“One of the sort of struggles I’ve had here is what sort of a man you are that you don’t fight… So, one of the things within the job is about, you know, how come I’m in some ways the most powerful person here, but in other ways they could just knock me out with a punch.” In the first of our series of extracts from interviews with youth workers the interviewee describes an incident at the youth centre, and the abuse he has received in his role.
Youth worker: It’s a number of the boys who came here and they’d obviously been drinking earlier, not here. Suddenly a fight flared up over a game of pool between two boys, well 18 year olds. And then one of them, one of them whose brother’s here, joined in, and they were just getting desperate. And they were just flinging stuff all around the building, and they were being held down by staff.
Interviewer: Physically held down?
YW: Oh yeah. And totally uncontrolled. And then they went out the building and they were still arguing and shouting at each other. And so there were the two brothers, and one of them, certainly the younger one was going absolutely berserk. And we know him for going absolutely berserk, and we also know him as quite dangerous, you know that he will use knives and he has done in the past, and he’s quite dangerous. So there were the two brothers and there was this other boy. His cousin decided that he had to join in. He was a bit unwilling. He didn’t really want to but I think he felt he needed to, and he’s quite a powerful character. And it was going on all around here.
Somebody calls the police and they turn up and they’ve heard it was even worse than it was. And all the kids are crowding round me because they want to know what I’m saying to the police. And so on.
And luckily I’ve got a pretty good relationship with the police and I talked to them about it on the phone afterwards. And the staff were obviously very upset. The elder of the two brothers and the cousin obviously decided that they’d had the fight and that was enough and it just needed to calm down. But the younger brother and the other protagonist were just yelling abuse at each other. And they just sounded so hysterical and fragile and upset, I mean that was quite upsetting, because they were both saying really hurtful things to each other. I mean when I find this, all of them have actually got quite a lot of pain in their backgrounds and they scratch at each other’s pain, they don’t show solidarity for other people. In these situations they actually pull at the scabs you know, yelling awful things about their parents, the majority of which were true, you know. And just getting so hysterical; you could hear these hysterical voices sort of in the night around. And it was obviously quite dangerous for staff. And I’m not very good at physical confrontations either; I’m pretty lousy at that.
I: What do you mean?
YW: Well, I’m just no good at it. I’m not a fighter, you know.
I: You’re not a rugby player.
YW: No, no. I can’t pin people down. I just don’t do things like that, you know. And it’s one of the sort of struggles I’ve had here is what sort of a man you are that you don’t fight and so on. So, one of the things within the job is about, you know, how come I’m in some ways the most powerful person here, but in other ways they could just knock me out with a punch. A lot of the boys think that a lot of the time, you know. They find it quite difficult. So that’s another thing I’ve had – how come I’m in many ways a strong person, in other ways such a bleeding wimp.
I: So how, what was the end of the fight story? What happened and how did you deal with it?
YW: Well, one person was taken to hospital. He wasn’t that badly hurt. It’s still being dealt with. We didn’t open the next night for our sort of main session. We had some other work going on. I saw some of the people around and they were saying “Well, this is Southmead and this is what it’s like and you’re only closing because you’re frightened, and what do you expect.” I’m saying “No, no it isn’t what it’s like. It doesn’t have to be like this.” Last night there was obviously a meeting with some of the young people in the evening. And we’re talking about it later today as to where we go from here. But there’ve been other, we’ve had some other things. I mean I’ve been attacked twice in the last six weeks. Once on my way home and once in [the youth centre]. So the one I was attacked on the way home, the guy’s in court on Thursday. And again we know him as being quite dangerous, quite a dangerous person. And the other one has been sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
Because I’m seen as a kind of symbol here, I take an awful lot, I take the majority of the flak. I’m the person, when you’re feeling angry, this is the person you’re angry with. And he just got very angry. I mean out of the blue and just started setting about me. But you know he’s an alcoholic, he’s 17 and so there’s also desperation about him. So as well as wanting to protect yourself and all that kind of stuff, and feeling quite angry, that there is a real desperation about the person that’s attacked you. I mean the other guy I have no feelings for at all. He’s just cruel and nasty. He’s just vicious.
I: And do you feel that that attack was an attack on you in your role, because you’re power, you know, you’re a powerful person here? Or was it out the blue? Was it a kind of personal …?
YW: No, it’s because of my role. No it’s personal and to do with my role and the way I do my role. I mean being a youth worker doesn’t mean to say you’re particularly popular with young people. That’s something I had to think of a long time ago. I mean there’s some very sort of naïve views about youth work. You just get people to do what you want them to do and you’re always on the side of young people and so on. And actually it is a darn sight more … You know, what side you’re on is actually much, much more complicated than that and it’s actually much, much more difficult. And popularity is a part of the equation. And what I do find is, that people who I’ve worked with in the past quite often come up and say things and say “That was good.” People I’ve had huge, really conflictual sort of relationships, maybe come back five years later and said “I really appreciated it.” And so on, but at the time it’s all the sort of the conflict and you know, the passion and all that kind of stuff.
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).