“I feel that often those who oppose… government run provision have, instead to standing up for the youth centre as a radical space, moved to overtly political projects…. Whilst these offer another, very important wing of youth work, the role of the youth centre has increasingly become lost in the middle.”Youth worker Colin Brent argues that open access youth centres must not be forgotten in the battle to define what youth work looks like today.
Recent conversations with both youth workers and those around the profession have led me to the conclusion that it is time to reappraise the role of the youth centre in youth work today. Under pressure to prove that us youth workers do not merely hang out with young people playing pool, youth services have moved to provide projects with more quantifiable outcomes (if they haven’t closed down completely). As one head of service wrote to me when I questioned this process, “unfortunately the credibility of the ‘open access’ session has diminished because too many practitioners think it is about staff and young people sitting around and ‘chilling’”.
Neither accountable enough for the politicians nor political enough for their critics, the understanding of the importance of the open access youth centre risks being lost. As new generations of youth workers, whether trained to deliver ‘positive activities’ or ‘emancipatory practice’, develop without a firm grasp of what actually happens (or can happen) in youth centres, they risk becoming exactly what many criticise them of - sterile, empty places, with little relevance to the young people they are meant to be for.
When at their best, however, and when allowed to run in a way that reflects the needs and wishes of local young people, youth centres can be hives of ‘positive activities’ as well as radical, verging on semi-autonomous spaces where young people can experiment with identities, roles and lifestyles. The difference of youth centres to most other spaces young people access is that they do not need to come with a caveat. The young people are neither young offenders, young consumers, young politicians nor young people who act, dance, paint. They are simply young people. When run well, youth centres allow young people to try out a multiplicity of often contradictory roles (they may act, paint, consume and offend), without becoming confined by any of these activities.
For some young people, the youth centre is the only stable place in their chaotic lives. It provides a safe space, where they know they will not be judged. For some, it is a place to have fun. For some young people it will be a place to flirt, for some a place to learn new skills. For some it will be all of these things. Some will pass through only occasionally, others will most of their free time there.
Central to this process is the ability of youth workers to stop fretting about their own role and identity, and to allow the young people to take centre stage. We must learn to understand and value not just the major breakthroughs, but also the understated, everyday processes that make up the lifeblood of a good youth centre. A young woman recently said to me that the youth centre I work at is the only place she feels happy. On the surface of things, she spends most of her time playing pool and ‘chilling’. But she is being happy in an environment of tolerance and diversity (the people she is playing pool with are a range of ages, ethnicities, beliefs, etc.). She is learning, I believe, to appreciate these values in a way that is relevant to her life, not just through debate (although this does happen), but also through practice. Hopefully, as in the story of ‘The Smile’ published here previously, this will go on to enable her to be happy in other areas of her life as well. It is our role as youth workers to facilitate the creation of this open environment, to support her with the difficulties and dilemmas that she will come across, to offer her opportunities to try out new things, without excluding her if she opts not to.
The problem with this is that for youth workers under pressure to plan and evaluate their work over limited time scales, the ability to recognise that the young people are the catalysts, not them, can often leave them wondering what they are actually there for. This is when the temptation to assert control can become overbearing - youth centres become just venues for specific activities, or young people’s access is restricted to limited opening hours, and they are treated as nuisances if they deign to knock at the door at other times. The message becomes clear - this space is not theirs. It is at this point that the pool playing and ‘chilling’ can become no more than the sum of their parts and young people feel less able to experiment.
I do not wish to give the impression that youth centres provide a utopian answer to the problems of young people. Like in all good youth work, the processes are messy, at times frustrating, at times dangerous. But it is only by placing more trust in these processes, in the spaces themselves, that we can make youth centres relevant to young people’s lives. And if we do this then youth centres can deliver both significant outcomes and radical possibilities.
Colin Brent is a youth worker based in West London
Photo credits:Alex Rankin
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