it is difficult, I mean the classic thing is when you go to the police. If it stops someone getting murdered, well then I think it’s useful to assume that you don’t withhold information from the police. If it’s someone smoking a joint, than it’s well sod it, ok, it’s illegal, but it’s not actually my role to get involved with low levels of criminality.
I: How do you know, how do you draw that line?
YW: It’s a thin, wobbly, unclear line and you often don’t know whether you’re getting it right. You have to remain aware that there is potential for conflict and navigate it, but there are no rules in that territory. Sometimes you’ll put up with things others will regard as you supporting illegal activity in the short-term for another purpose.
I: Often as well we’re working with both the perpetrators and the victims. I find you often know more about the story. I think you find it hard sometimes working with the criminal justice system that won’t necessarily understand that, and that puts us in a difficult position.
YW: Yeah, and in the very difficult position of potentially justifying yourself. The officials are unlikely to understand the pressures and the possibilities of your work. Yes, you are exposed and there’s a risk that you’re uncomfortable. The other side of it is to take the side of authority or take the side of the criminals, neither of which will be sustainable in any period.
I: It can be quite a lonely road to go down, walking that tightrope between…
YW: It is, yes. You’re the only person who can make that decision.
I: So how did you sustain yourself then, outside of work and inside of work, find the energy to do this year after year?
YW: I find it fascinating I think. It had bad times, but everywhere was different. One character said to me about the estate I worked on, “it might be hell here sometimes, but it’s never boring”. There were frequent struggles and difficulties and conflict, and I guess my method of survival was to come through it, a probably unreasonably based confidence that it would work out in the end, although it would be acutely uncomfortable and at times risky during that process.
I: So delayed gratification then, constantly trying to get to the point where everything’s sorted.
YW: Yeah, and then sometime else happens.
I: And that journey keeps you going and keeps you going.
Photo credits: Alex Rankin