Youth & Community Work

Youth Worker Interviews: “Young people are not just objects we can model” - The Smile and the Arch

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“Young people are not just objects that we can model in whatever way we want to and get the result we want. And it’s inherent in the work that you don’t know what it is, cos the result depends very much on young people.”In our second extract from interviews with youth workers, the interviewee explores the difficulties of reconciling the call for ‘measurable outcomes’ with the unpredictable reality of youth work in practice.

_MG_4558Interviewer: You’ve worked here for a long, long time, so can you tell me a little bit about how the managerial ethos has changed over time? Do you look back to the golden days of just being able to do what you want and having more autonomy, or you know, what’re your feelings and opinions on that?

Youth Worker: It has got a lot tighter and the work is an awful lot more managed. And I do feel there is a certain amount less trust as well, of people to do. And quite often things are wanted in advance rather than after the event. So you have to justify things … See a lot of youth work, you know that when you’re working with young people you will achieve a result of some sort. But when you start, you don’t know what it is.

Young people are not just objects that we can model in whatever way we want to and get the result we want.

And it’s inherent in the work that you don’t know what it is, cos the result depends very much on young people. It’s not something that you can just do. They’re not just objects that we can model in whatever way we want to and get the result we want. And the work is based around actually working with young people for them to come up … So I would know that we’re gonna have some kind of result. But I don’t know in advance what it’s gonna be. And with some people you don’t even know that there is going to be a result. Cos you don’t even know them…

There’s a young girl come into the youth centre and she looks very miserable, she’s just an appendage of her boyfriend, she just takes no part in anything that’s going on. She’s just around. Takes a while to find out who she is. But she keeps coming. Now unlike other professionals, we’ve got no assessment plan, we’ve got no initial interview, we’ve got no needs assessment; she’s just coming. And then at some point and I don’t know why, but she chose to talk to one of the members of staff here about a range of things, quite big things, family relationships, living arrangements, lack of schooling, an eating disorder. Quite big stuff, right. Now he was able to respond to that, managed to talk to housing people about housing, cos it seemed that that was about the only one that could possibly be solved.

_MG_6124Well actually it’s very difficult if you’re just 16 to get a flat. Now she isn’t actually moving out, getting a flat, but the striking thing about her is she started smiling when she came into youth centre, which felt like a real achievement. And she started looking comfortable, and she started looking healthier and she started involving herself in stuff that was going on, right. And talking with people and really articulating, and being keen about things and organising things. Now, when she came in, we had no idea what it was that would end. But it’s a question of being patient, knowing that sometime something will happen. And she’s around, and she will take her time and all we’ve got to do is wait, but we’ve got to be damn well ready for it when it happens.

So a lot of the work at the moment, we’re asked to give targets to what we will achieve. Well that one, I wouldn’t have been able to target. And even now, the outcome - like she smiled. I mean to me, you know, to see her smiling across the room and looking comfortable in herself, was a real, real achievement. And I could argue that this could lead to all sorts of things later in life. That she won’t, you know, she’ll be healthier, she’ll have better relationships with people, she’s less likely to take drugs and things. But I don’t know. Those are all guesses, you know. But there was just this feeling that somebody through her contact with us has managed to resolve things within herself, and we’ve been part of that process.

_MG_2223The other one was, we made this memorial arch for young people that have died. Now when we started doing it, we didn’t know what it was we were gonna be making. We did know we’d got a sculptor. He did have little bits of metal and computer programmes and stuff, you know, photographs of sculptures and things like that. But we didn’t know, all we knew it was going to be something about this, right. So it’s working with young people to say “What is it that we’re going to create?” So we don’t know what it is. We know it’s going to be something; but we’ve no idea. And we know we’ve got some money to spend on it. Then one young man whose brother died of a drug overdose actually made a little model arch, and then it was decided that this would be what was gonna be made. Right, so he did it, it was like a six inches high little model. And so with the sculptor, this was taken off and was manufactured elsewhere.

And it came back two and a half metres high. It actually had been transformed. So this thing that you started off not knowing what it was, so it’s very important working with young people, you don’t know what it is, we’re not imposing anything on you, we haven’t got a natural, finished object in mind that we want you to get to. We’re working with you to find out what it is we’re gonna make and what will be finished. And so people are involved in all that transformation process. And the young people were really, really involved in that. In all aspects of it, the money aspect, the making it, just the physical making of a lot of it. All the emotional stuff about their friends that had died and so on. So the whole thing was very, very, very powerful. But it wouldn’t have happened if I’d used that kind of, I mean the words we have at the moment are ‘the smart approach’. That you do something specific that’s measurable, that’s achievable, that’s realistic and that’s done within a certain amount of time. Cos we don’t know how long it will take, you know. We know we’ve achieved something that’s realistic, because after the event it was achieved and was realistic. It’s not particularly measurable. I mean I can tell you it’s 2.5 metres high, you talk about measurement. But I can’t measure all the other emotions and things.

This interview was conducted as research for the book The Dilemmas of Development Work: Ethical Challenges in Regeneration by Paul Hoggett, Marjorie Mayo and Chris Miller (The Policy Press, 2009).

The two examples of work are explored in more depth in the chapter “Communicating what youth work achieve: The smile and the arch” in Searching for Community: Representation, Power and Action on an Urban Estate by Jeremy Brent (The Policy Press, 2009).

Photo credits: Alex Rankin and Leo Reynolds

Featured Image Credit: 365 Pain Free Days